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Cognitive Development Beyond Piaget

5. Vygotsky: Elementary and Higher Mental Functions

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In this module, we introduce the cognitive theory of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian psychologist and contemporary of Jean Piaget’s. We begin by noting that while the two researchers’ theories are frequently contrasted, there are also many similarities between the two, e.g. the notion that development occurs in distinct stages and proceeds through moments of crisis. We then take a closer look at an important marker of difference in Vygotsky’s theory: the suggestion that social interaction – learning from a more knowledgeable other – lies at the heart of a child’s cognitive development. We distinguish between ‘elementary mental functions’ (e.g. perception) which Vygotsky describes as universal and innate and ‘higher mental functions’ (e.g. problem solving) which involve the mediation of culturally determined symbolic systems (such as language) and discuss how a child can acquire the latter, more complex cognitive skills through social interaction.


In this course, Dr Richard O’Connor (University of Hull) discusses different ideas within the field of cognitive development that go beyond the work of Jean Piaget. In module one, we introduce the violation-of-expectation looking time method as a research method which has revolutionised our understanding of infant cognition since the 1980s. We then look at a classic violation-of-expectation study by Baillargeon et al. (1985) in module two, before moving on to an evaluation of this research method in module three. Module four introduces an alternative set of ideas to Piaget’s theory of cognitive development which focuses on the role of social interactions and culture. The final two modules look at the socio-cultural theory of cognitive development proposed by Piaget’s contemporary Lev Vygotsky, focusing on the distinction between ‘elementary’ and ‘higher’ mental functions in module five and key concepts such as the ‘zone of proximal development’ in module six.


Dr Richard O'Connor is a cognitive developmental psychologist with research interests in cognition from infancy through to adulthood.

Particular areas of interest include theory of mind, representation of objects and actions, and word learning.

Dr O'Connor joined the University of Hull in August 2016, after completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge and teaching positions at Royal Holloway and the University of Oxford.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

O'Connor, R. (2019, December 16). Cognitive Development Beyond Piaget - Vygotsky: Elementary and Higher Mental Functions [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

O'Connor, Richard. "Cognitive Development Beyond Piaget – Vygotsky: Elementary and Higher Mental Functions." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 16 Dec 2019,

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