Lev Semonovich Vygotsky

1896 — 1934

Lev Semonovich Vygotsky was born on the 5th of November 1896 in a small Russian town called Orsche. Within the first year of his life his family moved to Gomel, a city that is in what is now the independent nation of Belorussia, about 400 miles west of Moscow. He was the second oldest of eight children. His parents were well educated Jews living in one of a few designated provinces reserved for Russians of Jewish descent. His father was a respected bank manager and his mother who had trained as a teacher was a full-time homemaker.

Vygotsky's parents were fluent in a number of foreign languages. As a child Vygotsky was taught by his mother to care for the other children, all of whom shared equally in household duties. The family would discuss history, literature, theatre and art, after dinner, which exposed Vygotsky to a wide range of interests. Vygotsky was taught by a private tutor, Solomon Ashpiz, a mathmatician, who had spent time in exile in Siberia for revolutionary activity. The life of a Jew in Russia was limited in terms of places to live, study and work.

Vygotsky wished to train as a teacher but this was not an option for Jews in Russia, before the revolution. Government sponsored schools did not accept Jewish teachers. Vygotsky therefore enrolled in medicine as this profession allowed Jews to practise outside 'the pale' of Jewish settlements. The Moscow University accepted Jewish students according to a ballot and limited entry to 5% of all students. Vygotsky was luck enough to gain a place from the ballot.

When he decided medicine was not for him, he transferred to Law, which offered the same freedom's. Vygotsky simultaneously enrolled in a Jewish public university, to study philosophy and history. The qualifications gained at the Shavyavsky Public University were not recognised, and degrees could not be awarded. Vygotsky graduated from Moscow University with a law degree in 1917, the year of the Russian revolution, and then returned to Gomel. The town experienced the extreme results of civil war and famine.

Moscow University

In 1920 Vygotsky experienced the first of a number of attacks of tuberculosis and was worried that he would not survive. He collected his literary works together to deliver to his mentor - Yuli Aichenwald, in case of his death from this attack. Aichenwald was exiled from Russia in 1922. Vygotsky became preoccupied with the theme of death.

In 1924 Vygotsky presented a paper entitled “Methodology of reflexological and psychological research” at the Second Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. His choice of topic was considered bold, due to his youthful age and his relative inexpereience among the academics who were present.

A detailed timeline of Vygotsky's life is available here .

Vygotsky was a prolific writer and he had created, with the collaboration of Alexander Luria and Alexi N Leont'ev, a completely new Marxist based approach to psychology which emphasises the improtance of social interaction in human development. Vygotsky's approach did not become known in the West until 1958, and was not published there until 1962. Vygotsky worked closely with, Alexander Luria and Alexi N Leont'ev. Both of these men carried on with this work until their deaths.

Vygotsky completed 270 scientific articles, numerous lectures and 10 books based on a wide range of Marxist based psychological and teaching theories as well as the areas of pedagogy (the science of teaching), art and aesthetics and sociology, before dying of tuberculosis in June 1934, at the age of 37. Vygotsky died while dictating the final chapter of his book 'Thought and language'.


Vygotsky's new approach to psychology can be traced to both his socio-cultural context and his genius like skills of observation and knowledge intergration, supported by a photographic memory. It must be considered that Vygotsky's experience of living in Russia before, during and after the revolution had impacted on his perspective on life.


Vygotsky, and cohort theorists Piaget, Bruner and Dewey fall under the paradigm of constructivism. Constructivism is a proposed method of knowledge development based on an individual's active participation in problem-solving and critical thinking. The individual literally constructs their own knowledge base using old constructs in new situations, and adapting them to fit newly learned information. In this process the individual is formulating new constructs. This learning method occurs in the socio-cultural milieu of society and depends on interaction with other individuals. Vygotsky's theories fit within the realm of constructivism.

The Zone of Proximal Development

The main difference between Vygotsky's work and his contemporaries at the time, was his emphasis on an individuals interaction with their social environement. Vygotsky felt that learning occured due to interactions within the dyad, as a minimum unit of learning. Initially an individual would interact with another person, who supported them to learn a new skill — this was termed “intermental” learning. Then the individual would internalise the skill enabling them to carry this new skill out on their own, which was termed “intramental” learning or ability. The change from intermental to intramental ability is dependent on interaction with other people. Although it was origionally thought that this individual should be a teacher or adult of higher ability, it has been found that learining can occur in groups of similarly skilled individuals if they are motivated to help eachother. The difference between what an individual can do on their own and what can be accomplished with assistance , Vygotsky termed “ The Zone of Proximal Development ”.


Within the zone, the structure that enabled an individual to move forward in their ability was termed scaffolding. Scaffolding is an incremental change in information support that steps the learner up to the highest level they can achieve with support. This gain in knowledge would be an example of intermental learning, whereas, when the individual undertakes the new skill on their own, they have accomplished intramental learning.

When the individual is able to transfer the newly learned skill to a different context, which may require abstract thought, the learning has become “decontextualised”. This means the individual does not have to remain in the physical situation in which they learned the skill. They are also able to imagine a scenario and use hypothetico-deductive reasoning to formulate an answer to a question which is abstract in nature.

Elementary versus Higher Psychological Functioning

Elementary psychological function consist of those functions we are born with before they are impacted on by social interaction with other humans. This level of functioning is common in animals although the human level of elementary psychological function is at a higher level than primates.

“...the development of human mental functions is viewed by Vygotsky as their transition from their original lower mental functions form into their higher mental functions form, with differences between the two being drawn along four major criteria: origins, structure, the way of functioning and the relation to other mental functions. By origins, most lower mental functions are genetically inherited, by structure they are unmediated, by functioning they are involuntary, and with regard to their relation to other mental functions they are isolated individual mental units. In contrast, higher mental function is socially acquired, mediated by social meanings, voluntarily controlled and exists as a link in a broad system of functions rather than as an individual unit.”
Eugene Subbotsky


Higher mental process are mediated by tools. Tools can take one of three forms - symbols, material or another human beings behaviour. Semiotic mediators are pre-programmed psychological tools. Symbols such as language are psychological tools that mediate an individuals psychological processes, material tools mediate between the individual and nature. 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 memorizing 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 behavior. 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.”


The following quote outlines the use of language as a psychological tool, leading to decontextualisation of an activity.

“thanks to the planning function of speech, geared to the child's activity, the child creates, parallel to the stimuli of his environment, a second series of auxiliary stimuli standing between him and his environment and directing behaviour. And it is due to this very secondary series of stimuli, created with the aid of speech, that the behaviour of the child reaches a higher level, acquiring a relative freedom from the situation that directly attracts it, and impulsive attempts are transformed into a planned, organised behaviour. The auxiliary stimuli...prove to be no other than...symbolic signs...they serve the child, first and foremost, as a means of social contacts with the surrounding people, and are also applied as a means of self-influence, a means of auto-stimulation, creating thus a new and superior form of activity in the child.”
Vygotsky & Luria

Vygotsky was an extraodinary individual who within his lifetime managed to stimulate a body of work that is continued today. Educational psychology uses his theories to implement teaching programs which rather than using the process of rote learning desire interaction within the classroom. However Vygotsky's influence is not limited to education.

Vygotskyan based practise

Constructivism in Science http://www.vast.org/construct3.html

Dialogic enquiry in education http://www.oise.utoronto.ca/~gwells/NCTE.html

Mixed age-groups in early childhood education http://www.ed.gov/databases/ERIC_Digests/ed308990.html

Vygotsky and affirmative action http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR25.6/gardner.html

Maths Forum - Vygotsky and the Internet http://www.bestpraceduc.org/people/LevVygotsky.html

Vygotsky resources http://www.kolar.org/vygotsky/

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Mette Hansen-Reid, 08410658, 2001