Early Childhood Education

Vygotsky, Lev Semenovich (1896-1934)


Lev Vygotsky is often called the “Mozart of psychology” because, similar to the famous composer, Vygotsky applied his genius early in life and to many different areas. Like Mozart, Vygotsky died young, losing his battle with tuberculosis at the age of 37. Born in 1896 in what was then a part of the Russian empire and is now the Republic of Belarus, Vygotsky had to overcome multiple obstacles during his remarkable life. As a Jew, his admittance to Moscow University depended on his winning a special lottery in spite of having graduated high school with honors. He was also limited in the type of career that would allow him to live outside the Pale, which accounts for his choice to pursue a degree in medicine, switching to law during his freshman year. While attending law classes, Vygotsky did not give up his studies in humanities and he simultaneously enrolled in Shanyavsky University to take classes in philosophy, literature, and linguistics.

After graduating from both Universities, Vygotsky returned to his native Gomel, where he taught literature, language, and psychology to schoolchildren, night school students, and to teachers in pre-service and in-service programs. During this period, Vygotsky developed many innovative ideas that later formed the foundation of his Cultural Historical Approach. In 1924, Vygotsky presented some of these ideas at the All-Russian Congress on Study of Behavior in St. Petersburg. His presentation made such an impression that, although he was an unknown instructor from a small provincial city, he was given a prestigious research position in the Moscow Psychological Institute.

After moving to Moscow in 1924, Vygotsky set forth to create what he hoped would become a new theory for understanding and solving the social and educational problems of his time. In addition to his theoretical work, Vygotsky pioneered new practical applications of his ideas such as “defectology”—a discipline that combined child abnormal psychology and special education. As the head of an experimental laboratory that later became the Institute of Defectology, Vygotsky advocated a new approach to educating children with special needs that focused on helping them acquire special cultural tools that would allow them to fully integrate into the society. Working feverishly as if in a race with his debilitating disease, Vygotsky immersed himself in research, writing, and teaching in child development, educational and clinical psychology, special education, and psychology of art. At the same time, he was expanding the circle of his colleagues and students, which later became the “Vygotsky School.” Vygotsky’s hopes for the creation of new theory, however, were not fully realized either during his lifetime or even during the lifetime of most of his closest colleagues and students. When the academic openness of the first postrevolutionary years ended, Vygotsky’s ideas and the educational practices he initiated were suppressed by the communist government. These ideas and practices reemerged in the 1960s and 1970s, kept alive by Vygotsky’s students, who were not only able to preserve the scientific legacy of their leader and mentor, but to enrich the Vygotskian approach to education and to broaden its practical applications.

At the core of Vygotsky’s Cultural-Historical Theory is Vygotsky’s belief that human development—an individual child’s development as well as the development of all of humankind—is shaped by one’s acquisition of cultural tools (written languages, number systems, various signs, and symbols) through the process of social interactions. These cultural tools not only make it possible for children to grow into the culture they are being raised in but they also transform the very way the child’s mind is being formed, leading to the emergence of higher mental functions—intentional, self-regulated, and sign-mediated mental behaviors. An important characteristic of higher mental functions is their gradual transformation from external and socially distributed (intersubjective) to internal and individual (intrasubjective) through the process of internalization. For Vygotsky, interactions and cooperation with others is more than a favorable condition of child development—it is one of its driving forces.

Vygotsky’s views on the development of higher mental functions can be illustrated by his model of the development of private or self-directed speech. Vygotsky saw private speech as a transitional step from social speech directed to other people to inner speech and eventually to verbal thinking. 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 actions, thus transforming spontaneous and unintentional behaviors into thoughtful and intentional ones. This function of private speech makes it an indicator of children’s growing mastery of their behaviors, which contrasts with its explanation by Jean Piaget, who considered self-talk a manifestation of young children’s egocentric, hence immature, thinking.



Vygotsky’s position on the relationship between education, learning, and development is an extension of his view of child development as a complex interplay of natural and cultural processes. Seeing instruction (both formal and informal) as one of the important sources of child development, Vygotsky disagreed with theorists who believed that child development occurs spontaneously, is driven by the processes of maturation, and cannot be affected by education. He also rejected the view 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 represented by the concept of

Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is the area between a child’s level of independent performance (what he/she can do alone) and this child’s level of assisted performance (what he/she can do with support). Skills and understandings contained within a child’s ZPD are the ones that have not emerged yet and could emerge only if the child engages in interactions with knowledgeable others (peers and adults) or in other supportive contexts (such as make-believe play for preschool children). According to Vygotsky, the most effective instruction is the kind that is aimed not at child’s level of independent performance but is instead aimed at this child’s ZPD. This instruction does more than increase the repertoire of skills and understandings; it actually produces gains in child development. In Vygotsky’s words, “instruction leads development instead of lagging behind it.” Vygotsky’s legacy can be found in contemporary interpretations of social constructivism and sociocultural theory.

Further Readings: Vygotsky, L. (1987). Thinking and speech. Translated by N. Minick. Vol. 1. New York: Plenum Press. Vygotsky, L. (1997). The history of the development of higher mental functions. Translated by Marie J. Hall. Vol. 4. New York: Plenum Press. Vygotsky, L. (1998). Child psychology. Translated by M. J. Hall. New York: Plenum Press.

Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong