Vygotsky and Education

by John S. James

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), Russian psychologist and educator, is today becoming important in U.S. education (about 120 references to Vygotsky can be found in ERIC, the Educational Resources Information Center of the U.S. Dept. of Education, searchable at http://ericae.net/aesearch.htm -- up from 80 references two years ago). His work can help us develop organized training methods for use during everyday life, to improve our communication and relationship skills. But Vygotsky wrote for fellow academics, not for the general public, and there may not be any good introduction for non-specialists. So I wrote this essay to give people a sample of some of his ideas and their importance. [The comments in brackets are my own.]

Vygotsky extended and improved the work of Piaget, the French educator who studied what children are able to learn at different ages. Vygotsky's ideas are more flexible, much less tied to calendar age. Vygotsky lived in Moscow for the last part of his life, where he directed a program to teach physically handicapped and/or mentally retarded children. He died of tuberculosis while still in his 30s.

Zone of Proximal Development

Traditional educational testing--still largely in force today--tests children to find out what they can do alone, without assistance [which is called "cheating" on the tests]. Vygotsky recognized the importance of such solitary skills--but he was even more interested in what children (or others) can do with assistance--because that shows where the student's learning can proceed in the immediate future. The "zone of proximal development" is the difference between what a student can accomplish with help (from the teacher, another expert, fellow students, or from books or other aids--in short, from the human community), and what he or she can do alone without help.

Vygotsky believed in learning through assisted performance--such as "look do" teaching methods, where the child imitates something the teacher has done. Of course assisted-performance learning will only work within the zone of proximal development (what the child can do with assistance). Vygotsky gave the example a teacher who works an arithmetic problem in front of the child, repeating as necessary until the child can master the skill. But he noted that if instead the teacher had worked a problem in higher mathematics--outside the zone of proximal development--the child would never learn it no matter how often it was repeated.

The word "scaffolding" is sometimes used to describe the assistance given--the help, in whatever form, that allows the student to successfully perform a task he or she could not have accomplished otherwise.

[In Communication Practices, the practices are the scaffolding--carefully designed micro projects that we can use invisibly in our everyday lives, to learn human relationship skills which otherwise might be difficult for us. We are finding that in this area, the zone of proximal development is enormous--people can do much better at learning and improving communication and relationship skills than is generally believed, sometimes overcoming lifelong problems in weeks. But our culture has not found any really good ways of providing assistance (scaffolding) that works well for this purpose. We believe that the "practices" format can do so. Our goal in Communication Practices is to provide a proof of principle, a working demonstration of a much better way to build these critically important skills that we can use to change our lives and our world.]

Symbols: Human vs. Animal Learning

Vygotsky believed that human and animal learning are fundamentally different. He said that one kind of practical learning is similar in humans and animals--but humans also use symbols, while animals do not. (He gave a simple example of a symbol: a knot tied in a handkerchief as a reminder. "It has been remarked that the very essence of civilization consists of purposely building monuments so as not to forget. In both the knot and the monument we have manifestations of the most fundamental and characteristic feature distinguishing human from animal memory." The quote is from L.S. Vygotsky, Mind in Society, edited and published in 1978 by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman, Harvard University Press, page 51.)

Vygotsky and other developmental psychologists compared learning in very young children with learning in apes. Given a problem--such as food which is out of reach but can be pushed off a shelf with a stick--both the ape and the child would solve it in about the same way (using "practical intelligence" only, but not symbols). In such a case the entire problem must be in the visual field--meaning, for example, that the ape or very young child would not think to use the stick if it were out of sight in another room.

Symbols and Play

But humans also have speech. Vygotsky believed that "the most significant moment in the course of intellectual development, which gives birth to the purely human forms of practical and abstract intelligence, occurs when speech and practical activity, two previously completely independent lines of development, converge" (Mind in Society, page 24). Then problem solving need no longer be dependent on the visual field or on immediate impulses.

Speech makes symbols possible. Symbols allow the child to have "quasi needs" and to form plans and strategies to accomplish a task. But speech first exists to communicate with others--and Vygotsky saw the symbolic life of the child as coming from the community, not from autonomous development.

It's important to note that when we use practical intelligence (such as sticks or other tools), our target is to change the outside world. But symbols target our own minds; we use them to change ourselves. This process gives us great freedom in how we use our minds, allowing the development of much more complex and effective strategies for changing the outside world as well.

Vygotsky also wrote much about play, which he did not see as symbolic action only. "The development from games with an overt imaginary situation and covert rules to games with overt rules and a covert imaginary situation outlines the evolution of children's play." (Mind in Society, page 96)

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