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Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky was a seminal Russian psychologist who is best known for his sociocultural theory. He believed that social interaction plays a critical role in children’s learning. Through such social interactions, children go through a continuous process of learning. Vygotsky noted, however, that culture profoundly influences this process. Imitation, guided learning, and collaborative learning all play a critical part in his theory.


Vygotsky’s Early Life

Lev Vygotsky was born November 17, 1896, in Orsha, a city in the western region of the Russian Empire.

He attended Moscow State University, where he graduated with a degree in law in 1917. He studied a range of topics while attending university, including sociology, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy. However, his formal work in psychology did not begin until 1924 when he attended the Institute of Psychology in Moscow.

He completed a dissertation in 1925 on the psychology of art but was awarded his degree in absentia due to an acute tuberculosis relapse that left him incapacitated for a year. Following his illness, Vygotsky began researching topics such as language, attention, and memory with the help of students including Alexei Leontiev and Alexander Luria.

First years

Lev Vygotsky was born on November 17, 1896 in Orsha, Belarus. His father was a representative of an insurance company and his mother, although trained as a teacher, worked as a housewife dedicating herself entirely to the care of her eight children.

As a child, Vygotsky read the Torah. He completed his primary education at home with his mother and a private tutor, and then entered public school for his secondary education. Possessing exceptional reading speed and memory, he was an excellent student in all subjects at school.

Vygotsky graduated from high school with a gold medal at the age of seventeen. He entered the University of Moscow and initially studied medicine, then went to law. He continued his self-directed studies in philosophy. After graduating from the University of Moscow, Vygotsky returned to Gomel to teach literature and philosophy. In Gomel, he married Rosa Smekhova and they had two daughters. Vygotsky established a research laboratory at the Teacher‘s College of Gomel.

He worked as a professor of literature at Gomel from the end of his studies in 1917 until 1923. He later founded a psychology laboratory at this same school, where he gave numerous lectures that gave rise to his work of Pedagogical Psychology.

Vygotsky also worked in Moscow at the Institute of Psychology. At that time his ideas diverged greatly from the main European psychological currents, such as American introspection and behaviorism, he also did not believe in the German Gestalt , which consisted of studying behaviors and experiences as a whole.

Vygotsky’s theory of human development

Vygotsky considered the influence of the environment on the child’s development of great importance, thus criticizing Piaget for not giving it enough importance. For him the psychological processes are changing, never fixed and depend largely on the vital environment. He believed that the assimilation of social and cultural activities were the key to human development and that this assimilation was what distinguishes men from animals.

He stressed on numerous occasions the importance of studying grammar in schools, where the child becomes aware of what he is doing and learns to use his skills consciously. To access consciousness it is necessary to analyze the processes as if they were not fixed objects, using the explanatory method of causal relationships and focus on the processes by which higher cognitive processes are formed. Consciousness must be approached in connection with behavior, which in turn is the cornerstone of human activity.

Vygotsky research focuses on the child’s thinking, language, memory and play. At the end of his days he worked on educational problems.

In his theory we can find several important ideas, first of all language is an essential instrument for the cognitive development of the child, then the progressive awareness that the child is acquiring provides him with a communicative control, in addition linguistic development is independent of the development of thought . He also defended the combination of neurology and physiology in experimental studies of thought processes.

Vygotsky’s scientific research can be divided into three essential areas that are interrelated and interconnected:

  • Human development: development of an individual human being. Vygotsky used the genetic method of development to explain human growth, developing theories about “the zone of near development” and “scaffolding.”
  • Historical cultural theory , that is, the dialectic of the development of an individual and of humanity. Vygotsky states that the superior mental functioning in the individual arises from social processes. He also states that human social and psychological processes are fundamentally shaped by cultural tools or mediation media. Use the terms “mediation” and “internalization.”
  • Development of thought and language in ontogenesis and phylogenesis , that is, at the level of individual development and at the level of human development. Use the term “psychological tools.” Vygotsky studied the origin and development of higher mental functions and learning difficulties and normal human development.

According to Vygotsky, children learn by internalizing the results of interactions with adults. The first important concept he developed is the “zone of near development”.

Next Development Zone (ZDP)

The Next Development Zone (ZDP) refers to the gap or difference between a child’s existing abilities and what he or she can learn under the guidance of an adult or a more capable partner . The proximal area is, therefore, the gap between what children can already do and what they are not ready to achieve on their own. Vygotsky suggested that interactive learning with adults is more effective in helping children cross this area.

According to Vygotsky, adults and more advanced partners must help direct and organize a child’s learning before the child can master and internalize it. The responsibility of directing and monitoring learning changes towards the child, in the same way that, when an adult teaches a child to float, the adult first supports him in the water and then lets him gradually go as the body of the child relaxes in a horizontal position.

The near development zone uses two levels to measure the capacity and potential of a child. The ” real level of development ” of a child is when he or she can work without help on a task or problem. This establishes a baseline for the child’s knowledge, and is traditionally what is evaluated and valued in schools. The ” level of potential development ” is the level of competence that a child can achieve when guided and supported by another person. This idea of ​​an important adult, guiding a child through the ZPD, is known as “scaffolding.”

By saying “scaffolding,” Lev Vygotsky intended to structure participation in learning meetings to foster the emerging abilities of a child. Scaffolding can be provided in several ways: by a mentor, by objects or experiences of a particular culture, or by a child’s past learning . Vygotsky wrote that the only good instruction is the one that advances before development and leads it. It should address not so much the mature functions as those of maturation. It is still necessary to determine the lowest threshold at which the instruction can begin, since a certain maturity of the functions is required. But the upper threshold must also be considered: instruction must be oriented towards the future, not towards the past.

According to Vygotsky and his followers, the intellectual development of children is a function of human communities rather than individuals.

Game Development

Less known, but equally important, was his game concept. Vygotsky saw the game as a time when social rules were put into practice : for example, a horse would behave like a horse even if it was a stick. These kinds of rules always guide a child’s game. For Vygotsky, the game was similar to the imagination in which a child extends to the next level of his normal behavior, thus creating a zone of near development. In essence, Vygotsky believed that “the game is the source of development.”

Historical-cultural development

Vygotsky’s model has been called the “sociocultural approach.” For him, the development of a child is a direct result of his culture. For Vygotsky, development is mainly applied to mental development, such as thinking, language, reasoning processes and mental functions. However, he noted that these skills were developed through social interactions with important people in the child’s life, particularly parents, but also with other adults. Through these interactions, a child learns the habits and mind of his culture, speech patterns, written language and other symbolic knowledge that affected the construction of a child’s knowledge. The specific knowledge gained by a child through these interactions also represented the shared knowledge of a culture.

Vygotsky described human cognitive development as a “collaborative process”, which means that the learning process of individuals takes place through social interactions. Children acquire cognitive skills as part of their induction to a way of life. Shared activities help them internalize the ways of thinking and behaving in their society. In addition, social interaction not only helps children remember, but can even be the key to memory formation. Vygotsky also conveyed the notion that culture and community play a decisive role in early development.

Thought and language development

Another important contribution that Vygotsky made refers to the interrelation of the development of language and thought . This concept, explored in the book Thought and language , establishes the explicit and deep connection between speech (both silent internal speech and oral language) and the development of mental concepts and cognitive awareness (metacognition). It is through internal speech and oral language that Vygotsky argued that thoughts and mental constructions are formed (the intellectual being of a child).

Contributions to Psychology

He is considered a formative thinker in psychology, and much of his work is still being discovered and explored today. While he was a contemporary of Skinner, Pavlov, Freud, and Piaget, his work never attained their level of eminence during his lifetime. Part of this was because the Communist Party often criticized his work in Russia, and so his writings were largely inaccessible to the Western world. His premature death at age 37 also contributed to his obscurity.

Despite this, his work has continued to grow in influence since his death, particularly in the fields of developmental and educational psychology.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that Vygotsky’s theories became known in the West as new concepts and ideas were introduced in the fields of educational and developmental psychology. Since then, Vygotsky’s works have been translated and have become very influential, particularly in the area of education.

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