Cognitive Development (page 2)

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

Vygotsky's View

Knowing that children must construct their own knowledge does not mean that the role of adults is unimportant. While Piaget is said to focus on the individual construction of knowledge, the theory of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky emphasizes the social construction of knowledge. He argues that what children have to learn is shaped by the culture in which they live, and that the way they learn is through interaction with older children or adults who are more experienced in that culture. He pays particular attention to language because it is such a fundamental part of human interactions. Scaffolding is an important concept in Vygotsky's theory. It refers to the process by which the adult (or older child) supports the child in a task, offering suggestions or filling in bits of missing information, until the child can accomplish the task alone. Here is an example of scaffolding:

Toddler Katherine is standing near a toy cupboard, vocalizing and reaching toward something on the top shelf. Her caregiver, April, comes over and picks up one of the toys to hand to Katherine. “Do you want the Raggedy Ann, Katherine?” she asks. Katherine continues reaching and vocalizing, and this time April follows her gaze to a stuffed bear. “Oh,” she says, “You want the bear.” She gets it down for Katherine, who clasps it to her chest and toddles off.

By filling in what she thought Katherine might be saying, April provided the scaffolding that allowed Katherine to communicate and get what she wanted.

Another concept that is important to Vygotsky's theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD), which refers to anything a child cannot yet do independently, but can do with help, in other words, the cutting edge of the child's current cognitive development. In the example above, Katherine is not yet capable of communicating her wants through language, but with the help of a sensitive caregiver, she succeeds in doing what she could not do alone. Soon she will be able to say, “bear,” when that is what she wants. Tasks within the zone of proximal development are those that are challenging without being either too easy or too hard for children.

Private speech, for Vygotsky, is the means by which children direct their own learning or behavior. In a way, they take on the role of the adult, providing their own scaffolding to support themselves through a difficult task. For example, Tommy usually arrived several minutes ahead of the other three- and four-year-olds at his child development center, so his teacher gave him the job of watering the plants in the classroom. Every morning, Tommy gave himself directions as he poured water into each pot: “Watch out, it's gonna spill. Be careful. Uh-oh.”

Tommy was using private speech, or self-talk, repeating to himself the sorts of things an adult might have said to help him regulate his behavior. Vygotsky would suggest that Tommy learned what to say to himself from the adults who have talked him through earlier experiences with challenging tasks. This type of speech gradually disappears as children mature, but it emerges again when children are presented with new challenging tasks. In their interactions with children, early childhood educators provide examples of things children can say to themselves when working on tasks alone. They welcome self-talk in their classrooms as a sign that children are mentally engaged in activities that are just challenging enough (i.e., within the zone of proximal development).


Self-regulation is a concept that spans all developmental domains. Associated with development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain, it begins in the physical realm with the infant's ability to settle back to sleep during the earliest weeks of life. A little later in life, young children acquire the social-emotional skill of inhibiting certain behaviors and they begin to master the cognitive challenge of purposefully focusing their attention on tasks at hand (National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, 2000). According to Bodrova and Leong (2007), school readiness is more heavily influenced by self-regulation than by cognitive skills or family characteristics. They caution us not to confuse self-regulation with the ability to be regulated by others (i.e., to follow rules when someone is watching). Although that is a step in the right direction, a child also needs two other kinds of experience: regulating others (telling peers what the rules are and reporting infractions to authority); and regulating her own behavior by voluntarily following the rules. Based on their extensive study of the work of Vygotsky, Bodrova and Leong conclude that the best way for children to have lots of practice with all three types of regulation is through pretend play, where they take on roles requiring particular types of speech and make sure that their playmates stay in character. Unfortunately, this type of high-level play has become less and less common as children spend more time on computers or in front of television and have fewer occasions to play in mixed-age groups where older, more experienced children mentor the play of their younger peers.

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