Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who began his professional career just after the Bolshevik Revolution. Like all successful Soviet scholars of the time, he was a committed Marxist, and his theory of child development provides an excellent example of the inﬂuence of politics and society on scientiﬁc progress. In Western Europe and the United States, Jean Piaget, whose theory emphasizes the role of the child’s own independent action on his environment, has long been the dominant voice in child development. When Vygotsky ﬁrst became well known among American psychologists in the late 1970s, it was largely because his approach, which emphasizes the interaction between the child and other people as the source of cognitive development, was seen as an alternative to Piaget.
Because of his goal of creating a psychology consistent with Marxism’s emphasis on collective action over individualism, Vygotsky inevitably produced a very different theory than Piaget. In The Communist Manifesto, for example, Marx argues that the development of language made cooperation among people, and therefore the development of civilization, possible. In his two best-known works, Thinking and Speech and Mind in Society, Vygotsky lays out the basics of his theoretical approach, in which the development of language precedes the development of most higher mental functions, and the role of interaction between adults and children is emphasized far more than the role of the individual child.
According to Vygotsky, all cognitive functions originate in social interaction and are eventually internalized as the child becomes more competent. This includes language, which begins as a means of communicating with others before it evolves into what Vygotsky calls private speech (Piaget’s term for the same thing was egocentric speech), easily seen in young children talking to themselves as they play. Where Piaget saw private speech as something that eventually stops as children outgrow it, Vygotsky instead argued that it never goes away—it simply goes underground, continuing silently rather than out loud. Through this mechanism, the child goes from requiring external instructions to self-regulating via internal ones. As has occurred often in the history of psychology, the two theorists agree on the existence of the phenomenon, but disagree as to its function.
Vygotsky’s greatest impact on American psychologists came with the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). Vygotsky felt that the way we test students, focusing on what they already know rather than what they are capable of learning, an approach now known among educational psychologists as static testing, should be replaced by a more dynamic approach, in which we measure how much more the children are capable of doing when provided with supportive help. The gap between what the children can do on their own and what they can accomplish with help is the ZPD, and Vygotsky believed that measuring it would yield far more useful information than the static tests currently in use. These ideas have become very popular among educational psychologists in America today, some seventy years after Vygotsky’s death, in part because it is viewed as both a radical departure from Piaget, which is not entirely true (since as with most dichotomies, there is actually much about which they agree), and as a more realistic description of what actually occurs in child development.
Vygotsky’s work was unknown in the West until 1958, largely due to the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and didn’t really become popular until several decades later. What many of Vygotsky’s followers today fail to realize, however, is that his work was also largely unknown within the Soviet Union as well, as his version of Marxist psychology was, ironically, too Western European for Stalin, and his works were suppressed for many years.
- Vygotsky, L. S. Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930;
- Vygotsky, L. S. Thinking and Speech. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1934. U.S. publication in 1962.