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  • Writer's pictureTim Djedilbaev

Future Proof Vygotsky: Bridging Cultural-Historical Theory and Cognitive Science

Updated: Apr 18, 2022

Is there a link between information literacy gaps and digital environment? Perhaps, 'digital eco-systems' would be a better word choice for ’environment’ since the latter implies uniformity it doesn't really have. In 2016 I presented my observations in a conference paper entitled The Role of Cognitive Digital Tools in Information Literacy Acquisition.

It was action research; although at that point it felt like an eye-opener, later I realised that for a deeper inquiry I need conceptual knowledge of the cognitive domain, and instruments to measure what I saw. That was the beginning of a journey that brought me where I am. Now, I am back to the problem at the level of a master thesis. My purpose is to gain a better understanding of the cognitive transformations we attribute to the impact of digital eco-systems — through a methodologically sound study. By studying the brain and cognitive functioning at HSE's Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, I am trying to draw a line joining the dots I penciled down as a practitioner. I believe Vygotskian perspective in combination with the paradigms of modern cognitive science is the promising direction here.

Vygotskian cultural-historical framework has been setting trends in cultural and cognitive (developmental) psychology for at least half a century now. For my research project, two concepts are essential: cultural mediation and psychological tools. Mental functions, before they become the property of the internal plane (internalised), are externally induced and mastered through cultural mediation. Understanding mental functions, correspondingly, implies understanding the cultural context the functions are shaped in, and tools they are mediated by. According to Vygotsky, psychological tools are “artificial means aimed at mastering one’s own psychological processes” (1978). A typical set of such tools (“cultural toolkit”, as in Pea and Cole, 2019) includes signs, symbols, texts, formulas, mnemonic devices, and, recently, digital tools.

Presently, digital technologies are replacing social mediation for interaction with digital tools. Right now, there is a sudden break in social transmission traditionally provided by social institutions. I speculate it is this interruption that facilitates digitally mediated transformation of human cognitive functioning further. My project contributes to the research area by bridging this gap: I maintain that the digital transformation of human cognitive functions co-occurs with changes in social mediation brought about by digital tools.

It is remarkable how Vygotsky’s insights anticipated the conclusions being drawn now

Cognitive science in general is now looking for ways out of paradigmatic and conceptual fixation on the evolutionary transition framework based solely on biological/genetic evidence. The role of culture in human evolution is being re-evaluated for “there is strong evidence that culture is a major adaptive force in the evolution” (Waring and Wood, 2021). Based on that evidence scrutinised in a recently published paper, Waring and Wood conclude that “culture is coming to replace genetics as the primary system of human inheritance” (2021). It is remarkable how Vygotsky’s insights anticipated the conclusions being drawn now. My study participates in this discourse building a bridge between the cultural-historical approach and cognitive science “the convergence of which is now emerging on both sides” as Maria Falikman says (News - Faculty of Social Sciences, 2017).

For me, a teaching practitioner, introducing young minds to the science and innovation process is a core responsibility that ensures the progress of society. As information societies increasingly rely on digital technologies for social transmission, I believe a well grounded understanding of cognitive transformations associated with digital transformations provides a better means of professional service.


L i t e r a t u r e

News - Faculty of Social Sciences (2017) Встречайте: новый руководитель департамента психологии Мария Фаликман [Vstrechajte: novyj rukovoditel' departamenta psihologii Marija Falikman]. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M.Cole, V.John-Steiner, S.Scribner and E.Souberman, eds). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Pea, R., & Cole, M. (2019). The living hand of the past: The role of technology in development. Human Development, 62 (1-2), 14-39.

Waring T.M., Wood Z.T. (2021). Long-term gene–culture coevolution and the human evolutionary transition. Proc. R. Soc. B 288: 20210538.

Whitehead H., Laland K.N., Rendell L., Thorogood R., Whiten A. (2019). The reach of gene–culture coevolution in animals. Nat. Commun. 10, 2405.

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