Vygotsky – more than just 5 words

For those involved in education, when you hear the name Vygotsky, 5 words inevitably spring to mind: The Zone of Proximal Development. It is indeed a rather famous theory, famous enough to be granted a slot alongside Watson, Skinner and a handful of other scientists in undergraduate psychology and education courses and books. But quite often the theory is usually superficially investigated, omitting any of its context to Russian society at the time and to Vygotsky’s other psychological concepts, but perhaps more concerningly, with little challenge to the theory’s now synonymous appropriation by constructivist pedagogy. The adulteration of the theory to vindicate a discovery style approach to not just expert learners but also novice learners leads to its understandable avoidance by evidence informed educators. This is unfortunate, as the theory has important and useful applications for modern education.  

Vygotsky, a secular Jewish man in Tsarist, Lenin and finally Stalin led Russia, lived through a wave of political upheaval that ended where it began, in the explicit thwarting of someone with an intellectual proclivity to challenge the status quo. The ostensible new freedoms for a Jewish academic resulting from the October Revolution certainly facilitated a prolific writing period for Vygotsky, most of which remained unknown to the West until long after his premature death to tuberculosis at the age of 36. His latter writings most certainly had its critics, most of whom used ad hominin to discredit his hypotheses, questioning his loyalty to the philosophies of the ever increasingly totalitarian socialist state, but Vygotsky maintained his integrity, and his drive to what could be considered a crusade to not only advance the study of psychology, but also to satisfy the core Marxist notion of social equality, and in particular, equality in the field of education.

Vygotsky’s early life was filled with culture. His mother, a teacher, immersed the family in theatre and books, and obviously instilled in him a lifelong love of art. His Master’s thesis was on Hamlet, in which he argued that the reader is the creator of the meaning of the text, that any interpretation is totally subjective. His paper, written at the age of 19, and including some 175 pages, only used references to other critics’ views on Shakespeare in the footnotes, the entirety of the work his own viewpoint. In completing his doctorate, art remained the central focus, but the mood had shifted from the structuralist bent philosophy to discussion on the deliberate arrangement of media within the art to produce meaning and emotion. It is this notion that the tools with which the media is presented are in fact central to shaping personal meaning that became a continuous focus for Vygotsky in the remainder of his years.

Vygotsky (who changed his name from Vygodsky) was initially inspired by theories of Darwin, Pavlov and Marx, concurring that human evolution is at the mercy of classical conditioning and that innate reflexes used in combination with environmental stimuli are the makings of a human. What the environment should consist of is where Marx comes into the picture. Over time however, he matured as a researcher and distanced himself from Pavlov in particular, his focus shifting to a cultural-historical theory of learning.

Of interest is Vygotsky’s insistence, at a time when the Russian revolution advocated otherwise, that schools should remain open, that learning was not just in the domain of practical considerations and labour, but was in fact an opportunity for students to learn and acquire knowledge beyond their biologically primary conditions. Schools exist to influence ‘man as a social type as opposed to a biological type’ (Vygotsky 1930), a sentiment remarkably similar to Geary’s distinction between biologically primary and secondary knowledge. Lots of this thinking was influenced by 2 factors: Russian adoption of IQ testing to determine the value of its citizens and Vygotsky’s work with deaf and blind students.

Vygotsky’s hypothesis was that ‘higher mental processes, (or IQ) was not universal, static or immutable, but that its structure changed according to the mode of social life and the presence or absence of mediating systems such as writing or syllogistic modes of reasoning’. He had the perfect environment to test this hypothesis with the radical changes happening to Soviet Central Asia and the socialist restructuring of the economy. His studies of perception, reasoning, abstraction, problem solving and self-analysis in illiterate Uzbekistani women isolated from social life sue to Islamic customs, Uzbekistani illiterate men, political activists with little schooling and subjects with more advanced schooling confirmed his theory. He argued that through constant enculturation younger humans evolve their mental processes, that their elementary processes are superseded by cultural ones. He concluded the same result by working with the blind and deaf. It is the inaccessibility to the mediating tools of the culture, speech and reading, that is the ultimate barrier for such students, and as a pioneer in SEND education, that removing them from mainstream education would further exacerbate their sense of exclusion.

A child’s actual mental development will depend in part on natural abilities but pertinently on the interaction with the social tools the society has on offer. He regarded speech as the most important of these tools, and argues that human development is inextricably tied to its mastery. It is this mastery that forms the higher processes of the brain, and as a result of being shaped by the surrounding culture, logically assumes that the brain develops in a dynamic way. It is such an organization of the brain that facilitates the elaborative functionality it possesses. Whilst Vygotsky’s theory here is reasonably crude in its positioning, it is certainly heading towards Bartlett’s enormously influential schema theory.

Vygotsky was interested in how this process unfolded, and arrived at the conclusion that, like Piaget, we go through stages in acquiring or aspiring towards self-regulation. ‘The mother draws attention to something. The child follows the instructions and pays attention to what she points out. Here we always have 2 separate functions. Then the child begins to direct his attention himself, plays the role of mother vis-à-vis himself. He develops a complex system of functions that were originally shared. One person orders, the other carries out. Man orders and obeys himself.’ (Vygotsky, L. S. (1930/1997)). But different to Piaget, it is not maturation that determines the success of the development, rather it is access to cultural tools. It is access to an adult who can introduce the necessary thinking processes that ultimately drives learning.

Vygotsky was fascinated by self-talk, what he called ‘egocentric speech’, and saw it as a means for the developing learner to begin the process of internalising thinking. When presented with a problem, he noticed young children will often talk themselves through the steps to tackle it, the child mimicking the learnt verbal directions, partly to help isolate the mind from unnecessary cognitive overload, but also as an intermediate stage between the social, interactive speech of adult-child conversations and the ‘underground’ stage of genuine private thinking. Its function is to guide the child through a problematic situation, and facilitate internalisation.

‘Ultimately, this viewpoint implies that rational thought originates in the conversations of the child with adults or more capable peers. This whole view of the acquisition of speech implies that all higher mental processes originate in social interaction. As speech is a tool, individual skills can be seen to depend on the acquisition of cultural tools in social interaction. This is the basis of Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory.’ (Van der Veer, 1988). In terms of educational application, a strong driver for Vygotsky, this led to the theory of the zone of proximal development.

The essential premise of the zone of proximal development, a concept only mentioned in 8 published texts, is that when designing learning sequences the instructor should be aware of the prior level of knowledge of the student, that is, their ability to negotiate tasks independently, and how far they can stretch the learning with assistance before the experience becomes cognitively impossible. The ‘zone’ then neatly intimates the ideal of eliminating cognitive overload, and very much ties in with schema theory and the need for existing knowledge to drive the learning of new content – cognitive dissonance resulting when the jump between new learning and what is already known is too vast.

Through Vygotsky, we are compelled to see learning as context dependent, existing knowledge assimilated or accommodated based on experiencing and elaborating on the observed environment. The ability to transfer the acquired reasoning into new contexts is not immediately apparent, as Wason’s experiments demonstrate. This notion, as well as the zone of proximal development, would suggest that unguided instruction for any learner other than expert, where participants are encouraged to autonomously engage in whatever pathway they deem appropriate in order to satisfy a constructivist’s pedagogy, would lead to an inefficient learning context. Vygotsky did advocate that the best method for teaching reading and writing is one in which children do not learn to read and write but in which both skills are found in play situations. …in the same way as children learn to speak, they should be able to learn to read and write’ (Vygotsky 1978, p118), but such a notion would likely have evolved with access to more knowledge and the necessary years in which to acquire it. Such was the genius of the man, but alas, 36 years was not enough.

In the next post, I will discuss the implications of Vygotsky’s theories in relation to peer learning.


Bartlett, F. C. (1932). Remembering: A study in experimental and social psychology. Cambridge University Press.

Van der Veer, R. (1988). Lev Vygotsky. Continuum international publishing group. London

Vygotsky, L. S. (1930/1997). On psychological systems, in R.W. Rieber and J. Wollock, The Collected Works of L .S. Vygotsky, Vol 3. Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology. New York: Plenum Press, p 91-107Hisoteiry


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