Sociocultural Development (Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky – 1934/1978)

“The first major presentation of Vygotsky’s thinking in English was the 1962 publication of Thought and Language, translated by Euginia Hanfmann and Gertrude Vakar, and introduced by Jerome Bruner” (Glick, 2004, p. 349). Sixteen years later, in 1978,  it was followed by publication of Mind in Society, which, although it carries Vygotsky’s name as author, was “carefully composed from many separate writings…edited by Cole, Scribner, John-Steiner, and Souberman ” (p. 349). Glick notes that while the 1962 publication of Language and Thought had little lasting impact at the time of its publication, Mind and Society was a “hallmark event in Vygotsky studies” (p. 349):

Something obviously happened between 1962 and 1978, something that effected an interest in and a fascination with Vygotsky’s ideas, or at least what were taken to be Vygotsky’s ideas. In 1962, the publication of Thought and Language seemed a one-time event. In 1978 Mind in Society spawned a generation of scholarship. (Glick, 2004, p. 349)

The limited impact of Thought and Language can be explained by the timing of its publication. Arriving at the beginning of a period of rediscovery of “structure,” along with Piaget being a recent find, it apparently “did not hit the dead center of psychologists’ interests” (p. 350). By 1978, however, “Piaget was under attack from a number of directions” (p. 351) and it was in this new context that Mind and Society was published, coming “at a point of disenchantment with the Piagetian treatment of structure and hence seemed to be an answer to the problems encountered over a two-decade period involvement with Piaget ” (p. 351). Since that time, Vygotsky’s writings have grown in popularity and have been used to prop up modern conceptualization of developmental theory, social learning theory, and constructivism. But, as is common to all exegetic studies, certain variations exist in the interpretation and application of his ideas. And these variations are not always compatible with each other.[1]

Glick (2004) described the Vygotsky as received by the field of developmental psychology via Mind in Society in 1978 as “a subtly different Vygotsky from the one introduced in 1962” (pp. 351-352). He argued that “some of the topics now taken as central to a Vygotskian view are topics that underwent a slight alteration between Thought and Language and Mind in Society” (p. 352)—the primary difference being a question of whether Vygotsky’s central concepts represent “laws of acquisition” of advanced behaviors, or an attempt at “differential diagnosis of differing developmental levels'” (p. 352). Ratner (2004) expressed concerns regarding certain neo-Vygotskian beliefs based on misunderstandings of the concept of sociogenesis. He argued that the concept of “co-constructionism” is, in fact, diametrically opposed to Vygotsky’s “emphasis on the social formation of psychology” (pp. 408, 409).

Langford (2005) characterized Vygotsky’s influence on education in the West as ambiguous both because some of his ideas have been misunderstood, and because Vygotsky “espoused three very different views of education in his career” (p. 123). In the first period, running roughly from 1918-1921 (pp. 138-140) Vygotsky “adopted the reflexological view of education, in which it is assumed that learning is in accordance with the laws of conditioned reflexes” (p. 147). By 1928 he had migrated his position to one of social progressivism (pp. 124-129), then between 1932-1934 he returned to a view of traditional education with the curriculum of what is to be learned shifting from topics dictated by the child’s interest to topics provided by a pre-established curriculum. In this third period, the “learner learning” (p. 147), at least for students over the age of 7, was replaced by the “teacher teaching” (p. 147).

Based on my own review of a selection of Vygotsky’s translated works, in comparison with a survey of ideas commonly attributed to Vygotsky in educational psychology textbooks (for example, O’Donnell et al., 2007; Sternberg & Williams, 2010; Woolfolk, 2010), I find it easy to agree with Glick’s assertion that “it is likely that what anyone takes to be the core Vygotskian ideas are precisely those ideas that address a contemporary theoretical need, and which do not reflect the full scope of Vygotsky’s thinking in its own terms” (Glick, 2004, p. 349).[2]

Despite the rather complicated historical context; and the problems inherent to language translation, manuscript abridgement, and exegesis of historical text; what has emerged from Vygotsky’s writings and the various interpretations thereof is the popular acceptance of three core ideas which are of great influence in the modern practice of learning and teaching. They are (a) tools and speech, (b) internalization and mediation, and (c) the zone of proximal development.[3]

Sympathetic to psychologists who promoted the rejection of the then popular botanical model of learning from whence sprang the notion of a “kindergarten,” Vygotsky pitched his ideas in terms of the new psychology of the time, which had “ascended the ladder of science by adopting zoological models as the basis for a new general approach to understanding the development of children” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 20). What he suggested, however, was a refining correction to the zoological view of higher intellection processes; he believed the higher mental process of man to be more than simply a continuation of “corresponding processes in animals” (p. 20).

His argument began by stating that the most important aspect of practical intelligence in children is “the child’s use of tools” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 20) and cited Kohler’s experiments with apes as exemplary in exploring this type of practical intelligence (p. 20). He continued his argument by declaring an important difference between man and ape, namely, that man can not only use but also make tools (Luria, 1994, p. 46).[4] Furthermore, not only does man make tools, but the tools he uses and makes impact his own internal psychological development. As Luria stated:

The tools used by man not only radically change his conditions of existence, they even react on him in that they effect a change in him and in his psychic condition. In the complicated inter-relations with his surroundings his organization is being differentiated and refined; his hand and his brain assume definite shapes, a series of complicated methods of conduct are being evolved, with the aid of which man adapts himself more perfectly to the surrounding world. (Luria, 1994, p. 46)

Vygotsky cited  K. Buhler’s research which “sought to establish similarities between child and ape” (p. 20) as establishing the important discovery that “the beginnings of practical intelligence in the child (he termed it ‘technical thinking’), as well as the actions of the chimpanzee, are independent of speech” (p. 21). However, he was in disagreement with Buhler’s conclusion that “‘in the case of man, even in later life, technical thinking, or thinking in terms of tools, is far less closely bound up with language and concepts than other forms of thinking'” (p. 21). He found Buhler’s assumption that “the relationship between practical intelligence and speech that characterizes the ten-month-old child remains intact throughout her lifetime” (pp. 20-21) to run contrary to his own findings, and cited this type of reasoning as a shortcoming of the phylogenetic comparison method toward an understanding of human learning. Vygotsky believed that “although practical intelligence and sign use can operate independently of each other in young children, the dialectical unity [italics added] of these systems in the human adult is the very essence of complex human behavior” (p. 24). His own analysis accorded to symbolic activity a “specific organizing function that penetrates the process of tool use and produces fundamentally new forms of behavior” (p. 24). He credited the source of man’s unique advantage to the synthesis of both tool use (i.e., practical activity) and speech:

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. Although children’s use of tools during their preverbal period is comparable to that of apes, as soon as speech and the use of signs are incorporated into any action, the action becomes transformed and organized along entirely new lines. The specifically human use of tools is thus realized, going beyond more limited use of tools possible among the higher animals. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 24)

He further noted that “observations of children in an experimental situation similar to that of Kohler’s apes show that the children not only act in attempting to achieve a goal but also speak” (p. 25). He related an example from the observational record of his collaborator, R. E. Levina, which detailed both the actions and verbalization of a four-and-a-half-year-old girl who was asked to get candy from a cupboard, with a stool and a stick as possible tools:

Levina posed practical problems for four- and five-year-old children such as obtaining a piece of candy from a cupboard. The candy was placed out of reach so the child could not obtain it directly. As the child got more and more involved in trying to obtain the candy, “egocentric” speech began to manifest itself as part of her active striving. At first this speech consisted of a description and analysis of the situation, but it gradually took on a “planful” character, reflecting possible paths to solution of the problem. Finally, it was included as part of the solution.


For example, a four-and-a-half-year-old girl was asked to get candy from a cupboard with a stool and a stick as possible tools. Levina’s description reads as follows: (Stands on a stool, quietly looking, feeling along a shelf with stick.) “On the stool.” (Glances at experimenter. Puts stick in other hand.) “Is that really the candy?” (Hesitates.) “I can get it from that other stool, stand and get it.” (Gets second stool.) “No, that doesn’t get it. I could use the stick.” (Takes stick, knocks at the candy.) “It will move now.” (Knocks candy.) “It moved, I couldn’t get it with the stool, but the, but the stick worked.”(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 25)

Vygotsky summarized the role of speech in development and intelligence by saying,

The specifically human capacity for language enables children to provide for auxiliary tools in the solution of difficult tasks, to overcome impulsive action, to plan a solution to a problem prior to its execution, and to master their own behavior. Signs and words serve children first and foremost as a means of social contact with other people. The cognitive and communicative functions of language then become the basis of a new and superior form of activity in children, distinguishing them from animals. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 29)

The example of the young girl verbalizing her experience and thoughts while trying to obtain the candy is a case of egocentric speech, a concept borrowed from Piaget (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 24). Vygotsky hypothesized this form of audible talking to oneself as “the transitional form between external and internal speech” (p. 27). “Inner speech is speech for oneself; external speech is for others” (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 131). He considered inner speech to be the opposite of external speech. External speech, he said, is “the turning of thought into words, its materialization of objectification. With inner speech, the process is reversed: Speech turns into inward thought” (p. 131).

Inner speech is the essential processes which facilitates internalization and mediation, the second of  Vygotsky’s ideas which has been adopted into the educational psychology mainstream of topics. By internalization Vygotsky meant “the internal reconstruction of an external operation” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 56). He illustrated this concept with a now frequently cited example of a young child learning to point as a means of communication. It begins as nothing more than an unsuccessful attempt to grasp something beyond his reach. However, when the mother comes to the child’s aid and hands him the object “the situation changes fundamentally” and “pointing becomes a gesture for others” (p. 56). Vygotsky described internalization as consisting of a series of transformations:

(a) An operation that initially represents an external activity is reconstructed and begins to occur internally. Of particular importance to the development of higher mental processes is the transformation of sign-using activity, the history and characteristics of which are illustrated by the development of practical intelligence, voluntary attention, and memory.

(b) An interpersonal process is transformed into an intrapersonal one. Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first between people (interpsychological), and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relations between human individuals.

(c) The transformation of an interpersonal process into an intrapersonal one is the result of a long series of developmental events. The process being transformed continues to exist and to change as an external form of activity for a long time before definitively turning inward. For many functions, the stage of external signs lasts forever, that is, it is their final stage of development. Other functions  develop further and gradually become inner functions. However, they take on the character of inner processes only as a result of a prolonged development. Their transfer inward is linked with changes in the laws governing their activity; they are incorporated into a new system with its own laws. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 57)

Another example of internalization, perhaps easier to grasp than the previous one given of learning to point, is a case in which Vygotsky and Luria were conducting experiments to investigate the psychogenesis of cultural forms of behavior. They found that “the cultural development of the child passes…through four main stages or phases which follow consecutively one after another” (Vygotsky, 1994b, p. 64). In their first example, they describe this four stage process of internalization occurring during the course of a memorization experiment. I draw from both Vygotsky’s and Luria’s separate accounts. From Luria’s we have the premise, theintuitive description, and context:

The cultural-historic development of psychology goes along the path of complication of cultural methods and habits; the history of culture starts with a primitive outward technique and ends with a complicated psychological technique. It inevitably develops in man the functional utilization of his own conduct….. We can demonstrate this, for example, in our experiments with memory, in the course of which a child learns how to use the most important internal mechanism – the structural connection.

A child who can hardly memorize five or six words of the series read out to him is asked to commit them to memory with the aid of pictures laid out on the table (e.g. lotto). Not one of the pictures actually reproduces the word in question, and the task can be performed only if the child connects in one structure the word in question with one of the pictures.

It is an obviously impossible task for a child of five or six or a backward child during his first years at school to establish a connection between the word ‘village’ and the picture of a house, between the word ‘tail’ and the picture of a dog, and, what is most important, to appreciate truly that connection and use it so as to memorize the material offered to him; on the other hand, a well developed child will perform that task without great difficulties. We had occasion to observe how a child in establishing and utilizing such connections could, by looking at the cards, reproduce 25- 30 and more words after one reading, while his natural memory could fix five or six at the most. Moreover, the connecting links were established with extraordinary subtlety. Thus, in order to remember the word ‘spade’ the child chose a picture of chickens picking up grains ‘because they picked it just as the spade digs the earth’; for the word ‘theatre’ the child chose the picture of a crab on the seashore ‘because the crab looks at the pebbles in the sea, and they are just as pretty as a theatre’, etc. (Luria, 1994, p. 53)

Now, from Vygotsky’s account, the analysis and explanation of the four stages involved in the process of internalization for this type of task:

The first stage could be described as the stage of primitive behaviour or primitive psychology. The experiment reveals this in that the younger child tries to remember the data supplied to him by a primitive or natural means in accordance with the degree to which he is interested in them. The amount remembered is determined by the degree of his attention, by the amount of his individual memory and by the measure of his interest in the matter.

Usually only the difficulties which the child meets on this path bring him to the second stage. In our experiments it usually took place in the following way. Either the child himself, after more or less protracted search and trials, discovers some mnemotechnical method, or we lend him our assistance in case he is unable to master the task with the resources of his natural memory. For example, we place pictures in front of the child and choose words to be memorized in such a way that they should be in some way naturally connected with those pictures. When the child who has heard the words looks at the picture, he easily reproduces a whole series of words, since such pictures, irrespective of the child’s consciousness, will remind him of the words which he has just heard.

The child usually grasps very quickly the method which we suggest to him, but does not usually know by what means the pictures help him to remember the words. He usually reacts in the following manner: when a new series of words is given to him, he will again—but now on his own initiative—place the pictures in front of him, and look at them every time a word is given to him. But since this time there is no direct connection between words and pictures, and the child does not know how to use the pictures as a means of memorizing a given word, he looks at the picture and reproduces not the word he was given, but another suggested by the picture….This stage is conventionally called the stage of ‘naive psychology….’

This second stage is usually transitory in its importance. In the course of the experiment the child usually passes on very quickly to the third stage of the external cultural method….Now he replaces the processes of memorizing by a rather complicated external activity. When he is given a word, he chooses out of a number of pictures in front of him the one which is most closely associated with the word given. At first he tries to use the natural association which exists between the picture and word, but soon afterwards passes on to the creation and formation of new associations.

However, in the experiment even this third stage lasts a comparatively short time and is replaced by the fourth stage, which originates in the third. The external activity of the child remembering by means of a sign passes on into internal activity. The external means, so to speak, becomes ingrown or internal [Italics added].

The simplest way to observe this is the study of a situation in which a child must remember given words by using pictures placed in definite order [cf. method of loci for mnemonic techniques of memory]. After a few times the child usually learns the pictures themselves. He has no further need to recur to them. He already associates words given with the titles of pictures, the order of which he already knows. Such ‘complete ingrowing’ is based on the fact that inner stimuli are substituted for the external ones. The mnemotechnical map which lies before the child becomes his internal scheme. (Vygotsky, 1994b, pp. 64-66)

Vygotsky’s third idea is by far the most prominent and influential of the three. It is the concept of the zone of proximal development. “The zone of proximal development…is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86). Having reviewed and rejected three different theoretical positions—i.e., (a) “processes of child development are independent of learning” (p. 79), (b) “learning is development” (p. 80), and (c) a third position which “attempts to overcome the extremes of the other two by simply combining them” (p. 81)—the concept of the zone of proximal development is Vygotsky’s own explanation for the relationship between learning and development. According to this view, learning leads out ahead of development, and it is critically dependent upon social interaction:

We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once these processes are internalized, they become part of the child’s independent developmental achievement. (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90)

This idea has obvious implications for instruction, which Vygotsky explained as follows:

In the child’s development…imitation and instruction play a major role. They bring out the specifically human qualities of the mind and lead the child to new developmental levels. In learning to speak, as in learning school subjects, imitation is indispensable. What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow. Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions. It remains necessary to determine the lowest threshold at which instruction in, say, arithmetic may begin since a certain minimal ripeness of functions is required. But we must consider the upper threshold as well; instruction must be oriented toward the future, not the past.

For a time, our schools favored the “complex” system of instruction, which was believed to be adapted to the child’s ways of thinking. In offering the child problems he was able to handle without help, this method failed to utilize the zone of proximal development and to lead the child to what he could not yet do. Instruction was oriented to the child’s weakness rather than his strength, thus encouraging him to remain at the preschool stage of development. (Vygotsky, 1962, p. 104)

The concept of the zone of proximal development has led to much research and is the source of several hot topics in modern educational psychology, such as scaffolding (O’Donnell et al., 2007, p. 50; Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 53; Woolfolk, 2010, p. 50), mediated experience (Sternberg & Williams, 2010, p. 53), guided participation (O’Donnell et al., 2007, pp. 49-51, 327-334), instructional conversation[5] (pp. 51-52), socially shared cognition (p. 52), intersubjectivity (p. 52), transfer of responsibility (p. 52), peer learning (pp. 54, 387, 397, 399), and the role of adults and peers in learning (Woolfolk, 2010, p. 50). These topics are currently in the center ring of both theory and practice. Regardless of whether or not the contemporary view of Vygotsky’s ideas is accurate, it is certainly making an impact.

[1] One of the biggest challenges in reviewing Vygotsky’s ideas is “the ready availability in the West of writings on him by those who have not studied him closely” (Langford, 2005, p. 149). Because of this I have chosen to focus my review on Vygotsky’s own writings rather than rely on secondary interpretive sources.

[2] I find this to be a consistent trend in the popular application of all theories reviewed.  The theories as outlined in Educational Psychology textbooks, the understanding of those theories by educators, and the form of the theories adopted in practice are not the pure, original theories at all, but rather, what I have come to refer to as practitioner’s theories—a rehash of theories which have been, at least in many cases, decontextualized and reconceived.  I use the term practitioner’s theories to emphasize that they have evolved and taken form through well-intentioned attempts to apply the original theory in practical situations, but have been extended, in most cases, beyond the legitimate or defensible boundaries of the theory as established by the originating theorist—the ideas of the theory being selected based on convenience to a contemporary theoretical or practical need, reinterpreted to fit the circumstances at hand.

[3] These three ideas were identified based on coverage of Vygotsky’s ideas in college textbooks such as Driscoll (2000, pp. 239-255), O’Donnell, Reeve, and Smith (2007), Sternberg and Williams (2010), Wertsch (1985), and Woolfolk (2010). They are the ideas which are most frequently reviewed in these texts, and the ideas which have been taken as the basis for further research and application in modern educational.

[4] Alexander Luria was Vygotsky’s associate and partner, and the two worked closely together. Luria’s quote used here to support Vygotsky’s position is consistent with Vygotsky’s personal belief, as evidenced by his own writings and a collaborative piece with Luria, Tools and Symbols in Child Development (Vygotsky & Luria, 1994). Luria’s quote was selected for use here because of its powerful articulation.

[5] A didactic method in which the IRE (initiate, respond, evaluate) discourse model was replaced with the PQS (probe, question, scaffold) discourse model.

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