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Vygotsky’s Socio-Historical Theory of Learning and Development, Knowledge Social Class, and IQ

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Three of the main concepts that Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky is known for is cultural and psychological tools, private speech, and the zone of proximal development (ZPD). The ZPD is the distance between what a learner can do with and without help—the gap between actual and potential development. Vygotsky’s socio-historical theory of learning and development states that human development and learning take place in certain social and cultural contexts. When one thinks about how knowledge acquisition occurs, quite obviously, one can surmise that knowledge acquisition (learning) and human development take place in specific cultural and social contexts and so knowledge is culture-dependent (Richardson, 2002).

In this article, I will discuss the intersection of culture and Vygotsky’s concepts of private speech, cultural and psychological tools, and the zone of proximal development along with how these relate to IQ. Basically, the argument will be that what one is exposed to in childhood and during development will dictate how one performs on a test, and that the ZPD predicts school performance better than “IQ.”

What is culture and where does it come from?

This question is asked a lot by “HBDers” and I think it is a loaded question. It is a loaded question because they are fishing for a specific kind of answer—they want you to answer that culture derives from a people’s genetic constitution. This, though, fails. It fails because of how culture is conceptualized. Culture is simply what is socially transmitted by groups of people. It is physically visible (public) though the meaning of each cultural thing is invisible—it is private to the people who espouse the certain culture.

The basic source culture is values, beliefs, and norms. Cultures lay down strict norms of what is OK and what isn’t, like for example the foods they eat and along with it beliefs and attitudes shared by the social group. So a basic definition of culture would be: beliefs and ways of life that a social group shares—it is a human activity which is socially transmitted. Knowing this, we can see how learning and in some ways development, can be culturally-loaded. Since a culture dictates not only what is learned, but also how to think in a certain culture, we can then begin to see how different cultures lead people to think in different ways and along with it how different cultures lead to differences in not only knowledge but the acquisition of that knowledge.

UNESCO defines culture as “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group, that encompasses, not only art and literature but lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (UNESCO, 2001). (What is Culture?)

the term “culture” can refer to the set of norms, practices and values that characterize minority and majority groups (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Culture)

Material culture consists of tangible objects that people create: tools, toys, buildings, furniture, images, and even print and digital media—a seemingly endless list of items. … Non-material culture includes such things as: beliefs, values, norms, customs, traditions, and rituals (Culture as Thought and Action)

Since society consists of individuals who then become a group living in a certain region, then it stands to reason that learning and human development are due to these kinds of cultural and social interactions between individuals which make up a certain society and therefore culture. The types of things that allow me to survive, learn, and grow in one culture won’t allow me to survive, learn, and grow to the same degree in another culture.

Now that I’ve touched on what culture is, where does it come from? Why are there different cultures? Quite simply, cultures are different because people are different and although different cultures are comprised of individuals, these individuals themselves comprise a group. These groups of people live in different environments/ecologies (physical environment), and so considerations of these ecologies lead not only to a group to begin to construct a society that is necessarily in-tune with the environment, it also leads to “mental environments” between the people that comprise the group in question. So then we can say that culture comes from the way that groups of people live their lives.

If we think about culture as thought and action, then we can begin to get at what culture really is. Values and beliefs influence our thought, attitudes, and behavior. “Culture influences action…by...shaping a repertoire or “toolkit” of habits, skills, and styles from which people construct “strategies of action“” (Swidler, 1986). Action is distinct from behavior, in that action is future- or goal-directed whereas behavior is due to antecedent conditions. That is, actions are done for reasons, to actualize a goal of the agent that is performing the action. Crudely, culture can be then said to be what a group of people does. Culture is “human-created environment, artifacts, and practices” (Vasileva and Balyasnikova, 2019).

How culture, then, comes into play in Vygotsky’s socio-historical theory of learning and development is now clear—the ways that people interact with others in a specific culture then dictates the knowledge that they acquire which then shapes their mental abilities. This theory is a purely developmental theory. The socio-historical theory makes three claims: Social interaction plays a role in learning, knowledge acquisition, and development; language is an essential cultural/psychological tool in learning, and learning occurs within the zone of proximal development (ZPD). How that I have shown how I will be using the term “culture”, it is clear that what it means for Vygotsky’s theory of human learning and development is relevant. Now I will discuss cultural and psychological tools and then turn to those three aforementioned tenets that make up the theory.

Psychological and cultural tools

Psychological tools are symbols, signs, text and language, to name a few. They are internally oriented, but in their external appearance take their form in the aforementioned ways. Language and mathematics are two kind of psychological tools, but we can also rightly say they they are cultural tools as well (in the case of language).

Cultural tools are tools specific to a culture which allows an individual to navigate that culture. Cultural tools don’t determine thinking but they do constrain it, since the “information about the expected or appropriate actions in relation to a particular performance in a community. This is indirectly social in that it is not interpersonal, though it nevertheless stems from the social context” (Gauvain, 2001:129). Language can be seen as both a cultural and psychological tool; humans are born into culturally- and linguistically-mediated environments, and so they are immediately immersed in culture from the day they are born (Vasileva and Balyasnikova, 2019).

Cultural tools include historically evolved patterns of co-action; the informal and institutionalized rules and procedures governing them; the shared conceptual representations underlying them; styles of speech and other forms of communication; administrative, management and accounting tools; specific hardware and technological tools; as well as ideologies, belief systems, social values, and so on (Vygotsky, 1988).(Richardson, 2002: 288)

Robbins (2005: 146) writes:

Another important concept within sociocultural theory, which we can highlight through Rogoff’s (1995, 1998) contextual or community focus of analysis, is the use of cultural tools (both material and psychological) in the development of understanding. As Lemke (2001) points out, we grow and live within a range of different contexts, and our lives within these communities and institutions give us tools for making sense of, and to, those around us. Vygotsky described psychological tools as those that can be used to direct the mind and behaviour, while technical tools are used to bring about changes in other objects (Daniels, 2001). Commonly cited examples of cultural tools include language, different kinds of numbering and counting, writing schemes, mnemonic technical aids, algebraic symbol systems, art works, diagrams, maps, drawings, and all sorts of signs (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996; Stetsenko, 1999).

So cultural tools, then, become “internalized in individuals as the dominant ‘psychological tools’” (Richardson, 2002: 288).

Social interaction plays a role in learning

This seems quite intuitive. As a human develops, they begin to take cues from their overall environment and those that are rearing them. They are immersed in a specific culture immediately from birth. They then begin to internalize certain aspects of the environment around them, and then begin to internalize the specific cultural and psychological tools inherent to that specific culture.

Tomasello (2019: 13) states that his theory is that “uniquely human forms of cognition and sociality emerge in human ontogeny through, and only through, species-unique forms of sociocultural activity” and so it is not only Vygotskian, but neo-Vygotskian. So children are in effect scaffolded by the culture they are immersed in, which is how “more knowledgeable others” (MKO) affect the learning trajectory of the child. A MKO is an individual who has a better understanding of, or a higher ability than, the learner. So MKOs aren’t merely for teaching children, they are strewn throughout the world teaching less knowledgeable others. These MKOs guide individuals in their ZPD, since the MKO would have greater access to certain knowledge that the LKO wouldn’t, they would then be able to guide the LKO in their learning, able to provide instruction to the LKO so they could then perform a certain task. Learning to play baseball, right a bike, lift weights, are but a few ways that MKOs guide the development and task-acquisition of children—these are perfect examples of the concept of “scaffolding.”

Although Vygotsky never used the term “scaffolding”, it’s a direct implication of his socio-historical theory of learning and development. The concept of scaffolding has been argued to be related to the ZPD, but see Shabani, Khatib, and Ebadi (2010) and Xi and Lantolf (2021) for criticism of this relationship. However, it has been experimentally shown that the concept of scaffolding along with the ZPD can be used to extend a student’s ZPD for critical thinking (Wass, Harland, and Mercer, 2011). That is, the students can better reach their potential and therefore become independent learners.

What this means is that culture is significant in learning, language is necessary for culture, and people learn from others in their communities. Interacting with other people while developing, and even after, are how humans develop. Since we are a social species, it stands to reason that these concepts like MKOs and the significance of the cultural context in the acquisition of certain skills and learning play a significant role in the development of all children and even adults. Thus, each stage of the development of a child builds upon a previous stage, and so, play could also be seen as a form of learning—a form of sociocultural learning. Imaginative play, then, allows the self-regulation of children and also challenges them just enough in their ZPD.

Private speech

“Private speech” is when a child talks to themselves while they are performing a task (Alderson-Day and Fernyhough, 2015). It is one’s “inner speech”, their own “voice” in their heads. It is the act of talking to one’s self as they perform a task, and this is ubiquitous around the world, implying that it is a hallmark of human cognizing (Vissers, Tomas, and Law, 2020). This is basically the “voice” you head in your head as you live your daily life. It is, of course, a natural consequence of thinking and talking. Speech acts are a natural process of think acts, as Vygotsky argued, which is similar to Davidson’s (1982) argument against the possibility of animal mentality since for organisms to be thinking and rational they must be able to express numerous thoughts and interpret the speech of others. This kind of speech, furthermore, has been shown to been related to working memory and cognitive reflexivity (Skipper, 2022).

The zone of proximal development

The ZPD is what a learner can and cannot do without help. Vygotsky originally developed it to oppose the concept of “IQ” (Neugeurela, Garcia, and Buescher, 2015; Kazemi, Bagheri, and Rassei, 2020; Offori-Attah, 2021). This concept is perhaps the most-used and discussed concept that Vygotsky forwarded. Central to this concept, which is a part of Vygotsky’s overall theory of child development, is imitation. Imitation is a goal-directed activity, and so it is an action. There is intention behind the imitation because the imitator is copying what the MKO is doing. But Vygotsky was using “imitation” in a way that is not normally used. To be able to imitate, one has to be able to be able to do carry out the imitation of what they are seeing from the MKO. So Vygotsky’s concept of the ZPD is that a child can learn something that he doesn’t know how to do by imitating an MKO, having the MKO guide them through to complete the task. It has been argued that ZPD can improve a learner’s thinking ability, along with making learning more relevant and efficient to the learner since it gives the learner the ability to learn from instruction and having a MKO guide them to compete a task, which then becomes internalized (Abdurrahman, Abdullah, and Osman (2019).

So the ZPD indicates what a child can do independently, and then they are given harder, guided problems which they then imitate and further internalize. MKOs are able to recognize where a child is in their development and can help them then complete harder tasks. The ZPD is related to learning not only in school but also in play (Hakkarainen and Bredikyte, 2008). For instance, the Strong Museum of Play states that “Learners develop concepts and skills through meaningful play. Play supports physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development.” Children definitely learn from play, and this interactive kind of learning also has them better understand their body, since play is in part a physical activity (a guided, goal-directed, intention). Play is” developmentally beneficial (Eberle, 2014; UNICEF, 2018), and it is beneficial and related to the ZPD since a child can learn to do something either from a peer or coach that knows how to do the action they want to learn and then internalize. An individual that is playing is an active participant in their own learning. Play, in effect, creates the ZPD (Hakkarainen and Bredikyte, 2014). Though Vygotsky’s conception of “play” is different than used in common parlance. Play

is limited to the dramatic or make-believe play of preschoolers. Vygotsky’s play theory therefore differs from other play theories, which also include object-oriented exploration, constructional play, and games with rules. Real play activities, according to Vygotsky, include the following components: (a) creating an imaginary situation, (b) taking on and acting out roles, and (c) following a set of rules determined by specific roles (Bodrova & Leong, 2007). (Scharer, 2017: 63)

Further, “symbolic play may scaffold development because it facilitates infants’ communicative success by promoting them to ‘co-constructors of meaning’” (Creaghe and Kidd, 2022). “Play creates a zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky, 1978, 102 quoted in Gray and Feldman, 2004: 113).

The scaffolding occurs due to the relationship between play, the ZPD and what an individual then internalizes and then becomes embedded in their muscle memory. This is where MKOs come into play. When one is first learning to work out, they may seek out a personal knowledgeable in the mechanics of the human body to learn how to lift weights. Through instruction, they then begin to learn and then internalize the movements in their heads, and then they can just perform the lift well after successive attempts of doing a certain motion. Or take baseball. Baseball coaches would be the MKOs, and they then teach children to play baseball and they learn how to hit pitches, catch balls, throw and how to be a part of a team. Through the action of play, then, one can reach their ZPD and even extend it.

ZPD and IQ

Further, Vygotsky showed that the whether or not one has a large or small ZPD better “predicts” performance than does “IQ” and he also noted that those who scored higher on IQ tests “did so at the cost of their zone of proximal development“, since they exhaust their ZPD earlier leaving a smaller ZPD.

Vygotsky reported that not only did the size of the children’s ZPD turn out to correlate well with their success in school (large ZPD children were more successful than small ZPD children) but that ZPD size was actually a better predictor of school performance than IQ. (Poehner, 2008: 35; cf Smirni and Smirni, 2022)

It has even been experimentally demonstrated that children with high IQs have a smaller ZPD, children with low IQs have a larger ZPD (Kusmaryono and Kusmaningsih, 2021). It has also been shown that those who received ZPD scaffolding instruction improved more and even outperformed the other group on subsequent IQ tests after a first test was administered (Stanford-Binet and Mensa) (Ghelot, 2021). The responsiveness to remediation, and not “IQ” was a better predictor of school performance (Amini, Hassaskhah, and Sibet, 2017) and the degree of responsiveness wasn’t related to high or low IQ, since some learners had a high responsiveness and low score while others had a high score but low responsiveness (Poehner, 2017: 156). Those who took a test in one year and did not get better in subsequent years, Vygotsky argued, merely meant that they were not pushed outside of what they already know. So children with large ZPD were more likely to be successful irrespective of IQ while children with small ZPD were less likely to be successful, irrespective of IQ. Though the concepts of ZPD and IQ are seen as not contradictory, but related (Modarresi and Jeddy, 2021), quite clearly since “IQ” isn’t a measure of learning ability it merely shows what one has learned and so has been exposed to while the ZPD shows how one would do into the future due to how large their ZPD is. It shows not only where someone has reached, but also shows where they can reach. Thus, instead of the (undeserved) emphasis of IQ, we should therefore put the ZPD in its place, since it is a dynamic (relational) assessment and not a standardized test (Din, 2017).

What’s class got to do with it?

Since children acquire knowledge and beliefs based on their class background (what they are exposed to in their daily lives as they grow), then it follows that children will be differentially prepared for taking certain kinds of tests. So if the content on the tests is biased toward a group, then it is biased against a group. It is biased against a group since they are not exposed to the relevant material and kinds of thinking needed to be able to perform the test in a sufficient manner. Knowing what we now know about the acquisition of cultural and psychological tools, we can state that “high IQ may simply be an accident of immersion in middle-class cultural tools (aspects of literacy, numeracy, cultural knowledge, and so on) … the environment is made up of socially structured devices and cultural tools, and in which development consists of the acquisition of such cultural tools” (Richardson: 1998: 163-164). It is due to these considerations that culture-fair IQ tests are an impossibility, since people are encompassed in different cultures (what amount to learning environments where they acquire knowledge and cultural and psychological tools) are therefore an impossibility since abilities are cultural devices—culture-free tests are therefore an illusion (Cole, 2002; Richardson, 2002).

So if there are different cultural groups, then they by definition have different cultures. If they have different cultures, then they have different experiences (of course), and so, they acquire different kinds of knowledge and along with it cultural and psychological tools. It is then we can then rightly state that therefore different cultural groups would then be differentially prepared for doing certain tasks. And so, if one’s culture is more dominant and if one culture’s way of thinking is more prevalent, then it follows that people will be prepared for a certain test at different stages of being able to perform the tasks or answer the questions. Social status, also, isn’t merely just related to material things, it also influences how we think and act (Richardson and Jones, 2019) and so emotional and motivational—affective—factors would therefore play a role in one’s test score, since they are constructed from a narrow range of test items, constructed to get the results that were a priori to the test constructors. So since one’s class is related to affective factors, since IQ tests reflect mere class-specific items, it follows that the “affective state is one of the most important aspects of learning” (Shelton-Strong and Maynard, 2018). It is then, by using the concepts of cultural and psychological tools (which occur in social relations) that we can then rightly state that IQ tests are best looked at as mere class surrogates.


Basically, “in order to understand the individual, one must first understand the social relations in which the individual exists” (Wertsch, 1985: 63). Vygotsky’s theory is one in which the mind is formed and constructed through social and cultural interactions with those who are already immersed in the culture that the individual’s mind is developing in. And so, by using the concepts of cultural and psychological tools, we can then see how and why different classes are differentially prepared for taking tests, which is then reflected in the score outcomes. Since growing individuals learn what they are exposed to and they learn from those who are already immersed in the culture at large, then it follows that individuals learn culturally-specific forms of learning and thusly acquire different “tool sets” in which they then navigate the social world they are in. The concepts of private speech, cultural and psychological tools, MKO, scaffolding and the ZPD all coalesce to a theory of learning and development in which the learner is an active participant in their development, and so, these things also combine to show how and why groups score differently on IQ tests.

Knowledge is the content of thought, and the ability to speak is how we convey thoughts to others and how we actualize the thoughts we have into action. Thus all higher human cognitive functioning is social in nature (van der Veer, 2009). Though it is wrongly claimed that IQ is shown to be a measure of learning potential, it is rightly said that the ZPD is social in nature (Khalid, 2015). IQ doesn’t show one’s learning potential, it merely shows what one was or was not exposed to in regard to the relevant test items (Lavin and Nakano, 2017). Culture is a fluid and dynamic experience (Rublik, 2017) in which one is engrossed in the culture they are born into, and so, by understanding this, we can then understand why different groups of people score differently on IQ tests, without the need for genes or biological processes.

Though there have been good criticisms of Vygotsky’s socio-historical theory of learning and development. Though much of Vygotsky’s theorizing has led to predictions and do have some empirical support (Morin, 2012). One argument against the ZPD is that it doesn’t explain development or how it really occurs. If you think about development from a Vygotskian perspective, we see that it is as much of a cultural and social activity than is mere individual learning. By learning from people more knowledgeable than themselves, they are then able to learn how to do something, and through repetition, able to do it on their own without the MKO.

The fact of the matter is, IQ tests aren’t as good as either teacher assessment (Kaufman, 2019) or the ZPD in predicting where a learner will end up. It is for these reasons (and more) we should stop using IQ tests and we should us the relational ZPD. (One can also look at the ZPD as related to considerations from relational developmental systems theory as well; Lerner, 2011, 2013; Lerner, Johnson, and Buckingham, 2015; Ettekal et al, 2017; Bell, 2019). It is for these reasons that standardized tests should not be used anymore, and we should use tests of dynamic assessment. The empirical research on the issue bears out this claim.


1 Comment

  1. “we should use tests of dynamic assessment.”

    What is that?


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