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Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934)

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky was a developmental psychologist known for his sociocultural perspective. Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Orsha, Russia, Vygotsky's faith and social standing shaped many of his choices and views. Academically successful, Vygotsky entered Moscow University in 1913, where he studied law, being one of the few professions that allowed Jews to live outside restricted areas. He simultaneously attended Shaniavsky University to study social sciences. After an impressive presentation of his doctoral dissertation on William Shakespeare's play Hamlet, entitled Psychology of Art, Vygotsky was invited to join the research staff at the Psychological Institute in Moscow, where he met Alexander Luria, who was to become his colleague and collaborator.

Vygotsky posited two types of psychological functioning: "natural," consisting of biological growth, both physical and cognitive development; and "cultural," consisting of learning to use psychological and cultural tools, including signs, symbols, and language. Both natural and cultural functioning act in a mutually facilitative integrated process. Whereas Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Vygotsky's Swiss contemporary, proposed that instruction should follow development, Vygotsky saw development and learning as acting together to create higher psychological functioning. He suggested that learning and development are facilitated in a hypothetical region called the zone of proximal development (ZPD). This region represents the distance between the child's independent cognitive ability and the child's potential with the help of an adult or more competent peer. Thus, the child's natural ability is expanded upon through learning and does not fully mature without instruction. For example, in Thought and Language, Vygotsky examined language, a socially acquired tool, and identified stages that begin with speech for the purpose of requests. This speech eventually becomes internalized into thought.

As war, poverty, famine, and social change took their toll on the children of Russia, Vygotsky turned his attention to children with disabilities. Considered ahead of his time, Vygotsky suggested that children with and without disabilities be educated together. He recognized that necessary social and cultural developments would be more likely to occur in an integrated environment and that isolation caused by an inability to participate in collective activities might have an even more deleterious effect than the original problems.

Vygotsky died of tuberculosis at age thirty-seven before he was able to offer a comprehensive theory of child development. His early death, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's ban on Vygotsky's works for political reasons, the Cold War, and the popularity of Piaget's ideas caused Vygotsky's theories to reach the West slowly. Nevertheless his ideas on socialization, language, and children with disabilities have influenced modern child developmentalists throughout the world.


Berk, Laura E., and Adam Winsler. Scaffolding Children's Learning: Vygotsky and Early Childhood Education. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1995.

Kozulin, Alex. Vygotsky's Psychology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Publications by Vygotsky

Mind in Society, edited by Michael Cole, Vera John-Steiner, Sylvia Scribner, and Ellen Souberman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

The Vygotsky Reader, edited by René Van Der Veer and Jaan Valsiner. Cambridge, Eng.: Blackwell, 1994.

Carrie Lazarus

Laraine Masters Glidden

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky viewed development and learning as partners in the creation of higher psychological functionin (Archives of the History of American Psychology)

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 8