Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was born on 5th November 1896 in the small town Orsha, in the republic of Belarus. Before his first birthday the
family moved to Gomel, about 640 km
west of Moscow, where he grew up. Vygotsky's family was very educated. His father,
Semion L'vovich, worked as a manager at the Gomel bank. His mother, Cecilia, a caring, loving woman was the heart of the family. By training she was a teacher,
but never worked in a school as there were eight children to raise in the family.
Lev received his elementary education at home with a tutor for consultation. During
his years at secondary school and gymnasium, he stood out in his breadth and depth of
interests. He excelled in mathematics and languages, but he most preferred literature
and philosophy. In 1913 Vygotsky initially
studied medicine at the University of
Moscow. However, he changed the direction of his studies and entered law school. He later became involved in history and philosophy. He graduated in 1917 as a teacher of literature.
Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory
Vygotsky's theoretical framework is based on the assumption that all action is mediated and that it is inextricably connected to the social context where it is happening. J. Wertsch who was a leader in making Vygotsky's work available in the west, outlines three themes that are woven through Vygotsky's work.
All these ideas are closely intertwined in Vygotsky's work. So it is important to keep this in mind when reading about them as separate concepts.
1. Genetic Analysis
Vygotsky based his work generally on Darwinian principles of evolution. He asserted, however, that laws of evolution cannot account for the genetic transition in sociocultural history. In his view ontogenesis occurs in three lines - the natural, the cultural and the social - all of which interact resulting in change (Vygotsky, 1960). In his attempts to comprehend the mind, genetic analysis was the foundation of his studies. In order to understand the nature of mental processes, he needed to discover its essence. Vygotsky focused his empirical research on ontogenesis of the individual in childhood. His special interest lay in problem-solving and how the use of tools to mediate practical action compared between apes and humans. Whereas primates are limited by concrete situations and objects, humans have representational means such as words to overcome the constraints. This difference between concreteness and abstractness mirrors the difference between elementary and higher mental functioning.
Elementary and Higher Mental Functioning
As Piaget also suggested, whilst children develop, they progress in their cognitive development from simple reflexes to increasingly complex and symbolic thinking (Piaget, 1952). Young children, for example, depend on the presence of concrete objects, and use eidetic imagery to memorise them. They are keeping a picture in their mind which serves as the stimulus when the object has to be recalled. Higher mental functions include developed, voluntary cognitive processes, a transition from direct and nature-endowed forms and methods of behaviour. They are mediated by tools and sign systems like language, diagrams or arithmetic. These abilities evolved, according to Vygotsky, from tool-mediated action in apes but are qualitatively higher and unique to humans. Vygotsky does not consider the development of higher mental functioning a simple continuation of elementary functions but a new formation with its own characteristics. The notion of a qualitative change is emphasised throughout his work.
2. Social Origins of Psychological Functioning
(* Note: the terms 'mental' and 'psychological' can be used interchangeably as they depend on the translation from Russian to English)
Reading a story together, the child wonders why the boy did not want to go to bed. The teacher asks: 'Do you think he was thirsty?' The child answers: 'No, he just had a glass of milk!' A new question by the teacher: 'Was the boy tired?' The child confirms that proposition. 'Did the boy have his teddy?' The child who had mentioned the teddy lying under the bed when looking at the picture, points to it again and shouts: ' That's why he did not want to got to bed.
In this example the higher psychological functions have been carried out through interaction between the two people.
Vygotsky claimed that all human action in general and all psychological functions, are mediated by tools. He distinguished between technical tools that work on the object and psychological tools that mediate the relationship to the environment, action and thought. Sign systems, such as language, diagrams, arithmetic, formulae are psychological means to human action. Vygotsky concentrated on investigation of mediational properties of these sign systems in higher psychological functions, especially on language. His book 'Thinking and Speech' was devoted to studies of the relationship between different forms of thinking and speaking. If the verbal mediation is preferred then verbal form of thinking accrues. The ways children are embedded in their culture shapes their thinking, for example, through verbal or spatial approaches (Wertsch, 1992).
Shaping of mediational means
Mediational means, such as language, are shaped continuously and designed to fulfil the demands of individual psychological functioning, but not in a vacuum. Sociocultural and historical factors play an important role too (Wertsch, 1992). Vygotsky claimed that these signs are mostly used in social processes, as a means to influence others. Later they might become incorporated within the individual. The child learns to speak because of the desire to communicate and later language is also used to represent thoughts.
Sociocultural forces cause mediational means to emerge and as they do, they predispose these means to certain uses, some for this specific purpose, some for another. Not always does this specificity imply that the mediational mean is based on maximum efficiency for individual mental action. Considering language, Vygotsky pointed out that the development of concepts to assist mastery of abstract forms of reasoning is one semiotic potential in humans. The transition from social language use to inner speech equally is a facilitator. In his work, Vygotsky distinguished between syntactic and semantic properties of inner speech. Whether social communication is the aim of language use or inner speech, the structure is different. Inner speech applies an abbreviated syntax, deleting parts that are assumed to be understood. In terms of semantics, Vygotsky contended that the meaning of a word is not constant but has a different sense reflecting its context. This 'sense' of the word predominates meaning in inner speech.
Vygotsky and the Present
Vygotsky's work has profoundly influenced school education in Russia after the 1950's. Several programmes were introduced to the educational system, all aiming towards a transition form a disciplinary model of unified education to a child-centred model of variable education. The backbone was Vygotsky's cultural-historical views which directed the revival of the child-centred individual approach in pedagogy.
The creation of such an educational system opened doors for increasing individual choices and a growing
variability of life forms. This practical application of Lev Vygotsky's theories helped to build
education from impersonal systems to the development of every individual's potential.
If at the beginning of development there stands the act, independent of the word, then at the end of it there stands the word which becomes the act, the word which makes man's action free (Vygotski and Luria).
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