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A Brief Overview: The Educational Theory of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896 - 1934) *
(Analysis by M. Goldfarb)

edited 11/17/07

"The child begins to perceive the world not only through its eyes but also through its speech.
And later it is not just seeing but acting that becomes informed by words. "

"Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them. "

'A word devoid of thought is a dead thing, and a thought unembodied in words remains a shadow."

"A word is a microcosm of human consciousness.

(An expanded version of this review with full citations is available below.
See hyperlink just before references.)

I. Theory of Value: What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Cultural inheritance is carried in the meanings of artifacts and practices. Resources are dependent upon culture and the stage of a human's development.

Vygotsky's ideas influenced a "social constructivist" approach to education, which -- he believed -- should help us act to improve our human situation. Knowledge within a discipline is important, but solving problems that encourage students to go beyond their current skill and knowledge level further development of higher functions beyond the bounds of that discipline. By implication, new knowledge can be built.

II. Theory of Knowledge: What is knowledge" How is it different from belief.' What is a mistake" A lie?

Vygotsky himself intended to reconstruct "the human sciences" with a new theory creating an understanding of, and practical solutions to, the social and educational problems of his time.

Vygotsky's interest was intellectual development rather than knowledge. As he questioned how humans, in their short lifespans, advanced so far and in such diverse directions, he examined the interrelations between thought and language.

Cognitive skills and patterns of thinking are not primarily determined by innate factors, but are the products of the activities practiced in the social institutions of the culture in which the individual grows up. Consequently, the history of the society in which a child is reared and the child's personal history are crucial determinants of the way in which that individual will think.

III. Theory of Human Nature: What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

"In animals, even in anthropoids whose speech is phonetically like human speech and whose intellect is akin to man, speech and thinking are not interrelated, " A study of mind, not just behavior, was necessary to distinguish human beings from other species.

Vygotsky concluded, based on studies including those of apes that thought and speech have different genetic roots. Thought and language develop independently even in humans. When humans are around two years of age, however, thought and language join to initiate a new form. In humans, a prelinguistic phase in the development of thought and a preintellectual phase in the development of speech can be observed, When the two merge, thought becomes verbal, and speech becomes rational.

[In contrast to Piaget, Vygotsky theorized that egocentric speech, rather than dwindling, develops into speech that is different from external social speech. Egocentric speech develops into internal speech. Vygotsky added frustrations and difficulties to Piaget's experiments. Egocentric speech -- thinking aloud -- increased.]

"Thought and language, which reflect reality in a way different from that of perception, are the key to the nature of human consciousness. Words play a central part not only in the development of thought but in the historical growth of human consciousness as a whole. A word is a microcosm of human consciousness."

Human beings are not limited to their biological inheritance, as other species are, but are born into an environment that is shaped by the activities of previous generations. In this environment, artifacts that carry the past into the present surround human beings, and by mastering use of these artifacts and the practices in which they are employed, they are able to "assimilate the experiences of humankind." Humans have the capacity to continue to develop intelligence.

IV. Theory of Learning: What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Vygotsky differentiated between our higher and lower mental functions. Lower or elementary functions are genetically inherited; they are our natural mental abilities. In contrast, our higher mental functions develop through social interaction, being socially or culturally mediated.

Behavioral options are limited when functioning occurs at an elementary level. Without the learning that occurs as a result of social interaction, without self-awareness or the use of signs and symbols that allow us to think in more complex ways, we would remain slaves to the situation, responding directly to the environment. In contrast, higher mental functions allow us to move from impulsive behavior to instrumental action, Our psychology is mediated by cultural means.

Mediation occurs through the use of tools or signs of a culture. Language and symbolism are used initially to mediate contact with the social environment, then within ourselves. When the cultural artifacts become internalized humans acquire the capacity for higher order thinking.

Learning is a constructivist activity. Cognitive development is a process in which language is a crucial tool for determining how the child will learn how to think because advanced modes of thought are transmitted to the child by means of words. "Prior to mastering his own behavior, the child begins to master his surroundings with the help of speech."

One notion in Vygotsky's theory which has been of great interest to educators is what he called the zone of proximal development. The zone of proximal development is the difference between the child's capacity to solve problems on his own, And his capacity to solve them with assistance.

An essential feature of learning is that it awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment,

Play is also a factor in acquisition of skills and knowledge. "'In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself."

V. Theory of Transmission: Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Vygotsky strove to create a theory reconstructing the human sciences to more effectively solve the social and educational problems of his time. He did not live long enough to do more than provide a framework and study early, intellectual development. However, Bruner stated, "Vygotsy's conception of development is at the same time a theory of education."

The range of skill that can be developed with adult guidance or peer collaboration exceeds what can be attained alone.

The zone of proximal development includes all the functions and activities that a child or learner can perform only with the assistance of someone else. The person who intervenes in this scaffolding process could be an adult (parent, teacher, caretaker, language instructor) or a peer who has already mastered that particular function.

The theory of a zone of proximal development supports a theory of teaching that is in advance of development. The curriculum should consider the basic principles of Vygotsky's theory: 1) Cognitive development is limited to a certain range at any given age (the area of current development surrounded by another area of future development = ZPD), 2) Full cognitive development requires social interaction, 3) mediation.

Because teaching is offective when it is based on the next stage of the child's development, by inference, the instructor must be knowledgeable about child development. The instructor must also provide educational materials and content which go beyond the child's current capabilities. The teacher's role is not that of simplifying the content, but of providing unfamiliar content and the setting for learners to step from their current level to a higher level of understanding.

Scientific concepts, or schooled concepts, are learned "downward" through written symbols to examples, where spontaneous concepts, are learned "upward" from sensory experiences to generalization. Vygotsky observed that children become conscious of spontaneous concepts late. They know the concept but are not aware of the act of their thought. Schooling should interface spontaneous and schooled concepts to ensure the highest understanding.

VI. Theory of Society: What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Vygotsky's theory has been described as an attempt to explain consciousness as the end product of socialization. Hence, he discusses socialization, not society. He believed that social forces and social change force changes in human nature,

Society provides the interaction that plays the fundamental role in the development of cognition. Vygotsky saw cognitive development as rooted in social interaction. "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). 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.

Vygotsky's theories, while they support a fluid environment of learning, have implications for institutionalized educational system, especially as the amount of knowledge and skills in developed nations increase. Human learning presupposes a specific social nature arid is part of a process by which children grow into the intellectual life of those around them. By implication, society is the shaper of thought, and, therefore, society's education of its young is an inevitability; To the extent that education is a conscious responsibility, institutions can shape the educational process, most efficiently by providing education within the zone of proximal development..

VII. Theory of Opportunity: Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Vygotsky's theories were, at least in part; a, response to the need to solve the urgent and practical problems of education of the new socialist state. Large numbers of the population were illiterate; all were to be educated. Process, not selection, was his concern.

Based on his theory, however; the participatory model of teaching it espouses would seem to have implications for groups within; societies. Socializing children into cultural practices and literacy would, especially in a pluralistic society, necessitate what culture(s), what language(s), would be chosen.

VIII. Theory of Consensus: Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Who people become depends critically on the activity systems in which they participate. The human being develops not in isolation, but in relation to historical change on a number of levels - formative individual experiences, institutions (family, school, workplace), the wider culture in which those institutions are embedded, and, finally, the species as a whole.

Vygotsky emphasized a historical perspective -- he called it a "genetic approach." By implication, consensus evolves in a historical context, Individuals are shaped by and have a hand in shaping society. Consensus forms in a society over time. Thought, actions, and experiences are culturally mediated. "The central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation."

Link to Expanded Version with Specific References

General References :

Heinrich, Shirley, "Lev Vygotsky." http://coehp. idbsu.edu

Luria, A.R. Cognitive Development: Its Cultural and Social Foundations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976,

Nicholl, Trish. Vygotsky. http://www,massey.ac.nz/~Alock/virtual/trishvyg.htm

"Plaget vs. Vygotsky: Issues." http://www.cocoe.k12.ca.us/csuh/edui6300/wk2/vygvspg2.html

Vygotsky, L. S. Thought and Language . Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T.Press, 1962.

Vygotsky Centennial Project: The Virtual Faculty's Second Project, http://www.massey.ac.az/~Alock/virtual/project2.htm

Walls, Gordon. "Dialogic Inquiry in Education: Building on the Legacy of Vygotsky." http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~gwells/NCTE.html

See also Rozycki, E. G., Vygotsky on the nature of concepts