22 October, 2008


The Life of Vygotsky -- This box somewhere on the page
Lev Vygotsky was born in 1896 in Russia, and grew up in the city of Gomel. After graduating in history and philosophy, he taught at a variety of schools in his home town, where he was also active in theatrical and literary circles, before moving in 1924 to work in the Institute of Psychology in Moscow.
Over the next ten years, he produced several seminal works, including Thought and Language (1932). Around him gathered a circle of brilliant young scholars, including Luria and Leontiev, who created a school of Soviet psychology based on his work. Vygotsky himself died of tuberculosis in 1934, at only 38 years of age.
Sadly, his genius coincided with Stalin’s regime. The work of the Vygotskyan school was deemed ‘reactionary bourgeois pseudo-science’ and was repressed. For twenty years after Vygotsky’s death, it was forbidden to discuss, disseminate or reprint any of his writings.
In the mid 50s, the major works reappeared in print, and their translations in the 1960s led to worldwide interest in Vygotsky. The work of many modern-day educational theorists, including Jerome Bruner, owes much to his influence.
However, some works remained undiscovered for another twenty years, including the outstanding book, Pedagogical Psychology (1926), finally published in 1991. Though little known in the West, this work has had considerable impact on contemporary reform of Russian education.

He lived for only 38 years, but in his last decade (1924 – 1934), the Russian thinker Lev Vygotsky transformed the study of developmental psychology. His Cultural-Historical Theory caused an explosion of interest in Russia, and inspired much original research by other psychologists. Tragically, these innovative and inspirational ideas were immediately suppressed. In Stalinist Russia, suggestions for teaching children – indeed anyone – to think for themselves were not acceptable. For many years, Vygotsky’s works could be read only in a single central library in Moscow, by special permission of the secret police.
After Stalin’s death, however, Vygotsky was rediscovered by another generation of psychologists and teachers. When his work was translated in the 1 960s, the depth and scope of his educational vision dazzled academics around the world. American scientist Stephen Toulmin called him ‘the Mozart of psychology’ and Jerome Bruner wrote that “Vygotsky’s Theory of Development is at the same time the Theory of Education”.

For teachers, Vygotsky provides a theoretical underpinning for effective practice. He identifies the key elements in successful teaching, learning and development – so that one says to oneself, “Ah, that’s why I’m doing it! That’s what’s happening inside the child’s head!”
Cultural tools and the development of higher mental functions
Vygotsky believed that true education is not the mere learning of specific knowledge and skills. It is the development of children’s learning abilities – that is, their capacity to think clearly and creatively, plan and implement their plans, and communicate their understanding in a variety of ways. He believed this could be done by providing them with a set of ‘cultural tools’ for thinking and creating.
The key to human intelligence – the characteristic that makes us different from animals – is the ability to use various types of tools. Vygotsky claimed that, just as humans use material tools (such as knives and levers) to extend our physical abilities, we invented psychological tools to extend our mental abilities. These tools are the symbolic systems we use to communicate and analyse reality. They include signs, symbols, maps, plans, numbers, musical notation, charts, models, pictures and, above all, language.
Cultural tools are not inherited genetically. They are developed and preserved in our culture. Vygotsky believed that the purpose of education is to introduce children to the full range of cultural tools and, show how to use them to analyse reality quickly and successfully. Children can then look at the world, as Vygostkyan scholar Zaporozhets put it, through “the glasses of human culture.”
Using cultural tools, children develop new psychological qualities, which we call abilities. These are the mental habits people need to be successful in particular intellectual or creative fields. The better children’s grasp of the appropriate cultural tools, the greater their abilities in any field.
The development of abilities leads to a flowering of children’s personalities. They begin to plan and organize their own activities, openly express their point of view, provide non-standard solutions for problems, interact freely with other people and, most importantly, believe in themselves and their own abilities.
Thought and language
The main premise of Vygotsky’s most famous work is the interrelationship between thought and that most universal of cultural tools – language. He maintained that thought is ‘internalized language’.
When small children are playing, they often keep up a running commentary on what is happening: “And now the train’s going round the tower, and it’s banging in to the tower, and – oh no – the tower’s toppling down…”. Vygotsky calls this an external monologue. As time goes on, the external monologue is internalized as thought. (When dealing with a challenging situation, children and adults often find it helps to externalize their thoughts again: they begin ‘thinking aloud’ to clarify what they are doing or trying to understand.)
The speech structures mastered by children therefore become the basic structures of their thinking. This means that the development of thought is to a great extent determined by the linguistic ability of the child. This in turn is dependent upon the child’s socio-cultural experience – so one of the most important functions of education is to facilitate the development of rich, effective spoken language.
The Zone of Proximal Development
One widely used term from Vygotsky’s writing is ‘the zone of proximal development’ (ZPD). As contemporary Vygotskyan scholar, Nickolai Veraksa says, the ZPD as “the place where the child and adult meet.”
Vygotsky believed that the role of the teacher in education is crucial. In developing children’s abilities, teachers can guide them towards performing actions or tasks which are just beyond their current capacity. With such guidance, children can perform beyond their own ability – within certain limits. Vygotsky defined these limits as the zone of proximal development, which he described as the “difference between the level of solved tasks that can be performed with adult guidance and help, and the level of independently solved tasks”. The most effective teaching is aimed at the higher level of the child’s ZPD, the edge of challenge.
The ZPD defines the higher mental functions in a learner that are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. They are the ‘buds’ or ‘flowers’ of development, rather than the ‘fruits’. Vygotsky maintained that conventional measures of educational achievement (for instance, test scores) characterize mental development retrospectively, while the ZPD characterizes mental development prospectively.
The Vygotskyan philosopher Mamardashvili summed it up: “The human being is a possibility.”
The role of play in mental development
In his last lecture, Play and the Psychological Development of the Child, Vygotsky emphasized the importance of play during the early years: “Play also creates the zone of proximal development of the child. In play, the child is always behaving beyond his age, above his usual everyday behaviour; in play he is, as it were, a head above himself. Play contains in a concentrated form, as in the focus of a magnifying glass, all developmental tendencies; it is as if the child tries to jump above his usual level. The relationship of play to development should be compared to the relationship between instruction and development.”
In play, children are involved in an imaginary situation, with explicit roles and implicit rules. For instance, when playing ‘families’ they take on clearly understood roles and their actions are determined by those roles. This leads to a greater degree of self-regulation, the children’s actions being determined by the rules of the game. When involved in play, children’s concentration and application to the task are much greater than in academically-directed activities contrived by the teacher. After Vygotsky’s death, Leontiev crystallized Vygotskyan thinking: “Western

researchers are constantly seeking to discover how the child came to be what he is. We in Russia are striving to discover not how the child came to be what he is, but how he can become what he not yet is.”
Vygotsky in his own words:
Education must be orientated not towards the yesterday of a child’s development, but towards its tomorrow.
It is through others that we become ourselves.
What a child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow. Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development, and leads it.
A child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that will tomorrow become his basic level of real action and morality. It is the essence of play that a new relation is created… between situations in thought and real situations.

DIPETIK DARI: Galina Dolya and Sue Palmer (TES Primary Forum, 2004)

Galina Dolya is a researcher at the Russian Academy of Education and co-author (with Professor Nickolai Veraksa) of the Key to Learning developmental cognitive curriculum for early years.
Sue Palmer is an independent writer and teacher.
© Galina Dolya and Sue Palmer, 2003


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