Lev S. Vygotsky is the subject of Steve Mynard’s article on the psychology of child development

Lev S. Vygotsky taught at the Institute of Psychology in Moscow for ten years until his death in 1938. Since then his ideas have been worked into a coherent theory which focuses on on three areas.

Where Piaget took the view that the child was like a scientist, discovering and inventing the world anew for themselves (see the first article in this series), Vygotsky’s view was of the child as an apprentice, benefiting from the accumulated experience of the culture by which he is surrounded.

Vygotsky took a social-cultural approach. Children do not start afresh, learning everything for themselves; they can draw on the accumulated wisdom of previous generations.

‘Each generation stands on the shoulders of the previous one’ is how Vygotsky portrayed this. The intellectual, material, scientific and artistic achievements of the previous generation are taken over by the current generation, developed further and then handed on to the next generation.

Vygotsky called the things that are handed on cultural tools. He identified language as the most essential cultural tool for three reasons:

  1. Language is the main way in which society’s experience is passed on from generation to generation
  2. Language enables children to regulate their own activities
  3. As it becomes internalized, language becomes the principal tool of cognitive functioning – the child moves from talking to themselves when engaged in play or problem solving to thinking for themselves.

This was the area in which Vygotsky has had the most profound influence. He recognized that cognitive development results from interacting with another more knowledgeable and more competent person. This is the key to cognitive progress.

Intellectual competences emerge through internalizing problem solving strategies first encountered while working with another person on a joint task. Cognitive development progresses from joint-regulation (we do it together) to self-regulation (I do it for myself).

Vygotsky saw the best indicator of a child’s potential as being what he or she could achieve when working with the support and encouragement of a more competent person. To develop this idea further Vygotsky proposed the notion of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This represents the gap between what a child already knows and what he or she is capable of learning with assistance –  the ‘buds’ rather than the ‘fruits’ of development. Tasks in the ZPD are those that the child currently finds too difficult to accomplish alone, but which can be accomplished with the support and encouragement of a more skilled person.

Unlike Piaget, Vygotsky paid little attention to the role of the individual. He did not focus on the stages of development or the ages at which these might occur. Like Piaget he did see the child as an active participant in learning rather than a passive recipient of information from other people.

Vygotsky’s ideas are already present in your setting in many ways. The most easily observed is in scaffolding learning.

Scaffolding essentially means that a more experienced person offers support, encouragement and guidance to a learner as appropriate. The key term is ‘as appropriate’. Guidance can be given in two forms:

  1. When the learner runs into difficulty specific instructions are given
  2. When the learner is coping well only general encouragement is given

The ‘scaffold’ is provided by the expert and this allows the child to climb higher. Scaffolding is a powerful technique employed quite naturally and unconsciously by many good parents and teachers – think about how an adult helps a child as he learns to walk. The adult remains flexible and constantly modifies what she is offering in response to what the child is doing. Scaffolding emphasizes the social-interactive nature of learning and describes quite clearly the conditions most suitable to learning. It is also crucial to remember that in time we all learn to scaffold for ourselves; self-instruction. The goal of learning is to become an independent learner. Scaffolding can help achieve this.

Children also learn from each other by:

  • collaborative learning, involving children who are at similar levels of competence working together in pairs or in groups
  • peer tutoring, involves a more knowledgeable child providing guidance to another child in order to bring him up to a higher level of competence in a task. Research has shown that this not only benefits the child who is receiving the guidance; it also promotes learning in the child expert.

Variety is essential in developing this approach in the classroom. If children only ever work with the same children in groups or pairs it severely limits the scope for them to learn from each other.

You will be using Vygotsky’s ideas in your own setting when you:

  • make adults available to support and scaffold the children’s learning as they play
  • actively encouraging peer-to-peer tutoring; both collaborative learning and peer tutoring
  • encourage children to work and play with different groups of children
  • become aware of your own inclinations towards giving specific instructions and general encouragement when working with a child on a joint task.Schaffer HR (2004) Introducing Child Psychology, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-21628-6

    Wood D (1998) How Children Think and Learn, Second Edition. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
    ISBN 0-631-20007-X

    Cardwell, Clark and Meldrum (2004) Psychology for A2 Level, London: Harper Collins.
    ISBN 0-00-717042-4

    Cardwell M (2004). Complete A-Z Psychology Handbook, London: Hodder and Stoughton.
    ISBN 0-340-87269-1