The Mozart of Psychology

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky


Lev Vygotsky as a young man


Vygotsky in Context

Historical and Contemporary Significance

Marxism and Education

Vygotsky's Childhood and Education

Early Career

At His Peak

Vygotsky's Legacy

Vygotsky's Fall from Favour

Vygotsky's Theoretical Toolbox

Socio-Cultural Development

Genetic Development

Higher Versus Elementary Psychological Functions

Vygotsky and Mediation

Mediated Literacy Instruction

Semiotic Mediation

Intermental vs Intramental Abilities

Egocentric Speech and Inner Speech

Zone of Proximal Development


Decontextualised Learning

Vygotsky and Pedagogy

Special Education & Defectology

Psychoeducational Assessment


Timeline of Life & Works



Introduction: In 1978, Stephen Toulmin, on reviewing Vygotsky's book Mind in Society, called him "The Mozart of Psychology" stating that his work had immense contemporary relevance. Cole and Scriber agreed, claiming in their introduction to the book that Vygotsky and his colleagues had, "formulated a meta-psychology that encompassed the phylogeny, cultural history, ontogeny and moment to moment dynamics of human psychological functioning as a life long process of becoming (Cole in press)."

Vygotsky's closest colleague and student, Alexander Romanovich Luria said of him, "Vygotsky was a genius. After more than half a century in science I am unable to name another person who even approaches his incredible analytical ability and foresight. All of my work has been no more than the working out of the psychological theory which he constructed."

My purpose in designing this website is to give an overview of Vygotsky's works and theories. In addition, I will attempt to provide access to critiques and commentaries on his work, which illustrate how much he has contributed to current thinking in psychology, education, and philosophy. I offer this work firstly as a requirement of my course of study in Evolution, Culture and Learning. However, it also has a secondary purpose. As a teacher and learner, who is privileged to serve as Co-chair of an Adult Literacy Practitioner Association it is my intention to use this material as a way of opening a dialogue about Vygotsky, his relevance and inclusion in our teaching practice. After gauging the Zone of Proximal Development of practitioners, further professional development opportunities will be offered.

Vygotsky in Context

Today, almost 71 years after his death, Vygotsky's contribution to psychology and education is enormous. Both in the East and West there has been a renaissance of interest in Vygotsky as his works, based on Marxist and social constructivist theories, have become more available, accessible, and adapted to meet the educational needs of today. However, Vygotsky's work has not always found favour or been readily available and one must consider Vygotsky in context.

Clearly, whether one is regarding Vygotsky from the perspective of the early high achiever, Stalin's ideological pariah or the new found Guru of education and psychology, one must remember that Vygotsky's psychological concepts cannot be separated from his Socio-cultural and political context. Vygotsky strongly supported the Russian revolution. It was his belief that socialism would bring about a classless society which would eliminate social conflict and the exploitation of the Russian people (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991 cited Ratner).

Historical and Contemporary Significance

According to Vygotsky, his lifework was "to learn from Marx's whole method how to build a science, how to approach the investigation of the mind" (Vygotsky, 1997, Ratner) and to develop an explicitly Marxist psychology. He said, "Marxist psychology is not a school amidst schools, but the only genuine psychology as a science. A psychology other than this cannot exist. And the other way around: everything that was and is genuinely scientific belongs to Marxist psychology" (Vygotsky, 1997 cited Ratner).

In 1930 he wrote that "revolutionary transformation of society was necessary to change the material conditions (production, standard of living, economic opportunities), social relations, educational opportunities, and cognitive and other psychological capabilities" 'The Socialist Alteration of Man" (in Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1994, Ratner). Vygotsky believed that if social change in class relations, institutions, and the means of production can improve cognitive functioning and reduce alienation, conflict, and aggression, then psychological processes must have a social nature (Vygotsky, 1930, Ratner).

Vygotsky experienced life through a Marxist filter, which examined psychological issues such as development, personality and character, emotions and learning from a cognitive and linguistic development perspective. Social theory penetrated deeply into psychology, philosophy and educational theory because for Marxists there was no clear separation between social and individual development (Blunden 2001).

Marxism and Education

Marxism posits that our consciousness, theorising and institutions are the products of existing economic structures and education the result of existing class structures. In education, the ruling class, who gain the most from education, control and set educational theory, policy and development in their attempt to reproduce the social order and retain their privilege. Later Gramsci and Althusser would develop models such as "ideological hegemony" and "ideological state apparatus" as discourses through which to discuss how knowledge comes to be transmitted, distributed and taught.

The models and lenses, which previously had been used to articulate thinking about education, underwent enormous changes during the early 20th century. Vygotsky, along with fellow theorists Piaget, Bruner and Dewey, adopted various variations of the paradigm called Constructivism, which asserts that meaning is constructed by the subject rather than existing externally and waiting to be discovered..

Vygotsky's Childhood and Education

Lev Vygotsky was born into a middle-class Jewish family on November 5th, 1896 in Orsha, a small town in Belorussia, however soon afterwards his father was appointed department chief of the United Bank of Gomel and the family moved.

Vygotsky's mother had trained to be a teacher but saw her priority is being at home to provide a stimulating and enriching environment for her eight children. Vygotsky completed his primary education at home with his mother and a private tutor and then entered public school for his secondary education. Possessing an exceptional reading speed and memory he was an excellent student in all subjects although his passion was drama and poetry.

Often referred to as "the Little Professor" because of his interest in philosophy and history Vygotsky graduated from secondary school with a gold medal at the age of 17. Although a brilliant student, there were doubts whether he would be accepted to the University of Moscow, due to the anti-Semitic quota system, which limited the number of Jewish students admitted and the courses they could take. However, although Vygotsky was successful in the ballot and entered the University he was barred from studying philosophy and initially studied medicine, but soon switched to Law. Vygotsky continued his self-directed studies in philosophy and when he graduated in 1917, with a law degree he returned home to teach literature and philosophy (Schugurensky)

Early Career

After graduating from the University Vygotsky career began with teaching in Gomel where met and married Roza Smekhova in 1924 and they had two daughters (Marty). Vygotsky set up a research lab at Gomel Teacher's College where he continued his psychological research and gave lectures which would later become the basis for his book Completely self-taught, in 1924, he made a presentation at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. He discussed methods of reflexological and psychological investigations. Vygotsky's presentation was very well received and Luria and Kornilov offered him a live in position restructuring the Psychological Institute of Moscow. While living in the basement he had the opportunity to read masses of archived materials which he later put to good use.

Vygotsky at His Peak

In 1925 Vygotsky finished his dissertation on The Psychology of Art. He also became a junior psychologist at the Psychological Institute of Moscow University and was soon highly regarded in the field.

Vygotsky instigated special education services in Russia, he restructured the Psychological Institute of Moscow and set up research laboratories in all the main cities of the Soviet Union. He was to write over 180 papers, some of which are only now being published. With his students, Luria and Leont'ev, Vygotsky's goal was to use Marxist methodology to reformulate psychological theories in accordance with Marxist thinking and how to address social and political issues confronting the new nation as it went from feudalism to socialism (Newman and Holzman, 1993, 1995). Vygotsky and his colleagues were also aware that bringing together many different cultural and ethnic groups as part of the new Soviet State was created problems. These cultural difficulties combined with the lack of appropriate resources and services meant many people felt excluded from full participation in the society.

An area of a high priority for the Vygotsky was always the psychology of education and remediation and his lifelong interest in children with "handicaps" and learning disabilities led him to form the "Laboratory of Psychology for Abnormal Childhood" in Moscow in 1925.

In addition to education and remediation, Vygotsky was also being recognised as leading a transformational school of thought, which was turning psychology from a field of activity into a discipline of inquiry. His philosophical analysis of the foundations of psychology in his work The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology saw his reputation further enhanced.

Vygotsky's Legacy

Unfortunately Vygotsky contracted tuberculosis from his younger brother, whom he was caring for and died in 1934 at the age of 37. Vygotsky's students, family and colleagues have remained loyal to him and have been responsible for continuing his work, publishing his works both in Russia and in the West. Thought and Language was first published in English in the early 1960s. However, although it generated some interest, it was not until 16 years later in 1978, with the publication of Mind in Society, that the importance of his contribution was first noticed and the value placed on his work began to grow (Newman and Holzmann, 1993, 1995).

Vygotsky has become acclaimed as the originator of Soviet psychology and internationally regarded as an outstanding thinker. He has been credited with broaching the divide between the Russian and European schools of Psychological Thought and being a major influence in shaping the historical course of psychology from the 1920s to the present day (Newman and Holzmann, 1993, 1995).

Vygotsky's sociocultural perspective on human development and on the development of thought and speech has travelled across the world and educational practitioners, especially in the areas of early childhood, special education and adult literacy are finding him particularly relevant. As Newman and Holzmann, (1993, 1995) rightly point out, Vygotsky is now more highly regarded than Piaget, Freud, Skinner et al. Kerr (1997) suggests that the West still has a great deal to learn from Vygotsky including; "a set of distinctive new ideas about psychology, development, classroom interaction, and organizational change, a perspective that complements, but does not duplicate, those found in the West".

Vygotsky's Fall from Favour

Vygotsky rise and fall was closely connected to his work in Paedology (School Psychology International, 1995). As Vygotsky began his career in Psychology in the 1920's, Paedology was becoming recognised as a separate discipline, which was to reach its peak in the late 1920 and early 1930's. By which time Vygotsky was at the height of his influence (Gindis, 1995). However, both Vygotsky and Paedology were soon to fall foul of Russia's leader, Joseph Stalin. Many leading psychologists working in the field were accused of "paedological pervasion" and dismissed, some ending up detained in labour camps. The practice of Paedology was forcible ended shortly before Vygotsky's death and in 1936 his name and works were banned in the Soviet Union for over 20 years. Psychoeducational assessment was prohibited and psychology in school was completely banned as a profession until the 1980's (Gindis, (1995). (Valsiner, 1988 cited in Gindis 1995).

There are various explanations of why Stalin chose paedology as a target for one of his purges (Gindis 1991 cites Kozulin, 1984; Valsiner, 1988; Baranov, 1990). Yaroshevsky, (1993) offer evidence of personal reasons, claiming that Stalin's own son Vasily was among the many children who were unable to pass the psychological tests administered (Gindis 1991). There were also concerns about the validity and reliability of tests used and a belief that tests were inappropriate or over-identifying students as "handicapped. This is certainly a concern in the field of Inclusive Education today.

There is also a theory that Stalin objected to Vygotsky's willingness to discuss and respond to the ideas of others in the international psychological fraternity such as Pavlov, Lewin, Freud, Alder and Piaget (Parrington, 1994). Although sometimes not known to each other at the time, Vygotsky did much of his own writing in the form of a discussion, dialogue or polemic with these people. Stalin increasingly regarded him as a "bourgeois idealist" and in 1936, two years after Vygotsky's death banned his work.

Kerr, (1997) points out the irony, that after Vygotsky's death a decree by the Central Committee on Communism suppressed any work relating to paedology, yet his work had largely been consistent with the Communist party line. However, he also notes that some of Vygotsky’s ideas on language were contrary to those expressed by Stalin in his 1950 essay on linguistics and therefore were also banned (Kerr, 1997).

Another area of contention that may have influenced Stalin's attitude was the scientific debate between scientists with a "Mechanistic" and " Dialectic" approach. Ivan Pavlov represented the former in which he posited that all behaviour could be seen as either conditional or unconditional reflexes, while Vygotsky drew on dialectical methods to construct his psychology. From this he constructed a Genetic approach to cognitive development based on the child's social interaction which would come to influence Piaget and ultimately bring him to the attention of the Western world (Farmelant, 2002).

With Vygotsky on the outer with Stalin, Pavlov's reflexology became the official model of psychological thinking in the Soviet Union and other schools of thought were suppressed. It was only with Stalin's own demise in the early 1950's that his totalitarian grip on Russia would ease and Vygotsky's name would begin to resurface.

Vygotsky's Theoretical Toolbox

Socio-Cultural Development

According to Luria (1982) Vygotsky's interest in psychology was developed through his work in defectology and that through his work in this field he formulated his general developmental theory which has three central concepts: internalisation, semiotic mediation, and the zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978; 1981; 1986). Vygotsky believed his model held true for all children, including those considered handicapped (sic), explaining that the assumptions on which his theory was based were compatible with the phenomenon of disontogenesis (distorted development). He posited that both normal and abnormal behaviour were part of human development, which follows specific patterns of formation (Gindis 1995).

Vygotsky saw human development as a socio-genetic process with learning coming about through social interactions between children and adults. He believed that education "generates" and leads development, which is the result of social learning through the internalisation of culture and social relationships.

For Vygotsky human cognitive development did not follow a straight path, he believed that development is about the process and not the product: and that this process is diminished if treated as something that happens in stages. He disagreed with Piaget's hypothesis that cognitive development consists of four major periods of cognitive growth: sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operations, and formal operations, instead arguing it consisted of a series of qualitative, dialectic transformations, and was a complex process of integration and disintegration. Central to his theory was the belief that culture is transmitted through the interiorisation of social signs, the major one being language, and that human cognitive development takes place through mediation by psychological and other tools (Lock 2005, Wertsch 2001).

Vygotsky theoretical perspective can be understood best in terms of three general themes that run throughout his writings:

  1. The use of a genetic, or developmental method;
  2. The claim that higher mental functioning in the individual emerges out of social processes; and
  3. The claim that human social and psychological processes are fundamentally shaped by cultural tools, or mediational means. (Lock 2005)

Although usually separated for discussion purposes these thematic strands are totally interrelated in a non hierarchical manner and an understanding of this interconnectedness is critical to an understanding of Vygotsky's approach (Wertsch, 1985, Lock, 2005)

1) Genetic Development

Vygotsky developed his theoretical framework using genetic analysis, which examined the origins and history of phenomena, focusing on their interconnectedness. The genetic method holds that mental processes can only be properly understood from the perspective of how and where they occur in growth. In describing his approach he consistently emphasised that it was imperative to focus not on the product of development, but on the process whereby higher forms are established. He posited that learning and development takes place in society and in culturally shaped contexts. And, as historical conditions are constantly undergoing change, so do contexts and learning opportunities. Therefore there can be no universal schema that can fully represent the changing dynamics between internal and external aspects of development (Steiner & Souberman, 1978)

2) Higher Versus Elementary Psychological Functions

Vygotsky saw cognitive or psychological abilities as falling into higher or elementary mental functions. Elementary mental functions were what children had when they were born, i.e. an intact nervous system and also included other "lower" or "natural" mental functions such as elementary perception, eidetic memory, attention and will (Kozulin, 1986). Natural/lower or elementary abilities make it possible for people to do new things that are different from higher abilities. Higher, or "cultural" mental functions, e.g. abstract reasoning, logical memory, language, voluntary attention, planning, decision-making, etc. have their origin in human interaction and appear gradually during the process of radical transformation of the lower functions. These are specific human functions which are formed and shaped gradually in a course of transformation of the lower functions, according to specific goals, practices, and beliefs of the persons culture and social group (Kozulin, 1986). The transformation is made through the so-called "mediated activity" and "psychological tools" (Kozulin, 1990; Newman & Holzman, 1993).

Wertsch (1985) suggests the 4 major differences between higher and lower mental functions are:

3) Vygotsky and Mediation

"The central fact about our psychology is the fact of mediation"

Semiotic mediation is central to all aspects of knowledge co-construction. Vygotsky regards semiotic mechanisms (including psychological tools) to mediate social and individual function, and connects the external and the internal, the social and the individual Wertsch and Stone (1985) (Mahn & John-Steiner).

Wertsch (1994) elaborates on the centrality of mediation in understanding Vygotsky's contributions to psychology and education.

[Mediation] is the key in his approach to understanding how human mental functioning is tied to cultural, institutional, and historical settings since these settings shape and provide the cultural tools that are mastered by individuals to form this functioning. In this approach, the mediational means are what might be termed the "carriers" of sociocultural patterns and knowledge (Cited by Mahn & John Steiner, 1994).

Mediated Literacy Instruction

Vygotsky advises that the best method of teaching literacy uses the mediation method, which both guides and evolves through the social interaction that occurs during the learning activity. During this process the teacher does not impart knowledge. Rather she mediates learning through the social interaction between learner and teacher (Dixon-Krauss, Calderhead & Miller, 1985; Lampert & Clark, 1990)

Vygotsky felt that classifying reading strategies into the following three areas enables the teacher to teach explicit strategies best suited to the intended purpose:

(a) Comprehension strategies include prediction, sorting information, making inferences, etc.,

(b) Word identification strategies deal with context or print decoding, and

(c) Text structure strategies include identifying story elements, main points, supporting information, etc.

Once the strategy is selected, the teacher guides the student in applying the strategy and adjusts her support when needed" (Dixon-Krauss).

Reflection focuses on analysing whether the learner understood the text and building the learner's self-knowledge through discussion, which includes having the learner reflect on the strategies used how they helped determine the meaning of the piece. Metacognition (thinking about one's thinking and monitoring the process) is an important part of this process. These are crucial parts of the process for both learner and teacher.

Semiotic Mediation

"Semiotic activity is defined here as the activity of relating a sign and its meaning, including the use of signs, the activity of investigating the relationship between sign and meaning, as well as improving the existing relationship between sign (or sign system) and meaning (or meaning system)" (van Oers)

Higher mental processes are mediated by tools, which can take one of three forms - symbols, material or another human being's behaviour. They can include, various systems for counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps, and technical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs,

(Vygotsky, 1982:137, cited in Cole & Wertsch, Nicholl 1998)

Semiotic mediators are pre-programmed psychological tools. Symbols such as language are psychological tools that mediate an individual's psychological processes, material tools mediate between the individual and nature. We construct reality through language, we initiate our children into our culture and until they have the self-awareness and self-control to monitor their own actions we mediate the process for them. The mediation between individuals is the development of intramental abilities through intermental interaction. The following quote outlines the use of a material tool.

"When a human being ties a knot in her handkerchief as a reminder, she is, in essence, constructing the process of memorising by forcing an external object to remind her of something; she transforms remembering into an external activity. This fact alone is enough to demonstrate the fundamental characteristic of the higher forms of behaviour. In the elementary form something is remembered; in the higher form humans remember something. In the first case a temporary link is formed owing to the simultaneous occurrence of two stimuli that affect the organism; in the second case humans personally create a temporary link through an artificial combination of stimuli." (Vygotsky, quoted by Lock 2005)

Vygotsky believed that when a person was able to decontextualise the learning, which occurred through mediated means, semiotic potential was realised (Wertsch (1991) Nicholl (1998). This meant the learner could go beyond the concrete operations and learning experiences and develop the ability to extricate concepts from their context and examine them at an abstract level, engaging in a process of reflection and then put that learning to new uses. Semiotic potential exists in decontextualised material or ideas as it gives rise to new or divergent meanings. As Popper (1972) explained when asked how animal paths might occur in the jungle, " they are not planned or intended, and there was perhaps no need for them before they came into existence. But they may create a new need, or a set of new aims: the aim-structure of animals or men is not "given" but it develops... out of earlier aims, and out of results which were or were not aimed at. In this way a whole new universe of possibilities or potentialities may arise: a world which is to a large extent autonomous (1972) cited by Nicholl (1998)

Intermental Vs Intramental Abilities

Vygotsky (1978) states:

"We can formulate the genetic law of cultural development in the following way... Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it appears on the social plane and then on the psychological plane. First it appears between people as an inter-psychological category and then within the individual child as an intra-psychological category... but it goes without saying that internalisation transforms the process itself and changes its structure and functions. Social relations or relations among people genetically underlie all higher functions and their relationships. (Vygotsky 1978)

Intermental ability is realised in the relationships between people, while intramental ability is realised internally. An example of intermental ability is that used by Lock (2005) and describing how a child's cries which appear to communicate her needs by crying does so only because of the adult's interpretation of this localisation as a call for assistance. The desire to communicate or the means is not initially located in the child. They are in effect communicating "by default" (Lock 2005). Therefore the child, through its relationship with the adult, who interprets its cries as communication, has an intermental ability. When the child realises that it can control its crying and use it for a purpose (e.g. to get picked up or other attention) the child is internalised the knowledge and now possesses an intramental ability.

Language is a crucial area to the development of children.

As Luria explains "

When he acquires a word, which isolates a particular thing and serves as a signal to a particular action, the child, as he carries out an adult's verbal instruction, is subordinated to this word.... By subordinating himself to the adult's verbal orders the child acquires a system of these verbal instructions and gradually begins to utilise them for the regulation of his own behaviour " (Luria and Yudovich, 1971: 13-14)

Egocentric Speech and Inner Speech

Vygotsky believed language is a tool, which functions to enable people to organise their thoughts. It is of the utmost importance because it carries the concepts of our culture (Vygotsky, 1962). Communication is the primary function of speech and initially speech performs a socialising purpose as it is used to communicate and to carry out social relations with other people. This is the kind of speech children use to express their needs and emotions. Talking aloud to oneself or egocentric speech is the first link between external speech and internal thought. Saying aloud the steps or stages of the task for example. Typically found in 3 to 7 year olds, Vygotsky believes egocentric speech is characterised by external signs and operations, which are being used to solve internal computations, for example using your fingers to count (Wang 2001.) Vygotsky saw egocentric speech as the key to studying inner speech, as it was the stage that preceded it (Benson, 1995).

Internal speech is similar to internal thought. As Benson explains (1995) vocalisation, as found in egocentric speech, usually ceases when the person can think the words rather than vocalising them.

To Vygotsky, inner speech "is not the interior aspect of external speech - it is a function in itself. It still remains speech, i.e., thought connected with words. But where in external speech thought is embodied in words, in inner speech words die as they bring forth thought. Inner speech is to a large extent thinking in pure meanings" (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 149).

Vygotsky disagreed with Piaget who argued that ‘egocentric speech’ occurs at the time of the preoperational stage and disappears as the child becomes less self-centred, becomes aware of others and learns to socialise with others (Nickels, 1998). Vygotsky believed social speech develops first with the child being initiated into the culture, egocentric speech as audible self-talk follows and finally inner speech and internalised higher abilities (Benson, 1995).

The Zone of Proximal Development

In order to subject a function to intellectual and volitional control, we must first possess it (Vygotsky, 1962:Cited by Lock).

"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 adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers "(Vygotsky, 1978).

Vygotsky first mentioned the concept of the "The Zone of Proximal Development" in a lecture only 15months before his death, stating the idea did not originate with him (van de Veer and Valsiner 1991). Probably because he died so soon afterward, later work does not elaborate in much detail as to how Vygotsky saw the ZPD working, suggesting he had not yet fully developed his thinking on it (Meira, & Lerman 2001). Consequently, the theory of ZPD has been variously interpreted and re-interpreted throughout the years since 1934 causing Newman and Holzman (1993) to suggest that this may be why so many have incorporated this notion into the paradigms within which they work (cognitive science, interactionist perspectives etc.).

"The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These functions could be termed the "buds" or "flowers" of development rather than the "fruits" of development" (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86).

The Zone of Proximal Development is the difference between the person's ability to solve problems on her own, and her ability to solve them with assistance. Schütz (2004) explains the "actual developmental level refers to all the functions and activities that a child can perform on his own, independently without the help of anyone else. On the other hand, the zone of proximal development includes all the functions and activities that a child or a learner can perform only with the assistance of someone else."

Prerequisites to assisting someone to work in their ZPD are empathy and judgement about their needs and capabilities when acting alone. The ZPD comes into being when one person acts as the mediator for another person who is not able to execute a particular action alone. Or, paradoxically, as Lock points out, (giving the example of a child putting unsuitable materials into its mouth) prevents them doing something which alone they are not able to resist doing (Lock 2005). Calling this 'negation in the zoped', Lock (2005) explains that this is one of the ways a parent acts for the child, until such time as through their joint interactions the child develops the mental abilities to be able to regulate its own actions. The ZPD is more usually seen as a positive interaction whereby a person is able to do something with help, which alone would be impossible.

Valsiner and van der Veer (1993) Meira &Lerman (2001) have identified three key functions, which they think Vygotsky appeared to be focusing on in his development of the ZPD theory:

1) Performance- Vygotsky was critical of traditional IQ testing and this was a possible way to compare differential scores between an individual's solo and assisted performance in problem solving.

2) Interaction- An extension of the first phase, which emphasised the social aspects of assistance and guidance - rather than assessment of performance.

(3) Symbolic mediation- Further developments of the concept, taking it out of the immediate socio-interactional situation, and focusing on the symbol-mediated world in such activities as play.

Therefore (according to Meira &Lerman 2001) the ZPD was first used as a means for testing intellectual development, although the concept was later broadened by Vygotsky to examine the relationship between education and development (mainly through social assistance and play).

Despite this, the literature often refers only to Vygotsky's initial criticism of IQ measures and his related proposal of examining joint problem solving.

It would appear from these sources that Vygotsky's thinking on the ZPD at this stage saw him in agreement with Binet (1909, 1973) who also believed intelligence did not have an innate and quantifiable nature, and that IQ levels could be changed through learning and instruction.

Vygotsky's interest in these issues was apparently prompted by contemporary empirical findings, which suggested that the "IQ's" of intelligent children were lowered by attending school, while those of children with low "IQ" scores increased. Vygotsky wanted to know if there was a way to establish a child's potential for learning in specific domains or if one could gauge the child's readiness for instruction at any given age

Vygotsky's hypothesis was twofold, 1) that all individual development occurs through sign mediation in activity. 2) Learning leads development and therefore learning in all educational activities is as a consequence of this mediation (Lock 2005).

Meira & Lerman (2001) find that the ZPD is not something that pre-exists; rather it is a symbolic space for interaction and communication where learning leads development. They refer to Wersch's (1985) statements that the ZPD is not a measurable object that can be measured. Nor is it merely related to the inter-actional events, which lead to cognitive change. As Wersch (1985) said the ZPD is not just a property of the child, nor is it merely the result of inter-psychological functioning alone. The Zone of Proximal Development is more complex than this, to have the capability to act alone we must move from the intramental level to the intramental level of cognition. Further research is looking at the Zone of Free Movement and other developments of the ZPD.


Scaffolding is the process by which someone supports another to work in the ZPD. The person providing non-intrusive intervention in this process, may be a parent, teacher, mentor, coach, or peer who has already mastered that particular function. Learners are encouraged to carry out the parts of the tasks that are within their capacity and the more skilled other supports them or "scaffolds" the rest. (Wood, Bruner, Ross, 1976; Wood & Middletown, 1975).

Bruner developed the concept of scaffolding because he believed there was a paradox inherent in Vygotsky's explanation of the ZPD, claiming, "On the one hand the zone of proximal development has to do with achieving 'consciousness and control'. But consciousness and control come only after one has already got a function well and spontaneously mastered. So how could 'good learning' be that which is in advance of development and, as it were, bound initially to be unconscious since unmastered?" (Bruner, 1985: Meira & Lerman (2001).

His solution was for a more experienced person to provide the structure necessary so that the learner was able to complete the task. Calling the process Scaffolding for obvious reason, Bruner saw it as a structured process, whereby the degree of support given was determined by the learner's need. It was constructed when needed, enabling the child to achieve, by having had a task or skill modelled; breaking down the task into simpler, more accessible elements; keeping motivation and stimulation high; and then by gradually dismantling and withdrawing the support as it was no longer required. Other Types of scaffolding, include bridging, modelling contextualisation and re-presenting materials.

Decontextualised Learning

Vygotsky believed that "the ideal of knowledge is not only universal but abstract and decontextualised" (Piaget, &Vygotsky) It is when the person can transfer the newly learned skill to a different context, which may require abstract thought, that learning has become "decontextualised." The skills and knowledge initially gained as a result of learning being scaffolded are an example of intermental learning, whereas, when the individual internalises the learning and can generalise and therefore decontextualise the learning they have accomplished intramental learning.

Vygotsky and Pedagogy

Vygotsky believed that there are three active elements needed to ensure learning takes place, active learners, active teachers and an active social environment in which they come together.

An opponent of traditional education where learners are passive recipients of bodies of knowledge and their teacher's experiences Vygotsky argued that we are our own teachers, claiming, "From a scientific point of view, strictly speaking you cannot educate anyone else." He believed that learning is an internal process, which takes place through our perceptions and interpretations of the experiences we have in the real world. Therefore, the personal experiences of the learner are paramount in education (Oscarsson, 2001). Vygotsky used the metaphor of teachers as railway tracks whose purpose was to enable the railway carriages (learners) to travel freely and independently in the direction of their own movement.

Special Education

The social/cultural implication of disability: Vygotsky's paradigm for special education

"A disability in and of itself is not a tragedy.

It is only an occasion to provoke tragedy." - Vygotsky

A key area of Vygotsky's educational legacy is his theoretical framework for the comprehensive, inclusive, and humanitarian practice of special education (School Psychology International, (1995). Vygotsky believed that defects, which he conceptualised as "primary defects" (organic impairment) and "secondary defects," (distortions of higher psychological functions due to social factors) could have different psychological effects depending on culture and environment factors (Gindis, 1998). He stressed the importance of the social inclusion of disabled children into the social-cultural life of their community as a "condition of effective rehabilitation and compensation". However, although he did not support the social isolation of students with disabilities, and on several occasions he made clear his support of the concept of social inclusion through mainstreaming, Vygotsky did not advocate the total inclusion without restrictions for all students within the mainstream. He did not think it was advisable for every disabled student to attend the same classes and schools as their non-disabled peers, nor did he think that everyone should be working to the same curriculum. He was aware that merely putting the student in a mainstream learning environment without offering a truly differentiated learning program would not develop the learner's higher psychological functions and personality.

He saw special education as requiring a systemic approach, which should take place in a learning environment where the students needs were fully understood and where specific methods were adopted to ensure the learner's received specifically modified programs. These programs were to be delivered in ways which would supply disabled students with those "psychological tools" most appropriate to their needs and conditions. He was also very interested in the nature of such mental illnesses as schizophrenia and the biological basis of consciousness (Gindis 1998).


"Defectology" was the term used by Vygotsky to describe the area of his research and practice, which related to contemporary special education and school and educational psychology. The term, which literally means the study of defect, has no currency either in Western or Russian pedagogy because of the deficit model it adopts towards disability and people with disabilities.

However, for many years it was used in Russia to refer to the education of sensory, physically, cognitively, and neurologically "handicapped" children. It included "four major domains: surdo-pedagogika (education of the hard of hearing and deaf); tiflo-pedagogika (education of the visually impaired and blind); oligophreno-pedagogica (education of the children with mental retardation); and logopedia (education of speech and language impaired children)".

Defectologia catered to a similarly sized population as Special Education in countries like the USA, but did not include students with emotional issues or learning disabilities. Children with so-called "health conditions" e.g. Cerebral palsy, or psychiatric disorders like autism, received educational remediation in special school-sanatoriums. Learners with organically intact brains and sensory systems traditionally were placed in general education. (Gindis, 1986, 1988).

The laboratory that Vygotsky set up to study defectology was literally the incubator for his ideas and the place where he and his colleagues, "the Russian troika" managed to keep working despite Stalin's disapproval. It was also the place where many of his theoretical concepts were developed and where after his death they continued to work and largely escape Stalin's purges, which began in the 1930s.

Psychoeducational Assessment and Paedology

In Vygotsky's time standardised testing of mental abilities was in its infancy and was seen to hold great promise internationally. Coming from the position that human cognition is firmly embedded in culture and seeing "pure information processing" as a misguided way to approach the study of human cognition, Vygotsky was one of the few who persisted in opposing the concept of IQ/mental age. Now over 60 years later, traditional IQ testing has largely been discredited and increasingly is being replaced by alternative approach similar to the one recommended by him, which is known as "dynamic" or "interactive" assessment.


Exhorting educators and psychologists to work together (1997) claims Vygotsky work has deep significance for both Russian and Western educational theory and practice. He encourages the West to collaborate with colleagues in Russia, as their focus on constructivism and socio-cultural and historical processes offers a valuable addition to the thinking of the West. Warning that to isolate ourselves and ignore the developments in Russian Education will be to our detriment, Kerr (1997) makes it clear, we still have a lot more to learn from Vygotsky.

Timeline of Vygotsky's Life and Works

1897 Vygotsky born in Orsche

1909 Vygotsky's bar mitzvah at the age of 13

1913 Graduation from a Jewish gymnasium with honours and a gold medal

1916 Hamlet essay completed, started while studying at the gymnasium (published in 1968)

1917 Graduation from Moscow University with a law degree

1917 Began to work in Psychology

1917 Russian revolution

Working as a teacher in Gomel, head of the psychological laboratory at the Teachers Training Institute At this time Vygotsky was collecting information for both his thesis and a book to be named 'Pedagogical Psychology'.

1920 First bout of tuberculosis contracted from his brother.

1924 Vygotsky married Roza Smekhova in 1924, later had two daughters.

1924 Started Moscow academic career, at the Institute of Moscow

1924 Presentation of the paper "Methodology of reflexological and psychological research at the Second Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad

1925 Doctoral thesis 'Psychology of Art' Consciousness as a problem in the psychology of behavior

1926 published Pedagogical Psychology/Educational Psychology

1927 Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation

1929 The Problem of the Cultural Development of the Child1929

1930 Primitive Man and his Behaviour, The socialist alteration of man

1931 Adolescent Pedagogy

1933 Play and its role in the Mental Development of the Child

1934 Thinking and Speaking Died of Tuberculosis in June

1936 Vygotsky's work banned in USSR

1953 Stalin dies -

1956 Ban on Vygotsky's work lifted.

1962 Vygotsky's work becomes available in the West with the publication of 'Thought and Language'

(Largely based on Hansen-Reid 2001)


Vygotsky's Works


Inclusion and disability

Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky Socio-cultural approach

Social Development Theory


Early Childhood and Play



Adult Literacy

Cognition and Foundations of Learning



Vygotsky's Colleagues

Early ideas on Socialist Education

Marxist thinking

Marxist Psychology

Education in Stalinist Russia


Structuralism and post structuralism

Structuralism and Saussure Ferdinand de Saussure


PostmodernTherapies NEWS 01/07/05 PMTH NEWS)



Transformational education

Critical pedagogy

Critical and Vygotskian theories of education: A Comparison Wardekker,


Aydin Yücesan Durguno-lu, Banu Ouml;ney Phonological Awareness in Literacy Acquisition: It's Not Only for Children Scientific Studies of Reading, 2002, Vol. 6, No. 3, Pages 245-266

Blunden, A., (Biography)Editor of the Encylcopedia of Marxism [ghra (-@-)] Hegel Archive

Blunden, A., 2001 The Vygotsky School "Spirit, Money and Modernity" Seminar

Blunden. A.& Leont'ev A.N.

Cheyne A.& Tarulli, D.,1996 Dialogue, Difference, and the "Third Voice" in the Zone of Proximal Development

Cole, M & Wersch, J. 1994 Beyond The Individual-Social Antimony In Discussions Of Piaget And Vygotsky

Cole, M., (in Press) Reading Vygotsky

(Preface to an edited collection of Vygotsky Writings by Rieber and Robinson, in press)Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition University of California,

Dahl, B., 2003 A Synthesis Of Piaget And Vygotsky? Philosophy Of Mathematics Education Journal 17

Davidson Films images/thumbnail photos

Epic Group on Karl Marx 2005

Farmelant, J., (2002) Marxism-Thaxis : Mechanists versus Dialecticians in early Soviet philosophy.

Gindis, B (1999) Vygotsky’s Vision: Reshaping the Practice of Special Education for the 21st Century Published in: Remedial and Special Education, (1999). Vol.20, No. 6, pp. 32-64.

Gindis, B., & Karpov, Y., Dynamic Assessment: Prevailing Models and Applications 2000 Editors LidZ, C & Elliot, J. JAI

Goldfarb, M.E. 2001 Understanding The Social Substance And Dynamic Nature Of The Handicap: Educational Theory Of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

Holzman, L. 2000 Special Issue Of Educational And Child Psychology 2000 Performative Psychology An Untapped Resource For Educators

Lev Vygotsky Revolutionary Scientist

Holzman, L., & Newman, F., Chapter 3: Practice -

Vygotsky's tool-and-result methodology and psychology

Holzman, L., & Newman, F., 1993 Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary Scientist (Critical Psychology) Routledge London, New York. Routledge's Critical Psychology Series

Klages, M., 1997. Louis Althusser's "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"

Kerr, S., 1997 Why Vygotsky? The Role Of Theoretical Psychology In Russian Education Reform University Of Washington Presented At The Annual Meeting Of The American Association For The Advancement Of Slavic Studies Seattle, Washington

Knox, J., & Stevens, C., (1993) Editors Book review: The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Volume 2: The Fundamentals of Defectology (Abnormal Psychology and Learning Disabilities). Translated and with an introduction by of the English translation: R. W. Rieber and A.S. Carton. Plenum Press, New York, 349 pages, 1993

Kostogriz, A., 2002. Activity Theory And The New Literacy Studies: Modelling The Literacy Learning Activity System Activity Theory And The New Literacy Studies: Modelling The Literacy Learning Activity System Http://Www.Aare.Edu.Au/00pap/Kos00161.Htm

Lock, A., (2005) LECTURE 16: VYGOTSKY Massey University

Marty P., 2001? Massey University Lev Vygotsky

Mahn , H., & John- Steiner, V., The Gift Of Confidence: A Vygotskian View Of Emotions chapter 4

Mahn, H., & John-Steiner, V.,Sociocultural Approaches to Learning and Development:

A Vygotskian Framework Educational Psychologist University of New Mexico

Martin Oscarsson (April 2001)

Meira, L., Lerman, S., 2001 The Zone Of Proximal Development As A Symbolic

Space London South Bank University Http://Www.Lsbu.Ac.Uk/Ahs/Research/Reports/Stevelerman1.Pdf

Mylov, P., 2001. SOCIOCULTURAL DRAMATISM Wertsch Vs. Vygotsky VR Media Lab, Aalborg University, Denmark

D:\My Documents\VR Media Lab, Aalborg University, Denmark - ActivityTheory

Ratner, C., 2003-4 Child Psychology: Vygotsky's Conception Of Psychological Development Contemporary Uses Of Vygotsky's Approach Criticism Of Some Neo-Vygotskians

Elementary Vs. Higher Psychological Functions Institute For Cultural Research & Education

Ratner, C., 1998 The Historical And Contemporary Significance Of Vygotsky's Sociohistorical Psychology In R. Rieber And K. Salzinger (Eds.), Psychology: Theoretical-Historical Perspectives. Washington D.C.: American Psychological Association. 1998, Pp. 455-473


Ratner, C., 1997 Prologue to Vygotsky's Collected Works Volume 5

Ratner, C., 1994 Vygotsky The Socialist Alteration Of Man" 1930 (In Van Der Veer & Valsiner, 1994, Ratner). Carl Director Institute For Cultural Researchand Education P.O. Box 1294, Trinidad, CA. 95570, USA

Schugurensky , D., (2001?) Editor. Selected Moments of the 20th Century: 1913 Vygotsky loses bet with sister when admitted to Moscow university.

Dept of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto

Savage D (Queens College-CUNY) and Reichler R (University of Illinois). Page last updated on October 10, 1998.


Smagorinsky P. The Social Construction Of Data: Methodological Problems Of Investigating Learning In The Zone Of Proximal Development Http://Psych.Hanover.Edu/Vygotsky/Smagor.Html

(A paper submitted to a special issue of Educational Psychologist on theoretical approaches to learning and their implications for the classroom)

Subbotsky E., 1994 Vygotsky's Distinction Between Lower And Higher Mental Functions And Recent Studies On Infant Cognitive Development International Conference L.S.Vygotsky and the Contemporary Human Sciences

Subbotsky E., 1994 Vygotsky's Distinction Between Lower And Higher Mental Functions And Recent Studies On Infant Cognitive Development Psychology Department, University Of Lancaster, Http://Evolution.Massey.Ac.Nz/Assign2/MHR/Indexvyg.Html

van der Veer, J., & Valsiner, J. (1991). Understanding Vygotsky: A quest for synthesis. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Venezky,, R. L. .Introduction to This Special Issue: Reading Development in Adults

Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 6, No. 3: pages 217-220. 2002

Venezky, R. L., The Origins of the Present-Day Chasm Between Adult Literacy Needs and School Literacy Instruction Scientific Studies of Reading, Vol. 4, No. 1: pages 19-39. 2000

Wells, G., 1994 Learning And Teaching "Scientific Concepts": Moscow, Sept.1994. Vygotsky's Ideas Revisited Ontario Institute For Studies In Education. University Of Toronto

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