Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who is most known for his theories on developmental psychology. He published on a wide variety of topics. His ideas changed over the years. He pioneered the concept of the zone of proximal development (see also Scaffolding), as well as the role of culture and language in cognitive development. Vygotsky wanted “to create a new and comprehensive approach to human psychological processes” (3, p. 168).
Lev Semionovich Vygotsky was born in Orsha, Belarus (at that time, part of the Russian empire) on November 17th, 1896. A brilliant intellectual, developmental psychologist, social activist, and teacher whose work revolved around education, Vygotsky died on June 11th, 1934, aged 38.
Lev was born to the Vygodskii family, a non-religious and affluent family of Jewish ancestry. Simkha Vygodskii, Lev’s father, was a banker and, soon after Lev’s birth, he was designated as department chief of the United Bank in the city of Gomel(2). The entire family moved to Gomel and Lev was schooled at home until 1911. He then entered a private Jewish Gymnasium, graduating with distinction. At a time when the Jewish student quota in the universities in Moscow and Sankt Petersburg barely reached 3%, Lev Semionovich Vygotsky entered the “Jewish Lottery” ballot and, in 1913, he was admitted to the Moscow University.
Despite his passion for social sciences and humanities, young Lev gave in to family pressure and applied to medical school. However, it only took him one semester to switch to law school. Concomitantly, Lev was also attending lectures at the Shaniavskii University, showing an active interest in the history, culture, tradition, and identity of the Jewish people, linguistics, literature, philosophy, and psychology, and vehemently criticizing Zionism and socialism. In his view, the “Jewish question” could only be resolved by returning to the traditional Jewish Orthodoxy. Unfortunately, Lev would never obtain his university degree.
In 1917, Lev saw his formal studies disrupted by the October Bolshevik Revolution in Petrograd and Moscow and decided to return to Gomel. In 1917, Gomel was under the administrative control of the Ukrainian State and information about Lev’s life during that period is scarce. However, in 1919, the Bolsheviks captured Gomel and, from 1919 to 1923, Lev actively participated in the social transformation of his hometown, becoming a prominent representative of the local Bolshevik government.
By 1920, he started to sign his journalistic publications as Lev Semiónovich Vygótskii, replacing his original Jewish surname with Vygótskii and ‘Símkhovich’ with the Slavic variant, Semiónovich. His two daughters, born in 1925 and 1930 respectively, as well as his other relatives, never changed their Jewish name. Nowadays, his last name is spelled as ‘Vygotsky‘ in English.
In January 1924, Lev attended the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress held in Petrograd (a city that would later be renamed Leningrad). Following the Congress, Vygotsky was offered the possibility to become a research fellow at the prestigious Psychological Institute in Moscow. Vygotsky and his wife, Roza Smekhova, moved to Moscow and Lev started his career as a staff scientist and secondary teacher, focusing on the role of language in learning and learning processes. In 1925, he completed his thesis entitled “The Psychology of Art“. However, it was only in 1960 that his dissertation would be published, together with “Pedagogical Psychology”, a book that had at its core the lecture notes he used while working as a psychology instructor in Gomel.
The summer of 1925 would mark a turning point in Lev’s life and career. Upon his return from London, where he attended a congress on the education of the deaf, his tuberculosis relapsed and he was hospitalized. Against all odds, he survived. Nonetheless, he remained invalid and unemployed until the end of 1926. In the autumn of 1925, Vygotsky was awarded his doctoral degree in absentia.
After being released from the hospital, Lev continued his methodological and theoretical work related to the crisis in the field of psychology. Even though he never finished the manuscript, he kept working on it until 1927. In 1982, the manuscript was finally published. Even though it contained evident editorial misstatements and interventions, it was put forward as one of Vygotsky’s most remarkable works. In his initial manuscript, Vygotsky proposed the development of general psychology that would merge Marxist philosophical approaches with the naturalist and objectivist approaches of psychological science. In the same manuscript, he took a stance against the formation of a “Marxist Psychology” as a valid alternative to philosophical and naturalist schools. In his view, rather than simply applying quotes from Marx’s writings, a real Marxist Psychology should be built upon a methodology pursuant to the Marxian essence.
Between 1926 and 1930, Vygotsky brought together various students – including Alexei Leontiev, Boris Varshava, Leonid Zankov, Alexander Luria – and started to explore the development of higher cognitive functions of language comprehension, logical memory, selective attention, and decision-making. This phenomenon was investigated from three different angles:
- The cultural-historical approach: studied how cultural and social interaction patterns remodel developmental processes and forms of mediation
- The developmental approach: studied the way children acquire higher cognitive functions
- The instrumental approach: investigates the way humans make use of objects as mediation support in reasoning and memory. (1)
Vygotsky revised his theory in the 1930s. A period of major revision in Vygotsky’s theory resulted in a transition from a mechanist orientation in the 1920s to an integrative holistic science in the 1930s.
The early 1930s marked a very difficult period in Vygotsky’s life, both at a personal and theoretical level. As he grew aware of the deficiencies of his theory and under the influence of the holistic theories advocated by Gestalt psychology, Vygotsky started to reconstruct his theories, aiming to build a psychological theory of consciousness. Unfortunately, he died of tuberculosis in 1934, leaving his theory unfinished.
Over a decade of research and assiduous work (1024-1934), Vygotsky published numerous books and papers on learning and child development. However, Vygotsky’s writings and theories only became available to Western psychologists decades after his death, in the early 1960s, when they were translated, studied, and implemented.
- Consciousness as a problem in the psychology of behavior. Vygotsky 1925. (full text)
- The methods of reflexological and psychological investigation. Vygotsky 1925. (full text)
- The Psychology of Art. Vygotsky 1925. (partial full text)
- Educational Psychology. Vygotsky 1926. (partial full text)
- The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology: A Methodological Investigation. Unfinished, Vygotsky aborted this in 1927. (full text)
- The Problem of the Cultural Development of the Child. Vygotsky 1929. (full text)
- Concrete Human Psychology. Vygotsky 1929. (unpublished – full text)
- The Fundamental Problems of Defectology. Vygotsky 1929. (full text)
- The socialist alteration of man. Vygotsky 1930. (full text)
- Primitive Man and his Behavior. Vygotsky 1930. (full text)
- Tool and symbol in child development. Vygotsky 1930. (full text)
- The Instrumental Method in Psychology. Vygotsky 1930. (full text)
- Imagination and Creativity in Childhood. Vygotsky 1930. (full text)
- On Psychological Systems. Vygotsky 1930. (full text)
- Research Method. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- Analysis of Higher Mental Functions. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- The Structure of Higher Mental Functions. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- Genesis of Higher Mental Functions. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- Adolescent Pedagogy. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- Self-Control. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- Development of Personality and World View in the Child. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- The Development of Speech. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- The Problem of Teaching and Mental Development at School Age. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- The Dynamics of the Schoolchild’s Mental Development in Relation to Teaching and Learning. Vygotsky 1931. (full text)
- On Spinoza. Vygotsky 1921. (full text)
- On the Problem of the Psychology of the Actor’s Creative Work. Vygotsky 1932. (full text)
- Play and its role in the Mental Development of the Child. Vygotsky 1933. (full text)
- Thinking and Speaking. Vygotsky 1934. (full text)
- The problem of the environment. Vygotsky 1934. (full text)
- The Problem of Consciousness. Vygotsky 1934. (full text)
- The Problem of Age. Vygotsky 1934. (full text)
- Interaction Between Learning and Development. (full text)
- Psychology and Localization of Functions. (full text)
- Principles of Social Education for Deaf and Dumb Children in Russia. (full text)
- Fascism in Psychoneurology. (full text)
Lev Vygotsky was a Soviet psychologist, pedagogue and playwright. He is often referred to as the “father of cultural-historical psychology” and his work had a profound impact on child development and education. Lev Vygotsky was one of the pioneers of the psychological school of thought known as constructivism.
In 1924, he published his landmark work, “Thinking and Speech”, which outlined his theory of the “zone of proximal development”.He is best known for his theory of the zone of proximal development, which posits that humans learn best by mastery of increasingly complex tasks in collaboration with more capable peers or mentors.
Vygotsky’s work was largely ignored during his lifetime but has since had a major influence on education and child development theory. Vygotsky’s ideas greatly influenced theories of psychology and education (4) and continues to play an important role in educational practices today (3).
- Kozulin, A. (2004). Vygotsky’s theory in the classroom: Introduction. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 3-7.
- Pound, L. (2019). How Children Learn (New ed.). London: Andrews UK Limited. p. 51. ISBN 978-1-909280-73-1
- Miller, P. (2011). Theories of developmental psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
- Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction (2nd ed.). Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon