LEV VYGOTSKY. by Shirley Heinrich

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1 LEV VYGOTSKY by Shirley Heinrich Lev Vygotsky, a scholar in multiple disciplines, is known by his sociocultural theory of development. It is the purpose of this paper to present some highlights of his theory according to my current understanding. In addition, presents practices and implications will be discussed in light of Vygotsky s theories. It is helpful to place Vygotsky s life in context to gain further insights into the man and his research. Vygotskt was born to a middle class Jewish family in the USSR in By the age 18, he has become an accomplished intellectual and was literate in Hebrew, French, English, German, and Russian. He later studied Greek and Latin. He graduated from Moscow University in 1917 with a degree in law and a specialization in literature. While studying at Moscow University, he was concurrently enrolled in a private university, majoring in history and philosophy. From , Vygotsky taught literature and psychology, lectured on the problems of literature and science and founded a psychological laboratory in the Teacher Training Institute. Vygotsky s life changed in 1924 when, having had no formal training in psychology, he delivered a paper by which he earned outstanding recognition. This prompted his invitation to join the Psychological Institute of Moscow University where he conducted research, lectured and published extensively until he died of tuberculosis in Vygotsky stood out as an original thinker from an early age and is known as the Mozart of psychology. Yet he lived in times that were hardly favorable to Mozart (Vygotsky, 1986, p.xi). Due to

2 2 Lev Vygotsky the political climate in the USSR, Vygotsky s writings were banned months after his death and were not published again until Vygotsdky s theory of higher mental processes has its roots in the Marxist theory of dialectical materialism, that historical changes in society and material life produce changes in human nature. He lived during the Russian Revolution, a time of extreme tension between individuals and society. It was this cultural environment of change and upheaval that provided him the context for his study. His life was devoted to solving the urgent and practical problems of education to ensure the success of the new socialist state. From this framework, Vygotsky attempted to understand cognitive processes (Vygotsky. 1978). Vygotsky searched for one science of life which would explain everything instead of a separate mental science and separate natural science. He looked for a science which considered genetics and the brain mechanism, developmental history, and societal context. He looked for one science which related to multiple disciplines including education, psychology, and medicine. Vygotsky s belief that life was both an object to be studied, tested, and described and a process which was dynamic and everchanging through the course of social evolution prompted his search for one unifying science. With the new science he envisioned, Vygotsky attempted to propose a new methodology, a new paradigm for studying life and psychology. He approached cognitive development from a process orientation, unlike other developmental theorists. Rather than looking at the endpoint of developmental processes, he looked at the process itself and analyzed the subject s participation in social activities. Vygotsky claimed that, in contrast to traditional experiment, his method supplied him with access to hidden processes that became manifest only in a subject s interactions with the environment. Valsner suggests that

3 Lev Vygotsky 3 observation of the process is the Vygotskian equivalent of the dependent variable in traditional experiments (Moll, 1990). Vygotsky s methodology involved observing a variety of a variety of activities, not just rigidly controlled activities, to examine the dynamic basis for learning. He developed three techniques of experimentation to examine the changing nature of mental development. One technique was to provide obstacles to disrupt normal problem solving processes. He asked children of different languages to participate in a cooperative activity. A second technique was to provide external aids such as pictures or props to problem solving to observe how they are used differently by children of different ages. A final technique to discover how one acquired new abilities was to ask children to solve problems that exceeded their current level of development. He looked not at performance level, but at the method of solving problems. Vtgotsky s research resulted in his most influential concept, the zone of proximal development, presented in the following discussion (Driscoll, 1994). According to Vygotsky,a child has two areas of development. The area of current development includes all that the child can do and perform independently at a given point in time. This prepares a child for future learning which takes place outside this area. Surrounding the area of current development is a zone which represents the child s level of development in the near future. Vygotsky calls this area the zone of proximal development. According to Vygotsky, learning takes place in this zone. The zone of proximal development is the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined by independent through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 90). As a child advances in learning, the zone of proximal development becomes the area of current development surrounded by another area of future development. This pattern continues. Expansion of this concept as it relates to Vygotsky s

4 4 Lev Vygotsky idea of social interaction is necessary. However, brief implications for teaching will be explored first. What does this imply for teaching? Teaching is effective when it is based on the next stage of the child s development rather than on the current stage of development. The instructor must be knowledgeable about child development in order to predict the learner s development. The instructor must also provide educational materials and content which go beyond the child s current capabilities. The teacher s role is not that of simplifying the content, but of providing unfamiliar content and the setting for learners to step from their current level to a higher level of understanding. While a narrow view of a skill based curriculum represented by a pretest, instruction, guided practice, independent practice, post test model may fit the description thus far, a series of holistic, authentic, interrelating learning activities in a variety of authentic social contexts might be a more accurate approach utilizing Vygotsky s concept. To further understand the zone of proximal development, one must view the individual within the social situation of the learning. According to Vygotsky, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers. Once the process is internalized, they become part of the child s independent developmental achievement (Vygotsky, 1978). Children do not develop in isolation. This implies the interdependence of the students and the social situation with a great responsibility on the teacher and learner or the learner and more capable peers. Learning is created by both participants in a variety of social contexts. Development does not lead to socialization. Social relations lead to the development of mental functions. Thus, learning could occur through play, formal instruction, or work between a learner and more experienced learner. This occurs through the process of mediation.

5 Lev Vygotsky 5 Key to Vygotsky s theory of how learning and development interrelate is the idea of mediation. By mediation, Vygotsky means changing a stimulus situation in the process of responding to it. Vygotsky believed all phenomenon could be studied as processes in motion and in the process of change. Mediation occurs through the use of tools or signs, which change over time throughout history. Speech, writing, and language are the cultural signs available to humans. The cultural signs are initially used to mediate contact with the social environment. Then they are used to mediate contact within ourselves. It is when these signs become internalized that humans acquire the capacity for higher order thinking. For example, children acquire language. Language is used initially to label the environment. Later, language is used to establish contact with the social environment. As language becomes part of a child, it is internalized. As language becomes internalized, thought and speech merge which allows thinking processes to develop. A child masters his environment with the help os speech. Vygotsky states, Prior to mastering his own behavior, the child begins to master his surroundings with the help of speech (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 25). A colleague of Vygotsky used the example of a child obtaining candy from a cupboard. The child was given a stick and a stool as tools. The candy was out of reach. As the child became more involved in trying to get the candy, speech, in terms of a description of what she wanted to do, became part of the activity itself. Then, speech was used to plan. The combining of speech and action finally allowed the child to solve the problem (Vygotsky, 1978). A key assumption made by Vygotsky is that during the course of development everything occurs twice. A child first makes contact with the social environment. This occurs on an interpersonal level. Then a child makes contact within himself, on an

6 6 Lev Vygotsky intrapersonal level (Vygotsky, 1978). The implication is that the child is first a social creature, then an individual. To expand on Vygotsky s ideas on thought and language, Vygotsky s distinction between two kinds of development needs to be understood. Vygotsky considered two kinds of development, natural and cultural. Natural development is the process of maturation which has genetic roots. Cultural development involves not only the cultural habits but use of the cultural tools and symbols such as speech and written language. It is through speech, language and the mastery of symbols to solve problem that cultural development takes place and the child converts social relations into mental functions. Interaction with the culture is the agent of change allowing development of higher level thinking. The interweaving and convergence of maturity and the mastery of the use of symbols and tools of the culture form the foundation for intellect. The merging of biological factors and the culture determine the level of cognitive development. For example, a different level of cognitive development in mathematics in Papu New Guinea may be due to a primitive counting system which begins on the thumb of one hand and proceeds up the arm and down to the other fingers, ending at 29 (Gredler, 1992). This makes addition and subtraction of large numbers more difficult that in the number system most familiar to us. Vygotsky makes a clear distinction between animal characteristics and human characteristics in relationship to higher level thinking. Children s use of object tools during the preverbal age is like that of apes. When children combine the use of tools with speech to plan and solve problems, speech can guide their activity enabling them to master their own behavior. Whereas animals can use tools in the environment, human can adapt the use of tools to meet their goals. Whereas bees build hives, architects plan, then construct houses. Thus, humans have the capacity to continue to develop intelligence.

7 Lev Vygotsky 7 To summarize the role of speech, language, and thought thus far, speech plays a significant role in child development. At first speech accompanies action to achieve goals. Later, speech is used to plan action. Speech is used to make social contact to get help from another person. Later, speech is turned inward and gives birth to thinking processes. Language becomes a manifestation of thought and thought cannot exist without language. Play also serves a significant role in the development of thought and language. Play creates the zone of proximal development for a preschool child. In play, a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play, it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major source of development (Vygosky, 1978,p. 102). Play, the source of development, is always a social symbolic activity which reflects the culture. Social skills such as taking turns are learned. Rules are learned and become not something imposed by an outside authority but are internalized as a means to solve social problems, communicate, and collaborate. The cultural tools of language and knowledge are transmitted to children through parents and caregivers. These tools help the child to interpret the physical and social world. Play allows children social opportunities for interaction using tools and serves an important function in language development. Imaginative play goes one step beyond to prepare the child for abstract or internalized thought. It frees the child from the situation and the child can create, plan, and thereby change his world (Vygotsky, 1978). A detailed analysis of the implications of Vygotsky s theory for education is beyond the scope of this discussion. In addition, perhaps due to the fact that Vygotsky knew his life was short, he did not outline specific applications for his theory as it relates to education. However, some basic principles will be discussed briefly as they relate to whole language philosophy, cooperative learning, and second language acquisition practices. The discussion to follow is limited, but is worthy of further study in

8 8 Lev Vygotsky terms of the application of Vygotsky s theory to recent classroom trends. Vygotsky proposed a holistic perspective which supports the whole language philosophy practiced in classroom today. According to Vygotsky, The best method is one in which children do not learn to read and write but in which both these skills are found in play situations. In the same way the children learn to speak, they should be able to learn to read and write (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 118). Whole language is whole, relevant, and involves the context of social interaction. The teacher serves as a mediator between the learner and the rich, literate environment as culture is transmitted through literature. Students interact with text, teacher, peers, and the real world to further their development. In contrast, a reading readiness or mastery approach to literacy contradicts Vygotsky s theory and prevents students from developing the zone of proximal development to reach new levels. Vygotsky stresses the social interaction between learner and more capable learner as influential in development although he did not specify in detail the nature of the interaction. Cooperative learning holds similarities in that students interact to achieve a common goal which cannot be accomplished without interdependence. A participatory model which emphasizes socializing children into the cultural practices of literacy would include both whole language and cooperative learning. Vygotsky s theory appears to be compatible with second language acquisition theory. However, this needs to be explored in depth. Vygotsky s view that thought and language interweave, reinforcing and changing each other as development progresses may explain the research findings which indicate that a child s cognitive development suffers if education in the native language is abruptly replaced by education in a second language in which the child is not yet fluent. To apply Vygotsky s theory to bilingual education today would be to address the broader social and

9 Lev Vygotsky 9 academic issues than simply learning English or remedial skill instruction. The teacher would take a sociocultural approach to education and interweave outside resources and children s own communities to enhance instruction. Sheltered content instruction for students of limited English proficiency is subject to criticism under Vygotsky s theory and may actually serves as a method which provides too much concrete information, thus preventing students from internalizing language and concepts. To summarize my current understanding, Vygotsky proposed a sociocultural and historical philosophy which considers the development of cognitive processes to be the result of social learning, the internalization of social signs, and the internalization of culture and of social relationships. Cultural heritage is transmitted through language and the use of tools. If language is a manifestation of thought and thought cannot exist without language, vygotsky s theory has significant implications for the six million children in the U.S. schools age 5 to 17 who speak a language other than English in the home and 2.3 million in the U.S. who are legally described as limited English proficient (Schnailberg, 1993). The future of our society may depend upon new ways of looking at learning and knowledge from a Vygotskian perspective. By Shirley Heinrich REFERENCES Gredler, M. (I 992). Learning and Instruction Theory into Practice. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company. Moll. L. (I 990). Vygotsky and Education: Instructional Implications and Application of Sociocultural Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Schnailberg, L. (I 993, February 23) Immigration s final Frontier, Education Week, p. 31. Shinke Llano, L., (I 993,

10 10 Lev Vygotsky March) Language Learning 43: 1. pp Vygotsky, L. (I 978). Mind in Society The Development of higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Vygotsky. L. (I 986). Thought and Language. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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