Vygotsky, Lev (1896–1934)

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VYGOTSKY, LEV (18961934)

Fifty years after his death, Lev Semyonich Vygotsky attracted the attention of Western psychologists and educators for his theory of cognitive development. In contrast to other cognitive perspectives, Vygotsky accorded a central role to culture and social interaction in the development of complex thinking. In addition, he advocated the study of children's unfolding development of cognitive processes, and pioneered a research method to accomplish this purpose. He also contributed ideas to pedology (child study) and defectology (special education) that anticipated current views.

A humanist and intellectual, Vygotsky graduated in 1913 with a gold medal from the private Jewish gymnasium in his native Russian province. Fluent in French and German, he studied philosophy and literature at Shanyavsky People's University while completing a master's degree in law at Moscow University. Returning home in 1917, he taught at various institutes, and began reading widely in psychology and education.

Vygotsky's invitation to join the Institute of Experimental Psychology in Moscow in 1924, his official entry into psychology, was an accident of history. The disappearance of old professional hierarchies in the reorganization of Soviet society and the directive to redesign psychology consistent with Marxist philosophy created an opportunity for new ideas. Thus, Vygotsky joined a discipline for which he had had no formal training.

After completing his doctoral dissertation, "The Psychology of Art," in 1925, Vygotsky pursued his goals of reconstructing psychology as a unified social science and explaining both the origins and development of human consciousness. His rationale for this major task, discussed in his paper "The Crisis in Psychology," foreshadowed the views of modern post-positivist philosophers of science. Specifically, research lacked a unifying theory, and as a result, had produced conflicting or unrelated findings. Vygotsky sought to remedy this problem.

In his brief ten-year career, interrupted by severe bouts of tuberculosis, Vygotsky's demanding schedule included lecturing throughout the U.S.S.R., organizing research projects, and conducting clinical work. His writing, undertaken late at night and during his hospitalizations, was banned in the U.S.S.R. in 1936 for twenty years for "bourgeois thinking." This charge originated from the fact that Vygotsky had incorporated ideas from European and American anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, and zoologists into his work. In his thinking, Vygotsky applied dialectical synthesis in which a perspective (thesis) is negated by an opposing view (antithesis). Their interaction produces a synthesis in the form of a novel development or idea. Vygotsky reviewed and contrasted ideas from a variety of fields, fusing many of them into a qualitatively new explanation of cognitive development (synthesis).

Misinterpretations of Vygotsky's work have occurred because, until the 1990s, only a few fragmented ideas, taken out of context, had been translated into English. Thus, the long-term impact of his thinking is yet to be determined.

Cultural-Historical Theory

Applying dialectical synthesis, Vygotsky noted the Marxist concept of the influence of tool invention on human mental life (thesis) and the anthropological view of the role of culture in human development (antithesis). His resolution was the designation of cultural signs and symbols as psychological tools, which he defined as instruments of cognitive development (synthesis). Their importance is that early humans created signs (simple psychological tools) and initiated progress toward complex thinking in the species (phylogeny). For the individual in society, the task is to appropriate the symbol systems of one's culture to develop the related forms of reasoning (ontogeny).

In other words, the traditional role of signs and symbols, such as human speech, written language, and algebraic and mathematical symbols, is to serve as carriers of both meaning and sociocultural patterns. Vygotsky, however, emphasized a second essential role, that of assisting individuals to master complex cognitive functions that are not fully developed prior to adolescence. Referred to by Vygotsky as complex or higher cognitive functions, these capabilities are voluntary (self-regulated) attention, categorical perception, conceptual thinking, and logical memory.

Of particular importance is that Vygotsky considered higher cognitive functioning, the cultural development of behavior, and the mastery of one's behavior by internal processes as equivalent. That is, the higher cognitive functions, which require self-mastery, develop through a complex dialectical process from given biological functions. The process requires the child's mastery of the external materials of cultural reasoning, which become internal mechanisms of thinking.

Vygotsky's conceptualization anticipated subsequent discussions of the need to develop self-regulated learners who can direct and manage their own learning and thinking. Unlike these perspectives, which have had limited success in teaching specific self-regulatory strategies for particular situations, Vygotsky identified two general requirements for developing self-directed thinking. First, higher cognitive functions emerge only after students develop conscious awareness and some control of their own thought processes. Second, school instruction should focus on developing these broad capabilities, which, in turn, develops self-regulation.

The lengthy process required to develop self-mastery and the higher cognitive functions is illustrated in Vygotsky's identification of the four stages of learning to use symbols for thinking. In developing logical memory, for example, symbol use progresses from preintellectual (child cannot master his or her behavior by organizing selected stimuli) to internalization in which individuals construct self-generated symbols as memory aids.

Essential to cognitive development is the social interaction between the learner and a knowledgeable adult. Development of the higher cognitive functions depends on situations in which the adult commands the learner's attention, focuses his or her perception, or guides the learner's conceptual thinking. Formally stated, any higher cognitive function, such as self-regulated attention, categorical perception, or conceptual thinking, was first external in the form of a social relationship between two people. Then, through the learner's activity, it becomes internalized as an intracognitive function.

Vygotsky's emphasis on the dynamics of development is reflected in his critique of psychological research for studying already developed or fossilized behaviors. Instead, research methods should capture the processes of development. Vygotsky's double-stimulation method placed learners in problem-solving situations that were above their natural capacities. Available nearby were aids, such as colored cards or pictures. Vygotsky and his co-workers studied the ways learners of different ages struggled or successfully used these aids, documenting changes in learner activity and accompanying changes in cognitive functioning.

Education and Cognitive Development

Two influential Vygotskian concepts are the role of inner speech and the zone of proximal development. In contrast to the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, Vygotsky maintained that the child's external self-focused speech during activities did not disappear. Instead, through a dialectical transformation, it became inner speech that guided the child's planning and other emerging thought processes.

Vygotsky's view that learning leads development and the immaturity of students' conscious awareness and mastery of their thinking at school age set the stage for the concept referred to as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Defined as including higher cognitive functions that are about to mature or develop, the ZPD is determined by the cognitive tasks the learner can complete in collaboration with an adult or an advanced peer. Simply stated, the cognitive operations that the student can complete with the assistance of another today, he or she can accomplish alone tomorrow.

Some discussions of classroom practices credit Vygotsky as supporting or advocating peer collaboration in the classroom. However, translations of his writings indicate that he discussed only teacher-student collaboration in the classroom. Higher cognitive functions develop through the teacher's requiring the learner to explain, compare, contrast, and generalize from subject-matter concepts. In this way, students learn to control their attention, to think conceptually, and to develop logical networks of well-developed concepts in long-term memory.

Applying cultural-historical theory to disabilities such as deafness, Vygotsky emphasized that the child's social deprivation is the factor responsible for defective development. For example, he noted that the blindness of a farmer's daughter and that of a duchess are different psychological situations because their social situations differ. To address the difficulties faced by disabled learners, Vygotsky suggested that societies continue developing special psychological tools that can provide the social and cultural interactions essential for cognitive development.

Finally, Vygotsky's intellectual heritage includes his emphasis on child study as the science of child development. Required is the synthesis of knowledge from different disciplines that addresses both the development of novel cognitive functions and the educational needs of children.

See also: Developmental Theory, subentry on Vygotskian Theory; Educational Psychology.


Valsiner, Jean. 1988 Developmental Psychology in the Soviet Union. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Valsiner, Jean, and Van der Veer, RenÉ. 2000. "Vygotsky's World of Concepts." In The Social Mind: Construction of the Idea, ed. Jean Valsiner and René Van der Veer, pp. 323384. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Van der Veer, RenÉ, and Valsiner, Jean. 1991. Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1987. "Problems of General Psychology." The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 1, trans. Norman Minick. New York: Plenum

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1997. The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 4. The History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions (1931), trans. Marie J. Hall. New York: Plenum.

Vygotsky, Lev S. 1998. The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 5. Child Psychology (19281931), trans. Marie J. Hall. New York: Plenum.

Margaret E. Gredler