Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was a developmental Psychologist. He lived a short life during turbulent, revolutionary times. Lev Vygotsky was born on the 17th November 1896 in Orsha, a city in the Western region of the Russian Empire in a Jewish family. He died 37 years later from tuberculosis in Stalinist, Russia. Vygotsky was a Lawyer based on his University education and a school teacher by occupation. Although his interests were quite diverse his writings often centred on topics of child development and education. Some of the major theories developed by Lev Vygotsky include;
Socio-cultural Theory - Vygotsky proposed there were two types of psychological development; "natural" consisting of biological growth, physical and cognitive development; and "cultural", consisting of learning to use psychological and cultural tools, including signs, symbols and language. Vygotsky believed that a child's development is a result of his/her culture. He thought that development applied initially to the psychological process, for example, language skills, the way of thinking and other mental functions. Vygotsky believed the above is achievable through interacting socially with others, the parents being of particular influence to the child along-side knowledgeable others. Interaction with others enables a child to learn the lifestyle of his/her culture. These habits being things such as speech patterns, the written language and other constructed knowledge. Both natural and cultural operation act jointly to simplify the development process. Vygotskys socio-cultural theory suggests that social interaction leads to continuous step-by-step changes in a child's thought and behaviour that can vary greatly from culture to culture (Woolfolk, 1998). Basically, Vygotskys theory implies that development depends on a child's interaction with others and the tools that culture provides to help them form their own view of the world. His theory combines the social environment and cognition. Children will acquire the ways of thinking and behaving by interacting with a more knowledgeable other. Vygotsky believed that every function in the child's cultural development appears twice, first on the social level and later, on the individual level, first between people (inter-psychological) and then inside the child (intra-psychological) Vygotsky, 1978. The socio-cultural theory consists of several elements to help implement it (see below left). Language and the ideas that are expressed by means of language play a central role in mental development.image
Zone of Proximal development - According to Vygotsky children learn by adopting the beliefs, values, and attitudes of others, either consciously or unconsciously as a result of interacting with them. Vygotsky argues that the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is the difference between a child's existing abilities and what s/he can learn under guidance from a knowledgeable other. Therefore the Proximal Zone is the difference between what children are already able to do and what they are not quite ready to accomplish by themselves. According to Vygotsky, a knowledgeable other must help direct and organise a child's learning before the child can understand and adopt it. In order for the ZPD to be a success, it must contain two features, the first of which is called subjectivity. This term implies that the knowledgeable other must have a common understanding of what they are doing with the child, in-other-words both parties must have a shared goal. The child uses the expertise of the knowledgeable other (expert) in the learning process. To begin the expert takes responsibility, then as the child (novice) learns, the expert transfers intellectual responsibility to the novice. This is not immediate but a gradual process for example, when an expert teaches a child how to swim, the expert first supports the child in the water and then lets go gradually, there-by shifting responsibility to the child. The ZPD uses two levels to determine a child's ability and potential. A child's "actual development level" is what s/he can achieve unaided without help. This sets the basis for a child's knowledge and is what is traditionally assessed and valued in schools. The "potential development level" is the level of proficiency a child can reach when s/he is guided and supported by another person. Social interaction helps a child to remember and may even hold the key to memory development. The concept of a significant other guiding a child through the ZPD is known as guided participation /scaffolding.Graph: Zone of proximal development: Vygotsky
Guided Participation/Scaffolding - According to Vygotsky scaffolding is the process used by a knowledgeable other to instruct or guide a child through difficult problems, in order to cultivate
her/his potential. Scaffolding makes it easy for a child to build on the knowledge they already have and helps them adopt new ideas and attitudes. Any instruction given by the knowledgeable other must be directed towards the future and not the past. Guidance can be given in numerous different ways, by a knowledgeable other, by cultural experiences or objects or by a child's previous learning. Vygotsky assumed that a child's development is a result of his/her culture. He thought that development applied primarily to the psychological process, for example, use of language skills, the reasoning process and other mental functions. Vygotsky thought that the above is achieved through interacting with others, parents being particularly influential to the child's development along-side knowledgeable others. Interaction with others enables a child to learn the way of life of his/her culture, that is to say speech patterns, the written language and other constructed knowledge. Vygotsky believed that social interaction helps children to remember and may even hold the key to memory construction. As illustrated in the picture above, the scaffolding principle works on the basis that the knowledgeable other asks the child open ended, close ended questions and gives step-by-step instructions always structuring the learning process. Encouragement and praise are offered at every opportunity, while each point is reinforced through demonstration, repetition and the use of psychological tools. This process helps the child build on their knowledge. Psychological tools can be in the form of "symbolic objects" such as, signs, relevant texts, formulae, graphs, significant devices and today it also includes electronic forms of information access (computers/internet).
Internalisation and Language
Another important contribution made by Vygotsky connects the development of relationships between language and thought. This concept is further explained in his book Thought and Language. It looks at the connection between speech (silent inner speech and oral language expression) and the development of mental perception and awareness of one's thought process. Vygotsky argues that it is through the above that a child's thoughts and mental constructs are formed. Language development is formed in the following four stages;
Primitive Stage - At this stage a child hasn't mastered the art of speech s/he just babbles. The sounds that s/he makes don't have any real meaning or purpose. The child is just experimenting with their new found skill. This action does not mean that a child does not think it simply suggests that s/he has not learned to internalise her/his speech.
Naive Stage - When a child first learns to speak s/he may say certain words before s/he has a comprehensive understanding of their meaning and function. A child only understands that when a word is said in a certain way others understand the meaning. In other words understanding of a word comes before the child actually learns the full significance and purpose of that word and is able to put it in any particular order.
External Stage - In this stage the child begins to use peripheral objects such as, flash cards, or fingers for counting. This is also the beginning of the egocentric speech. The child will talk to herself during play with others or when there is no one else around. This action is the child's verbalisation of thoughts.
In-growth Stage - In this stage the child's egocentric speech turns inwards. S/he enters the final stage of language development and with these new found abilities the child is able to perform logical tasks internally. Rather than counting aloud s/he will count in her/his head using part of her/his short term memory. Vygotsky believed that the more a child uses internalised thought and logic, the better a child can perform.
Major Contributions to Education
Vygotsky has made many important contributions to the education system and teaching, he has become to some extent a powerful figure in education, school psychology and special education, respected all over the world. Many teachers and parents even before Vygotskys time noticed an obvious connection between support from a knowledgeable other and the progress a child is able to make using that support. Vygotskys ZPD helped shape alternatives to standardised testing in schools. Vygotsky founded what is known as "dynamic assessment". Dynamic assessment emphasis potential rather than present achievement and measures the learning process directly. Traditional tests only measure the child's current abilities based on past learning and not the child's potential. According to Vygotsky dynamic assessment leads a child to achieve success through joint shared activity (Lidz, 1995). The ZPD has direct bearing on preparation in school teaching, it enables a teacher to choose methods tailor-made for particular students. Vygotsky believed that the classroom is a society consisting of a community of learners with mixed ability, expert/novice working together. He viewed the teacher as an instructor, guiding and interacting with students. Through the process of scaffolding the teacher is able to provide support to the students. Through the effective use of language in the scaffolding process the teacher is able to negotiate with the child. Vygotskys theory encourages collaboration in the classroom. The teacher has to provide sufficient support until the student is able to move through all set tasks independently.
Vygotskys 4 Principles Applied in Classrooms
Learning and development is a social collaborative activity - This suggests that interaction between adults and other children is critical. The use of technology to enhance communication, contact and interaction would be beneficial in the classroom. Programmes that support combined problem solving and interactive decision making enrich the learning environment.
The ZPD can serve as a guide for curricular and lesson planning - Appropriate support by the teacher can aid the learning process. Thoughtful guidance and productive discussion with the introduction of psychological tools such as, encyclopaedias on CD-ROM, software such as, grammar checkers and brain storming software would all help the child develop understanding and knowledge.
School learning should occur in a meaningful context - We learn things in relation to what else we already know and believe. Learning is an active social process. It is not possible to absorb new knowledge without some sort of previous knowledge to build upon. The more we know the more we learn. Therefore a teacher must connect what is to be learned with the student's previous knowledge.
Relate out-of-school experience to the child's school experience - The language we use influences learning. It is important for a teacher to organise school learning around the culture the child knows and understands for example, a class of students studying history could use a multimedia presentation to produce a project about the history of their town.
Vygotsky has made valuable contributions in shaping teaching methods within special education. He insisted that teachers should create a learning environment which would supply disabled students with alternative means of communication and development and those psychological tools should be used by teachers that are most suited to compensate for a student's particular disability. He argued that a child's social dispossession is the main factor responsible for its flawed development. Vygotsky states that although blindness may be a biological defect, a teacher must not deal with the biological factor alone but also look at the social consequences faced by the child as a result of its blindness. He promoted the idea that handicapped children should be included in the social/cultural life of their communities as this would speed effective rehabilitation.
Some Limitations to Vygotskys Theory
Vygotsky stresses the importance of culture and language in understanding. However there is limited research that determines whether adult, child and peer collaborations differ in their value (Miller 2002). There is also the question on how much assistance the knowledgeable other should give the child and whether too much collaboration could lead to regression rather than help a student evolve (Miller 2002).
Vygotskys theory is often compared to Jean Piaget, who believed that cognitive competence should not be looked at until a child reached the appropriate development stage. Piaget believed that the most important source of cogitation is the child itself.
It is often said that Vygotsky was ahead of his times. His theory was formed over 50 years ago and his had such a profound effect on our education system. Even today, education psychologists are still researching his theory, which could become an important instrument to change, renew our present education system.