Lev Vygotsky

Heim Upp J. Bruner Lev Vygotsky Reuven Feuerstein



  Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934).

Vygotsky was born in Russia in the same year as Piaget.  Vygotsky was not trained in science but received a law degree from the Moscow University. He went on to study literature and linguistics and became his Ph.D. for a book he wrote on the psychology of art (Vasta,R., Haith, M.M., Miller,S.A., 1995).

To understand Vygotsky´s theory, it is important to look at the political environment of that time.  Vygotsky began to work in psychology shortly after the Russian revolution, where the Marxism replaced the rule of the czar. The new philosophy of the Marxist emphasized socialism and collectivism.  Individuals were expected to sacrifice their personal goals and achievements for the improvement of the larger society.  Sharing and co-operation was encouraged, and the success of any individual was seen as reflecting the success of the culture. Marxists also placed a heavy emphasis on history, believing that any culture could be understood only through examination of the ideas and events that had shaped it (Vasta,R., Haith, M.M., Miller,S.A., 1995).

Vygotsky incorporates these elements in his model of human development that has been termed as a sociocultural approach.  For him, the individual’s development is a result of his or her culture. Development, in Vygotsky´s theory, applies mainly to mental development, such as thought, language and reasoning process.  These abilities were understood to develop through social interactions with others (especially parents) and therefore represented the shared knowledge of the culture.

He states:

Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological).  This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of ideas.  All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals (Vygotsky, 1978, p.57).   

Mental abilities and processes similarly were viewed in terms of the historical sequence of events that produced them.  Whereas Piaget believed that all children’s cognitive process follows a very similar pattern of stages, Vygotsky saw intellectual abilities as being much more specific to the culture in which the child was reared (Vasta,R., Haith, M.M., Miller,S.A., 1995).  Culture makes two sorts of contributions to the child’s intellectual development.  First, children acquire much of their thinking (knowledge) from it.  Second, children acquire the processes or means of their thinking (tools of intellectual adaptation) from the surrounding culture.  Therefore, culture provides the children with the means to, what to think and how to think.

Vygotsky viewed cognitive developments as a result of a dialectical process, where the child learns through shared problem solving experiences with someone else, such as parents, teacher, siblings or a peer.  Originally, the person interacting with the child undertakes most of the responsibility for guiding the problem solving, but gradually this responsibility transfers to the child.  Although these interactions can take many forms, Vygotsky stresses language dialogue.  It is primarily through their speech that adults are assumed to transmit to children the rich body of knowledge that exists in their culture.  As learning processes, the child’s own language comes to help as his or her primary tool of intellectual transformation.  Children can eventually use their own internal speech to direct their own behavior in much the same way that their parents’ speech once directed it.  This transition reflects the Vygotsky´s theme of development as a process of internalization.  Bodies of knowledge and tools of thought at first exist outside the child, in the culture of the environment.  Development consists of gradual internalization, primarily through language, to form cultural adaptation (Rogoff, 1990).

The second aspect of Vygotsky´s theory is the idea that the potential for cognitive development is limited to a certain time span which he calls the “ zone of proximal development”.   ZPD refers to the gap between what a given child can achieve alone, their ´potential development as determined by independent problem solving´, and what they can achieve ‘through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers’ (Wood, D., Wood, H., 1966). 

Vygotsky refers to what children can do on their own as the ‘level of actual development’.  In his view, it is the level of actual development that a standard IQ test measure.  Such a measure is undoubtedly important, but it is also incomplete.  Two children might have the same level of actual development, in the sense of being able to solve the same number of problems on some standardized test.  Given appropriate help from an adult, still, one child might be able to solve an additional dozen problems while the other child might be able to solve only two or three more.  What the child can do with the help is referred to as the ‘level of potential development’ (Vasta, R., Haith, M.M., Miller, S.A., 1995).

The full development during the ZPD depends upon full social interaction and the more the child takes advantages of an adult’s assistance, the broader is its ‘Zone of Proximal Development’.

  In 1976 Wood, Bruner and Ross invent the term ‘scaffolding’ to describe tutorial interaction between an adult and a child.  The metaphor was used to explore the nature of aid provided by an adult for children learning how to carry out a task they could not perform alone.  Burner’s ideas of spiral curriculum and scaffolding are related.

 A parallel has been drawn between the notion of scaffolding and ZPD theories of Vygotsky (Hobsbaum,A., Peters,S., Sylva,K., 1996).

If adults wish to provide learning opportunities, they must evaluate the child’s present developmental level and estimate the ‘length’ of the ZDP.  But, the child must be able to make use of the help of others; it needs the competence to benefit from the give-and-take activities and conversations with others (Bruner, 1983).  Vygotsky acknowledged the maturational limits of the ZPD, but most psychological research has emphasized the role of the environment: parents and other adults who are ‘expert’ models and guides for a young learner.

It is interesting here to go back to the chapter of Kellers Plan and look at the role of proctors and compare it to the role of adults in the ZPD.  In the PSI courses the proctors have the job to assist the students with their problems they have in a given course so they can carry on within the course.

For Vygotsky, language has a particular role in learning and development by acquiring a language, a child is provided the means to think in new ways and gains a new cognitive tool for making sense of the world.  Language is used by children as an additional device in solving problems, to overcome impulsive action, to plan a solution before trying it out and to control their own behavior (Jones, 1995).  Nevertheless, the main purpose of language for children is social.  They use the language to obtain the help of others and to solve problems.  The child, in it process of development, begins to practice the same forms of behavior that other formerly practice with respect to the child.  The significance of such behavior is only understood in a social context.

 The language is also crucial and interrelated with the action, providing an additional tool used both to reflect on and direct behavior. Vygotsy´s work is therefore viewed as particularly relevant to those who are concerned with the use of language. Both Piaget and Vygotsky viewed pre-school children in problem solving situations talking to themselves.  When Piaget labeled the self directed behavior as egocentric and believed it only minimum relevant to children’s cognitive growth, Vygotsky referred to it as a private speech. He argued that private speech grows out of the children’s interaction with parents and other adults and through such interactions, they begin to use their parent’s instructional comments to direct their own behavior. 

The socio-cultural aspects in Vygotsy´s theories are interesting when analyzing the learner in the information age society.  How do we educate the child raised in a world of instant information, where interactive technologies have led them to believe they can act on the world with the press of a button?



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