Critical Analysis of Lev Vygotsky’s Theory: General overview of Biography and Activity

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Born in western Russia with a well-to-do and well-educated family. He had a personal interest in psychology and philosophy. He graduated at Moscow University in Law and later presented to the Russian Psychological Neural Congress and was invited to Join Moscow Psychology Institute. He worked on child development until he died of Tuberculosis at 37.

Lev Vygotsky was born in Orsha in a small town in the vicinity of Minsk Western Russia (now Belarus) in 1896. Vygotsky came from a well-to-do family and received his first education from private tutors raised in Gomel, He was lucky to obtain a place at the Moscow University(3 percent Jewish student quota), and because people with Jewish heritage were not allowed to be government officials, his choices were minimal. At the insistence of his parents, Vygotsky applied to the medical department, but after one month he switched to law. Vygotsky had a personal interest in psychology and philosophy. His sister Zinaida was to become a prominent linguist and it may have been her and their cousin who kept him well informed of all developments in linguistics and philology (The study of the structure, historical development, and relationships of a language or languages).

After finishing his university studies, he returned to his hometown of Gomel, and following the Revolution he was allowed to teach in State School. During the period of 1917 and 1924 little is known about his writings, he taught at various institutions and set up a small laboratory where he performed experiments on dominant reactions and respiration that provided the material for his talk on a reflexological and psychological investigation. He participated in the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress and was promptly invited to become a research fellow at the Psychological Institute in Moscow.

Meanwhile, his family was struck down by tuberculosis, and Vygotsky while nursing his brother contracted the disease himself. He recovered initially but for the rest of his life, he was plagued by multiple bouts of it. His living conditions deteriorated with his wife and two daughters living in one room of an overcrowded apartment. Together with his illness and enormous workload doctors told him he would be dead within a few months.

Vygotsky died in the early morning of June 11, 1934, of tuberculosis aged 37. He left behind a number of books, many articles, and drawers full of unpublished manuscripts. These were saved and protected by his family until after the ban on his work.

From about 1931 articles critical of his ideas started being published in the major psychology and pedagogy journals. Vygotsky’s writings were banned in the U.S.S.R. in 1936 for twenty years for 'bourgeois thinking' by Stalin. This charge originated from the fact that Vygotsky had incorporated ideas from European and American anthropologists, linguists, psychologists, and zoologists into his work. Stalin moved the country and scientific research away from the social progressivism that was at the heart of Vygotsky’s work. Vygotsky’s work on disabled education would also bring ire from the new Stalinist direction Soviet Russia was taken in.

“A disability in and of itself is not a tragedy. It is only the occasion to provoke a tragedy.” Gita L. Vygodskaya, “Vygotsky and Problems of Special Education,” Remedial and Special Education 20, no. 6 (November 1999): 330–32, doi:10.1177/074193259902000605.

This quote from Vygotsky from one of his Daughters books is a great example of how Vygotsky was looking at his work with an objective to empower even the disenfranchised to learn something which would end up too expensive for Stalinist Russia to continue to pursue further exacerbating Vygotsky’s fall from favor.

Vygotsky’s work was banned by Stalin after Vygotsky’s death. This was imposed from 1936-1956 a total of 20 years after which it was finally lifted.

This allowed his ideas to be re-examined as his family began publishing the works they had preserved prior to the ban.

Years after his death Vygotsky's ideas are becoming well known in the scientific world. There have been concerns that some translations have been made with agendas and try to separate the socialist message and other cultural elements from the work promoting a handpicking of the most suitable pieces of practice to integrate without a larger cultural change.

“It is a practice which poses the tasks and is the supreme judge of theory.” Vygotsky, “The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology,” in Vygotsky, Collected Works, 388–89.

This quote suggests Vygotsky himself would be happy to see his theories informing practice even in a limited way as practitioners feel able to apply them.

His Social Constructivism Theory often runs parallel to Piaget’s Personal Constructivism. Vygotsky’s stress on the social and collaborative nature of learning, he is often considered to be the father of social constructivism, while Piaget is often classified as a father of personal (or cognitive) constructivism.

Vygotsky’s focus on child development looks at the social aspect of learning and how infants move from elementary mental functions such as Attention, Sensation, Perception, and Memory into the higher mental functions using social interactions and the use of communication.

Children are seen to move from the most basic social interactions, responding to stimuli or making imitating behaviours. Then progressing to ‘External Speech’ offers limited explicit communication and understanding from the communication of others.

While using these communication methods the child develops ‘Private Speech’ integrating the learning of language to shape and regulate their emotions and motivations. The child begins to talk itself through actions aloud and examine problems confirming its learning and reinforcing progress on how to handle different situations.

The highest form of speech in the Vygotskian theory is ‘Interior Speech’ or internal speech when the child is now at the point where their thoughts are in the form of words but do not need to be verbalized to be felt understood and processed by the child without speaking them aloud.

Vygotsky believes this development is a social process and will be encouraged and accelerated by positive interactions with More Knowledgeable Others (MKO).

For children growing up, MKO may be an adult but may also be a knowledgeable peer or sibling. Supporting the child’s development with constructive questioning and inquiry or demonstration and physical assistance. This support from MKO has become known as scaffolding. The use of this support should be reduced as the child becomes more familiar with a task allowing them to progress towards total independence.

This strategy of offering support to advance a child towards independence focusing on what the child was capable of building upon this and developing the areas where they were struggling was referred to as using the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)

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‘One of Vygotsky’s great accomplishments was outlining the trajectory of this cultural tool (speech) in individual development, from its beginnings in social interaction to its full internalization as a tool of verbal thought and volitional consciousness. We will follow him in this developmental path of communication, from nonverbal gestures to social speech to private speech to fully internalized, silent inner speech, commonly thought of as “the little voice inside your head.” ‘

Unfortunately, not all children develop at the same rate and despite Vygotsky being aware of this, there is little that CDW can harness to alter the approach for those who are struggling with language development as the approach is largely speech focused. It is presupposed that children will start to develop private speech at 3 so in the nursery, we can use a scaffolding style approach to encourage children’s development, but this will be very different for children with Additional Support Needs.

Vygotsky also understood and wrote on the value of play from a psychological perspective outlining that it allows children to create dialogue and develop experience resolving conflicts that they would normally find were above their own ability. Helping to reinforce the self-regulation of emotions and other learning.

Vygotsky also believed this process of learning using a ZPD continues when learning new skills until death.

A common criticism of this approach is that it lacks developmental milestones and requires a very good knowledge of the child to make sure you apply the ZPD appropriately and don’t alienate children by giving them too easy a task or something that is too difficult and frustrating for the child.

Vygotsky’s ideas often occur naturally in environments where there are mixed age/ability groups.

Both Adult practitioners and other children in a nursery environment are in a great place to take on the role of the MKO. Empowering children to share their knowledge with other children reinforces learning for both parties while also offering the MKO a chance to develop and consolidate their language making themselves understood to other children.

Encouraging the children to interact with each other in constructive ways helps development in all participants and promotes a higher level of engagement in activities.

Adults can promote this empowering of children by recognising and commending effort and prior learning and then expanding this into the ZPD with support.

This strategy can be employed in almost all nursery situations provided it is done with a co-constructive attitude keeping communication open and clear also offering physical support when it is obvious a child needs further intervention while remaining conscientious that the support is only what is needed in the short term to enable the child to move towards independence and that this support can be enhanced or decreased, in either direction as suits the child’s ability at any given time.

Encouraging language use and investigation is also one of the primary ways to help utilize the Vygotskian approach with open questions and inquiry supporting the child to understand these concepts and expand their vocabulary in a naturalistic way without any direct teaching time in a rigid style.

Children can enjoy self-led activities with Practitioners only joining in where they can add value and enhance learning. It is important this is done in a compassionate and empathetic manner understanding first what the child is engaged by and then building on this either through a communication or similar activity.

The Vygotskian approach doesn’t have a formal assessment as this was often seen as against the socialist and Leninist ideas of Vygotsky’s work but using a scaffolding approach when working with children will help us understand some of the child’s developmental behavior and from this, we can use the information to plan next steps.

For children with Additional Support Needs, practitioners should bear in mind that although the child may not be able to express themselves as well as others, they will also be supported by encouraging social interactions at the level they can engage/understand. It is very rare a child would prefer to play alone and if you can co-construct with any child they will often feel better emotionally and find the activity more engaging. Practitioners need to be careful not to isolate children with Additional Support Needs as the more able children who are social learners may pick up on this behavior and begin copying it too.

While children are given the space and time to self-direct in the nursery as much as possible we also have a duty of care and are responsible for encouraging children to reach certain learning objectives before the child moves on to nursery. Awareness of how our social interactions color the world view and goals of children can’t be undervalued and practitioners should provide positive role models and a supportive environment to enhance the lifelong learning goals of children and facilitate the exploration of these within the nursery setting.

While in the nursery setting there are several ways practitioners can deploy these theories and strategies for learning.

Developing independence is one of the end goals of the theory and this should be considered in all interactions, can the child manage themselves, or are they in a ZPD, How can I empower the child to ensure the minimum amount of support I can provide is given and the child takes away positive learning and consolidates their previous learning. Practitioners must be careful to only provide the necessary support to allow the child to complete the task as we don’t want children to remain dependent and allow us room to remove support further as they progress to full independence. Practitioners must also be responsive and aware that sometimes after growth or other external factors a child may have a setback and require more scaffolding to support them to reach their goal in the short term and to respond to this in a supportive co-constructive collaborative way.

In my short time working in the nursery setting I have found several occasions this theorist links directly to my own practice.

Working on children’s independence there are occasions where a child may struggle with zipping their jacket. The quick fix is to do this for them but with time and understanding, we can deploy Vygotskian theory to the interaction.

First, the child seeks attention, I will then ask them to explain the problem of encouraging their use of language. Then I will talk them through the challenges I see in the problem. ‘The Zipper’, ‘the flaps’, ‘the teeth’, ‘the handle’/’tog’, ‘the bit’ (where the zipper must connect to the other side of the jacket at the bottom). Then I explain that I will put the zip together and then the child can raise the rest of the zip; I will also remind them to be careful of the zip teeth getting caught in the flaps. Usually, this will allow the child to do there jacket themselves and the next time we are going outside I will look for the child to do more of the task independently and ask them relevant questions to consolidate the learning.

I also deploy a co-constructive approach while participating in crafts with children encouraging them to explore what they are most engaged by. Recently I had a child who was interested in drawing superheroes so we began by selecting the correct colors for the uniforms expanding the language to discuss the different shades of colors available in the pen pot. Then we discussed the poses allowing them an opportunity to physically demonstrate the poses they would like to draw. Then we began to discuss the body parts that make up the drawing, the number of legs/eyes/arms the character had and talking about if the limbs were thicker or narrower compared to the others which helped the child understand the relative size, numbers, and colors. We discussed the best way to hold the pen and he noticeably improved his pencil grip after a demonstration. Then when the child wanted to use weapons we discussed whether the character was good or bad and who he might use the weapons against. All of these elements bolster the child’s social learning and development promoting future independence and a positive collaborative outlook of the world.

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Critical Analysis of Lev Vygotsky’s Theory: General overview of Biography and Activity. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
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