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Developmental Theory

Vygotskian Theory

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was born 1896 in Orsha (in what is now Belarus), and grew up in Gomel in a prosperous Jewish family in the western provinces of the Russian Empire. His higher education was at Moscow University, despite the fact that in Russia under Czar Nicholas II there were strict laws limiting how many Jewish people could receive advanced degrees. His university studies focused on medicine, and later law. In addition, he studied in an independent university majoring in philosophy and history. After working as a schoolteacher and then as an instructor in a teacher training college, Vygotsky turned to psychology. His career as a psychologist spanned just ten years, ending with his death in 1934. In that time Lev Vygotsky produced about one hundred books and papers, many of which have only recently been published and translated into English. At the time of his death, Lev Vygotsky's work included numerous powerful ideas, however, many were not fully developed and some were even speculative. His students, including most notably Alexander Luria, Alexei Leontiev, Daniel Elkonin, and Alexander Zapororzhets, and others (in Russia and throughout the world) have been responsible for further elaborating many of the ideas of his initial papers.

In the last decade, the intellectual climate of educational theory in the United States has had been dramatically influenced by the work of Lev Vygotsky. His work was first introduced to the West in 1962 through the translation of Thought and Language. Many Westerners learned about the basic ideas of cultural-historical theory from Mind in Society, edited by James Wertsch and published in 1978. This brief entry presents the major ideas pioneered by Vygotsky and successors, along with an overview of contemporary Vygotskian educational efforts taking place in Russia and the United States.

Vygotsky's theory is known in the West as sociocultural, although Vygotsky himself and his close colleagues preferred to describe it as culturalhistorical, emphasizing the dual focus of this theory: the history of human development and the cultural tools that shape this development. At the core of this theory is Vygotsky's belief that human development–child development as well as the development of all humankind–is the result of interactions between people and their social environment. These interactions are not limited to actual people but also involve cultural artifacts, mainly language-based (written languages, number systems, various signs, and symbols). Many of these cultural artifacts serve a dual purpose: not only do they make possible the integration of a growing child into the culture but they also transform the very way the child's mind is being formed. Vygotsky refers to these as special cultural tools, acquisition of which extends one's mental capacities, making individuals the master of their own behavior. In the course of child development, a child typically learns how to use these cultural tools through interactions with parents, teachers, or more experienced peers. As a result of using these tools–first in cooperation with others and later independently–the child develops higher mental functions: complex mental processes that are intentional, self-regulated, and mediated by language and other sign systems. Examples of these higher mental functions include focused attention, deliberate memory, and verbal thinking. According to Vygotsky, although all human beings are capable of developing these functions, the particular structure and content of higher mental functions depend on specific social interactions, as determined by culture in general and by each person's unique social situation of development.

Of all the processes involved in acquisition of mental tools, Vygotsky focused primarily on the use of language (it was through the work of his colleagues and students that acquisition of non-verbal mental tools was studied). For him, language is both the most important mental tool and a medium facilitating the acquisition of other mental tools. One of the best-known concepts that illustrates Vygotsky's view of language is the concept of private speech. Private speech, or self-talk, originates in social speech, the initial form of speech that is directed to other people. Although it retains the audible characteristic of social speech, private speech changes its function. It now becomes speech directed to oneself rather than speech that is regulated or directed by a more capable person. Noticing that children tend to increase the amount of self-talk when facing more challenging tasks, Vygotsky hypothesized that at some point, they start using private speech to organize (plan, direct, or evaluate) their behaviors. The use of private speech peaks during preschool years and then decreases. Vygotsky associates this decrease with private speech turning first into inner speech and then into verbal thinking. This evolution of speech–from social to self-directed to internalized–exemplifies the path of all higher mental functions, which was described by Vygotsky in his "law of the development of higher mental functions." According to this law, each higher mental function appears twice in the course of child development: first as shared or carried out by an individual jointly with other people–intersubjective–and then as appropriated or internalized by this individual and used independently–intrasubjective.

Vygotsky's view of child development and education is an extension of his general approach to the development of higher mental functions. Consistent with his definition of development as socially determined, Vygotsky introduced a new relationship between education, learning, and development. Vygotsky argued against the theorists who believed that child development occurs spontaneously and is driven by the processes of maturation and cannot be affected by education. Neither did he agree with those who claimed that instruction could alter development at any time regardless of a child's age or capacities. Instead, he proposed a more complex and dynamic relationship between learning and development that is determined by what he termed a child's zone of proximal development (ZPD).

Vygotsky's theory is based on the idea that learning can lead development, and development can lead learning, and this process takes place through a dynamic interrelationship. The ZPD is the area between a learner's level of independent performance (often called developmental level) and the level of assisted performance–what the child can do with support. Independent performance is the best the learner can do without help, and assisted performance is the maximum the learner can achieve with help. By observing assisted performance one can investigate a learner's potential for current highest level of functioning. ZPD reveals the learner's potential and is realized in interactions with knowledgeable others or in other supportive contexts (such as make-believe play for preschool children). By providing assistance to learners within their ZPD we are supporting their growth.

Through identification of a learner's ZPD, teachers find out what knowledge, skills, and understandings have not yet surfaced for the learner but are on the edge of emergence. Teachers also study ways to engage the learner in shared or co-operative learning experience through participation in the learner's ZPD. This involves doing more than completing a task in a combined fashion; it involves developing the learner's higher mental functions, such as the ability to plan, evaluate, memorize, and reason. In How Children Think and Learn (1998), David Wood points out: "By reminding children we are helping them to bring to mind and exploit those aspects of their past experience that we (as experts) but not they (as novices) know to be relevant to what they are currently trying to do" (p. 97).

Applications in Contemporary Russia

Examples of work being done in contemporary Russia within Vygotsky's cultural-historical paradigm are too numerous to be listed in a short article. One could say that most of Vygotsky's ideas, suppositions, and insights were further elaborated upon, verified in empirical studies, and often implemented into practical applications. Some of these ideas became starting points to new theories such as the theory of periods in child development developed by Daniel Elkonin, based on Vygotsky's ideas of psychological age and leading activity. Other theories developed by Vygotsky's colleagues and students can be better described as Vygotsky-inspired in a broader sense rather then purely Vygotskian. Among these are Alexei Leont'ev's activity theory and Piotr Gal'perin's theory of step-by-step formation of mental actions. Common features of most of these theories can be traced back to Vygotsky; these include beliefs in social and cultural determination of child development and in the power of education to shape this development. Because of these assumptions, post-Vygotskians were generally successful in implementing their theoretical principles in classroom practice to create innovative educational programs. Examples of those include a number of preschool and kindergarten curricula based on theories of Alexander Zaporozhets and his student Leonid Venger and the system of "developmental education" based on the work of Daniel Elkonin and his student Vasili Davidov, which has been implemented in curricula for school-aged children from primary grades through high school.

Applications in the United States

As mentioned above, this entry focuses on just a couple of examples of Vygotsky-inspired educational work in the United States. For more perspectives, see the work of Michael Cole and colleagues in The Construction Zone: Working for Cognitive Change in School, and Roland G. Tharp and Ronald Gallimore's 1988 book, Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning and Schooling in Social Context. The following are descriptions of two examples: Tools of the Mind, which is an early childhood education program, and Reciprocal Reading, used with older children.

Tools of the mind. This first example might be considered a transitional model. Though the work is being developed in the United States, one of the lead authors is Russian and has worked at the Institute of Preschool Education with Lev Vygotsky's student Alexander Zaporozhets. Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong have developed an early childhood education model titled, Tools of the Mind (1996, 2001). The model has a Vygotskian theoretical basis: development cannot be separated from its social context; learning can lead development; language plays a central role in mental development; teaching should provide organized experiences that are in advance of a child's independent functioning but still remain within the child's ZPD; and teachers should encourage (and even create) opportunities for problemsolving. Implemented in Head Start, preschools, and kindergartens, the program focuses on play, the leading activity of this age. In addition, there are a number of activities designed to promote symbolic representation and self-regulation, such as play planning using Scaffolded Writing, and specially designed artifacts or tools, including the Sound Map, the purpose of which is to support young children in their beginning efforts to spell.

Reciprocal listening/reading. A second program motivated by the work of Lev Vygotsky and developed in the United States is reciprocal listening/reading, which was introduced in the mid-1980s by Annemarie Sullivan Palincsar and Ann Brown. It is a strategy for teaching reading comprehension that addresses children's need to examine the background of a text and particular words while learning to monitor their own reading process. Children are taught to interact with text and as a result to regulate their own thinking about the text as they read and listen (when being read to).

The ties of this program to Vygotsky lie in the belief that development of complex comprehension strategies has to start in a cooperative activity (intersubjective) and then move inward for use by a student (intrasubjective). Reciprocal teaching provides guided practice in the use of four strategies–predicting, question generating, summarizing, and clarifying–that are designed to enhance children's ability to construct the meaning of text. These strategies for interacting with the text are most often used automatically and soundlessly by readers and listeners. In reciprocal reading and listening, the strategies are vocalized and made available to other learners. To engage in reciprocal teaching dialogues, the children and their teacher read a piece of common text. This reading may be done as a read-along, a silent reading, or an oral reading, depending on the decoding abilities of the children and the level of the text. The children and the teacher take turns leading the discussion of segments of the text, using strategies to support their discussion. The teacher uses the strategies and the children are encouraged to play the "teacher role" and to interact with the text. Children then learn new ways of interacting with the text by implementing these previously unobserved strategies and being an integral part of what is being taught in their role as "teacher." Following Vygotskian theory, the children begin to internalize the processes until they become an automatic part of their internal reading and listening comprehension activities. An ultimate purpose of the discussion is the application of the strategies for the purpose of coming to a shared sense of the meaning of the text at hand.



BODROVA, ELENA, and LEONG, DEBORAH J. 1996. Tools of the Mind: The Vygotskian Approach to Early Childhood Education. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.

BODROVA, ELENA, and LEONG, DEBORAH J. 2001. Tools of the Mind: A Case Study of Implementing the Vygotskian Approach in American Early Childhood and Primary Classrooms. Geneva, Switzerland: International Bureau of Education, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

ELKONIN, DANIEL. 1977. "Toward the Problem of Stages in the Mental Development of the Child." In Soviet Developmental Psychology (1971), ed. Michael Cole. White Plains, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

GAL'PERIN, PIOTR YAKOVLEVICH. 1969. "Stages of Development of Mental Acts." In A Handbook of Contemporary Soviet Psychology, ed. Michael Cole and Irving Maltzman. New York: Basic Books.

LEONT'EV, ALEXEI. 1977. Activity, Consciousness, and Personality. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

NEWMAN, DENIS; GRIFFIN, PEG; and COLE, MICHAEL. 1989. The Construction Zone: Working for Cognitive Change in School. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

PALINCSAR, ANNEMARIE SULLIVAN, and BROWN, ANN L. 1984. "Reciprocal Teaching of Comprehension Fostering and Monitoring Activities." Cognition and Instruction 1 (2):117–175.

PALINCSAR, ANNEMARIE SULLIVAN; BROWN, ANN L.; and CAMPIONE, JOSEPH C. 1993. "First-Grade Dialogues for Knowledge Acquisition and Use." In Contexts for Learning: Sociocultural Dynamics in Children's Development, ed. Ellice Forman, Norris Minick, and C. Addison Stone. New York: Oxford University Press.

THARP, ROLAND G., and GALLIMORE, RONALD. 1988. Rousing Minds to Life: Teaching, Learning and Schooling in Social Context. New York: Cambridge University Press.

VYGOTSKY, LEV SEMENOVICH. 1962. Thought and Language (1934), trans. Eugenia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vokar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

VYGOTSKY, LEV SEMENOVICH. 1978. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, ed. James V. Wertsch. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

VYGOTSKY, LEV SEMENOVICH. 1983. Sobranie sochinenii: Tom tretif. Problemy razvitya psikhiki (Collected works: Vol. 3. Problems of mental development). Moscow: Izdatel'stvo Pedagogika.

VYGOTSKY, LEV SEMENOVICH. 1993. The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky, Vols. 1 and 2. New York: Plenum Press.

WERTSCH, JAMES V., ed. 1984. Culture, Communication and Cognition: Vygotskian Perspectives. New York: Cambridge University Press.

WOOD, DAVID. 1998. How Children Think and Learn: The Social Contexts of Cognitive Development, 2nd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.




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