Vygotsky's constructivism

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Chad Galloway
The University of Georgia

Click Here to Play Lecture to play a narrated PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the content in this page. If you would like to see a transcript of the audio, click here to download script as a word document. This summary was created by Buffalo Shuford, Sheri Howard and Daniele Facundo (2006).

Vygotsky's Theories

The work of Lev Vygotsky and other developmental psychologists has become the foundation of much research and theory in developmental cognition over the past several decades, particularly of what has become known as social development theory. Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of "making meaning." Unlike Piaget's notion that children's development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, "learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function" (1978, p. 90). In other words, social learning tends to precede development.


In order to gain an understanding of Vygotsky's theories on cognitive development, one must understand two of the main principles of Vygotsky's work: the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The MKO is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case. Many times, a child's peers or an adult's children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience. (For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest teen-age music groups, the "raddest" skateboarding skills, how to win at the most recent Nintendo game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze-a child or his parents?!)

In fact, the MKO need not be a person at all. Some companies, to support employees in their learning process, are now using electronic performance support systems. Electronic tutors have also been used in educational settings to facilitate and guide students through the learning process. The key to MKOs is that they must have (or be programmed with) more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does.

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Caption: This animation depicts Vygotsky's principles of More Knowledgeable Others (MKOs) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). In the first scene a child is wondering how to bake cookies. She then decides to ask a series of MKOs how they bake cookies. She asks first her parents, followed by one of her friends. She then decides to ask her teacher, and then use the computer as a resource. Using the steps she gathered from others she is able to figure out how to bake the cookies. Concept and Creation developed by Yun-Shuang Chang, Hiliary Johnson, and Yi-Wen Tan (2005).


The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second important principle of Vygotsky's work, the Zone of Proximal Development. Taken together, the MKO and the ZPD form the basis of the scaffolding component of the cognitive apprenticeship model of instruction. Vygotsky (1978) defines the ZPD as the distance between the "actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (p. 86). Vygotsky believed that when a student is at the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance (scaffolding) will give the student enough of a "boost" to achieve the task. Once the student, with the benefit of scaffolding, masters the task, the scaffolding can then be removed and the student will then be able to complete the task again on his own.

<EMBED SRC="http://www.coe.uga.edu/epltt/zpd.swf" WIDTH=600 HEIGHT=250>
Caption:In the animation, a bar with many divisions is presented. On the left-hand side the divisions start as a yellow color. The divisions slowly change hue from yellow to red across the bar. The right-hand side ends in red. Yellow represents "things that can be done on own". Red represents "things that can not be done, even with support". A sliding, two pane, window is positioned on the bar. This window represents the ZPD. The window on the left represents an area on the bar that "needs little support". The bar divisions are a yellow color to light orange color in this pane of the window. The window on the right represents an area on the bar that "needs much support". The bar divisions are a dark orange color to red color in this pane of the window. Before the animation begins, the window is near the left end of the bar. Most of the bar is in red. As the animation progresses, the window slides to the right. Most of the bar becomes yellow. Because the bar is mostly yellow, the person is "able to do more". Flash animation by Benjamin Rockwood (01/2002).

As can be seen in the animation above, the ZPD is the area between the things that a learner can do on her own and the things that she cannot yet do, even with assistance. As we learn, this zone shifts to the right because we are able to do more and more things on our own. A key concept here is that the learner does the "whole" task with support as opposed to breaking tasks down into component skills to be learned in isolation.

Example of ZPD

Maria just entered college this semester and decided to take an introductory tennis course. Her class spends each week learning and practicing a different shot. Weeks go by and they learn how to properly serve and hit a backhand. During the week of learning the forehand, the instructor notices that Maria is very frustrated because she keeps hitting her forehand shots either into the net or far past the baseline. He examines her preparation and swing. He notices that her stance is perfect, she prepares early, she turns her torso appropriately, and she hits the ball at precisely the right height. However, he notices that she is still gripping her racquet the same way she hits her backhand, so he goes over to her and shows her how to reposition her hand to hit a proper forehand, stressing that she should keep her index finger parallel to the racquet. He models a good forehand for her, and then assists her in changing her grip. With a little practice, Maria's forehand turns into a formidable weapon for her!

In this case, Maria was in the Zone of Proximal Development for successfully hitting a forehand shot. She was doing everything else correctly, but just needed a little coaching and scaffolding from a "More Knowledgeable Other" to help her succeed in this task. When that assistance was given, she became able to achieve her goal. Provided with appropriate support at the right moments, so too will students in our classrooms be able to achieve tasks that would otherwise be too difficult for them.


Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

For more information

Lev Vygotsky and Vygotsky Resources: Overview of Activity Theory: The Vygotsky Approach http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~cs5724/g5/activity.html

The Vygotsky Internet Archive: http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/

Social Development Theory: http://tip.psychology.org/vygotsky.html

Vygotsky Resources:Review and Analysis of Vygotsky's Thought and Language: http://www.kolar.org/vygotsky/

Social Constructivism: http://www.kolar.org/vygotsky/


APA Citation: Galloway,C., M. (2001). Vygotsky's Constructivism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/