Lee Vygotsky is most well-known as a developmental psychologist who developed the bio-social theory of cultural-historical psychology, and he was also heavily influenced by the works of Luria, and by Luria’s way of thinking. Vygotsky was primarily concerned with the cognitive development of children, and he examined the ability for children to reason. In terms of Vygotsky’s history, it is important to consider his early life and educational background in order to further understand the context of his later psychological theories and contributions. Vygotsky was born in Russia in a non-religious, but Jewish family. He attended a medical school, but then later transferred his studies to a law school. He was involved in political reform, and much of his life was undocumented due to political unrest and war. What is known is that he participated in a psychoneurological congress meeting and he then became a fellow in research in Russia. He eventually completed a dissertation in psychology though he survived a bout of tuberculosis in between beginning his dissertation and completing and obtaining his degree. Interestingly, Vygotsky reportedly had a radical shift in his thinking late in his life and he wanted to revise his theory of human development; however, he passed away before his new theory of consciousness took any form.
The reason Vygotsky stood out to me among the other famous psychologists was because of his interest in cognitive development. I have always had a deep interest in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology, so his research fits well with my own interests and ambitions. Vygotsky also stood out from the rest of the psychologists because he was thought of as a progressive and forward-thinker and this was controversial in Russia during his lifetime. In fact, some called his followers, his “cult.” I had heard of Vygotsky before taking this course, and although we often think of the larger figures in the field, I argue that Vygotsky’s presence is seen today more than the works of other psychologists. Specifically, while psychologists such as Freud and Skinner proposed new ways of thinking, I argue that Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development is actually usual and employed in classrooms across the globe, impacting millions and millions of individuals. Overall, Vygotsky was a progressive thinker in the realms of developmental and cognitive psychology, and he had a great impact on the field of psychology as a whole.
Outline of Vygotsky’s Work: Successes and Failures
Vygotsky made many significant contributions to the field of psychology, especially developmental psychology. In particular, he examined the roles of interpersonal communication and cultural influences on the development of cognitive skills (Penuel & Wertsch, 2010). In other words, he examined how communication patterns and cultural influences led to the development of shared knowledge of a cultural group. Two main concepts for which he is credited are internalization and appropriation. Internalization refers to a process in which a child growing up in a society begins to learn how to perform certain skills which will help him or her master some task that is common in a society. For instance, in an agriculturally-based society, a child may learn how to milk cows rather early in life, whereas in an industrial society focused on technology, a child may learn how to use his or her mother’s cell phone to play a game. In contrast, appropriation is the term Vygotsky used to describe instances where children find an object within their environment and they use the object in their own unique way. For instance, with appropriation, a child may find a cut rubber band and use it as a mock Band-Aid on their toy doll.
The zone of proximal development (Shabani, Khatib, & Ebadi, 2010) is what many may consider Vygotsky’s major contribution to the field of psychology. This term is used to describe the relationship between the child’s abilities, and the child’s ability to expand upon these abilities to learn and develop. This zone of proximal development states that a child can learn a new skill that is above or beyond the child’s developmental level if he or she receives help from an older or more capable individual during the process. For instance, imagine two children ages 3 and 5. The five-year-old child may be able to follow instructions to build a Lego house; however, the three-year-old may be able to only stack Legos. With the help of a five-year-old, the three-year-old may be able to snap the blocks together and build a structure. In this instance, the lower limit of the three-year-old’s zone of proximal development would be his ability to stack the Legos without connecting them, and the upper limit of the zone for this three-year-old would be designing a structure.
Another area in which Vygotsky contributed to the thinking of the time was in the area of inner speech and external speech. Vygotsky strongly believed that inner speech, or the thoughts that fill human minds, developed from external speech, with children who were younger in their development only being able to “think” and speak aloud.
Critical Review of Vygotsky’s Work and Application to Psychology
Vygotsky made considerable contributions to the field of psychology, and much of his work is still recognized as being commendable and applicable today. In fact, his zone of proximal development serves as the basis for many schools in their plans for children. In fact, teachers work within the child’s zone of proximal development all of the time to encourage success. Specifically, within school systems, teachers regularly evaluate children, and sometimes children are provided with individualized attention if they need some small help to help them reach the next level of development. This can be seen in gifted education programs as well as special education programs. In these cases, children are at the upper and lower ends of the larger zone of proximal development for their age bracket and these programs are designed to help each group reach the next zone.
In my opinion, Vygotsky’s cultural psychology has not been as prominent across the field of psychology. Certainly, large organizations that govern psychology suggest a culturally-competent approach and there is research on cultural influences, especially in the development of specific conditions, but there is little work on culturally-sensitive measures of cognition and thinking. In fact, some of the most widely used cognitive measures are actually incredibly culturally biased. Although Vygotsky was not directly involved in the development of these measures that are used by today’s neuropsychologists across the world, it is interesting to consider that such an important concept, largely credited to Vygtosky’s thoughts and approaches to psychology, has been left unattended.
In conclusion, Vygostksy lived an interesting life before finding his way into the field of psychology. Since that time, he made significant contributions to the field that are still evidenced in today’s views of psychology and child development. Moreover, the lasting effects of his insights and contributions are seen in today’s classrooms as his theory of the zone of proximal development is implemented throughout the globe. Still, some of his early contributions to the field, such as his views on the development of different cognitive abilities depending on the cultural context of the learner, has been understudied within the field of psychology. Future work should be done to revisit some of Vygtosky’s past work in order to bring more cultural competence to the field of assessment.
- Penuel, W.R., Wertsch, J.V. (2010). Vygotsky and identity formation: A sociocultural approach. Educational Psychologist, 30(2), 83-92.
- Shabani, K., Khatib, M., & Ebadi, S. (2010). Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development: Instructional implications and teachers’ professional development. English Language Teaching, 3(4), 237-248.