Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky (Лев Семенович Выготский) (November 17 [O.S. November 5] 1896 – June 11, 1934) was a Soviet developmental psychologist. A brilliant researcher and theoretician who died young, Vygotsky is known as the "Mozart of psychology." Vygotsky's lifelong goal was to use Marxist methodology to re-formulate psychological theories in accordance with Marxist thinking, and to address social and political issues confronting the new nation as it went from feudalism to socialism. His fundamental insight was that children need social interaction with adults and older children to advance their psychological development. However, his work was rejected in the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin's leadership, and was not released in the West until decades after his death.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, his theories became widely respected and influential within the fields of developmental psychology, education, and child development, advancing human understanding of how best to support the growth and development of children to reach their fullest potential as mature human beings.
Lev Vygotsky was born was born in Orsha, Belarus (then Russian empire), into a well-to-do family of Jewish ancestry, on November 17 (November 5 in the Old Style), 1896. Soon after Lev's birth, his father was appointed department chief of the United Bank of Gomel and the family moved to Gomel, where Vygotsky spent his childhood. Vygotsky's mother had trained to be a teacher, but saw her priority in being at home to provide a stimulating and enriching environment for her eight children. As a child, Vygotsky read the Torah. Vygotsky completed his primary education at home with his mother and a private tutor, and then entered public school for his secondary education. Possessing an exceptional reading speed and memory, he was an excellent student in all subjects at school.
Vygotsky graduated from secondary school with a gold medal at the age of seventeen. He entered the University of Moscow and initially studied medicine, then switched to law. Vygotsky continued his self-directed studies in philosophy. After graduating from the University of Moscow, Vygotsky returned to Gomel to teach literature and philosophy. In Gomel, he married Rosa Smekhova, and they had two daughters. Vygotsky set up a research laboratory at the Teacher's College of Gomel.
In 1924, he made a presentation at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. He discussed and compared methods of reflexological and psychological investigation. Vygotsky's presentation was very well received, and he was offered a position at the Psychological Institute of Moscow. In the same year, he moved to Moscow, to work on a diverse set of projects. During that period, he lived in the basement of the Institute and had the opportunity to read a great quantity of archived materials.
In 1925, Vygotsky finished his dissertation on the psychology of art. Vygotsky instigated special education services in Russia, and re-structured the Psychological Institute of Moscow. An area of a high priority for the Vygotsky was always the psychology of education and remediation, and his lifelong interest in children with learning disabilities led him to form the Laboratory of Psychology for Abnormal Childhood in Moscow. Vygotsky was also being recognized as leading a transformational school of thought, which was turning psychology from a field of activity into a discipline of inquiry. His philosophical analysis of the foundations of psychology in his work, The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, saw his reputation further enhanced.
Unfortunately, Vygotsky contracted tuberculosis from his younger brother, whom he was caring for, and died in 1934, at the age of thirty-eight. He wrote over 180 papers, some of which were published fifty years after his death.
Vygotsky's scientific investigations can be divided into three essential areas that are interrelated and interconnected:
Vygotsky's theoretical perspective can be understood best in terms of three general themes that run throughout his writing:
According to Vygotsky, children learn by internalizing the results of interactions with adults. The first important concept he developed is the "zone of proximal development."
The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) refers to the gap or difference between a child's existing abilities and what he or she can learn under the guidance of an adult or a more capable peer. The proximal (meaning nearby) zone is, thus, the gap between what children are already able to do and what they are not quite ready to accomplish by themselves. Vygotsky suggested that interactive learning with adults is most effective in helping children cross this zone.
In this passage, Vygotsky describes ZPD:
Most of the psychological investigations concerned with school learning measured the level of mental development of the child by making him solve certain standardized problems. The problems he was able to solve by himself were supposed to indicate the level of his mental development at the particular time … We tried a different approach. Having found that the mental age of two children was, let us say eight, we gave each of them harder problems than he could manage on his own and provided slight assistance … We discovered that one child could, in cooperation, solve problems designed for twelve year olds, while the other could not go beyond problems intended for nine year olds. The discrepancy between a child's mental age [indicated by the static test] and the level—he reaches in solving problems with assistance—is the zone of his proximal development (Vygotsky, 1986, p.186-7).
According to Vygotsky, adults and more advanced peers must help direct and organize a child's learning before the child can master and internalize it. Responsibility for directing and monitoring learning shifts to the child—much as, when an adult teaches a child to float, the adult first supports the child in the water and then lets go gradually as the child's body relaxes into a horizontal position.
The zone of proximal development uses two levels to gauge a child's ability and potential. A child's "actual development level" is when he or she can work unaided on a task or problem. This sets a baseline for the child's knowledge, and is traditionally what is assessed and valued in schools. The "potential development level" is the level of competence a child can reach when he or she is guided and supported by another person. This idea of a significant adult—guiding a child through the ZPD—is known as "scaffolding."
By saying "to scaffold," Lev Vygotsky meant to structure participation in learning encounters in order to foster a child's emerging capabilities. Scaffolds can be provided in a few ways: By a mentor, by the objects or experiences of a certain culture, or by a child's past learning. Vygotsky wrote that the only good instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it. It must be aimed not so much at the matured, as at the maturation, functions. It remains necessary to determine the lowest threshold at which instruction may begin, since a certain maturity of functions is required. But the upper threshold as well must be considered as well: Instruction must be oriented toward the future, not the past.
According to Vygotsky and his adherents, the intellectual development of children is a function of human communities rather than of individuals.
Lesser known, but a direct correlate to the ZPD and of utmost importance to Vygotsky, was his concept of play. Vygotsky saw play as a moment where social rules were put into practice—a horse would behave as horse even though it was a stick. These types of rules always guide a child's play. Vygotsky even once described two sisters at dinner "playing" at being sisters at dinner. Vygotsky believed that play contained all developmental levels in a condensed form. Therefore, to Vygotsky, play was akin to imagination where a child extends him or herself to the next level of his or her normal behavior, thereby creating a zone of proximal development. In essence, Vygotsky believed "play is the source of development." The psychology of play was later developed by Vygotsky's student, Daniil El'konin.
Vygotsky's model has been termed the "sociocultural approach." For him, a child's development is a direct result of his or her culture. For Vygotsky, development applied primarily to mental development, such as thought, language, reasoning processes, and mental functions. However, Vygotsky observed that these abilities developed through social interactions with significant people in the child's life, particularly parents, but also other adults. Through these interactions, a child came to learn the habits and mind of his or her culture, namely speech patterns, written language, and other symbolic knowledge that affected a child's construction of his or her knowledge. The specific knowledge gained by a child through these interactions also represented the shared knowledge of a culture. This process is referred to as "internalization."
Vygotsky described human cognitive development as a "collaborative process," which means that the learning process of individuals takes place through social interactions. Children acquire cognitive skills as part of their induction into a way of life. Shared activities help them internalize their society's modes of thinking and behaving. Moreover, social interaction not only helps children remember, it may even be the key to memory formation. In addition to these ideas, Vygotsky also forwarded the notion that culture and community play decisive roles in early development.
Another important contribution Vygotsky made concerns the inter-relationship of language development and thought. This concept, explored in Vygotsky's book, Thought and Language, establishes the explicit and profound connection between speech, (both silent inner speech and oral language) and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness (meta-cognition). It is through inner speech and oral language Vygotsky argued, that thoughts and mental constructs (a child's intellectual being) are formed. A child's conscious awareness of these and their being impressed upon the human psyche provide an underlying theoretical rationale for such truisms as:
In the Soviet Union, the ideas of Vygotsky were developed largely under the banner of "activity theory," that was introduced and systematically developed by Vygotsky's students and colleagues, such as Alexei Leont'ev, Pyotr Zinchenko, Daniil El'konin, and others.
In the West, most of the attention in developmental psychology was aimed at the continuing work of Vygotsky's Western contemporary, Jean Piaget. Some early, albeit indirect, influence on the growing cognitive science community in the United States was already apparent in the late 1950s and early 1960s, through the work of Vygotsky's student and collaborator, Alexander Luria, which was read by such early pioneers of cognitive science as Jerome S. Bruner. However, Vygotsky's work appeared virtually unknown until its "rediscovery" in the 1960s, when the interpretative translation of Thought and Language (1934) was published in English (in 1962; translated by A. Kozulin and, as Thinking and Speech, in 1987, translated by N. Minick). At the end of the 1970s, a truly ground-breaking publication was the major compilation of Vygotsky's works that saw the light in 1978, under the header of Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. The editors (Robert Rieber, et al.) of Vygotsky's collected works wrote:
More than seven decades after his death, the visionary work of Vygotsky continues to have a profound impact on psychology, sociology, education, and other varied disciplines. Russian therapist, scholar, and cultural theorist developed works in various fields: The cultural-historical approach, The role of language in creating the mind, The development of memory and perception, Defectology (abnormal psychology/learning disabilities/special education), The Zone of Proximal Development. Each section features an insightful introduction exploring relevant aspects of Vygotsky's life and illuminating the revolutionary historical context in which these writings were conceived. Together, they reflect the studies he was conducting at the time of his death and the pathbreaking clinical observations that made his reputation. Today's readers of Vygotsky are impressed and inspired by his insights, his optimism, his prescience, and his humanity. Vygotsky's papers are relevant for students of developmental psychology, language, special education, and the history of these fields.
By the 1980s, Vygotsky's work became well known in the United States in part as a result of the opening of the Soviet Union due to glasnost. Vygotsky's work became extremely influential because it offered a way of reconciling the competing notions of maturation, by which a child is seen as an unfolding flower best left to develop on his or her own, and environmentalism, in which a child is seen as a "blank slate" onto which must be poured knowledge.
Vygotsky's ideas have important implications for education and psychological testing. Tests that focus on a child's potential for learning provide a valuable alternative to standard intelligence tests that assess what the child has already learned. Many children may benefit from the sort of expert guidance Vygotsky prescribes. "Dynamic Tests" based on Vygotsky's ideas and theories emphasize potential rather than present achievement. In contrast with traditional "static" tests that measure a child's current abilities, these tests seek to capture the dynamic nature of intelligence by measuring learning processes directly rather than through the products of past learning. Dynamic tests contain items up to two years above a child's current level of competence. Examiners help the child when necessary by asking leading and orienting questions, giving examples or demonstrations, and offering feedback; thus, the test itself is a learning situation.
Vygotsky's concept of "scaffolding" has been further developed by psychologists such as Jerome S. Bruner, in his theories of cognitive development and education. Developmental psychologists who have observed how parents scaffold their child's emergent capabilities have identified a number of steps that contribute to effective scaffolding. They emphasize that adults cannot simply build it alone. They must construct it together with the child and help the child through it (Bruner, 1982). These steps consist of the following:
Works of Vygotsky are also studied today by linguists regarding language and its influence on the formation of the perception of reality. His work has also been influential on second language acquisition theory.
Lev Vygotsky was the "Man of his Era." He used to call himself the Son of the Silver Age. Certainly, his work revealed exceptional analytical ability and foresight. However, he was an enthusiastic supporter of the October Revolution in Russia, in 1917, which both influenced his theoretical approach, and led to his demise in the Soviet Union. Most of his early papers were filled with citations from Leon Trotsky. In the 1930s, when Stalinist dogmatic slogans became more influential, and Trotsky was banned as an ideological enemy to socialism, Vygotsky’s situation became politically unfavorable, even unbearable. His colleagues and students were afraid to defend him in his endeavors to use a Marxist approach, that is, Trotsky's approach, in addressing social and political problems. Thus, although Vygotsky strongly supported the Russian revolution, believing that socialism would bring about a classless society which would eliminate social conflict and the exploitation of the Russian people, his work was stifled and, finally, banned for twenty years in his native Russia. Additionally, due to the Cold War, Vygotsky's work was not made available in the West until many decades after his untimely death. Thus, Vygotsky, brilliant pioneer and excellent speaker who enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of public debate, was relegated to obscurity in his lifetime. Nevertheless, his work was finally discovered and has become respected worldwide. His brilliance, together with his unfortunately short life, led British philosopher and historian of science, Stephen Toulmin, to refer to Vygotsky as the "Mozart of Psychology" (Toulmin, 1978).
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