Can you imagine living your life all on your own, without ever communicating with other human beings? What would happen to you?

Aside from the fact that you would literally be depressed due to the lack of company, all other aspects of your personality would be limited.

You would not need to develop language, as there is no one to talk to, you would not have the option to develop your interpersonal skills, and even survival skills would not progress.

This last one might seem like a stretch but it actually isn’t.

How come? Well, each person is born with a certain set of skills that are genetically and developmentally conditioned. This is true for intelligence and a certain set of other abilities.

So why do we say that survival skills could be limited (think of the consequences)?

If you were born with the ability to catch fish and for some reason, the rivers, and lakes close by were dried up rendering your ability mute, how much time would it take you to rewire your brain, and learn to hunt if there wasn’t anybody to show you?

And what would happen if there was someone around you who was born with the ability to hunt?

Watching and communicating with that person would speed up the learning process and you would not be hungry for a long time.

This is why it is said that people are social animals. We need the company of others not only for comfort and support but for learning as well.

Throughout history, many thinkers and philosophers dabbled into the notion of social development and how it affects the formation of a person from an early age and throughout the whole life.

There have been several theories, most of them are still recognized and used nowadays, regarding learning and education.

We learn something new every day our entire lives, so these theories are important and can have significant implications in adults as well, not just the children.

Observing children, however, is what led to the formation of a theory known as Zone of Proximal Development, suggested by Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist.

“We do not learn because we develop. We develop because we learn.” – Vygotsky 


Vygotsky’s theory builds up on the importance of social interactions mostly regarding the role that it has in the development of cognition.

His main foci were children and the interactions with those around them in the development of their cognition and higher order learning.

This theory relies on the notions introduced by Jean Piaget, with some differences.

Namely, Piaget states that learning is best done independently and introduces steps on how each child acquires new knowledge.

The main point of difference between Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory of Development and Piaget’s theory is that interaction between the learner and the people around him/her.

Why is social interaction important? Many studies show that children that had help in performing certain tasks in early childhood mastered those tasks better and faster than the children who learned those same tasks on their own.

Imagine learning how to walk or speak.

A child will learn how to speak even if it is not directly spoken to.

For example, it will pick up words by listening to adults speak, or by watching cartoons and listening to music.

The main sense included, in this example, will be listening.  A child will also learn to walk on its own by holding onto the sides of a bed.

However, if a parent (or another more knowledgeable individual) actively encourages a baby to speak, by focusing the baby on the sound and lip movement, more of the senses (sight, in this case) would be included, and the baby will retain information faster.

It will try to repeat not just the sound but the lip movements as well, and will more quickly deduce what it needs to do to form a certain word.

In the example of walking, if a parent helps a baby to stand up, and make the first step, walk alongside it while holding its hand, and later just being present around, the baby will sooner feel free to let go and walk.

Vygotsky states that babies are born with certain mental functions. He called them elementary mental functions-attention, sensation, perception, memory.

Eventually, through interaction with their socio-cultural environment, these elementary mental functions are developed into more sophisticated and effective mental processes or strategies, and this is what we call higher mental functions-language, memory, voluntary attention, and perception.

The higher mental functions are characterized by independent learning and thinking and can only be cultivated by elementary mental functions which we modify with the help of a tutor.

According to Vygotsky, this type of social interaction involves cooperative and collaborative dialogue and that s what promotes the cognitive ability or development.

This leads us to another important notion of Vygotsky’s theory, and that is language.

He says that language is the main means by which adults transmit information to children, and it is also a very powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

He looked at the private speech, also called internal speech or egocentric speech. It is when people talk out loud to themselves. With what type of population is this most likely to happen?

Do adults speak out loud to themselves a lot or do children? Well, it is actually children. Most children engage in private speech. Vygotsky sees this as a way for children to plan activities and strategies, and this aids in their development.

He defines language as an accelerator for thinking and understanding.

Children who engage in private speech are much more socially competent than children who do not use it that much. He believed that language develops from social interactions for communication purposes.

Adults unconsciously do that too, though not as often as children, especially when the task at hand is on the difficult side.

Adults vocalize their thoughts when solving difficult problems in order to engage other senses and other aspects of cognition for quicker and more effective problem solving

Later language ability becomes internalized as thought, which means that, as we grow older the private speech becomes inner speech, and t turns out that thought is a result of language.

That ability to think for ourselves and develop that independence of executing skills comes from this importance of language, according to Vygotsky.

In addition to the importance of social interaction, Vygotsky introduces two more key concepts – More Knowledgable Other (or MKO), and Zone of Proximal Development (or ZPD).

There is also a concept of Scaffolding that is linked to this theory; however, Vygotsky himself never used the term.

He died very young (at the age of 38) and his theory was later further developed by other psychologists. The term Scaffolding was introduced by Wood, Bruner, and Ross.

Those three concepts go hand in hand and are crucial for understanding the learning processes with young learners, as well as adults, in school and outside of it.


An MKO is a person a child interacts with in order to learn.

That person has a higher level of knowledge, understanding or ability with respect to the task that is at hand.

Children learn from MKO’s by repeating the actions they model, or following instructions.

Who is an MKO? At the early development stages, and MKOs are obviously parents, later, they are teachers. An MKO does not necessarily have to be an adult.

In regards to children, an MKO can be a more skilled peer (some psychologist even argue that learning with a peer is even more productive, as the action excludes fear form authority, and the child uses a language that is closer, and more understandable to the student) or even an older sibling.

It is widely known that a younger child looks up to and imitates his/her older sibling, and this action makes the older sibling an MKO.

In the following example, it is clear that an MKO is the boy’s classmate who is more knowledgeable at a task he is given.

With the advancement of technology, an MKO can be a computer as well, as we can look for information there. Consider these examples of relations between a teacher and a learner.

A boy wants to learn how to play chess. His grandfather takes up the responsibility of showing him and explaining the rules. In this situation, the Grandfather is an MKO.

However, if that same grandfather gets a new Smartphone and he is not into technology, that same boy will show him how to use the phone. In this interaction, the boy would be an MKO.

The interaction between the learner and an MKO results in learning, which leads to the formation of the higher mental functions.


The Zone of Proximal Development is a concept that came as a result of Vygotsky’s dissatisfaction with standardized tests.

He thought that standardized tests were not capable of measuring the children’s ability to learn as they only rely on the child’s existing knowledge disregarding the potential to learn further.

He defined the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as

“The distance between the actual development 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.” – Vygotsky, 1978

Let us explain this concept more closely.

Imagine the learning process in the form of three concentric circles. The inner circle is what a child or a student already knows how to do.

The skills are already mastered, and the tasks are too easy, predictable, and tedious even. As a result, learning does not happen.

For example, a child has already learned how to add numbers. Giving the child more tasks of this difficulty level leads to stagnation and boredom.

The outer circle represents what a student can’t do independently. The task at hand is way too difficult for the student to grasp it, solve it and understand it.

Imagine giving a child that has just learned to add numbers an equation that includes all four mathematical operations.

This kind of a task that is way too hard for the student leads to stress and frustration, the student becomes discouraged which can lead to the student giving up.

This does not generate learning. The active learning happens in that inner circle that Vygotsky defined as Zone of Proximal Development.

The difficulty level of tasks in this zone is just beyond the reach of students’ current knowledge, they may seem challenging and difficult but they are accessible, so the student can complete the tasks with the help of an MKO.

This is the part where the most sensitive information and guidance should be given. We can say that the Zone of Proximal Development is a sweet spot for learning.

This is where learning happens- in this area of being able to do something and not being able to do it.

Let us go back to our student who has already learned addition. Imagine that a teacher wants to teach multiplication.

The teacher may build up the knowledge by explaining that 2×5 is actually 5+5, and guide the student to the conclusion by grouping ten pencils into two groups of five, and encouraging the student to count.

After the student gets the help that he needs he should be able to do that task independently.

The ZPD is not the same for each child/student at the same level of current knowledge.

Also, the ZPD is not a static factor, as the child learns and progresses in acquiring a certain skill, the ZPD moves forward, opening space for further learning.

Pay attention that we use the words guidance, help and encouragement, rather than just full assistance.

Why is that? If an MKO simply does the task for the child, the learning process gets stunted, and the student can simply copy the teacher’s moves and instructions without actually learning a new skill, which is why Piaget argued that the knowledge we acquire through independent action and exploration is better retained than if we are taught something.

However, assisting, rather than, completely taking over in the process of learning, enables a child or a student to spend less energy on finding the solution to the problem, but he still gets there on his own, just with a little nudge from an MKO.

This leads us to the third concept.


As we already mentioned, scaffolding is a concept that was adjoined to Vygotsky’s theory much later, but it complements it and explains how the learning processes happen in the ZPD.

The child learns in the Zone of Proximal Development with the help of a More Knowledgeable Other through Scaffolding.

So, scaffolding is a tool for helping students learn, it is the support that an MKO provides the student within the ZPD to help them achieve their aims.

It is defined as structurally supportive interactions that guide effective learning (through hinting and giving more options, rather than telling the solution).

Scaffolding consists of a number of different principles. Firstly, building interest and engaging students’ attention by either making the tasks interesting or eliminating outside distractions.

Secondly, breaking the task down into smaller chunks that are more easily understood, and later using those smaller tasks as stepping stones to progression to the main task at hand.

The student can safely progress to the next stepping stone when, and only when he has learned what was needed of him on that particular segment. (A baby learns to stand, then walk, then run and only later does it learn to dance the cha-cha. A baby cannot skip running and go straight to cha-cha.)

You can also simplify the problem by using more appropriate language or giving instructions in a way more suitable to the child in question.

You can also model the behavior, and do a task yourself but it is important that you closely watch the student in order to be sure that he has understood and is able to follow all the steps.

What is left next is to gradually relinquish the control, and reduce the amount of help needed for the student to complete the task.

Or, metaphorically, remove the scaffolding need for the construction.

The aim of ZPD and Scaffolding is to teach students to think for themselves and solve problems individually.

Imagine this entire process through an example of learning to swim. If a girl wants to learn how to swim, she will probably not be able to do it alone.

Why? Because this is out of her current knowledge and is it too far that she will be frustrated while learning it? No. So, it is just out of her reach, in the ZPD, so she needs help from an MKO to learn how to swim.

In the beginning, an MKO might opt to use tools like swimming floats, that would be a first stepping stone.

As the child feels more comfortable, an MKO will remove the floats and hold the child while he tries to follow instructions on how to move his arms and legs.

When the child has learned that, an MKO will choose to gradually let go of the child so he can swim independently, which, essentially, is the aim of the process.


How can we use this theory and those key concepts?

Hopefully, it is clear on how to use them on a one-on-one basis, however, what should you do in a classroom, or if you are a tutor of a group of adults?

First of all, you should make sure that you pre-assess the knowledge of your students. This will give you a starting line on what your students already know and avoid those tasks in order to avoid boredom. This will also determine the ZPD of each individual student

We already mentioned that the ZPD varies from student to student regardless of the fact that their existing knowledge is the same.

This is why teachers should differentiate lesson plans and individualize them to fit all the students.

A teacher, as an MKO, should be able to determine student’s capabilities and abilities, different learning styles and their aptitude for learning in order to make the best of their ZPD.

In order to use this theory as much as possible, and employ more MKO’s for different approaches, a teacher should, occasionally at least, make heterogeneous groups of students.

What does that mean?

Learning in smaller groups can be beneficial for learners, however, if their abilities are on the exact same level, they will not learn.

This is why each group should have a more knowledgeable peer to model the actions of other students, and a teacher should be present as well, to control and encourage all of them.



  1. Use identifiable language – using the language appropriate to the child’s/student’s level facilitates the understanding of a task and accelerates the progress.
  2. Use open-ended questionsopen-ended questions ask the student to think on its own and do not allow the repetition of what somebody else has previously said.


  1. Do not use complex language – using language that is beyond the student’s ability to understand can cause issues even when a task itself can be done without any problems, just because the student did not understand the instructions. Simplify instead.
  2. Do not assume that students already know – instead, ask them a question and if you see that they are already familiar with it, fast forward to the ZPD. Otherwise, you may find yourself in the outer ring of knowledge causing frustration.
  3. Do not give answers too quickly – the aim of ZPD is to help students reach the answers themselves, not give them a ready-made answer.


Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory of Development is mostly applicable to early childhood development as well as in the education of both children and adults.

As opposed to children, adults have already developed cognitive thinking, so this concept of the theory may not relate to them, however, the ZPD and Scaffolding, and MKO concepts are something that we are exposed to, more or less, every day since people’s nature is to thrive and learn through social interactions.

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