Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was born in Western Russia (Beloruss) in 1896. He graduated with law degree at Moscow University. After graduation, he started teaching at various institutions. Vygotsky’s first big research project was in 1925 with his Psychology of Art. A few years later, he pursued a career as a psychologist working with Alexander Luria and Alexei Leontiev. Together, they began the Vygotskian approach to psychology. Vygotsky had no formal training in psychology but it showed that he was fascinated by it. After his death of tuberculosis in 1934 his ideas were repudiated by the government, however, his ideas were kept alive by his students. Through his lifetime, he completed over 180 works, some of which were not published until after his death.
The culture in Russia during Vygotsky’s most productive years was a fertile ground for new ideas. After the Russian revolution of 1917, the Russian population was focused on creating a new society based on Marxist ideals. Everyone was committed to making sure this new society would survive. Since Vygotsky supported socialism and worked its foundations into his own research and writing, he received much support from his audience and the community at large.
Vygotsky first publicly introduced himself into the domain of psychology in 1924 with his presentation, “Methods of Reflexological and Psychological Investigations,” at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. It was an impressive intellectual accomplishment and while not everyone there agreed with his ideas, they all realized he was an important new voice in psychology.
Through his most productive years, Vygotsky worked mostly in Moscow, writing, lecturing, and researching. He was very popular and looked up to by many in the domain. Students occasionally listened to his lectures from open windows because the lecture halls where he spoke were so packed. Even today, Vygotskian principles are the basis for much research in psychology. Vygotsky faced very little criticism during his lifetime. He was considered to be a creative genius and found much support for his work. Based on his personality and supportive community of peers, we can deduce that if Vygotsky had encountered significant criticism while he was alive that he would have dealt with it quite well and continued his work in spite of it.
When the Cold War ended, Vygotsky’s works were revealed. Vygotsky has written several articles and books on the subject of his theories and psychology, including Thought and Language (1934). His research in how children solve their problems that surpassed their level of development led Vygotsky to create the Zone of Proximal Development theory. That is one reason why Vygotsky’s developmental psychology has influenced education profoundly in Russia.
The major theme of Vygotsky’s theoretical framework is that social interaction plays a fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygotsky (1978) states: „Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.“ (p. 57).
A second aspect of Vygotsky’s theory is the idea that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time, which he calls the „zone of proximal development“ (ZPD). Furthermore, full development during the ZPD depends upon full social interaction. The range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone.
The element in the socio-cultural theory is the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Vygotsky believed that any pedagogy creates learning processes that lead to development and this sequence results in zones of proximal development. It’s the concept that a child accomplishes a task that he/she cannot do alone, with the help from a more skilled person. Vygotsky also described the ZPD as the difference between the actual development level as determined by individual problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or collaboration with more knowledgeable peers. The result of this process is children become more socialized in the dominant culture and it induces cognitive development (Moll, 1994).
In order for the ZPD to be such a success, it must contain two features. The first is called subjectivity. This term describes the process of two individuals begin a task with different understanding and eventually arrive at a shared understanding. The second feature is scaffolding, which refers to a change in the social support over the course of a teaching session. If scaffolding is successful, a child’s mastery level of performance can change, which means that it can increase a child’s performance on a particular task.
A child’s actual developmental level indicates a child’s level of mental development at a particular time. It indicates the functions that have already matured in the child. A child’s ZPD defines those functions that have not matured yet, but that are in the process of maturing and developing. A child’s ZPD permits us to outline the child’s immediate future and his overall dynamic state of
development. „Experience has shown that the child with the larger zone of proximal development will do much better in school.“ (Hanfmann, 1962) Ex. Taken from Lefrancois (1994).Take, for example, two five-year-old children, who can both, under normal circumstances, answer questions that other average five-year-olds can also answer. Their mental ages might be said to correspond to their chronological ages, and their intelligence would be described as average. But if, when prompted, one of these children could successfully answer questions corresponding to a mental age of but the other could not, it would be accurate to say that the first child’s zone of proximal growth is greater than the other’s (that is, it spans a wider range of higher functions).The zone of proximal development has implications for assessment, especially concerning children with learning and behaviour problems. In the book, Scaffolding Children’s Learning, Berk and Winsler discuss Vygotsky’s dissatisfaction with the ability and achievement tests as valid measures of children’s capacity to learn. Two children can differ substantially in the ZPD’s. One child may do his/her best on their own, while the other needs some assistance. Therefore, the ZPD is crucial for identifying each child’s readiness to benefit from instruction.
An interesting analogy of zone of proximal development: in mechanics, when you adjust the timing of an engine, you set it slightly ahead of the highest compression moment in order to maximize power and performance.
Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development has many implications for those in the educational milieu. One of them is the idea that human learning presupposes a specific social nature and is part of a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them (Vygotsky, 1978). According to Vygotsky (1978), an essential feature of learning is that it awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is in the action of interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers.
Therefore, when it comes to language learning, the authenticity of the environment and the affinity between its participants are essential elements to make the learner feel part of this environment. These elements are rarely predominant in conventional classrooms.
Vygotsky’s theory is complementary to the work of Bandura on social learning and a key component of situated learning theory. Because Vygotsky’s focus was on cognitive development, it is interesting to compare his views with those of Bruner and Piaget.
Comparison of Vygotsky and Piaget: Vygotsky’s ideas and theories are often compared to Jean Piaget, especially his cognitive- developmental theory. They had a conflict explaining that development concepts should not be taught until children are in the appropriate developmental stage. Opposing Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, Piaget believed that the most important source of cognition is the children themselves. But Vygotsky argued that the social environment could help the child’s cognitive development. The social environment is an important factor, which helps the child culturally adapt to new situations when needed. Both Vygotsky and Piaget had the common goal of finding out how children master ideas and then translate them into speech.
Piaget found that children act independently on the physical world to discover what it has to offer. Vygotsky, on the other hand, wrote in Thought and Language that human mental activity is the result of social learning. As children master tasks they will engage in cooperative dialogues with others, which led Vygotsky to believe that acquisition of language is the most influential moment in a child’s life.
In conclusion, Piaget emphasized universal cognitive change and Vygotsky’s theory leads us to expect highly variable development, depending on the child’s cultural experiences to the environment. Piaget’s theory emphasized the natural line, while Vygotsky favoured the cultural line of development.
In the introduction to Vygotsky’s Thought and Language, Jerome Bruner (1962) described Vygotsky’s view of the role of semiotic mediation:
He believed that in mastering nature we master ourselves. For it is the internalization of overt action that makes thought, and particularly the internalization of external dialogue that brings the powerful tool of language to bear on the stream of thought. Man, if you will, is shaped by the tools and instruments that he comes to use, and neither the mind nor the hand alone can amount to much….And if neither hand nor intellect alone prevails, the tools and aids that do are the developing streams of internalized language and conceptual thought that sometimes run parallel and sometimes merge, each affecting the other. (p. vii)
Indicating how might be adapt portions of various widely-recognized educational theorists into a practical framework:
Educational Theorist Some concept(s) from this theorist: Adaptation or practical usage of this concept:
Jean Piaget Piaget believed that all children go through four stages of cognitive development. This idea is built on several assumptions including the need to respect neurological and psychological development, that learning takes place by assimilation and by progressive integration. Piaget’s theories underground is the objectivist insistence on the need to teach systematically and by
the right aspects of knowledge at the right time. To the extent that Piaget is right is the extent to which directed methods must be the skeletal framework of instruction, with constructionist methods the blood and flesh.
Lev Vygotsky He emphasized the intimate connection of cognitive and social development. His concept of „scaffolding“ is built upon this connection. Great emphasis is placed on individual growth and individual differences. This need to assess the developmental stage of each individual student and to work with them where they are for maximization of their potential, the essence of Vygotsky, is a constant goal of mine, ultimately unreachable, but a goal nonetheless. This concept was taboo in Russia because it strikes against the assumptions of totalitarian collectivist philosophy.
Principles of Vygotsky’s theory(s):
• Cognitive development is limited to a certain range at any given age.
• Full cognitive development requires social interaction.
The zone of proximal development includes all the functions and activities that a child or learner can perform only with the assistance of someone else. The person who intervenes in this scaffolding process could be an adult (parent, teacher, caretaker, language instructor) or a peer who has already mastered that particular function.
The theory of a zone of proximal development supports a theory of teaching that is in advance of development. The curriculum should consider the basic principles of Vygotsky’s theory:
• Cognitive development is limited to a certain range at any given age (the area of current development surrounded by another area of future development = ZPD),
• Full cognitive development requires social interaction, mediation.
Because teaching is effective when it is based on the next stage of the child’s development rather than on the current stage of development; inferentially, the instructor must be knowledgeable about child development. The instructor must also provide educational materials and content, which go beyond the child’s current capabilities. The teacher’s role is not that of simplifying the content, but of providing unfamiliar content and the setting for learners to step from their current level to a higher level of understanding.
Scientific concepts, or schooled concepts, are learned „downward“ through written symbols to examples, where spontaneous concepts, are learned „upward“ from sensory experiences to generalization. Vygotsky observed that children become conscious of spontaneous concepts late. They know the concept but are not aware of the act of their thought. Schooling should interface spontaneous and schooled concepts to ensure the highest understanding.
Learning involves everyday conflict-generating problem solving. Inferentially, instruction should provide opportunities for resolving dilemmas.
In the ZPD, a teacher and learner work together on tasks that the learner could not perform independently because of the difficulty level. The ZPD captures the Marxist idea of collective activity, in which those who know more or are more skilled share the knowledge and skill with those who know less to accomplish a task. Cognitive change occurs in the ZPD as teacher and learner share cultural tools and it is this culturally mediated interaction that produces cognitive change when it is internalized in the learner.
Instructional scaffolding could refer to the same processes that should occur in the zone of proximal development during instruction. In a learning situation, a teacher or tutor initially might do most of the work, after which the teacher and the learner share responsibility. As learners become more competent, the teacher gradually withdraws the scaffolding so learners can perform independently. The key is to ensure that the scaffolding keeps learners in the ZPD, which is altered as they develop capabilities.
Vygotskian principles in the classroom:
• Learning and development is a social and collaborative activity that cannot be „taught“ to anyone. It is up to the student to construct his or her own understanding in his or her own mind. It is during this process that the teacher acts as a facilitator.
• The zone of proximal development can be used to design appropriate situations during which the student can be provided the appropriate support for optimal learning.
• When providing appropriate situations, one must take into consideration that learning should take place in meaningful contexts, preferably the context in which the knowledge is to be applied.
• Out of school experiences should be related to school experiences. Pictures, news clips, and personal stories incorporated into classroom activities provides the students with a since of oneness between their community and learning.
A theoretical background about learning:
• Learning appears to be a complex matter. No doubt that this is the reason why all the various branches of learning theory do not even view the problem from a same angle.
• Learning must take place within optional external „conditioning“ (behaviourism)
• Learning is related to active problem solving and involves integration, construction and compilation of new content (cognitivism)
• Learning is a personal interpretation of the world. (constractivism)
• Learning is an active process of understanding, based on experiences. (constractivism)
• Learning is collaborative with meaning negotiated from multiple
Piaget’s developmental theory of learning and thinking is that both involve the participation of the learner. He emphasises that children cannot learn something until maturation gives them certain prerequisites. Intellectual growth involves three fundamental processes: assimilation (incorporation of the new events into pre-existing cognitive structures), accommodation (existing structures change to accommodate to the new information), and equilibration (balance between assimilation and accommodation).
Bruner asserts that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current/past knowledge. The learner selects and transforms information, constructs hypotheses, and makes decisions, relying on a cognitive structure to do so.
A more advanced level of cognitive development (referred to by Vygotsky as the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’) can occur when learners interact rather than learn alone. He also concerns the vital role, which culture and social content have in learning.
Gardner suggested seven intelligences: kinaesthetic, visual, mathematical, musical, linguistic, interpersonal and intrapersonal. Each person has access to these intelligences but some are likely to be more developed in one person than another.
All these different approaches towards learning show how important role we give to the way the children learn and which are the best ways for the students to achieve a better performance at school. According to the above aspects, learning needs to be understood as an active process. The idea of an active process refers to students new models of understanding through conceptualisation, discussion and reflection.
Another area of application is reciprocal teaching. It involves an interactive dialogue between a teacher and small group of students. Initially the teacher models the activities, after which teacher and students take turns being the teacher. Thus, if students are learning to ask questions during reading comprehension, the instructional sequence might include the teacher modeling a question-asking strategy to include checking on his or her own level of understanding. From a Vygotskian perspective, reciprocal teaching stresses social interaction and scaffolding as students gradually develop skills.
When peer work together in cooperative tasks, the shared social interactions can be used in instructional fashion. Research shows that cooperative groups are most effective when students each have assigned responsibilities and all must attain competence before any are allowed to progress. This peer collaboration attests the recognized impact of the social environment during learning.
In apprenticeships, novices work closely experts in joint work-related activities. Apprentices operate within a ZPD since they often shared understandings. Thus, apprenticeships represent a type of dialectical constructivism that depends heavily on social interactions.
One of the major theoretical advances of Vygotsky’s approach to cognitive development was his thesis that human mental functions were social in origins. In making this claim, Vygotsky was confronted with the difficulty to reconciliate it with the existing fact that newborn infants already possess certain mental functions. Vygotsky’s answer to the problem was the introduction of an important distinction between lower mental functions (LMF’s) and higher mental functions (HMF’s) (Vygotsky, 1983).
The relationships between the two: in Vygotsky’s theory was not strictly determined. In some cases LMF can be a prerequisite for the development of an appropriate HMF (i.e., unmediated memory can be developed in mediated and voluntarily controlled memory), in other cases HMF’s exist in the intersubjective form and are merely learned by the child in the process of education and shared activities (i.e., writing or reading skills). In both cases Vygotsky applied Hegelian developmental scheme to the development of cognitive skills, according to which any cognitive function goes through three major stages, in which it exists at first ‘in itself’, then ‘for others’ and finally ‘for itself.’
For example, Vygotsky portrayed the development of an indicatory gesture in infancy as a series of stages (Vygotsky, 1983, pp.143-144). In the beginning it is just an unsuccessful grasping movement directed towards a desired object. As such this is not yet an indication, but it can acquire the meaning if interpreted appropriately by the child’s caregivers. At this stage the grasping movement becomes mediated by the social environment and acquires a social meaning ‘help me to get this’ which is quickly absorbed by the child who begins to use it both for the purpose of communication with the caregivers and for achieving his or her practical goals. While doing this, the child can still be unaware of the fact that he or she is exploiting the gesture as a social signal. Still later (our interpretation of Vygotsky’s text) this ‘gesture-for others’ can become a kind of a ‘tool’ by which the child would exercise control over his or her own actions and behaviour, for instance, in order to pinpoint a certain fragment of a picture and concentrate his or her attention on it. This time the child is fully aware that what he or she is doing with his or her forefinger (or whatever may substitute for it) is a special act
to let his or her attention to wander around the picture but to stick to a certain elected point. This is the stage when the indicatory gesture exists ‘for itself’ or, strictly speaking, for the child who utilises it being at the same time fully aware of that.
No wonder that Vygotsky (1982) was strongly opposed to this view. His major objection was theoretically, rather then empirically, based: if infants have an inherent capacity to the constancy of perception, then where are we to find the development? In other words, if the final stage of perceptual development is present from the outset, the concept of development becomes superfluous. Searching for evidence to back his claim Vygotsky addressed Helmgoltz’s early memories from his childhood in which he suggested that orthoscopic perception was not inborn but had to develop through experience. Although Vygotsky himself qualified the Helmgoltz’s report as a shaky evidence he, nevertheless, accepted it as one of the proofs in favour of the assumption of the acquired nature of orthoscopic perception.
So, was Vygotsky wrong in his denial that young infants could possibly possess such complex psychological abilities as, for instance, the capacity to perceive an object as constant in shape or size? The affirmative answer, which seems inevitable, can not, however, be given but with serious reservations.
Firstly, the way the infants’ early capacities are presented and discussed by many authors provokes questions. A characteristic feature of most of recent accounts on the problem is that the infants’ early cognitive skills are portrayed in exactly the same terms as are similar capacities in adults: for instance, the infants are supposed to be able to ‘infer’ that a physical object without a support would fall down rather than hang in the air, they can ‘understand’ that a solid object can not go through another solid object, they are able to ‘appreciate’ object permanence or object constancy, and so on. It is not that the qualitative difference between psychological functions of infants and those of adults is openly denied; rather, it is taken for granted that either these differences do not extend to cover the capacities in question or they are not really important. In a result, the question about what exactly distinguishes, for instance, the 5-months-old infant’s behaviour testifying that the infant can understand object permanence from a similar behaviour of an adult person is very rarely asked, and when it is asked the usual answer is that the difference is nothing but a scope of applicability of the cognitive skill: if an infant can apply the permanence rule to a limited number of cases, an adult person is able to generalize the rule to a much larger number of observable physical events. In other words, a careful reading discovers that the development of cognitive skills is indeed interpreted by many as a quantitative perfection of the early acquired (or genetically transmitted) capacity rather than a series of qualitative changes that the capacity has to go through in order to reach its higher stage. Therefore, despite the fact that the Vygotsky’s answer may have been wrong, his question was correct: indeed, where is (and what is) cognitive development if major psychological capacities in their almost completed form are here in the first few months of life?
Secondly, if we look at the potential content of the Vygotsky’s answer, rather then at it’s literally meaning, we can see that it was rather contradictive. On the one hand, Vygotsky denied the inherent character of the constancy of size on the ground that it was an internally complex psychological quality and hence it must be a socially formed quality. On the other hand, if we look at the criteria that distinguish LMF’s (lower mental functions) from HMF’s (higher mental functions), we won’t find the internal complexity among them. Indeed, as it was already noted, in contrast to LMF’s which are inherent, involuntary, unmediated and isolated one from another, HMF’s are socially created, voluntarily controlled, semiotically mediated and united in systems with other functions. Clearly, there is no claim here from which it would follow that LMF has to lack the internal complexity and perfection which is normally attributed to adults, but not to newborns and young infants.
Taking this into consideration and ignoring Vygotsky’s misleading, although sincere, disbelief in the possibility of inherent and genetically transmitted complex mental function, we can assume that Vygotsky’s distinction between LMF’s and HMF’s still has something to offer to the recent findings in infancy studies. Clearly, the extraordinary capacities of infants that are now being displayed in a growing number of studies, although complex, are still LMF’s and have to go through the route of development (becoming semiotically mediated, voluntarily controlled, and united in systems with other mental functions) that so ingeniously was outlined by Vygotsky.
Vygotsky’s methodological approach
An understanding of Vygotsky’s methodological approach helps to clarify the concept of internalization and to differentiate it from other theoretical perspectives. Vygotsky approached methodological issues on two interrelated levels – the theoretical and the psychological. On the theoretical level he examined complex systems in the process of changes, using dialectical logic to understand the interrelationships between components of
systems. On the psychological level he chose research methods to capture the dynamics of process consistent with his theoretical approach. On both levels his emphasis was on the examination of cognitive change in diverse contexts. „Any psychological process, whether the development of thought or voluntary behavior, is a process undergoing changes right before one’s eyes“ (Vygotsky, 1978, p.61).To capture the processes at play, Vygotsky used the experimental-developmental method in which developmental changes are provoked in laboratory settings. Through intervention, the experimenter is able to record participants’ initial efforts to solve a problem beyond their existing means or strategies. One of the intervention methods was providing auxiliary means through which the problem could be solved. This type of mediated assistance was of theoretical and methodological interest to Vygotsky. In studying memory in complex choice responses, he focused on the developmental changes taking place in the course of one or several sessions during which the learner appropriates new psychological tools.