Lev Vygotsky was a Marxist psychologist. He was born in 1896 into a middle class, highly educated Jewish family in Gomel, in what is now Belarus. At the time Jews in Tsarist Russia experienced high levels of antisemitism, and were banned from certain jobs, including teaching. Vygotsky was one of the three percent of Jews who gained a place at Moscow University, initially to study medicine. He subsequently studied for multiple degrees, undertook research, taught students and also practised psychiatry and psychology.
His life changed following the Russian revolution of 1917, which he supported. He was able to start teaching, first in a local school and then at the local teacher training college in Gomel, while continuing to study. Back in Moscow he mixed with intellectuals such as the poet Osip Mandelstam and film director Sergei Eisenstein. He became an expert on what we now call Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND), and carried out research on education. He particularly focussed on the role of language in thinking and learning, developing important pedagogical frameworks including the Zone of Proximal Development (ZoPed). From the beginning of his career he saw his task as developing a Marxist method, which he described as a “cultural, historical theory”. It was a far cry from the mechanical approach to learning and development that became Stalinist orthodoxy and he was criticised as too theoretical. As Stalin tightened his grip on the Soviet Union, Vygotsky and his colleagues were under increasing pressure. He died in 1934 of tuberculosis. Whether he would have survived the Stalinist purges is a moot point.
Why did you write the book? Why do you think it’s important to write a book about Vygotsky?
I wrote it for lots of reasons. I wrote it because I’m a socialist and everything that he writes is imbued with a commitment to Marxism and socialism. I’ve taught about him myself, as a teacher trainer, and my students have said they find his work life changing. When I first came across him, I was a special needs teacher. In those days if a child was “failing” at school, it was the fault of the parents, rather than the education system responding to the child’s needs. Vygotsky wrote about mind and consciousness, culture and language, and considering a child’s historical experiences. For me this approach actually addresses the issue of why these children were struggling. Now children face the context of the whole skills and knowledge agenda in education and there is no understanding of how people – and children – think and learn and develop.
I think the way Vygotsky approaches thinking affects a lot of aspects of one’s life, particularly mental health. My mother had Alzheimer’s and I think that having an understanding of how people think and relate meant I was able to communicate with her that much better. And similarly it helps to have an understanding of how to relate to people who have other challenging mental health issues.
What about his commitment to the Russian revolution in 1917?
It is important to understand Vygotsky’s commitment to communication as being a tool for thinking and learning and for developing a socialist psychology. Too many accounts of his work miss out this commitment to socialism and the revolution. Vygotsky came from a radical background. His father was involved in the Jewish Socialist Bund and in the opposition to antisemitic pogroms. At the same time, despite the antisemitism he and all Jews faced, he managed to go to a good school.
He read the works of Spinoza and Hegel, and he was aware of Marx’s thinking. He was certainly involved in Marxist discussion quite early on, as well as engaging with the work of the revolutionary government in education. Vygotsky represented the Soviet Union at a conference in London on the education of deaf children in June 1925.
Can you explain more about his involvement in Special Education?
Vygotsky’s use of language can be disconcerting for contemporary readers. In his study of SEND he referred to “Defectology”, and we wouldn’t talk about disability in the same way as he did. He established Research Institutes and clinics for children with SEND and undertook practical educational work and research in eastern Russia. He worked practically with deaf and blind students and was particularly interested in working with children with emotional damage. We rightly celebrate the revolution, but there was a lot of poverty and hardship during this period. This provided a lot of work for the likes of Vygotsky.
In his writings on Defectology, Vygotsky stressed the importance of positive social relationships and interaction for children with special educational needs. This is so they do not perceive themselves, and are not treated as, disabled. He pointed out that many of the children he worked with had low self-esteem and were often patronised – something which is still an issue. He was keen to develop teaching methods that provided tools for developing language and thinking with both deaf and blind students. He encouraged teachers of the deaf to teach sign language and of the blind to teach Braille, and worked with schools to develop these ideas as well as supporting children who had experienced trauma.
The only notes of his clinical work are in his recently-published notebooks, which are difficult and expensive to get hold of. However, it is very interesting to read the work that he conducted as a practising psychiatrist and how he was influenced by Sigmund Freud, for example.
What do you think were his major contributions to psychology and to thinking about language and learning?
Vygotsky was very aware of the dominant influence of Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov and his behaviourism – what is known as reflexology. Vygotsky drew on this in his earlier writings, as well as engaging with Gestalt theoreticians, and the work of Freud. An internationalist, he engaged in dialogue with others in the field. In particular he looked to the Swiss educational psychologist Jean Piaget, whose work on child development he both admired and was quite critical of. He saw dialogue and the social and historical context as central. And he attempted to blend these different theories into a Marxist theory that was both biological and social and material.
He was interested in how concepts develop, how this relates to child development and the emergence of language as a tool. When we come across a new idea, we play with it and we talk to other people, and then we start to understand it. He sees the learning of concepts as developing in stages, from what he called complexes to pseudo-concepts to scientific or abstract thinking. Vygotsky argued that children and pre-adolescents generally reach the level of pseudo-conceptual thinking. I really like this, although from the experience of my own children I’m not sure it’s always true that pre-adolescents are unable to form true concepts.
What is key is how learning comes from without. Children internalise through socialisation. It is that interplay between children that allows them to move on, as the pseudo-concept becomes part of their own thinking and they develop internal speech. You can also see this in the idea of egocentric speech – talking out loud as we complete an activity, which children do a lot as they develop. I always remember my sons playing with cars: they’d set them up and they race them, talking as they moved them. Or they’d be looking at a book and making up the story aloud. In both cases talking consolidates their ideas. But we do it as adults too, when we are trying to make sense of something – we talk to ourselves in the bath or while driving the car!
So how did Vygotsky draw on these ideas with the Zone of Proximal Development?
The Zone of Proximal Development is based on the idea that a child is capable of achieving more than a fixed level, attained on their own. Instead we should look at the child’s potential development. And what Vygotsky said is that if a child is working with a more competent other person – an adult, or a more capable peer – they’re obviously going to do better. It can be somebody giving them hints or asking a key question that allows them to move them on. It’s often referred to as “scaffolding”, which is often – wrongly – seen only as written scaffolding. It is actually a very optimistic notion and it tells us the way we need to teach is to teach to children’s potential And it is also a social theory of learning – it fits with the idea of learning coming from without and from interacting with others, and being internalised.
ZoPed shows why tests are pointless in terms of assessing where someone’s potential is. People think we’ve got to teach to a particular level, but what we need to do is teach to something higher than that and also recognise that children – and adults – don’t necessarily learn in a linear way. And that’s really what the zone of proximal development is about. I love the way he described it, using metaphors of looking at children’s development in terms of flowers. He said that when we’re teaching them we should see them in terms of buds that will be blossoming into a flower.
There is much interesting research that has been done with older people who had dementia. They assessed a particular person in the hospital, and this person didn’t do very well. But when they assessed the person in the home, it was a completely different. Because it was a familiar environment and they were surrounded by people that they knew, they were able to do a lot more. It reinforces the fact that the ZoPed is a social theory of learning – something people don’t always get.
He also wrote about play and imagination. What is significant in what he said?
Vygotsky saw that playful and creative approaches are motivational and this is incredibly important in learning. Play is very much linked with the ZoPed because play takes children beyond their stage of development and there’s lots of things that happen when people are able to make believe. They are able to construct their own environment and create their own rules and sometimes their own words. There’s a fantastic article Vygotsky wrote on the curriculum and learning, called Imagination and creativity in childhood which I highly recommend. I think the importance of imagination is one of the reasons I wrote the book. If you don’t have imagination, you can’t go above and beyond, you are only going to be in the now. You’re not going to be able to think through things – for example, to answer a complex essay question. It comes into art, it comes into technology, it comes into English, it comes in right across the curriculum.
It is amazing that he was writing this near the beginning of the last century. It shows that if you are involved in a revolutionary environment, the world is your oyster. You can think so creatively. And you also get a sense of his passion for what he was doing and the way his students loved him, and how he saw his work as integrated into the work of the revolution. For example, he talked about using these kinds of of approaches in the Pioneer Organisation – a kind of socialist equivalent to our Scouts Movement. They could be used for teaching about nature and technology, placing the sciences within a motivational and purposeful framework.
There is currently a lot of debate about play because of the way that the Tory government is seeking to formalise nursery education and, more generally, to impose particular ideas about how to teach and learn. Why is Vygotsky relevant to this?
Vygotsky has been known since the 1960s. The Plowden report on Primary Education referred to his work, and educational psychologists like Jerome Bruner wrote about the importance of play and child based learning. I think it is important this isn’t seen as simply giving the child some things to play with or letting them bring in things from home. It is also about structuring play and learning as well. This is where I will probably disagree with some people in our movement. Because in a class society what is everyday language to some children is actually more academic or intellectual language to other children and not necessarily so familiar. I’m not underplaying what children bring to school, in terms of language and knowledge, but teaching and giving children the academic framework they need is important. It’s about moving on from everyday concepts such as colours to scientific or intellectual concepts – isms or ations! Vygotsky believed in formal teaching because we don’t just bump into complex ideas, we have to learn them. The notion of scientific concepts does require them to be taught in imaginative ways and you have to have a framework .
Finally, what lessons can we take forward from Vygotsky?
Children aren’t empty vessels and we need to assess them positively, using the kind of scaffolding embodied in the ZoPed. If I think back, when SATS came in I used to do talks across London about them. We were talking about how SATS were established to judge schools and teachers, rather than help children – and how right we were. And testing is still around, even for young children which is absolutely ridiculous.
I think Vygotsky shows us the value of mixed ability teaching, instead of endless streaming and setting. His work totally vindicates mixed ability classrooms and the ideas behind the ZoPed. If you think about a child who is more advanced in one area or concept, it is a very challenging task for him or her to explain that concept to another child and help them to develop.
But it means education needs to be funded properly. There needs to be time for teachers to reflect on what they’re doing and have time to plan – and that is especially true if they are working with people with mental health challenges. It also needs to be part of teacher training in the way it isn’t at the moment. Finally, I hope people read my book – but also that they go on and read Vygotsky’s own writing.
If you’re interested in following up these ideas you can find many of Vygotsky’s writings online
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