Lev Vygotsky
"Mozart of Psychology"
- Stephen Toulmin, British Philosopher, Author and Educator, 1978, The New York Review of Books

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was born on November 17, 1896 to a middle-class Jewish family in Orsha, a city in Belarus, Western Russia. He was home-schooled until his secondary education from which he graduated with a gold medal at 17. Barred from studying philosophy due to the prevailing anti-semitic quota, he took up medicine and eventually switched to law. At the same time, he enrolled in a free university majoring in history and philosophy. After graduating, he set up a research lab at Gomel's Teacher's College where he continued psychological research. In 1924, his presentation at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad got him an invitation to restructure the Psychological Institute of Moscow. While in Moscow, he read works by Jean Piaget, Sigmund Freud, Ivan Pavlov and other contemporary writings on psychology. He conducted more research and published 6 books on psychology, including topics of child development and education, psychology of art and language development, and children with special needs. He wrote over numerous papers some in collaboration with Alexander Luria and Aleksei N. Leontiev. He died on June 11, 1934 at age 38 due to tuberculosis.
Stalin dismissed or sent to prison camps many psychologists practicing paedology (study of the child) and banned Vygotsky's name and works in 1936. (Read possible reasons for this here.) Vygotsky's work became known to the western world with the publication of Thought & Language in 1962, but his ideas really took off with the publication of Mind in Society 1978. Edited by Michael Cole, Mind in Society presented a unique selection of Vygotsky’s important essays, most of which have previously been unavailable in English.

Vygotsky's Socialcultural Development Theory argues that social interaction precedes development of cognition. Parents, caregivers, peers and the culture at large are responsible for the development of higher order functions including language, counting, problem solving skills, voluntary attention, and memory. Society largely affects individual development. In other words, learning occurs through social interactions.

Zone Proximal Development is Vygotsky's theoretical construct describing the child's immediate potential for cognitive growth as bounded in the lower end by what the child can accomplish independently, and on the upper end with what the child can accomplish with some assistance from a more knowledgeable other. Inherent to this concept is scaffolding, though the term itself was never mentioned by Vygotsky. Since the aim of instruction is in the zone of proximal development, it is not aimed at what he can do independently. Thus, scaffolding techniques like hints, prompts, and cues given and later removed by the teacher can be used.

The More Knowledgable Other refers to anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner with respect to the particular task, process or concept. This person could be a teacher or a peer.

"Defectology," special education today. Vygotsky considered handicap as a sociocultural phenomenon, not a "biological impairment having psychological consequences" but as a developmental phenomenon where socialization and cultural enlightening is needed to compensate for the disability. He wrote about "normalization through mainstreaming of all handicapped children" and also he was known for identifying the handicapped child from the point of strength, not disability. (Gindis, 1995)

Tools and Language. Vygotsky writes that language plays two main roles in cognitive development:
1. It is the main means by which adults transmit info to children and
2. Language itself becomes a very powerful tool of intellectual adaptation.

In addition to language, Vygotsky also considered signs, symbols, maps, plans, numbers, musical notation, charts, models, pictures psychological tools to extend our mental abilities. These tools are part of culture. Education must introduce the use of these tools to develop new psychological qualities, or abilities. (Doyla & Palmer, 2004).

Examples of how theory applies in education/training:

The theory of teaching in the zone of proximal development, the zone where children can learn with assistance, via scaffolding is very much in play today. Teachers plan activities that offers learning tasks that build on one another. Peer to peer learning has also shown to be a very effective way of learning, also as evidenced in communities of practice.

Vygotsky's theories on special education seems to be extremely relevant today. We see special needs students folded into classes, with their assistants who can scaffold the lessons as needed. The cultural ramifications of changing our attitudes towards special needs kids -- looking at their strengths instead of their deficits -- continues to be a challenge, but an ideal goal.

Vygotsky's important works can be found here:


Douglas, L. [loisdouglas1]. (2010, October, 4). Sociocultural theory [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AkBbniuiMU0

Gindis, B. (1995) Disabled child in the sociocultural milieu: Vygotsky's Quest. Retrieved December 8, 2013 from http://www.bgcenter.com/vygotskyPublication.htm

Keenan, D. [Derek Keenan]. (2010, July, 20) Vygotsky a history.mp4 [Video file]. Retrieved from 2010 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7J195QMny_4

Vygotskiĭ, L. S., and Michael Cole. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1978. Print.
Lev Vygotsky [digital photograph]. retrieved December 8, 2013, retrieved from http://webpages.charter.net/schmolze1/vygotsky/

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Lev Vygotsky. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/vygotsky.html

Reynolds, W. & Miller, G. (2003). Handbook of Psychology. In I. Weiner (Ed.) Educational Psychology (Vol. 7). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Toulmin, S. (1978) The mozart of psychology. Retrieved Dec. 9, 2013, from http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1978/sep/28/the-mozart-of-psychology/?pagination=false

Van der Veer, R. & Valsiner, J. (1994). The Vygotsky reader. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers

Vygodskaya, G. (n.d.). His life. (I. Gindis, Trans.). Retrieved December 10, 2014, form http://webpages.charter.net/schmolze1/vygotsky/