Lev Vygotskij Research Paper

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1. Biography

Lev Semenovic Vygotskij was born on November 5, 1896 in Orsha as the second child to a secular Jewish family and spent his youth in Gomel in Byelorussia. He received private tuition and only entered school at the age of 15 to follow the last two years of a private Jewish gymnasium. Having finished school, he moved to Moscow to study law at the Moscow Imperial University and humanities at the Shanyavsky University. He finished his studies at Shanyavsky University with a Masters thesis on Shakespeare’s Hamlet and returned to Gomel to engage in a wide variety of activities (Vygodskaya and Lifanova 1996).

His interests at the time were divided between two areas: on the one hand, since his youth he had been fascinated by literature and theater. During his university years he had pursued these interests, taking courses in literature and linguistics, attending the plays in Stanislavsky’s Art Theater and Tairov’s Chamber Theater, and writing theater and book reviews for literary journals. On the other hand, taking Pavel P. Blonsky’s courses at Shanyavsky University on education and psychology had quickened his interest in problems of a psychological nature (Feigenberg 1996). His activities in Gomel reflected these two broad areas of interest. During these years (from 1917 to 1924), Vygotskij worked as a literary critic for local newspapers, taught different subjects (e.g., literature, philosophy, psychology) at various schools of different levels, co-founded a short-lived publishing house and an equally short-lived literary journal, and worked for the Gomel authorities as the official responsible for the cultural life of the town. In this latter capacity he contracted theater groups, held lectures on topics of general interest, and organized poetry evenings (Van der Veer and Valsiner 1991).

While in Gomel, Vygotskij became interested in the way the formal properties of a literary text evoke aesthetic experiences in the reader. This led him to deepen his interests in psychology, as did his experiences as a teacher of children and adults of highly different abilities and penchants. He installed a psychological laboratory at one of the schools where he was teaching and conducted his first empirical psychological investigations. His account of these investigations at a congress led to an invitation by Luria (see Luria, Aleksander Romanovich (1902–77)) to come and work as a psychologist at Moscow University. His Ph.D. Thesis, The Psychology of Art (Vygotskij 1925/1971) gives a perfect overview of his early views.

Having arrived in Moscow in 1924, Vygotskij again displayed a wide variety of activities. During what was to be the last decade of his life he worked as a clinical psychologist, carried out empirical studies with children, held teaching positions at various universities, co-founded several scientific journals, headed research institutes, worked for publishing houses, and published a couple of hundred books and articles on widely diverging topics. His interests transcended narrow disciplinary boundaries. He began, for example, studying the semiotics of cinematic language with the film director Sergej Eisenstein, he developed a test to study the thinking of schizophrenics, he lectured on the problems of blind and deaf children, he initiated research into memory development, and he developed an interest in what is now called neuropsychology. In 1931, while already being a full professor of psychology, he began studying medicine. However, on June 11, 1934 Vygotskij died in Moscow of tuberculosis, a disease that had haunted him for the better part of his adult life.

The writings of Vygotskij were virtually unknown outside Russia until the publication of Thought and Language (Vygotskij 1962) in English stirred the international interest. Now a substantial part of his writings are available in translation. As a result, the discussion of the merits and shortcomings of Vygotskij’s work has become a matter of interest to the international scientific community.

2. Main Ideas

Given his interest in literature and language, it comes as no surprise that Vygotskij (1962, 1994) attached great importance to language in his psychological thinking. Like other thinkers, he held that the use of language (speech, in his terminology), together with the manufacture and use of tools, is a distinguishing characteristic of humans. In his view, all truly human, higher mental processes involve the use of speech.

2.1 From Dialogue To Self-Regulation: The Sociogenetic Law

The original function of language is communication, Vygotskij (1997a) argued. Children and adults communicate their intentions and steer or guide the behavior of the social other. This communicative process is at first very asymmetric in that the adult does most of the guiding and attributes meaning—at first often counterfactually—to the infants’ utterances. Very soon, however, children become able to use words to accomplish things and, most importantly, to steer their own behavior. Self-regulation thus originates in dialogue.

A simple example is that of a child learning to cross a street. In a first stage, caregivers will tell the child to watch out carefully and children will simply follow these instructions. In the next stage, the child will say aloud to watch out and thus instruct him herself. In the final stage, the child will merely think these instructions. Thus, a process that was originally shared between two persons, an interpsychological process, has become an individual, intrapsychological process. The child is applying to itself what was first applied by others and thereby mastered its own behavior through the use of conventional signs. With Baldwin, Janet (see Janet, Pierre (1859–1947)), Royce, and others, Vygotskij (1997a) claimed that all higher mental process are originally shared between persons and he coined the developmental transition from inter to intramental processes the sociogenetic law.

This example is linked with another phenomenon that Vygotskij discussed in his writings, namely that of the intersection of thought and speech. In his view, thought and speech have different genetic roots and only merge to form verbal thought or intellectual speech at a later stage in phylogenetic and ontogenetic development. Thus, in human children both preintellectual speech (i.e., babbling) and preverbal thinking (e.g., infants expect to find an object where it was hidden previously) can be observed, while in the phylogenetic domain one sees animals solving simple problems (e.g., using an artifact to reach a goal) and displaying primitive communicative means (e.g., expressive movements). It is only in humans, however, that speech and problem solving merge to form the powerful capacity of verbal thought (see Khler, Wolfgang (1887–1967)). Problem solving now no longer proceeds in the graphic or visual field, Vygotskij (1997b) argued, but in a semantic field.

2.2 Egocentric And Inner Speech

Vygotskij’s claim that speech develops in an intrapersonal situation and subsequently is used to steer the self, received additional support through his discussion of the phenomenon of egocentric speech. It was Piaget (see Piaget, Jean (1896–1980)) who first described the phenomenon of children who while carrying out some activity speak for themselves in a way that is often not intelligible to others. Piaget hypothesized that such speech does not take account of the viewpoint of the social other and reflects younger children’s general inability to transcend their own point of view. In his view, children are at first unable to see the world from another perspective than their own and only gradually realize, under the pressure of their peers, that theirs is a specific viewpoint.

Vygotskij criticized Piaget’s interpretation of the phenomenon of egocentric speech and conducted a series of experiments to argue that children’s egocentric speech is social in the sense that it addresses social others (Van der Veer and Valsiner 1991, pp. 363–9, Vygotskij 1987). He noted that egocentric speech is absent or greatly reduced when the child is alone (which suggests that it is meant for others) and that its incidence rises when the child is confronted with unexpected problems (which suggests that it has some function in the solution of problems). He also observed that egocentric speech becomes less intelligible as the child grows older. This set of results led him to posit that egocentric speech: (a) originates in normal, communicative speech and branches off at a later stage; (b) has as its function to steer the child’s behavior when the need arises; and (c) becomes less and less intelligible for the outsider until it becomes proper inner speech. Egocentric speech, then, is an intermediary stage between normal, communicative speech and inner speech. Like communicative speech, it is audible, and like inner speech, it serves to guide the child’s thinking.

Vygotskij went on to speculate about the properties of inner speech. He argued that its syntax must be special: it is speech that is abbreviated and tends toward predicativity, that is, omitting the subject of the utterance. He also suggested that inner speech has special semantic properties: personal sense dominates over dictionary meaning. He thus believed to have demonstrated that, in the process of becoming private, speech undergoes a series of transformations.

2.3 Word Meaning And Conceptual Development

Above it was said that children use conventional signs to regulate their own behavior. Towards the end of his life Vygotskij began emphasizing that the meanings of these signs or words change over time. Children use the same words as adults do to designate specific objects but the meaning of these words may be quite different. Thus, in the child the word ‘farmer’ may evoke romantic images of a person taking care of animals and growing crops, while adults may think of an entrepreneur who tries to maximize profit. Using various strategies, Vygotskij tried to prove experimentally that a mature understanding of many concepts is only reached in adolescence. In this connection, he introduced a distinction between mature, academic, or scientific concepts, on the one hand, and immature, or everyday concepts, on the other hand. Supposedly, the academic concepts express the true nature of things and are linked to other similar concepts. Together they form a coherent network covering a field of knowledge. Academic concepts are taught at school. Everyday concepts, on the other hand, often focus on irrelevant features of some subject and together form a disconnected whole. Everyday concepts are more or less independently acquired by children in informal settings.

Vygotskij’s basic idea was that academic concepts and everyday concepts mutually enrich each other. The everyday concept of a farmer becomes enriched because the child learns the nonapparent fact that farmers form part of an economic market in which they try to realize certain goals. The academic concept of a farmer is enriched because the abstract notion of entrepreneurs dealing with cattle and crops is filled with concrete facts of daily farmer life and thereby gets body and flesh. Thus, academic concepts presuppose everyday concepts, build upon them, but once acquired they alter the everyday concepts in fundamental ways. The result of the interplay between everyday and academic concept is an elaborate and rich notion of the concept of farmer. Vygotskij (1935) speculated that the introduction of systems of academic concepts in school would restructure the child’s whole style of thinking, that is, he assumed that the introduction of such concepts in specific subject areas would generalize to other areas. Education leads development, as he used to put it. Instruction in the school setting propels child development along lines that are each time specific for a certain culture or society.

2.4 Predicting Mental Growth: The Zone Of Proximal Development

In several lectures delivered in 1933, Vygotskij transposed the sociogenetic law to the domain of cognitive prognosis. He claimed that if one were to measure what the child is able to do in cooperation with someone else (interpsychologically), one would be able to predict what the child can do independently (intrapsychologically) later on. At any given moment, both the child’s dependent (e.g., with hints from an adult) and its independent performance on an IQ-test can be measured. The difference between the two IQscores yields an indication of the child’s cognitive potential. Some children will be able to profit more from adult hints and will improve their independent score more substantially than others. These children show the richest developmental potential, Vygotskij (1935) argued. To measure what children can do independently is to measure what they can do already. To measure what children can do with the help of an adult is to measure what they will be able to do in the near future, in what Vygotskij coined their zone of proximal development. In this way, he criticized the contemporary use of IQ-tests and suggested a procedure for the assessment of cognitive potential.

3. Relevance For Contemporary Science

Vygotskij’s ideas inspired an enormous and still growing amount of research, both in and outside the former Soviet Union.

Wertsch (1985) tried to corroborate Vygotskij’s view that self-regulation develops in dialogue by investigating mother-child joint problem solving. He and others have also advanced proposals to fuse Vygotskij’s ideas on dialogue and its relevance for selfregulation with those of Bakhtin.

Vygotskij’s view of the nature and function of egocentric and inner speech has become a hotly debated topic and has been developed further by others (e.g., A. A. Leontiev, A. R. Luria, A. N. Sokolov). The Eastern European research is well represented in Sebeok (1968), Slobin (1966), Prucha (1983), and Wertsch (1978). Zivin (1979) gives a representative account of both the research tradition initiated by Vygotskij and Luria and its Western counterparts.

Vygotskij’s concept of word meaning and his view of the dialectic interplay between academic and everyday concepts in education have also led to a whole research tradition. An excellent and critical account can be found in Wertsch (1985), while Van der Veer and Valsiner (1991) have traced how Vygotskij’s research into the development of concepts was used by Western clinical psychologists to diagnose various groups of mental patients (e.g., schizophrenics and patients suffering from aphasia).

The concept of the zone of proximal development has inspired an immense number of publications. These can be divided roughly into two groups. The first group consists of publications that deal with the influence of education on development. It is analyzed, for example, how classroom discussions can promote a zone of proximal development in students, or what kind of teaching is needed to promote children’s use of language for self-regulation. An overview of this kind of work can be found in Moll (1990). The second group consists of publications dealing with the assessment of learning potential. In this approach the zone of proximal development is used as an individual difference metric designed to provide information about individual students, that is, Vygotskij’s original idea to measure aided and unaided performance on some IQ-test is operationalized and it is investigated whether such repeated measurements yield important prognostic information (cf. Campione et al. 1984).

All in all, it can be said that although many of Vygotskij’s ideas are debatable (see especially Van der Veer and Valsiner 1991) and will have to be discarded or extended, they nevertheless have inspired a great and still growing number of researchers in the humanities. In itself this is remarkable for a man who published very little in languages other than Russian, who died more than 60 years ago and whose international fame began only 30 years after his death. The fact that Vygotskij’s legacy still inspires contemporary research marks him as a true classic thinker of the humanities.


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  2. Feigenberg I M (ed.) 1996 L. S. Vygotskij: Nachalo puti. Jerusalem Publishing Centre, Jerusalem
  3. Moll L C (ed.) 1990 Vygotsky and Education: Instructional Implications and Applications of Sociohistorical Psychology. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, MA
  4. Prucha J 1983 Pragmalinguistics: East European Approaches. Benjamins, Amsterdam
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  15. Vygotskij L S 1997b Preface to Koffka. In: Rieber R W, Wollock J (eds.) The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky. Vol. 3. Problems of the Theory and History of Psychology. Plenum Press, New York, pp. 195–232
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