Lev Vygotsky
image Vygotsky

Vygotsky's life
Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory
1. Genetic Analysis.
2. Social origins of Pscyhological Functioning.
3. Mediation
Vygotsky and the Presence

Vygotsky's Life

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 taught literature in secondary schools before working as a tutor at a teacher's training institution. From 1924 onwards, his career changed as he moved into the fields of psychology with main interests in developmental psychology, education and psychopathology. He was highly productive in these areas, writing several books, articles and essays, developed a test to assess concept formation and worked with physically and mentally handicapped people.

Vygotsky married Roza Swektova in 1924. They lived in Moscow and had two daughters. He contracted tuberculosis from his younger brother whom he was caring for and died in 1934.

The prevailing political ideology in Russia put pressure on Vygotsky which he did not completely submit to. Even though his theories were not approved of by the government in his time, they were kept alive by his followers. When the Cold War ended, the wealth of Vygotsky's work was revealed and also recognised in the West where it has influenced and guided new educational approaches.


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.

  • a reliance on genetic or developmental analysis

  • the claim that higher mental functioning in the individual derives from social life

  • the claim that human action, on both the social and individual planes, is mediated by tools and signs (Wertsch, 1991, p. 19)

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)

Vygotsky's thought of higher mental functioning being rooted in social life was influenced by the Marxist theory. Even though he entered into the 'new psychology' in the Soviet Union in 1920 when enthusiastic, social construction efforts were made, he soon became dissatisfied with Marxist psychology. He defied solving psychological problems by endless referencing of Marx and Engels (Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1994). The general issue of Marx's, that understanding the individual requires understanding the social relations surrounding the individual, was incorporated in Vygotsky's theories. He considered higher psychological functions, genetic structure, actions, behaviour, in short, anything pertaining to humans, as social. The notion of higher psychological functioning as having a social form can be illustrated with the following example:

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.
Considering this context, it is necessary to mention Vygotsky's ideas about the 'zone of proximal development. He defined it as:
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, p 86)

When children are instructed in learning situations that are more closely to the level of potential competence, learning can occur when assisted by an adult or a more skilled child. Vygotsky argued that when teaching students in the zone of proximal development the focus is on the process from the current mental state of the child to a future state. Thereby teachers assist in the development of cognitive and social functions that are in the course of being mastered rather than assisting functions that already have matured (Baker-Sennet and Harrison, 1996).

New methods that build on the zone of proximal development are reciprocal teaching and scaffolding. Over the last decade they have drawn attention, especially in the fields of special education.

Inherent in the general principle of sociocultural influences in mental development is Vygotsky's idea of interpsychological and intrapsychological cultural development in the child (Note: Here again 'interpsychological' and 'intrapsychological' can be used interchangeably with the terms 'intermental' or 'intramental' as they depend on the translation). When the child's mental functions occur as a result of interaction in social life they are interpsychological, for example, a child using language to communicate with other people. When the mental functions occur within the child, they are called intrapsychological as in inner speech. Neither function exists as a separate entity, but they are closely connected, having their fundament in genetic transition (Wertsch, 1992).


3. Mediation

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.

Semiotic potential

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.

Many students of his, as well as many psychologists and educators have studied and followed Vygotsky's ideas, enhanced them and produced learning strategies that are based on his theories and empirical work. Today, citations and references of Lev Vygotsky's work have become an integral component in scientific conferences, in-service courses for teachers, articles in general and special education, and they are reflected in practical application.

Vygotskian approaches are successful in the teaching of literacy and mathematics as seen in Best Practices in Education or the Vygotskian Math Project.

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).


Pia Marty ID 01001523


Web resources

http://www.bestpracedu.org/DiscoveryGrants1997/Vygotskian Math.html


  1. Asmolov, A. (1998). Vygotsky today: on the verge of non-classical psychology. New York: Nova Science Publishers, Inc.
  2. Baker-Sennet, J. & Hamison, G. (1996). Teaching and Learning in the zone of proximal development. In J. Andrews (Ed). Teaching students with diverse needs. Nelson, Toronto: Nelson Canada, 206 - 212 and 219.
  3. Piaget, J. (1952) The Origins of Intelligence in children. Translated by M. Cook. New York: International Universities Press.
  4. Ratner, C.(2001) Prologue to Vygotsky's collected works, vol 5. Retrieved July 19, 2001 from the World Wide Web: http://members.home.net/vygotsky/childpsych.html
  5. Van der Veer, R. & Valsiner, J. (1994). The Vygotsky reader. Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd.
  6. Vygotsky, L. (1960) cited in J. Wertsch (1991) Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. London: Harvester Press, chapter 2, 18 - 45.
  7. Vygotsky, L. (1978). cited in Vygotsky, L. (1993). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky: vol. 2. The fundamentals of defectiology. New York: Plenum Press.
  8. Wertsch, J. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. London: Harvester Press, chapter 2, 18 - 45.