Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky is one of psychology's most famous contributors, even though he was only 37 when he died. What did he accomplish before he died?

Lev Vygotsky Lev Vygotsky

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Table of contents
    • Who was Lev Vygotsky?
    • What is Lev Vygotsky's sociocultural theory?
    • What is Lev Vygotsky's zone of proximal development?
    • What is an example of Lev Vygotsky's theories?

    Lev Vygotsky's Contribution to Psychology

    Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist who is most famous for his contributions to and the evolution of the field of sociocultural development. He was born in 1896 and died in 1934 of tuberculosis, meaning that all his monumental contributions to psychology only happened in a short time! Who knows what else he would have developed had he lived longer.

    Vygotsky was Jewish, and when he was a child, he was randomly selected to attend a Russian university that had to admit Jewish students to fill their 3% quota. There, Vygotsky was exposed to a wide range of social sciences, humanities, and arts (and was even enrolled in law school). However, Vygotsky never finished his degree due to the Bolshevik uprising in Russia. Can you imagine becoming a renowned psychologist during a complete political upheaval and revolution?

    Photograph of Lev Vygotsky. StudySmarterLev Vygotsky. Wikipedia Commons.

    Vygotsky eventually published his dissertation after the Bolshevik uprisings and continued his academic journey. While he mainly focused on childhood development, he still worked on broader aspects of psychology. Unfortunately, due to his untimely death, many of his theories were never fully developed, stunting the majority of his future additions to the field of psychology.

    Lev Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

    Lev Vygotsky is most known for his theory of cognitive development.

    Cognitive development is the evolution of children's ability to form thoughts, solve problems, and explore their environments.

    Memory, reasoning, and language development are all parts of cognitive development. As you might assume, children go through many stages of cognitive development during childhood.

    Vygotsky, Piaget, and Cognitive Development

    It's hard not to talk about Vygotsky and his contributions to childhood development and not talk about Jean Piaget. Piaget published his theory on childhood development before Vygotsky was interested in that field. Piaget's theory focused on four distinct stages children would pass through in their development. He highlighted crucial attributes to develop during each step. Vygotsky was aware of Piaget's theory, but while he initially accepted it, he eventually disagreed with the stages and published his beliefs on childhood development. Interestingly, while Piaget and Vygotsky were alive at the same time, and Vygotsky was aware of Piaget's theory, Piaget didn't even read Vygotsky's beliefs until after Vygotsky had already passed away.

    Interestingly, Piaget wasn't the only one introduced to Vygotsky's works posthumously. Even though Vygotsky died in 1934, it wasn't until the 1970s and 1980s that he gained popularity. At this time, people weren't as enthusiastic about Piaget's theory and were searching for a better explanation for childhood development. Even though Piaget and Vygotsky created their theories around the same time, people often consider Vygotsky's to come after Piaget's since they became accepted decades later. While most other noteworthy psychologists gained fame during their lives, Vygotsky had been dead for forty years before society deemed his work worth reading.

    Lev Vygotsky's Sociocultural Theory

    Before we dive into Vygotsky’s specific contributions, let’s first understand the main field of psychology to which he contributed.

    The sociocultural theory primarily focuses on how society, familial and peer relationships, and culture influence people and their behavior.

    If you Google "sociocultural theory," Vygotsky is the only name you will see. Vygotsky should be synonymous with sociocultural theory. While Vygotsky contributed to varying facets of psychology, this was his most influential contribution.

    Sociocultural theory can explain many different things. Since the sociocultural theory focuses on the influence of family relationships, people can use this theory to explain racism amongst generations of the same family. Vygotsky would say that if your parents are racist, you will likely also be racist since the family dramatically impacts the individual.

    Think of sociocultural theory as a theory that focuses on how our environment influences us. Even though sociocultural theory primarily revolves around society, family and peer relationships, and culture, it still can include other environmental influences such as language, religion, and social class.

    Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development

    Within the sociocultural theory, Vygotsky developed the zone of proximal development.

    The zone of proximal development is the zone where children can learn complex information with the help of an adult.

    Vygotsky believed that learning has three different levels of learning ability. The first level is what someone can do by themselves. This level would include information the child previously knows or new, simple information that the child can easily understand. The next level is what someone can do with help. This level would be information that a child wouldn't be able to understand on their own, but if, using Vygotsky's label, a more knowledgeable other helped explain, they would be able to learn it. This more knowledgeable could be a parent, teacher, or other older figure who knows and can explain more information. The final level of learning includes the material that is too difficult to learn, no matter what adult help or guidance is there. No matter what, the child will not comprehend this new information.

    As you might guess, this middle level of learning is what Vygotsky considered the zone of proximal development. In this zone, children can learn new, more complex information that they wouldn't be able to if there weren't assistance. The distinctive aspect that makes the zone of proximal development possible is the "more knowledgeable other" role. Vygotsky placed importance on this role that many of his contemporaries did not. This figure can help the child expand their knowledge and grow to an extent, rather than letting the child develop without help.

    Photograph of a teacher and three students. StudySmarterLearning in the zone of proximal development. Pixabay.com.

    To achieve the most out of the zone of proximal development, Vygotsky put forth the second important aspect of his research – scaffolding. Scaffolding happens when the teacher specializes and adjusts their teaching to fit the learner's needs. Everyone learns in different ways and has different needs, so scaffolding helps fit the child's individual needs. In addition to tailoring the needs of each child, when scaffolding, the teachers will start with lots of assistance and then dial it back until the child understands the concept and doesn't need help anymore. Along with the role of the more knowledgeable other, Vygotsky also believed that culture played a crucial role in how a child learns and develops.

    In this instance, "teacher" can mean a school teacher or a more knowledgeable other.

    Lev Vygotsky’s Impact on Child Development

    Even though Vygotsky's theory has been pitted against Piaget's for decades, Vygotsky's theories have become a very credible theory of childhood development. He showed the importance that society, family, and culture have on children's growth and how crucial learning can be. His zone of proximal development helped people understand how many potential children can have when aided by an adult. Additionally, his scaffolding emphasized the critical role that teachers play in the growth and education of children.

    Lev Vygotsky Real-Life Application

    Since Vygotsky theorized about a wide range of subtopics of cognitive development, there are many options for real-life applications of his work. One example happens in school. Have you ever struggled with understanding something in class? If you did, hopefully, you went to your teacher’s class later to get one-on-one help. When you were there, the teacher could break the new concept into smaller components, tailoring their instruction to your level of understanding. You then could understand the information better when the teacher taught it.

    This real-life application is an example of scaffolding and the zone of proximal development! The teacher used scaffolding when they changed their teaching to accommodate your specific needs. Then, since the information you were learning was in your zone of proximal development, you could understand the information with extra help.

    Lev Vygotsky - Key takeaways

    • Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist who is most famous for his contributions to and the evolution of the field of sociocultural development
    • The sociocultural theory primarily focuses on how society, familial and peer relationships, and culture influence people and their behavior.
    • The zone of proximal development is the sweet spot where children can learn complex information with the help of an adult.
    • Scaffolding happens when the teacher specializes and adjusts their teaching to fit the learner’s needs.
    • The "more knowledgable other" is a key player in the zone of proximal development and scaffolding and can refer to a teacher, parent, adult, or even older child with more knowledge
    Frequently Asked Questions about Lev Vygotsky

    What is Lev Vygotsky known for? 

    Lev Vygotsky is known for his development of sociocultural theory, the zone of proximal development, and scaffolding. 

    What are the main points of Vygotsky's theory? 

    A main point of Vygotsky's theory is that culture, society, and family have an impact on a child's development. 

    What are Lev Vygotsky's stages of development? 

    Lev Vygotsky does not have stages of development like Piaget. Rather, he believed that development was continuous and was influenced by our surroundings and teachers.  

    What is Lev Vygotsky's zone of proximal development? 

    Lev Vygotsky's zone of proximal development is the theory that people learn the most information when they are aided by someone with more knowledge than they have. This learning takes place in the zone of proximal development. 

    How is Lev Vygotsky's theory used today? 

    Lev Vygotsky's theory is used today to provide people with an understanding of the influences on child development. 

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