Jean Piaget (1968) saw the child as a lone scientist discovering the world and applying reasoning to solving problems. A limitation of this perspective was that Piaget overlooked the influence of social interactions on child's development. A Soviet Marxist would address this Western question by focusing on how adult interaction with children accelerates the potential of developing children (M. W. Watson, 2002).

The learner as apprentice

Lev Vygotsky (1962) was a Russian academic who attempted to apply Karl Marx's ideas to child development through dialectic reasoning that synthesized the individual and the collective to develop both to higher levels of functioning. In spite of trying to base his theories on Marxist ideology, the Soviets banned Vygotsky's work, partially because he was Jewish, but mostly because he committed the ultimate sin against Marxism: he integrated Western ideas into his theories. With the exchange of ideas that have resulted from the collapse of the Soviet Union, Vygotsky's ideas have increasingly entered American academia with a theory that compliments Jean Piaget by providing a social dimension to human development (Goldhaber, 2000; M. W. Watson, 2002).

To Vykotsky, the child is an apprentice who actively learns by interacting with an adult mentor, who provides the child with knowledge and cognitive tools. Where behaviorist learning theory saw the child as a passive recipient of conditioning, and Piaget saw the child as a lone scientist, Vygotsky saw the child as a collaborator with adults (M. W. Watson, 2002).

Levels of analysis

Fueling Vygotsky's theory of cognitive-mediation was the idea that individual and social processes are dynamically interdependent. Human development occurs in a cultural context, is mediated by tools like language, and are best understood by understanding historical development of the individual and the species (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996). This presenting three levels of analysis for cognitive mediation theory: ontogenetic, historical, and phylogenetic (Goldhaber, 2000).

Ontogenetic level.

On the ontogenetic level, understanding individual development requires understanding the history of the individual's development. The tools individuals acquire come from culture and the previous learning of the species. Individuals acquire cognitive tools, like language, through conditioning. However, once the individual acquires a tool, the tool mediates between the environment and the individual leading to higher-order cognition (M. W. Watson, 2002).

Historical level.

On a historical level, understanding an individual's developmental history requires understanding the historical evolution of the individual's culture (Goldhaber, 2000). Society passes culture to children through adults. Culture incorporates with an individual's cognitive process as tools that influence development (M. W. Watson, 2002).

Phylogenetic level.

On a phylogenetic level, understanding the historical evolution of an individual's culture requires an understanding of the evolution of the individual's species (Goldhaber, 2000). Vygotsky believed that people share lower mental functioning with other animals, but that humans are different because they have the psychological tools that allow them to think.

To Vygotsky, the influence of culture is deeper than social influence and conditioning; individuals cannot function as adults without culture providing the necessary tools for being an adult. "A colt is already a horse; a human baby is only a candidate to become a human being" (Watson, 2002).

Themes of cognitive-mediation

Two major themes contributing to cognitive mediation theory are the internalization process and the zone of proximal development.


Vygotsky believed that adults help children regulate themselves until the children have developed the internal mediators for regulating themselves without the adults. Learning first occurs on the social level; the child observes the adult or the adult instructs the child. Then, learning occurs on the psychological level; the learning becomes part of the child (Watson, 2002). Vygotsky saw this internalization socially rooted and historically developed activities as "the distinguishing feature of human psychology, the basis of the qualitative leap from animal to human psychology" (Goldhaber, 2000).

Zone of proximal development.

Where Freud and Piaget saw developmental stages, Vygotsky saw zones of proximal development. In other words, there is no single point of development; development occurs within a range. Vygotsky proposed a zone rather than a clear course to account for environmental factors that prevent an individual from developing to potential. Environmental factors inhibiting development might include bad instruction or attempting to teach a subject the child is not capable of grasping (Goldhaber, 2000; M. W. Watson, 2002). Understanding the individual in relation to the zones illuminates:

  • An individual progresses through his or her zone by developing new skills. As the individual masters higher skills, the zone dynamically progresses along the individual's developmental course. In other words, the more skills a person learns, the more the zone progresses.
  • An individual does not have a single zone that spans all skills, but has a different dynamic zone for each domain. For example, a child will have different zones for various academic skills, music skills, athletic skills, social skills, and the like.
  • Each individual will progress at different rates than other individuals and the span of the zone will differ among individuals. The mechanisms fueling development are the cues, instructions, and help of others. The individual internalizes these lessons until they become part of the individual (M. W. Watson, 2002).


Vygotsky's ideas help educators adjust instructions to match the zone of proximal development within a classroom to meet the developmental needs of individual students. Addressing the challenge of applying Vygotsky's ideas in education environments, Watson (2002) says, "A good teacher is someone who can determine the appropriate help to give a student at an appropriate level on a task, with the right amount of examples. A good teacher must also know when to withdraw help" to keep challenging the student to progress (p. 199). However, Vygotsky's approach has some problems. The zone is a metaphor that is hard to test, and assessing an individual's dynamically changing zone is an elusive process. In other words, while cognitive-mediation theory can serve as a general guide to development, it lacks the precision to serve as a map.

In short, Vytosky (1962) introduced a contextual and cross-cultural perspective to child development that seems to compliment more than conflict with theories in the mechanistic and organismic perspective, providing a more complete picture of human development. Learning theorists saw that learning is development, focusing on how the environment influences the individual. Piaget (1968) saw that development comes from within before learning can occur, focusing on leaving the individual alone to develop at his or her own pace. Vytosky saw that learning happens as a person masters new skills under the guidance of others who operate at the advanced edges of his or her developmental zone, focusing on cooperative learning that brings about development.


Next: Transcending myopia