Vygotsky’s approach

  • A sociocultural approach
  • Child is an apprentice
  • Culture plays an important role in the development of cognition
  • Skills of reading, writing and being ale to recall and use large amounts of information are largely culture specific skills
  • Assumes that the child’s development is more likely to be influenced by social factors than biological processes

Collaborative interaction

  • Learning occurs by social interaction with a more knowledgeable peer
  • Provide verbal instructions for the child
  • Eg. A parent can teach a child basic strategies and demonstrate how to complete a jigsaw until the child becomes more competent and can work independently.

ZPD – Zone of proximal development 

  • The difference between what a child can achieve independently and what they can achieve with the guidance and encouragement of a skilled partner.
  • Eg. With the collaborative interaction of a parent, a child can solve a jigsaw puzzle more quickly than they would be able to alone.
  • Takes into account a child’s potential ability and not just their present ability


  • The gradual withdrawal of adult control and support as a child increases mastery of a given task
  • A form of instruction
  • Help and support gradually reduced
  • Research evidence – Wood and Middleton’s building block activity proves the notion of scaffolding
  • Investigated the type of parental assistance offered
  • Parents initially demonstrated, then stopped helping directly, but still gave verbal direction and encouragement
  • They found that a child’s understanding is supported by adults in various ways other than by formal instruction
  • Level of assistance declines as competency increases

Guided participation

  • A specific type of scaffolding
  • The transmission of cultural practices where children actively engage in cultural activities, whilst adults model, encourage and regulate performance
  • Cultural practices are thus maintained and reformulated through generations
  • Research evidence – Rogoff et al – the annual girl scout cookie sale in the USA
  • Older members passed on their knowledge to younger members
  • The girl scouts then reshaped and extended this knowledge, developing new ways and innovations to be carried on in the future


  • Children acquire language through social interaction
  • They use it to structure and organise their own thinking and problem solving
  • Self talk becomes silent and internal eventually
  • This differs from Piaget’s view of language – it isn’t key to cognitive development, but rather, a byproduct of it

Evaluating Vygotsky’s approach

  • Support of the notions of collaborative interaction/guided participation from Rogoff
  • Providing examples of the ZPD, collaborative interaction and scaffolding
  • Support from Wood and Middleton regarding scaffolding
  • Vygotsky has been criticised for having very little experimental work and for assuming always that adults aid children’s development- sometimes they can make things worse as they try to oversimplify or even obfuscate matters in their attempts to assist
  • Applications to education – children develop quicker with instruction, concept of the ZPD also useful
  • Notion of the ZPD is positive – can a child’s learning be accelerated? Conflicts with Piaget’s view of readiness.
  • Contrasts with other approaches

Comparison/Contrasts to Piaget

  • Vygotsky = Nurture
  • Piaget = Constructivist – both specific primitive reflexes and general cognitive processes are at play – eventually develop a sophisticated understanding of the world
  • Vygotsky = child as an apprentice – children learn through scaffolding/collaborative interaction/guided participation
  • Piaget = child as a lone scientist – child learns through trial and error, self-discovery, repetition, equilibration, accommodation etc
  • Vygotsky = learning can be accelerated (ZPD) – if parents provide optimal scaffolding, then children can develop more quickly.
  • Piaget = learning cannot be accelerated – set stages that occur in order. Child cannot progress until they have acquired the necessary skills at each stage.
  • Vygotsky = language acquired through social interaction -used to structure/organise thinking and problem solving
  • Piaget = language is not key to cognitive development – it is a byproduct of it
  • Applications to education

Siegler’s IP approach

  • Partly a reaction to Piaget’s theory
  • IP theorists questioned the notion of qualitatively different stages as proposed by Piaget
  • Explains cognitive development as the acquisition and use of increasingly complex rules for problem solving
  • Theorists suggest a sequence in the child’s acquisition of new strategies
  • But, this is a continuous unfolding of cognitive development, not set stages
  • IP theories are theories which attempt to understand the sequence of separate cognitive operations that make up some form of mental activity such a solving a problem

Characteristics of IP approaches

  • Children are active problem solvers
  • We operate in a similar way to a computer

The computer analogy (underlies the approach)

  • Hardware – the increase in the basic storage capacity of a system – can process more info faster
  • Software – more efficient use of processing strategies (more and better problem solving strategies)

Cognitive processes

  • IP theories are concerned with the use of cognitive processes such as memory and attention
  • Research suggests that children grow as they use more sophisticated strategies
  • They use strategies more flexibly and apply them to an increasing variety of problems
  • Research evidence – Flavell et al – showed children pictures and asked the to recall
  • Not many 5 year olds used verbal repetition, 7 and 10 year olds did
  • Children who used this strategy recalled more
  • Difference in memory ability with age appear to be due to use of memory strategies such as rehearsal.

Quantitative differences

  • Reflects quantitative differences in child’s ability, rather than qualitative differences as proposed by Piaget
  • Bee identified four changes in IP with age:
  • Increased processing capacity (inc. memory capacity)
  • Increased processing efficiency – (better processing strategies)
  • The development of rules for solving problems – (how to count for example)
  • The development of metacognition (awareness of cognitive ability)

WAVE model

  • Children don’t progress through stage theory – they do not progress to one stage to leave another behind
  • Children are not anchored to singular problem solving strategies
  • They use a range of strategies before choosing the most effective
  • They can use a number of strategies simultaneously
    • Research evidence – Siegler and Robinson
    • Gave 4 and 5 year olds simple addition problem
    • Found four methods by which they solved their problems
    • 20 % used 1 strategy, 23% used two, 30% used 3 and 27% used 4
    • Supports overlapping waves and contrasts Piaget’s approach
  • Approach A – The staircase model – prolonged periods of thinking at a certain level, followed by sudden transitions to new, higher levels of thinking
  • Approach B – Overlapping waves – use of varied strategies at all times with continuously changing frequenting of pre-existing strategies and the occasional discovery of new ones

Application to education

  • The development of metacognition – awareness of our own cognitive abilities
  • Children learning to read need to be aware of which words they need to learn for example
  • Schools encourage children to reflect on their own mental processing to enable the development of metacognitive awareness
  • The teacher-led approach – children have limited capacity to process information
  • The teacher’s role is to help the child find strategies for reducing memory load


  • STRENGTH – Support from Siegler and Robinson for overlapping waves
  • STRENGTH – Support from Flavell for cognitive processes
  • STRENGTH – IP approach reinterprets early cognitive theories in a modern way
  • WEAKNESS – Focus on cognitive aspects of development, ignores the impact of social and emotional factors – BUT – the teacher led approach refutes this view
  • WEAKNESS – Although the IP approach argues for more qualitative change in processing strategies, there is evidence for a qualitative change in the flexibility of strategies different age.

Comparison with Piaget

  • Whether the stages in development reflect qualitative or quantitative change in cognitive ability
  • What factors does the theory focus on? Piaget focuses on schema sets, set stages etc. Siegler focuses on the acquisition and use of increasingly sophisticated strategies for problem solving
  • Both theories acknowledge both nature and nurture to some extent
  • Research methods are opposing – Siegler allowed for a more scientific approach than Piaget by giving children problems to solve. This is standardised and allowed for a larger element of control.
  • Piaget, on the other hand, utilised the clinical method and his experiments lacked methodological rigour – his experiments were not standardised, nor did they have the same degree of control.


  • Infants have innate abilities/structures that determine cognitive ability
  • They make use of rich perceptual information about the world through the process of direct perception
  • Bottom-up processing
  • In the 60s and 70s, research focused on the cognitive abilities of language and perception
  • Language – Chomsky – born with an innate ability to use and understand language
  • When children are exposed to the language of their culture, they internalise grammatical structures without instruction
  • He concluded that we are born with Language acquisitional device, which enables us to have the capacity to learn language
  • Perception – Brown et al placed infants (6-21 days old) facing an object suspended in front of them at a distance
  • Object was released
  • Collision reaction
  • Researchers concluded that children could perceive depth at just a few days old
  • Supports the notion of innate cognitive ability of depth perception

Did Piaget underestimate cognitive ability of children?

  • If cognitive abilities such as language and depth perception are innate, then is object permanence an innate ability?
  • Research evidence – Baillergeon and DeVos
  • Child sees carrot move left to right behind a screen (familiarisation stage)
  • Child sees short carrot move left/right of a cutout (poss. event)
  • Child sees a tall carrot (imposs. event)
  • Show more shock at impossible event – stare longer – expectation violated
  • Child is aware of the continued existence of carrots as they pass behind the screen = object permanence at 3 months, younger than Piaget thought (8-12mths)
  • 3 month old babies show object permanence


  • New research techniques (impossible event) to challenge previous research by Piaget
  • Peceptual system of a 3 month old sufficiently developed to distinguish between possible and impossible events
  • Findings of research studies suggest that Piaget underestimated perceptual abilities of infants  – Baillargeon and DeVos
  • Infants do perform better than Piaget suggested, but have yet to develop a full understanding of the physical world, such as gravity – not all cognitive ability is innate
  • Violation of expectation is difficult to conduct with new borns – we do not have reliable research evidence as to whether cognitive abilities are present at birth – such evidence would make nativist theory about the existence of innate abilities more convincing.

Comparison with Piaget

  • Cognitive development based on direct perception vs. constructionism
  • Innate vs a combination of experience and primitive schemas
  • Nature vs. interactionist
  • Object permanence – 3 months vs. 8-12 mths.

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