Friday, June 09, 2023

Vygotsky, language, intelligence and AI

Vygotsky is an oft-quoted but rarely read learning theorist. Let me start by saying I am not a social constructivist but in using ChatGPT3.5 and 4, I have become more Vygotskian, as I have come to see ChatGPT as similar to the concept of the Vygotskian teacher. He gives us insights into why language is key to intelligence and why Generative AI may be the most powerful form of learning technology we have ever invented.

Learn from language

LLMs are fundamentally Vygotskian. They have been trained on data (language) as created and used by us, and therefore they learn from us. There is another step, where humans train the model further by making judgements to make the output more palatable through what is called Reinforcement Learning from Human Feedback (RLHF). 


Knowledgeable other

Just as Vygotsky thought of language as a mediating source for learning, so LLMs use this form of mediation by language. It has been further trained by real humans to align it with our expectations. This is how babies and children learn. They listen, are spoken to and guided by adults. When we use a LLM we are like young children asking questions and being given responses by what Vygotsky calls a ‘knowledgeable other. That knowledgeable other is AI.


Ultimately the strength of Vygotsky’s learning theory stands or falls on the idea that learning is fundamentally a socially mediated and constructed activity. Psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs. Vygotsky's theory does not propose distinct developmental stages, like Piaget, but instead emphasizes the role of social interaction and cultural context in cognitive development. He believed that social interaction plays a critical role in children's cognitive development and argued that children learn through interactions with more knowledgeable individuals, who provide guidance and support.


Generative AI

This is exactly what ChatGPT4 does, in general, but also in a more formal teaching experiences as in Khan Academies implementation, Duolingo and other second level implementations of Generative AI. It provides the ‘knowledgeable other’. In fact, this ‘knowledgeable other’ is better than any one teacher as it covers all subjects, at different levels, personalised, is available 365/24/7, is endlessly patient, polite, encouraging and friendly.



The cardinal idea in Vygotsky’s psychology of learning is that knowledge is constructed through mediation, yet it is not entirely clear what mediation entails and what he means by the ‘tools’ he refers to as mediators. 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 meaning and learning.


This is exactly what ChatGPT4 does as a ‘tool’. It mediates through dialogue and allows the learner to construct their own sense and meaning by driving the learning process through dialogue. It uses language, the key form of learning and social development for Vygotsky, to patiently go at the learners own pace, level and even identify mistakes. It can keep us in a useful Zone of Proximal Development, as the process of dialogue captures what has been said to guide what should be said next. Language is a form of action, where thought essentially involves manipulation of internalised language, and so can be seen as a form of inner action.


He often uses the word ‘tool’ which refers to any external artifact, symbol, or sign that individuals use to help them think, problem-solve and learn. Tools can be physical objects, as well as cultural and psychological tools. Tools help individuals interact with the world and transform their mental processes. They bridge the gap between a person's current cognitive abilities and their potential for higher-level thinking.


Cultural tools are the external artifacts and signs that are created and shared within a specific cultural context. Examples of cultural tools include writing systems, books, calculators, maps, computers, and language itself. He most likely would have included Generative AI as a useful tool for learning. Vygotsky also identified psychological tools, which are internalized cultural tools that become part of an individual's cognitive processes. Psychological tools include strategies, problem-solving techniques, mnemonic devices, and other mental processes that individuals acquire through social interaction and cultural learning.



Language shapes thought and therefore is intelligence. Both Wittgenstein and Vygotsky had this insight, that language is not an emergent quality of intelligence but is intelligence itself. This explains what LLMs are so powerful. Intelligence is embodied in language and we learn from language. If they are right, generative AI, using written or spoken language will prove to be the most powerful form of learning technology we have ever seen, as they are congruent with how we learn.

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