Vygotsky’s constructivist learning theory

Lev Vygotsky is a Russian psychologist that formed the foundation for research in cognitive and social development of cognition. He is described as key influencer in the process of ‘making meaning’.

One of the names he is largely compared to is Piaget who was also focused on the same field as Lev. They however differed in a number of concepts. Lev argued that learning is a necessary and universal aspect in developing culturally accepted and organized human psychological functions.

In simpler terms, social learning comes before development. Piaget on the other hand said that a child’s development has to precede their learning.

Lev Vygotsky developed the sociocultural approach to cognitive development. Unfortunately, he died at a young age of 38 before he could finish some of his theories. His writings have been translated from Russian for use today. These thoughts and ideas have been put together and termed as Social Development Theory.

What Is Social Development Theory?

There have been many psychologists associated with this field such as Piaget, Freud and Pavlov. Lev Vygotsky is the less known of them yet had some of the greatest impact on the field.

Lev Vygotsky had two major principles that his theories were based on. The first is that cognitive development is limited to a certain extent at any given age of the subject.

The second principle is that a person’s full cognitive development requires social interaction. These principles form the basis of the three theories that social development theory is based on.

The following are the three theories

Social Interaction helps in cognitive development

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Social interaction plays a major role in the cognitive development of a child. This is because human beings by nature are social beings that love to interact with others. It is also due to the fact that human nature makes us seek meaning in everything.

People call this curiosity. You may have noticed that children ask a lot of questions about very mundane things. It can even become bothersome but it is important to understand that they are in a new world that they know nothing about.

As babies, you will notice that they observe things with interest and follow things with their eyes wide open. This is where they begin their journey of ‘making meaning.’

Cognitive development according to Lev Vygotsky comes about from a dynamic interaction between the person and the society around them. The two are mutually exclusive.

What this means is that, the person has an effect on their society and the society has an effect on the person. Take for instance a child. A child will not be able to learn and develop if they are not part of a society. First, the parents are in charge and teach the child their first words.

The child then went on play dates and learnt to build a bond with his or her age mates. The child then joins school and begins the process of learning. Each of these stages are social learning experiences for the child and this is what Lev Vygotsky’s theory was built upon.

Social learning precedes development

Lev Vygotsky says that a child will not develop without experiencing social learning first. He says there are two levels where the child’s cultural development is created;

Social level

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The child will have to interact and connect with other people in order to attain social learning. This is the interpsychological level

Individual level

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Here, the child or individual has achieved social learning and has passed the social level. The individual now has acquired social learnings that lead to their own cognitive development

This however does not mean that people are born with zero abilities. Lev Vygotsky says that every child is born with the basic function and abilities that occur innately within them. No one teaches them and this functions come engrained in them by nature.

These functions are lower mental functions (LMFs). They include: sensation, where the child does not need to be told something is sweet or bitter. There is also hunger where the child is not told they are hungry as they can feel it.

The third is memory where babies are able to commit some things to memory. For instance, children can instantly remember their mother’s voice even before they can see her. The bay can also notice the taste of their food.

The older the child gets, the more the LMFs evolve into higher mental functions (HMFs). Higher mental functions are taught rather through experience and learning.

Examples of higher mental functions include the following


As the baby grows and develops, their capacity for languages also does the same. This is because of the need for the baby to communicate with other people around them. They need to communicate what they are feeling such as hunger, or when they need to use the potty.


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The memory is what comes after the natural memory level in LMF. Here, the memory grows and can be cultivated. The child can now make connections and associations based on previous experiences. They use intellectual adaptation which basically allows them to make mental functions more effective by the use of visual aids, mind maps and pnemonics.

Voluntary attention

Children have the shortest concentration or attention span. This is because their thought patterns are unstable and cannot sustain concentration on one particular thing. As they grow older and develop social learnings, the child will be able to focus and concentrate on a thought or activity for longer


As the child grows older, they have more and more social interactions. Using these interactions, they are able to increase their awareness of the environment. They are now able to understand how things are the way they are.

Language speeds up cognitive development

We have already seen that language plays a major role in cognitive development. It is the only medium of communication and it comes in three stages of speech development.

Social speech

This is the stage preceding the verbal stage and is usually in babies under three years old. Their thoughts are simple and the emotions are basic thus, making intellectual capacity unnecessary.

Egocentric Speech

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This is the second stage and is usually in kids between the ages of three and seven. This is when the child starts to pronounce words and tries to form complete statements. As they grow older, they become more and more coherent

Inner Speech

The final speech development happens when the child is older and starts growing into adulthood. Here, the child knows that not all thoughts should be voiced. The child can do mental calculations and analyze situations without speaking or verbalizing their observations.


Lev Vygotsky’s theories provided a strong foundation for the development of social development. By using these theories a lot of steps have been taken in the field of cognitive development. His writings have been translated from Russian for use today. These thoughts and ideas make up the Social Development Theory.