Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)
“Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (inter-psychological) and then inside the child (intra-psychological). 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”
Lev Vygotsky believed that children’s cognitive functions are a product of their social interactions with others. Unlike Piaget, he never separated the process of learning from its social context. By understanding the collaborative nature of learning, he believed we learn everything on two levels: Through interaction with others, and within the individual’s intellectual structure.
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who researched the influence of our social interactions on our intellectual growth. His idea of Social Context Learning led him to the theory of social learning, where children learn from teachers, peers, adults, and other mentors. He realized the power of teachers in the classroom and encouraged them to create a productive educational environment using interactive activities like cooperation, discussions, debates, and positive feedback to stimulate intellectual development.
Vygotsky had another innovative theory considering language as the base of the learning process, and as a possibility for the development of logic and profound thinking. Therefore, to promote literacy development, he elaborated instructional strategies for teachers to boost students’ cooperation, leadership, and meaningful discussions. Vygotsky’s ideas gave teachers the role of learning facilitators and student motivators.
Lev Vygotsky was born on November 17, 1896, in Orsha, Belarus (then part of the Russian Empire), and died on June 11, 1934, in Moscow. He was homeschooled and gained a formal degree from a Jewish Gymnasium. Even though he started as a medical student at Moscow University, he transferred to and studied law. Vygotsky was interested in a variety of educational spheres like sociology, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy.
He became a researcher at the Psychological Institute in Moscow in 1924, working both as staff scientist and as a secondary teacher, researching learning processes and the role of language in learning. Vygotsky completed his dissertation “The Psychology of Art” in 1925, but got hospitalized with tuberculosis. He continued to investigate the development of higher cognitive functions, but tragically died in 1934 after a tuberculosis relapse. Despite his premature death, Vygotsky became a cult figure among the international community of educators and psychologists. The ‘Psychology of Art’ was published in 1965.
Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development has been the groundwork for much research to this day. Many psychologists and educators refer to his ideas of children’s development in a social context where children can develop their cultural values, beliefs, and problem-solving strategies through cooperative discussions with more knowledgeable members of society. He strongly believed that individual development can solely be understood within a social and a cultural context.
Vygotsky’s theory therefore focuses on the role of culture in developing children’s mental abilities (speech and reasoning) and the role of society in fostering children’s cognitive development by engaging them in thought-provoking and meaningful activities. He was well aware of the significance of interaction with others (adults, more advanced others) in increasing not only the information quantity, but also the development of higher-order intellectual functions. His theory also explains the importance of language and its connection with children’s reasoning and learning. Vygotsky incorporated all these ideas in his theory through the following concepts:
More knowledgeable other
According to Vygotsky, a more knowledgeable other could be anyone (teacher, parent, peer, mentor, caregiver) with a better understanding of the assignment the child is trying to understand and complete. It’s interesting that this theory isn’t limited to educational learning and can also be applied to recreational learning (playing games, using technology). Simply put, we learn and develop our intellectual capabilities through interaction with more knowledgeable others.
Zone of proximal development
Vygotsky used this concept to explain the children’s potential for cognitive development when they’re guided through a task, rather than asked to do it alone. This concept incorporates the previous one when children’s assignment is above their abilities, they need the assistance of a more knowledgeable other. He explains the zone of proximal development as a distance between the actual development (evaluated independently) and the potential development (evaluated in cooperation with peers, teachers, or mentors). Teachers should be aware of their students’ zone of proximal development, to be able to improve their ability to learn and understand. Vygotsky identifies three stages: assignments a student can accomplish without assistance, with some assistance, and assignments a student can’t accomplish at all with assistance.
This concept represents guided learning that helps students learn by teaming up with a teacher. The teacher should have a greater knowledge of the assignment than the student, and an understanding of the student’s comprehension level. The purpose of the instructional scaffolding is to create a comfortable learning environment for students using visual aids, practical examples, collaborative dialogue, and providing feedback, so students will feel comfortable asking questions on the subject until the moment they can do the task without any help.
Cognitive development in a social context
Believing that learning is an active process rather than a passive one, Vygotsky postulated that children develop through social interaction with others. He often stressed the importance of teacher guided learning that engages students through different mentally challenging activities to do the assignment themselves.
Theory and language
Language for Vygotsky represented a crucial communicational tool for understanding culture and behavior. He also focused on the critical role of language in cognitive development. Again, he uses social context (social interactions) that helps students increase their ability to use language. So, he talks about social speech (communication with others), private speech (communication with oneself), and silent inner speech (internal monologue).
These concepts give us an ever clearer perspective of Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, its importance, and its use in the educational process.
“By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own”
Another proof of Vygotsky’s approach to children’s development is based on the idea that intellectual functions are products of cooperation and social interactions. Throughout his theory, he emphasized the collaborative nature of learning in a cultural, social, and educational context. Vygotsky’s theory had a huge impact on education, enabling teachers and students to play non-traditional roles as they collaborate. His ideas and concepts give teachers a whole new teaching perspective in the:
Zone of proximal development
- Teachers realize what assignments and concepts lie in a student’s zone of proximal development
- Teachers design instructions to reach the intellectual level that is just above the student’s current developmental level
- Students partaking in peer collaboration or guided teacher’s training must share the same focus to enter the zone of proximal development (joined attention and shared problem-solving)
- Teachers assign group members with different levels of ability, letting more advanced students help less advanced students to work within their zone of proximal development
- Use a more knowledgeable other to assist and instruct students during the learning process
- Teachers identify students’ current level of development and use every available opportunity to help them cross what Vygotsky called their zone of proximal development.
- Teachers use innovative teaching techniques to encourage students to extend their existing schemata and integrate new skills, competencies, and understandings
- Teachers encourage discussion groups, small group learning, and cooperative practical exercises to help students reach a higher level of understanding and eventually learn how to do the task by themselves
- Students communicate with their peers and others (social speech).
- Students use inner speech, their inner monologue (typically from the age of 7).
- Students use language to comprehend and experience their world.
- Students use language to increase their cultural values and social interaction.
- Teachers and students influence intellectual development through the language they use.
- Teachers use reciprocal teaching to improve students’ capability to learn from text (reading strategies).
- Teachers and students cooperate in the process of learning and applying four key elements: summarizing, questioning, clarifying, and predicting.
- Reciprocal teaching increases teacher-student dialogue, encouraging students to go beyond answering questions and engage in discussion.
- Teachers and students take turns leading small discussion groups on reading. After demonstrating the four key elements, students accept the teaching role.
- Teacher and students share different problem-solving strategies in an open discussion so the learning becomes a reciprocal experience both for the students and the teacher.
- Teachers and students collaborate to explain and understand a concept before students repeat it or use it in another context.
Vygotsky had a tremendous influence on education. His ideas and beliefs helped create modern teachers who encourage students to reach their true potential. If you want to be one of those teachers, use Lev Vygotsky’s ideas and be the teacher every student would wish for!