Lev Vygotsky, the Russian psychologist, died young at 37 in 1934, but is as influential as any living educational psychologist. In 'Thought and Language' and 'Mind in Society', along with several other texts, he presents a psychology rooted in Marxist social theory and dialectical materialism. Development is the result two phenomena and their interaction, the ‘natural’ and the ‘social’, a sort of early nature and nurture theory.
Ultimately the strength of Vygotsky’s learning theory stands or falls on his social constructivism, the idea that learning is fundamentally a socially mediated and constructed activity. This is a detailed recasting of Marxist theory of social consciousness applied to education. Psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs. In one sense he pre-empts the rigidity of Piaget’s bad science by positing a theory of development that is more flexible in terms of how and when child development takes place and less dependent on internal natural development and more on mediation.
This is the cardinal idea in his psychology of education, that knowledge is constructed through mediation, yet it is not entirely clear what mediation entails and what he means by the ‘tools’ that we use in mediation. In many contexts, it simply seems like a synonym for discussion between teacher and learner. However he does focus on being aware of the learner’s needs, so that they can ‘construct’ their own learning experience and changes the focus of teaching towards guidance and facilitation, as learners are not so much ‘educated’ by teachers as helped to construct their own learning.
Language and learning
In particular, it was his focus on the role of language, and the way it shapes our learning and thought, that defined his social psychology and learning theory. Behaviour is shaped by the context of a culture and schools reflect that culture. He goes further driving social influence right down to the level of interpersonal interactions. Then even further, as these interpersonal interactions mediate the development of children’s higher mental functions, such as thinking, reasoning, problem solving, memory, and language. Here he took larger dialectical themes and applied them to interpersonal communication and learning.
However, Vygotsky has a pre-Chomsky view of language, where language is acquired entirely from others in a social context. We now know that this is wrong, and that we are, to a degree, hard-wired for the acquisition of language. Much of his observations on how language is acquired and shapes thought is therefore out of date. The role, for example, of ‘inner speech’ in language and thought development is of little real relevance in modern psycholinguistics.
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
He prescribes a method of instruction that keeps the learner in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), an idea that was neither original to him nor even fully developed in his work. The ZPD is the difference between what the learner knows and what the learner is capable of knowing or doing with mediated assistance. To progress, one must interact with peers who are ahead of the game through social interaction, a dialectical process between learner and peer. Bruner though the concept was contradictory in that you don’t know what you don’t yet know. And if it simply means not pushing learners too far through complexity or cognitive overload, then the observation, or concept, seems rather obvious. One could even conclude that Vygotsky’s conclusion about mediation through teaching is false. Teaching, or peer mediation, is not a necessary condition for learning. A great deal is made of social performance being ahead of individual performance in the ZPD but there is no real evidence that this is the case. Bruner, as stated, was to point out the weakness of this idea and replace it with the much more practical and useful concept of ‘scaffolding’.
He had a specific interest in what we now call ‘special needs’ and was sympathetic to most of these students being taught in mainstream education but not necessarily with the same curriculum and in the same classes. However, his simplistic identification of ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ defects is crude and the use the term ‘defectology’ and the ‘defect’ or ‘deficit’ model it entails, is way out of line with modern language and thinking.
At around 3, when the faculty of imagination develops, children use imaginative play to deal with acts they cannot physically perform. Objects can be mentally transformed into concepts, a doll a real person, the stick a rifle. They internalise these ‘pivots’ so that the imagination can ‘play’ and therefore learn how to deal with the world through thought and thought experiments. Rules and roles are also rehearsed through play, so that behaviour becomes self-regulated. This is interesting but by no means original.
The oft-quoted, rarely read Vygotsky appeals to those who see instruction, and teaching, as a necessary condition for learning and sociologists who see social phenomena as the primary determinant factor in learning. As a pre-Chomsky linguist, his theories of language are dated and much of his thought is rooted in now discredited dialectical materialism. For Vygotsky, psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs, so he is firmly in the Marxist tradition of learning theory. One could conclude by saying that Vygostsky has become ‘fashionable’ but not as relevant as his reputation would suggest.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Wertsch, J.V. (1985). Cultural, Communication, and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. Cambridge University Press.
Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner (1991). Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis. Oxford: Blackwell.