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Lev Vygotsky Profile

In the field of cognitive development, one name stands out from the crowd. Lev Vygotsky ‘s theories are the most significant in this arena, and despite his relatively short career the impact that he had was enormous. Vygotsky posed that human development is a socially mediated process in which children develop their skills in problem-solving, strategic thinking, and even their cultural values as a result of influence and collaborative dialogues that they have with more knowledgeable members of society. This theory emphasises the importance of intergenerational communication, and on the value of parents (as more knowledgeable members) forming bonds with their children.

Here’s everything you need to know about Lev Vygotsky, his works and theories, and why the impact of these continues to be so significant:

Who was Lev Vygotsky?

Lev Vygotsky was a highly regarded Russian psychologist who was often known as the “Mozart of Psychology”. Whilst he posed several influential theories in a relatively short period of time, Vygotsky was best known for his sociocultural theory. This is a theory in which Vygotsky expressed his belief that social interaction played a critical role in children’s learning, and this is a significant theory that still holds up today. In order to understand how Lev Vygotsky reached this conclusion, however, it would be beneficial to understand where he came from.

Early life and career

Lev Vygotsky was born in Orsha, Russia, in 1896. During his childhood, Vygotsky suffered from tuberculosis, but he recovered and was able to attend university, gaining a degree in law from Moscow State University in 1917. During his time at the university, Vygotsky also studied sociology, psychology, philosophy and linguistics. In 1924 he made the decision to change the focus of his career, enrolling at Moscow’s Institute of Psychology. He wrote his dissertation on the psychology of art, but suffered from an acute relapse of the tuberculosis that he had suffered from as a child, so his degree was awarded in absentia. This relapse was a significant one, and left him incapacitated for a full year.

It was following his illness that Vygotsky began to really focus on his research and posing a series of psychological theories, working with his students to research topics such as language, attention, and memory. It is worth noting that, amongst the students that studied alongside Vygotsky were Alexei Leontiev, who is best known as the developmental psychologist and philosopher who developed activity theory, and the neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who authored the highly regarded Higher Cortical Functions in Man.

Thanks to his prolific research, and the huge number of theories that he presented, Vygotsky rose to become a major figure in post-revolutionary Soviet psychology, although ironically his most famous work (Thought and Language, which was published in 1934) was suppressed for a time as it was considered to be a threat to Stalinism.

Lev Vygotsky died in 1934 when he was just 37 years old, as the result of another relapse of his tuberculosis. Despite his death at a young age, the impact that Vygotsky had on the fields of both psychology and education was significant. Much of his work is still being discovered and explored today, and he left a huge legacy from a relatively short career.

Lev Vygotsky theories

In just ten years, Vygotsky published an incredible 6 books about psychology: it is because he was so productive and prolific, in a relatively short period of time, that Vygotsky was known as the ‘Mozart of Psychology’. Whilst his interests were diverse, with each book having its own unique theme, what was consistent throughout Vygotsky’s writing was an interest in understanding more about the related topics of child development, language development, and education. The three most significant theories posed by Vygotsky were:

  • The Theory of the More Knowledgeable Other. Vygotsky often talks about the ‘more knowledgeable other’ and this is an individual who has greater knowledge and skills than the person that is learning from them. The ‘more knowledgeable other’ is usually a teacher or a parent, and they are ideally placed to provide guided instruction, taking advantage of the trust the child places in them. Vygotsky believed that children often pay more attention to their peers than the ‘more knowledgeable other’ with peer interactions holding huge value. As a result, the theory posed that teachers should take advantage of this by pairing a more knowledgeable child with a less knowledgeable classmate, turning a peer into a ‘more knowledgeable other’ and ensuring that the child is more likely to listen and learn
  • Another of Vygotsky’s more well-known theories is the zone of proximal development. In his own words, this zone is described 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.” This term effectively describes the gap between what a child already knows (the knowledge they already have) and what they don’t. It is a great way of identifying missing gaps and encouraging a child to acquire these skills independently
  • Finally, perhaps the most famous of all of Vygotsky’s theories is sociocultural theory. This is an important theory that proposes that interaction between individuals and wider society is what drives human development, and therefore it is by interaction with their parents, teachers, peers, and the wider world, that children will best learn. This learning is usually gradual but continual. The dynamic nature of this theory is what makes it so interesting: Vygotsky believed that not only does society have an impact on people, but also that people have an impact on their society

What did Lev Vygotsky do for education?

If you’re working in an education setting, particularly if you’re working within an early years education environment, then it’s likely that you will have applied some of Lev Vygotsky’s theories to your practical teaching approaches. The theory of the more knowledgeable other, for example, is often applied practically by teachers who take advantage of those students with greater abilities in the classroom, allowing these students to serve as the ‘more knowledgeable other’ and pairing them with less able students when assigning groups of pairs for experiments or research projects. There are different, but equally valuable, benefits of this approach to each of the children involved.

Another of Lev Vygotsky’s theories that is often actively applied to education is “reciprocal teaching,” which is a modern application of his much older theories, and can be used to improve the ways in which students are able to learn from text. In this method, teachers and students collaborate in learning and practising four key skills: summarising, questioning, clarifying, and predicting. The teacher’s role in the process is reduced over time, as the student’s level of cognitive development improves.

Vygotsky believed everything is learned on two levels. First, through interaction with others, and then integrated into the individual’s mental structure. This means that children learn better in groups, and fair better when they are given the opportunity to learn with, and from, their peers than when they are taught in isolation. This has a key impact on working methods, class sizes, and group work for those in an education setting. When we look at a child’s cultural development through the lens of Vygotsky’s theory, we see that they learn everything on two levels: first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This can be applied to logical memory, language learning, and the formation of concepts.

Finally, because of the importance of the right social environment to active learning in children, Vygotsky determined that teachers have the ability to control many factors in an educational setting, including tasks, behaviours, and responses. Vygotsky’s theories placed teachers back into the heart of learning, emphasising their role and their position as leaders of a child’s development and their gateway to knowledge acquisition.

Sociocultural Theory of Cognitive Development

Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of cognitive development is perhaps one of his most significant theories, and is the one most worthy of our attention as modern observers of child development. In this theory, Vygotsky stresses the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition: as part of this theory, the importance of community in encouraging children to ‘make meaning’ of the world around them is also emphasised. This theory emphasised the importance of the teacher in a child’s learning and created a new framework for what a classroom should look like that is still used to this day; the layout of a modern classroom allows for social connections and small group work to take place, and this is solely due to the work of Vygotsky.

What was particularly groundbreaking about Vygotsky’s theory was that he posed that language was the basis of learning. He supported this proposal by pointing out that language is at the heart of fundamental development milestones such as reading and writing. Fundamentally, Vygotsky recognized that social, language, and learning were closely entwined, and that without social development, cognitive development was not guaranteed.

The three main concepts of cognitive development that Vygotsky posed were that (i) culture is significant in learning, (ii) language is the root of culture, and (iii) individuals learn and develop within their role in the community. This is interesting because different cultures hold different values, and we can clearly see that the morals, values, and beliefs of its community members and communicated by language and action to children who assimilate and accept these values as their own. In Vygotsky’s theory there is a complex and cyclical relationship between culture and human development, and that as language use grows so does the child’s understanding of the social etiquette expected from them in their particular social environment. It’s a fascinating theory, and one that has gained huge traction.

Child development theories

Vygotsky’s theories were posed at a time when a wave of child development theories were emerging across Europe: he was living during a golden age of child psychology, when our understanding of the minds and needs of children grew considerably. The theories of Lev Vygotsky different from the theories posed by Jean Piaget (another eminent child psychologist of the time) in one fundamental way: Piaget focused on the importance of child development and posed that a child would not be receptive to new knowledge until they had organically reached the correct developmental stage, whilst Vygotsky argued, “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organised, specifically human psychological function”. This is a very different concept, where a child is able to learn in a social setting and this learning precedes development.

There are a huge number of different child development theories, but Vygotsky’s is so important because it was the first to emphasise society’s role in educating children, and in their development. It valued the support that parents, caregivers, peers and educators are able to provide for children, and it created a tangible framework that teachers could use to guide a child’s development. Many educators continue to use Vygotsky’s child development theories to this day, making them an incredibly valuable, and important, tool.

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