Analytical Essay on Lev Vygotsky’s Theory: Historical Context and Ideas in Today’s Practice

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Lev Vygotsky

1. Biography and Historical Context

Lev Vygotsky was born on November 17, 1896, in Orsha, Russia. His father was a bank clerk and founded a public library in the city of Gomel, where the whole family moved.

In 1914, Vygotsky joined the Medical Faculty of Moscow University, but after a while, he moved to the Faculty of Law and at the same time studied at the Faculty of History and Philology at the People's University. He was intensely interested in philosophy, literature, and culture. As a brilliant student, he managed to complete his law degree even though he was a Jew, which in those days resulted in limited opportunities in the fields of study.

Vygotsky’s accomplishments are remarkable. He took part in the restructuring of the Psychological Institute of Moscow; set up research laboratories in the major cities of Russia; and founded what we call today - special education. He is the author of more than 180 papers, many of which are just now being published.

He proved to be a talented psychologist. In 1926 he published the book 'Pedagogical Psychology', which entirely focusing on the uniqueness of the child. He also established a new concept in psychology - cultural and historical. According to it, human behavior is closely analogous to various forms of culture, art, and language.

After the Civil War in 1922, a group of Russian scholars, including Vygotsky, dedicated all their efforts to building an entirely new society, focusing on education, illiteracy, dealing with it, cultural differences, art, science, etc.

The next thirty years were marked by the spread of Piaget’s theories and research, where little was known about Vygotsky – probably because his work was suppressed under Stalin’s regime.

In the 1930s, Vygotsky was constantly being accused of receding from Marxist teachings and ideas. He wrote his last dissertation - ‘Thinking and Speech’ in 1934. The ceaseless accusations, the complications of tuberculosis, which he had had since the age of 24, practically drained the psychologist.

Vygotsky died on June 11, 1934, from complications of the disease, in Moscow, Russia.

2. Theories

Vygotsky is seen as one of the most significant authors in many branches of modern Psychology, although during his time he did not receive as much recognition worldwide as Piaget, Skinner, or Pavlov.

One of Vygotsky's main theories, associated with children's development, is called the ‘Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). According to him, this is the missing piece between the available potential of children to act on their own and their abilities when assisted by their parents or more able peers. ZPD is a set of competence that a person can do with help, but still has difficulty performing on their own. The notion of ZPD emphasizes Vygotsky's belief that social influence, especially receiving instructions from someone, is of great importance for children's cognitive development. As children are given guidance, or directly shown how a certain task to be performed, they then set up the new information, gained from existing thought schemas. They use this information as guides on how to do these tasks and eventually learn to perform them independently. In literature, ZPD is often replaced by the term 'scaffolding'. It is important to know, however, that Vygotsky never used this term in his works, as it was first mentioned by Wood, in 1976.

Another key element of Vygotsky's theories is the influence of culture and society on children’s lives. Through participation in cultural events and the use of objects specific to their society, children learn what is important and what to expect when using certain behavior. Acquiring this knowledge affects their behavior, expectations, and thinking in the future. According to Vygotsky, most of the children's education is carried out through social communication with a teacher. The teacher (a teacher, a parent, a neighbor, a more experienced peer, etc.) is the one who influences children's behavior and gives them instructions. The latter try to assimilate those instructions and at some point, internalize the information. Vygotsky's theories emphasize the fundamental role of social relations for the acquiring of knowledge.

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Vygotsky believes that social learning comes before cognitive development and later becomes available through language and speech. Vygotsky distinguishes three forms of language:

  • Social speech - which is the communication used to talk to other people (usually the speech of a two-year-old).
  • Private speech (typical of a three-year-old) that is self-orientated and has an intellectual function.
  • Internal speech - which is less heard than private speech and has a self-regulating function (typical of seven-year-old children).

For Vygotsky, thought and language is two systems, initially detached, that seem to consolidate around the age of three. At this stage, speech and thought become interdependent: thought becomes rhetorical, and speech becomes representative. When this happens, children's monologues are internalized to become inner speech. Vygotsky claims that children talk to themselves to solve problems or clarify their thoughts. Thinking aloud eventually becomes a thought accompanied by inner speech. Speaking to oneself becomes a practice, engaged only when we are trying to learn or remember something. This inner speech is not as complex as the speech we use when speaking with other people. Vygotsky was the first psychologist to document the meaning of private speech, considering it an evolution of social and inner speeches - that moment in the development when language and thought form verbal thought.

Lev Vygotsky came up with the theory of development through play in early 1920. Today, nurseries and schools around the world apply his ideas with impressive success. The method includes role-playing games in a group, the main goal of which is to educate a child the ability to self-control, focus, and to concentrate. According to Vygotsky, in a game, as in life, there are rules. While in life a strict following of the rules is not possible, in a game it is, thus creating a zone of proximal development of the child. According to him, while playing, children behave in a way that is different from their daily behavior, and always beyond their average age. Children are constantly challenged through play and learn something new.

Vygotsky was also one of the first to suggest that children with disabilities be educated together with other, normally developing children. Provided that children with disabilities are in contact with other non-disabled peers, and observe their behavior, skills, and culture, they are more likely to adapt to them than if their contact and experience are limited. Moreover, contact only with other peers who also have disabilities will limit them and deprive them of the opportunity to develop their abilities.

3. Criticism

Vygotsky died young and even though he wrote hundreds of written works, they have not been entirely translated yet. Perhaps, the main criticisms of Vygotsky's works are related to the assumption that his theories are applicable in all cultures. Researchers nowadays focus more on scaffolding and its non-universalism, somehow missing the fact that Vygotsky himself emphasized the uniqueness of each culture and its influence on cognitive development. Because he so much focuses on society, as crucial for development, some critics think that he neglects the individual and his/her possible, beyond society, advanced development – children geniuses, for instance. Another criticism is that Vygotsky is indifferent to children’s imagination when it comes to playing but focuses only on complying with rules as central to learning.

Perhaps, ‘lost in translation has something to do with the misunderstanding of his theories. Or, we are yet to reveal them in depth, as I have already mentioned that there is so much of his work that is still to be translated.

4. Vygotsky’s ideas in today’s practice

Lev Vygotsky's theories are not less significant today. His ideas and understanding of the world, learning, and the influence of culture on people continue to guide us and bring understanding to the psychology of development and its mechanisms of action.

Vygotsky's theoretical views are beneficial to nursing practice in general. There are at least three ways, for instance, in which cultural resources are transmitted - through imitation, through institutionalized learning, and through collaborative learning, with supportive learning being of paramount importance to educational practice. Scaffolding may not be Vygotsky’s idea but is probably the closest one to his own ideas. In modeling, co-constructing, and problem solving I also see Vygotsky’s ZPD. It is realized through the efforts of teachers to guide children in the learning process, to adapt learning materials according to the cognitive level, to encourage their critical thinking, and to introduce algorithms for completing difficult tasks. Children should also be encouraged to use their speech more effectively, to better organize their thought processes, and to solve the set learning tasks more easily. According to Vygotsky, dialogue and group discussions can also be useful, as they are proper means of increasing the effectiveness of learning. In my setting, we have group time and we never compromise with it or sacrifice it for another activity. It is important for us to have that opportunity to talk and listen to our children. It is a great way for them to express feelings and ideas, to communicate and share knowledge.

Play is what we focus on the most. It is an essential part of our practice and probably the most beneficial one. Play is an imaginary situation in which children have control over rules, feelings, and thoughts and adults are just spectators. A simple example I have read once is of a child that you want to stand still for a minute. If you simply ask it to do it, it probably will not do it. But if you ask it to stand still for a minute like a soldier – the child will most certainly do it with ease. Play gives new meaning - children can do things beyond their real-life capabilities. I cannot stress enough on the importance of play as part of the learning process and I do believe that it should be in the heart of nursery education.

According to Vygotsky, children learn from adults or more skilled peers through everyday interaction and imitation. He claims that imitation is not random, children do not copy absolutely every bit of our behavior. He says that children imitate something that they are in the process of learning now and fits in their zone of proximal development. Imitation is connected to modeling as a pedagogical strategy. That is probably the strategy I try to use the most in my own practice. A most recent example of it is with a boy from my nursery. I managed to model a sense of empathy and thought for the feelings of others, especially the vulnerable ones. It became possible through the interaction between him, an Autistic girl, and me. I used every opportunity to show him how hard it was for her to fit her own world in our reality. I supported her, and protected her when necessary, till a point when he started to be the one who supported and took care of her. I do believe modeling is the best way to teach. A child learns better from a person who expresses their feelings, joys, and fears behaves in a positive manner, shows kindness, and is empathetic, understanding, and supportive. Children do not simply imitate the latter’s behavior – they are more likely to try, and eventually manage, to adopt that same behavior as their own.

Bear in mind that I have just started my journey so my observations may be incomplete, and my small successes only huge in my perception, but I do believe that with time, and practice, comes perfection. Therefore, some more time is needed for the entire work of Vygotsky to be brought to our knowledge, and only then we will have the whole picture in front of us so we could evaluate it adequately.


  1. Dyer, JR (2002). Cognitive development. In N. Salkind (Ed.), Child Development (pp. 87-92). New York, NY: Macmillan Reference the USA
  2. Goldhaber, DE (2002). Theories of development. In N. Salkind (Ed.), Child Development (pp. 413-416). New York, NY: Macmillan Reference the USA
  3. Dyer, JR (2002). Vygotsky, Lev (1896 - 1934). In N. Salkind (Ed.), Child Development (pp. 428-429). New York, NY: Macmillan Reference the USA
  4. McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 05). Lev Vygotsky. Simply Psychology.
  5. Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist – Newman, Fred and Holzman, Lois, 1993, Routledge
  6. Riddle, E. M. Lev Vygotsky’s social development theory. 1999.
  7. Social Development Theory (Vygotsky) at Learning Theories. Retrieved April 11, 2011.
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