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Lev Vygotsky was a developmental psychologist and author with a diverse interest in the field of developmental psychology. His prominent work in North America is the Zone of Proximal Development, which consisted of only a few pages of all of his writings (Gredler, 2009, p. 1).
Vygotsky was born in Russia in 1896, and during his adolescence, he began to develop a passionate interest in philosophy, literature, and culture. During these years, Vygotsky had three main intellectual influences on his developing philosophies and beliefs (Kozulin, 1990; Gredler, 2009).
The first was G.W.F. Hegel’s Hegelian Philosophical System of History – the philosophy that Reason first manifests itself in nature but comes to its ultimate realization in man - left a lasting imprint on Vygotsky’s analysis of the state of psychology (Kozulin, 1990).
The second was Alexander Potebnya, whose writings led Vygotsky to the discovery of the mystery of the relationship between language and thought (Kozulin, 1990); and the third was Benedict Spinoza, Vygotsky’s favorite philosopher who inspired him to adopt his belief in the importance of rational thinking (Gredler, 2009).
Vygotsky also relied heavily on the Marxist theory of society (a proposition that states historical changes in society and material life produce changes in human nature). He was the first to attempt to relate this theory to concrete psychological questions (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 7). As well, various readings about Vygotsky refer to him as a social cognitivist and social constructivist (Gredler, 2009, p. 1).
By the year 1917 when Vygotsky was only 21 years of age, he began seeking answers to fundamental questions about human development and learning, and began his career as a developmental psychologist. Between the years 1917 to 1923, he taught literature and psychology at a school in Gomel, and gave many speeches and lectures on problems in literature and science.
In 1924, Vygotsky moved to Moscow where he worked at the Institutes of Psychology and Defectology. There, he directed a department for the education of physically and mentally challenged children, and in the years 1925 to 1934, he had a large group of scientists working for him in the areas of psychology, defectology, and mental abnormality. It was during these years when Vygotsky developed his major publications.
In Mind and Society (1978), Cole and Scribner discuss two critiques Vygotsky constructed. The first analyzes theories claiming that the properties of adult intellectual functions arise from maturation alone; or, that they already exist, but have yet to manifest. The second one critiques the notion that an understanding of the higher psychological functions in humans are found by multiplication and complication of principles derived from animal psychology (p. 6). These critiques took a decade to develop, but were significant to his major works.
One of Vygotsky’s most recognized works is the Zone of Proximal Development. Consisting of only a few pages in all of his writings (Gredler, 2009, p. 1), this work became prominent in educational psychology.
Vygotsky (1978) presented the idea that what children can do with the assistance of others might be even more indicative of their mental development than what they can do alone (p. 85). The Zone of Proximal Development shows that the capability of children with equal levels of mental development to learn under a teacher’s guidance varied to a high degree. It became apparent that those children were not mentally the same age, and the subsequent course of their learning is different. This difference is the Zone of proximal development. It is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (p. 86).
As an author, Vygotsky’s publications span six volumes and took over a decade to write. Some of his renowned writings include The Psychology of Art (1925), Thought and Language (1934), and Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes (1978). His work remained unknown in the western world until the 1970s and up to the early 1990s when Vygotsky’s writings expanded as translations into English began appearing (Gredler, 2009, p. 1). Thought and Language and Mind in Society are two of his works that took root in the discipline of psychology during those times.
The common thread woven into Vygotsky’s work was to understand human intellect and its development, the uniqueness of human behaviour, and the social nature of the human experience. Vygotsky (1978) rejects the concept of linear development and incorporates both components of scientific thought: evolutionary and revolutionary change (p. 122). He believed that development was not a slow accumulation of unitary changes, but a complex dialectical process characterized by an intertwining of external and internal factors and adaptive processes (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 73).
During his lifetime, Vygotsky’s accomplishments were remarkable. Newman and Holzman (1993) summarize them in Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist:
He played a key role in the restructuring of the Psychological Institute of Moscow; he set up research laboratories in the major cities of the Soviet Union and founded what we call special education. He authored some one hundred and eighty papers, many of which are just now being published. Vygotsky’s practical goal during his lifetime was to reformulate psychology according to Marxist methodology in order to develop concrete ways to deal with the massive tasks facing the Soviet Union – a society attempting to move rapidly from feudalism to socialism. He was the acknowledged leader, in the 1920s and 1930s, of a group of Soviet scholars who passionately pursued the building of a new psychology in the service of what was hoped would be a new kind of society. (p. 6)
At the age of 24, Vygotsky contracted tuberculosis and continued to suffer from bouts of the illness until his death in 1934 (Newman & Holzman, 1993). His ideas still offer promise for both modern psychology and education, as much of his work continues to be the focus in recent and current research.
Gredler, M. E. (2009). Hiding in plain sight: The stages of mastery/self regulation in Vygotsky’s cultural-historical theory. Educational Psychologist, 44:1, 1-19. Retrieved on July 20, 2009, from Canadian Research Knowledge Network: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00461520802616259
Kozulin, A. (1990). Vygotsky’s Psychology: A Biography of Ideas. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Newman, F., & Holzman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist. London: Routledge.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.