Lev Vygotsky's Theory


The Basics
Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist with the wide-ranging interest in literature, linguistics, sociology, philosophy and the arts. He began his higher education in medicine but switched to law. After graduation he taught literature at a provincial school but soon began to give lectures on psychology. He only lived from 1896 to 1934 but still managed to produce several major works. Unfortunately his work was not published until his death in 1934 and then in 1936 was suppressed in Russia. For over two decades his work was not known in the West, but in recent years Vygotsky work has become influential in western psychology and education.

Vygotsky was influenced strongly by the work of Pavlov, especially Pavlov's emphasis on scientific methods of investigation as opposed to introspection. However Vygotsky's interest were much broader than Pavlov's concept of the conditioned reflex. Vygotsky was also influenced by the writings of Karl Marx and by the Russian Revolution. Several ideas about society and about collective action found their way into Vygotsky's theories.

Vygotsky thought that the social world played a primary role in cognitive development. He saw language as a major tool not only for communications but also for shaping individual thought. He started cognition within a historical and cultural framework because he believes that was the only way that cognition could be understood. Vygotsky placed an emphasis on social and cultural aspects of learning. Certain aspects of Vygotsky's work have influenced education, especially his concept of the zone of proximal development. Many current constructivist ideas about instruction find their roots in Vygotsky.

Podcast Review

You can hear Dr. Hannum reviewing Vygotsky's theory by clicking the icon above. This was recorded during a graduate seminar on learning theories. You can also Download podcast
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Here is a comprehensive set of objectives for Vygotsky along with points based on these objectives:

1. Identify the influences on Vygotsky.
Vygotsky grew up in Russia at the time of the Russian Revolution. He was influenced by the collectiveness notion and the ideas of Marx and Lenin. His ideas are based on more than concepts about learning but rather reflect socialistic concepts about society at the time.

2. Describe how Vygotsky differs from behavioral theory.
Behavioral theory focused on the study of individuals in isolation. Vygotsky considered individuals in their historical and cultural context. Behavioral theory was highly empirical basing all their work on tangible, observable experiments with no explanation of what was going on internally. Vygotsky's work did not emerge from empirical research but rather was based on cultural theories and political/economic/social views of Communism held at the time of the revolution.

3. Describe Vygotsky's objections to behaviorism.
Vygotsky believed that human learning cannot be understood independently of social and cultural forces that influence people. Behaviorism ignored this and focused only on the individual. Vygotsky thought that behaviorism was too limited in its focus on only the observable forces acting in isolation on an individual ignoring everything that was going on internally. behaviorism paid no attention to social or cultural forces that influence learning and which were dominate features for Vygotsky.

4. Explain the influence of language on cognitive development.
Language is fundamental for Vygotsky separating him in many ways from Piaget. Piaget sees language simply as a means of communication. For Vygotsky language was a powerful influence on our thinking and our thoughts. Our words, our vocabulary, shape how we perceive the world and think about it according to Vygotsky. As our language becomes richer and deeper so too does our cognitive development.

5. Describe the basis for Vygotsky's emphasis on learning in a social setting.
Vygotsky emphasized learning in social settings because of the political views of Marx and Lenin who stressed society over the individual and who emphasized the obligation of people to contribute to the whole and to work in groups with shared ownership and responsibilities. Vygotsky wanted schools to mimic this.

6. Describe the relationship between learning and development.
Unlike Piaget Vygotsky held that social learning must precede and drive cognitive development. development arises when a person works in a social setting with others to develop shared meanings.

7. Describe the zone of proximal development including both the upper and lower limits of the zone.
According to Vygotysky (1976, p86) the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) 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". In essence the ZPD is that area bound on the lower level by tasks that a student can perform on his/her own without any assistance and on the upper area by those tasks that the student is unable to perform even with assistance. Tasks that lie within the ZPD consist of those tasks that the student working with assistance from a more knowledgable other is able to perform. This is where the optimal learning happens.

8. Describe the implications of the zone of proximal development for instruction.
The primary implication of the zone of proximal development is that students should be working on tasks that are challenging for them in which they require some assistance in order to be successful. It also implies that learning should involve social construction of knowledge, not working alone.

9. Describe the role of a teacher.
The role of the teacher is to serve as a guide or coach to help a student working on challenging tasks that lie in his or her ZPD. The teacher is not a lecturer telling students the correct answers or giving students the information to be learned. Rather the teacher is there to help and support learners as they struggle with tasks that they can't quite accomplish on their own.

10. Indicate why social interaction is important for learning.
Social interaction is essential for learning because learning happens as a result of the construction of knowledge when students work together with more knowledgeable others. Learning emerges from social interaction not from independent, isolated study.

11. Indicate the two primary contributions of culture to a child's intellectual development.
Culture gives us tools including language that help us deal with and understand the world. Culture also gives us the recorded body of knowledge and works that represent our culture whether through writings, art, or other artifacts.


Vygotsky is the shinning star among learning theorists for educators today. His work is held in high acclaim and widely taught in education schools. This has certainly been a long time coming! Vygotsky died in 1934 and was largely unknown in the west for many years before his works began to be translated. Today his theory is seen as a major part of constructivism, which by most accounts is the dominant theory in educational circles.

The concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) that Vygotsky created has been very influential and is know to most teachers. His idea that students should be working in groups on challenging tasks with assistance from someone who is more capable is widely embraced in education.