Psychology Applied to Education: Lev S. Vygotsky’s Approach

Published in: "Communiqué "(NASP). (1997). Vol. 25, # 2, p. 12-13.

WHY VYGOTSKY? This year the world psychological community celebrates the 100th anniversary of one of the most original, prolific, and influential psychologists of the 20th century - Lev S. Vygotsky. Not so long ago, his ideas in this country were relatively obscure. In the early 80's, only a few of his publications were known in the West. Textbooks in developmental and educational psychology devoted at the most a few sentences to describe his theory. No wonder that many of my colleagues, school psychologists educated in the USA in the 60s and 70s, rarely go beyond just a name recognition.

The situation has changed dramatically over the past decade with a recent upsurge of interest in Vygotsky's ideas. The same textbooks in psychology now treat him as a "school" with the same magnitude as Piaget's or social learning theories. A spate of new translations of Vygotsky's writings took place recently (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986, 1987, 1991, 1994). Literally dozens of books, article and book chapters have been published during this decade interpreting, elaborating and expanding Vygotsky's scientific legacy. Several international conferences devoted exclusively or mostly to Vygotsky's ideas have taken place within the last 10 years, with 14 national and international conferences on Vygotsky being announced in the year of 1996 alone. The US National Teacher Examination includes the same numbers of questions on Vygotsky as on Piaget. Two special issues of psychological journals were published last year ("Educational Psychologist" #2, Volume 30 and "School Psychology International" #2, Volume 16). There is an active electronic forum on Vygotsky's ideas on the Internet (contact Vygotsky has emerged as one of the major methodologists of psychology in the 20th century, the "icon" of the "cognitive revolution", and the founder of the cultural psychology, that is psychological theory in which the human being is the subject of cultural, rather than natural processes. Vygotsky has become a powerful "identification figure" in developmental psychology, psycholinguistic, in education, school psychology, and recently, in special education.

What is it in Vygotsky's works that invite scientists from different fields to scrutinize his writings as if he were our contemporary? Indeed, many factors created the stage for Vygotsky's selection as a promising alternative to existing psychoeducational theories and practices. According to some observers, what has brought Vygotsky into the limelight was, in fact, a powerful pendulum swing from biologically-based understanding of human behavior to the social/cultural explanation of human activity, as advocated by cultural and cognitive psychology. The timeliness of Vygotsky's works is borne out by the fact that he discovered the connecting links between sociocultural processes taking place in society, and mental processes taking place in the individual. Vygotsky, as no other psychologists in this century, succeeded in developing an approach that connects social and mental processes and describes the essential mechanisms of the socialization and development of the human being. Moreover, Vygotsky appears to be relevant to the emerging phenomena of contemporary educational progressivism and cultural pluralism in America. In education, Vygotsky's theory is viewed as an alternative to behaviorism, and what is much more important, as an alternative to the influential concepts of Piaget. For years, the predominant theoretical framework for childhood care and education in this country had been Piaget's theory. In this theory, a maturation process determines cognitive competence and a child's ability to learn. Learning is an individual process and the influence from education follows maturation. Contrary to this, Vygotsky considered learning as a shared/joint process in a responsive social context. In the Vygotskian framework, children are capable of far more competent performance when they have proper assistance ("scaffolding learning") from adults. The optimism of Vygotsky's general message, substantiated by such methodologies as "dynamic assessment", "zone of proximal development", "mediated learning", and "cognitive education" among many others developed within Vygotsky's theory, found an enthusiastic audience in American education of the 90s. According to ERIC (Educational Resource Information Center at Internet managed by the US Department of Education) there are currently 3 times more references to Vygotskian research in education than Piagetian research.

HIS LIFE: Lev S. Vygotsky lived a short life during turbulent revolutionary times. He was born in 1896 to a Jewish family in Czarist Russia and died 37 years later from tuberculosis in Stalinist Russia. He was one of the last encyclopedists of this century: a lawyer based on his university training, a school teacher by occupation, a literature and theater critic by calling, and a prophet by aspiration. He worked in psychology only 10 years (1924-34) with enormous achievements: he wrote about 200 pieces of innovative scientific literature, founded a powerful scientific school of thought, and established or fundamentally reformed psychological institutions in Russia. His works laid down foundations for several new directions in contemporary psychology worldwide. It is hard to imagine that a man who lived such a short life interrupted by periods of grave illness, could achieve so much and in so many different areas! If Pavlov, Freud, and Piaget had passed away at the same age, the world would not have heard of the theory of conditioning, psychoanalysis, and stages of child cognitive development as we now know them. During his life, Vygotsky deeply impressed a group of young students and colleagues who later carried out and elaborated upon his ideas in spite of the fact that in the former Soviet Union his name and works were prohibited for more than 20 years after his death by state authorities. No wonder Lev S. Vygotsky has emerged as one of the most glorified personalities in modern psychology: amazed by his short life and superhuman talents, Stephen Toulmin coined the appellation: "Mozart of psychology" and that is how Vygotsky is known to the world.

HIS IDEAS: I will now try to summarize some of Vygotsky's main ideas relevant to school psychology and special education. Vygotsky stated that human development is a socio-genetic process carried out in the social activities of children with adults. Education "generates" and leads development which is the result of social learning through the internalization of culture and social relationships. Development is not a straight path of quantitative gains and accumulations (that is, not a steady "maturation"), but a series of qualitative, dialectic transformations, a complex process of integration and disintegration. Each stage of the development is characterized by a particular organization of psychological activity (so-called "leading activity"). Culture is acquired through interiorization of social signs, starting with language. The essence and uniqueness of human behavior stems from its mediation by material instruments and social signs/language.

Within the context of development there are two classes of psychological functions: "lower" (natural) and "higher" (cultural). The first class comprises elementary perception, memory, spontaneous attention, dynamic characteristics of the nervous system, in short, all that creates a biological predisposition of the child's development. The second class includes abstract reasoning, logical memory, language, voluntary attention, planning, decision making, etc. These are specifically human functions that appear gradually through a transformation of the lower functions, which are structured and transformed according to specific human social goals and type of behavior. The fundamental way in which a child's higher mental functions are formed is the use of "psychological tools" in "mediated activities" led by an adult or more competent peer. As the child gains mastery of psychological tools, he gains access to intentional regulation of his own behavior. Examples of psychological tools provided by Vygotsky include: language and gestures; sign systems; reading and writing; mnemonic techniques; works of visual art; diagrams, maps, and the like. The formation of individual consciousness takes place through relations with others: it is socially meaningful activity that shapes an individual's makeup. Vygotsky indicated that each psychological function in the child appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological), and then inside a child (intrapsychological).

Thousands of teachers and parents well before Vygotsky observed an obvious phenomenon: with the proper assistance from an adult or a more advanced peer, a child is capable of much more learning than on his/her own. Vygotsky elevated this simple observation to a theoretical generalization known as the "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). He stated that the process of scaffolding brings about abilities that have been in the process of emerging, developing, (that is, have not yet matured) and thus reveals the hidden potential of a child which is crucial for both diagnosis and prognosis. Distinguishing between what a child has already attained (actual level of development) and his potential ability to learn (as determined through the process of problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers), was the base in his search for alternatives to the standardized tests. Lev Vygotsky is rightfully considered to be the "founding father" of what is now called "dynamic assessment" (Lidz, 1991). Psychoeducational assessment, Vygotsky insisted, should concentrate on mental processing (e.g., the cognitive strategies employed by the child) rather than on the "product" (e.g., an IQ score) and on the ability to benefit from the help provided by the examiner. Traditional standardized assessment trails the child's cognitive development to the point of "failure" in his/her individualized (independent) functioning. Dynamic assessment in the Vygotskian tradition leads the child to the point of his/her achieving success in joint/shared activity (Lidz, 1995). The ZPD is one of Vygotsky's ideas that has a direct bearing on practice, both in psychological testing and in school instruction (e.g., it enables us to choose teaching methods tailor-made for the particular child).

Within his general theory of child development, Vygotsky created a comprehensive and practice-oriented paradigm of educating children with special needs. In accordance with the concepts of "natural" and "cultural" psychological functions, Vygotsky introduced the notion of "primary" defects, "secondary" defects, and their interactions in the field of psychopathology and different disabilities. A "primary" defect is an organic impairment due to biological causes. A "secondary" defect refers to distortions of higher psychological functions due to social factors. As Vygotsky wrote, organic impairment prevents handicapped children from mastering some or most social/cognitive skills and from acquiring knowledge at a proper rate and in an acceptable form. Progressive divergence in social and natural development leads to the emergence of delays and deficiencies: it is the child's social milieu, not the organic impairment per se, that modifies a course of development and leads to defective development. By no means neglecting the biological origin of a handicapping condition, Vygotsky offered a view on a handicap as a social abnormality of behavior: "Any handicap ... not only alters the child's relationship with the world, but above all affects his interaction with people: an organic defect is revealed as a social abnormality in behavior. It is perfectly clear that blindness and deafness per se are biological factors. However, the teacher must deal not so much with these biological factors by themselves, as much as with their social consequences. When we have before us a blind child as a subject for education, then it is necessary to deal not so much with blindness by itself, but rather with those conflicts which arise for a blind child upon entering life". (Vygotsky, 1994, p. 66). According to Vygotsky, the development of the handicapped is not a "slowed-down" or "lacking" variation of normal development. He called our attention to the qualitative uniqueness of a disabled child's development mediated by such powerful factor as social implication of disability.

An innovative idea of L. Vygotsky's was that the most efficient compensation for the loss or weakness of natural functions can be achieved through the development of the higher psychological functions. Common laws of development for handicapped children and their non-handicapped peers include interiorization of the external cultural activities into internal processes via "psychological tools" and "mediated learning" provided by adults. The concept of the internalization of psychological tools as the main mechanism of development has a special importance for rehabilitation in the field of special education. The main goal of special education, Vygotsky wrote, is not only to compensate for primary defects through facilitation and strengthening of intact psychological functions, but mainly to prevent, correct, and rehabilitate secondary defects by psychological and pedagogical means. The focus of the compensation should be the intensification of cultural enlightenment, the strengthening of the higher psychological functions, the quantity and quality of communication with adults, and the social relationship with a "collective" (an organized group of peers). His passionate call for "normalization through mainstreaming" of all handicapped children (he sometimes went to the extreme, requesting, for example, the inclusion of deaf and blind children into the "young communist league organizations") was fully appreciated only half a century later (Rossi, 1994). He suggested, for example, identifying levels of overall independence in children with mental retardation rather than determining the degrees of feeblemindedness. This more positive approach was employed 60 years later by the American Association on Mental Retardation (AAMD, 1992). Vygotsky's idea that a disabled child's development is determined by the social impact of his organic impairment creates a new perspective for socialization/acculturation and cognitive development of children with special needs.

VISION FOR THE FUTURE: If school psychology is to expand its role in society, it needs a socially responsible and comprehensive theoretical framework (Bardon, 1985). L. Vygotsky's scientific legacy relates to nearly all areas of school psychology, from mental health to educational attainment. School psychology, perhaps more than any other branch of psychology, is in need of such an integrative approach because of the complex origin and nature of our science and profession.

It has become a cliche nowadays to say that Vygotsky was ahead of his time. He is, probably, ahead of our time as well. To cite just one example: in the early 1930s, Vygotsky continually argued that the social and cognitive are indivisibly connected to one another, that human cognition is embedded in culture and that focusing on "pure informational processing" is a dead end approach in the study of uniquely human cognition. This theoretical paradigm seemed not to be addressed to his contemporaries who were not even aware of this problem. Furthermore, even at the end of the 20th century we are not quite ready to fully undertake exploration of the process-content unity of cognition within the cultural context. In all likelihood, Vygotsky's appeal will persist, leaving to the next generation of psychologists the task of responding to this challenge and continuing a dialogue with their "contemporary" - Lev S. Vygotsky.