Vygotsky & Contextualism

“child development is a complex dialectical process characterized by periodicity, unevenness in the development of different functions, metamorphosis or qualitative transformations of one form into another, intertwining of external and internal factors, and adaptive processes which overcome impediments that the child encounters.” (p. 73, Vygotsky, 1978)


Vygotsky’s  contextualist approach stresses the social situations (social transmission) involved in cognition --

in common with Piaget:
 a) child as active
 b) biology and experience are both important (equal & reciprocal)

differences from Piaget
 a) the possibility of domain-specific knowledge & processes
 b) the active contribution of other people in the child’s community
 c) the “cultural designs” accumulated over the history of the culture

Current theorists associated with the contextualist approach include Michael Cole, Barbara Rogoff, & Urie Bronfenbrenner; other contextualist labels include ecological psychology & cultural psychology

Autobiographical Information

Theoretical Approach

  • children are born with fundamental cognitive (e.g., attention and memory) and perceptual abilities (greater than just reflexes)
  • infant is active in his/her search for knowledge and info about the world
  • person is both a product and servant to one’s culture --- Marxist dialecticism of thesis, antithesis, and then synthesis

  • Problems for Study

    phenomena to be explained: development of thought; since higher order cognitive processes such as reasoning, language, and problem solving should show the most variability across cultures, two problems were of most interest ­ explaining the development of children’s thought and the social contexts that support and shape it

    Methods of Study

    Child-in-activity-in-context as the unit of study
    fusion of child & context such that even thought is “socially distributed”

    1) interviews and observations in “context”

    Bronfenbrenner has described different levels of context: microsystem (person to person, face to face, e.g., school, family), mesosystem (system of microsystems - links & connections btn. microsystems), exosystem (major institutions, may affect the person indirectly), macrosystem (culture and other broader social contexts), & chronosystem (time)

    Two main approaches to culture: culture-as-difference & culture-as-medium; whereas the designs for living are present in all cultures and thus are universal, their nature varies from culture to culture --> culturally specific

    2) dynamic assessment of ZPD via gradation-of-cues
    e.g., block task used to test categorization (Vygotsky, 1962)

    3) microgenetic method
    make or attempt to observe “small” changes in the task over time
    methodologically, different contexts and different cultures should always be taken into account

    Internal Principles

    I. The importance of cultural tools

    Vygotsky differentiated between psychological tools (e.g., language, counting systems, art, teaching styles, etc.) which control thought  & technical tools (e.g., axes, plows, computers) which control nature
    - tools themselves can transform thought (e.g., paper, books, computers) and the history of a culture (“historical construction of mind”)
    - Vygotsky saw language as most important psychological tool
    II. Zone of proximal development
    Vygotsky theorizes that the social situation, when properly assessed, can mediate between a child’s current cognitive ability and the task demands -- He felt that each child in each task with the aid of each “teacher” generated a zone of proximal (nearby) development (ZPD) :: finely tuned support with a competent teacher (adult or skilled other) permits children to accomplish with assistance what they could not do on their own, but will later accomplish independently

    the term “proximal” indicates that the assistance goes just slightly beyond the child’s current competence, complementing and building on the child’s existing abilities rather than teaching the child new behaviors:

    the upper limit = the level of additional responsibility the child can take on with a competent teacher

    the lower limit = the level of problem solving that the child can achieve on her own

    Note: More recently, Barbara Rogoff has stressed the idea of the “cultural apprenticeship” or “social scaffolding.”

    The ZPD sets up a situation of “guided participation,” where, because of intersubjectivity (shared understanding), learning can take place; because the child is an active collaborator in the construction of knowledge, children also affect their contexts.

    The ZPD sets up a situation of "guided participation"

    e.g., Mayan girls learning to weave:

    very young girls mainly observe their mothers and other adult women weaving on a loom
    by age 5, they plait long leaves on a play loom
    by age 7, they weave with help on real looms
    by age 9, they weave simple items alone
    learning can take place because of intersubjectivity (shared understanding)

    Bronfenbrenner has identified 4 ways in which children’s activity shapes their social contexts:

    1) personal attributes (different reactions in the same context)
    2) individual differences (individuals may choose different contexts to begin with)
    3) persistence and tendency to engage
    4) age differences
    III. General Genetic Law of Cultural Development Development occurs twice - first with others (intermental) and second, within the individual where learning becomes internalized (intramental); involves both quantitative and qualitative change (Rogoff prefers the term “appropriated” to internalized because it still stresses the collaborative nature of the thinking)

    this emphasis on the movement from intermental to intramental  suggests:
    1) that the learner-in activity-in context really is the unit of study
    2) that learners not only incorporate the problem solving part of the task, but also the social interaction

    Bridge Principles Phases and Stages

    Functional Assessment within the ZPD

    Change Mechanisms

    “Development is a lifelong process of trying to resolve the inevitable conflicts among these factors and within each factor!”

    *similar to the Piagetian idea of equilibration, but with a socio-cultural context and the possibility that cooperation as well as conflict can bring about development

    Examples of research

    I. Functions of speech - Vygotsky

    In contrast to Piaget who theorizes that cognition precedes language (e.g. object permanence), Vygotsky theorized that language and thought develop independently and then begin to merge at about age 2. At about age 3, speech splits into communicative speech (to others) and private speech (to self). By age 7, private speech becomes inner speech.

    Children’s private speech (talk-aloud tendencies) help them to regulate their behavior and to review their day (in contrast to Piaget who would term thinking aloud strategies as egocentric).

    Four stages: 1 ) self-stimulation & word play (practice linguistic forms, description - may include a review of the day’s events), 2) guide for behavior, 3) semi-internalized, 4) internalized

    private speech declines as children gain more knowledge about language; situationally, it declines in noisy situations, when it's not desirable (around strangers), and as tasks get easier; it may recur with more difficult problem-solving situations

    II. Cross-Cultural Research

    a) "socioemotional"
    1) parent-child interactions (sleeping patterns, holding patterns, orientation to objects vs. people, parenting styles and preferences, attachment)
    2) sense of self (independence vs. interdependence)
    3) use of narratives
    b) "cognitive"
    1) the effects of schooling
    2) counting and mathematics
    Contributions & Criticisms

    Strengths -

    + integration of everyday learning & development with the ZPD
    + attention to social-cultural context
    + emphasis on language for later cognitive science
    Weaknesses -
    ­ vagueness of notion of ZPD
    ­ insufficient attention to developmental issues
    ­ difficulties studying sociohistorical contexts
    Evaluation of the theory

    Scientific worthiness

    Developmental adequacy Pedagogical Usefulness