Core Ideas of Development
The primary characteristics of Vygotskian theory include the following elements: the child-in-activity-in-cultural-context, the zone of proximal development, the sociocultural origins of mental functioning, and the mediation of intellectual functioning by cultural tools.

Child-in-Activity-in-Cultural-Context children_playing.jpg
Vygotsky focused on the child-in-context acting in a situation or event as the smallest unit of study. Vygotsky defined “context” as a child’s culture and how they express their culture. Further, the child is continually acting in social interactions with other people. Vygotsky argued that looking at child development without cultural context distorts our view of development, and often causes us to look at causes of behavior as residing within the child, rather than in their culture.

Miller (2002) defined culture as, “shared beliefs, values, knowledge, skills, structured relationships, ways of doing things (customs), socialization practices, and symbol systems (such as spoken and written language)” (p. 374). Culture is communicated through home and societal routines. Vygotsky also included physical and historical influences in the concept of culture. For example, culture can be influence by a people’s response to a physical terrain, natural disasters, or war.

Zone of Proximal Development
(Click on above link for a short video).
adult_helping.jpgThe zone of proximal development (ZPD) is probably Vygotsky’s most well-known concept in developmental psychology. On the terminology page, you can see the that the definition of ZPD is the distance between a child’s actual development and a child’s potential development through peer or adult guidance. Vygotsky viewed a child’s potential development to be more important that his or her actual development, because it can be facilitated through social interactions with a more experienced person. A broader definition of ZPD is simply any activity that assists a child beyond their present level of functioning.

Adults or peers can propel children to their potential level of development through prompts, clues, modeling, explanation, leading questions, discussion, joint participation, encouragement, or attention management. Children can also learn from simple observation of other, more competent individuals. A common metaphor to describe people supporting a child’s developing skills is called scaffolding. (Click on link for a short video). Through scaffolding, an adult’s behavior affects the adult, and vice versa. Intersubjectivity is how learning occurs within the ZPD. This is a shared understanding between children and their more knowledgeable counterparts.

Sociocultural origins of mental functioningbrain.jpg
Vygotsky viewed mental functioning as an interaction between intermental (processes happening ‘between-minds’) and intramental processes (within-mind processes). He posed that external interactions became internalized and integrated into the mind. Intermental activity is most important and primary in development, and intramental activity develops due to intermental activity. Social interactions and collaboration eventually lead to the structure of inner, individual thought.

Mediation of Intellectual Functioning by Cultural Tools
Adults and children also collaborate through helping children learn how to utilize their culture’s psychological and technical tools. Examples of psychological tools that inform intellectual functioning include language and counting systems, writing, maps, memorizing, and attending. Physical tools that inform intellectual development include computers or electronic games. Both psychological and physical tools help a child navigate their environment. Children learn to use the tools most valued by their society.

Vygotsky viewed language as the most critical psychological tool. Thinking, comprehending, and producing language are all processes that affect individual perceptions of their social worlds. Language also has an influence on how children use physical tools. As language develops and becomes re-organized, it influences new modes of problem solving.

For example, examine the effects of not using the language of mental health disorders to describe homosexuality. Taking homosexuality out of the DSM and shifting from talking about it as a 'disorder' rather than 'innate' or 'biological' created a huge shift in society, as evidenced by historical changes in attitudes towards and greater advocacy with LGBT populations.

The transmission of cultural tools most often happens in the home and through schooling. However, one should not assume that all schooling systems are addressing the needs of each child in a culture (e.g., see comments in diversity section on diversity in educational systems). The modes of teaching/schooling are intricately tied to what a culture values as ‘knowledge’ (e.g., memorization vs. scientific reasoning; see Miller, 2002, p. 386 for examples).