Lev Vygotsky’s Life and Theories

Vygotsky died young but had an important influence on psychology

Psychologist Lev Vygotsky

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Lev Vygotsky was a seminal Russian psychologist best known for his sociocultural theory. He believed that social interaction plays a critical role in children's learning—a continuous process that is profoundly influenced by culture. Imitation, guided learning, and collaborative learning feature prominently in his theory.

Lev Vygotsky's Early Life

Lev Vygotsky was born November 17, 1896, in Orsha, a city in the western Russian Empire. In 1917, he earned a law degree at Moscow State University, where he studied a range of topics including sociology, linguistics, psychology, and philosophy.

His formal work in psychology began in 1924 at Moscow's Institute of Psychology. He completed a dissertation in 1925 on the psychology of art but was awarded his degree in absentia due to an acute tuberculosis relapse that left him incapacitated for a year.

Following his illness, Vygotsky began researching topics such as language, attention, and memory with the help of his students. Among these were Alexei Leontiev, the developmental psychologist and philosopher who developed activity theory, and neuropsychologist Alexander Luria, who authored Higher Cortical Functions in Man.

Lev Vygotsky's Theories

Vygotsky was a prolific writer, publishing six books on psychology in 10 years. His interests were diverse but often centered on child development, education, the psychology of art, and language development. He developed several important theories about the way children learn and grow within culture and society.

The Zone of Proximal Development

One of Vygotsky's well-known concepts was the zone of proximal development. He defined it as "[The] distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers." In other words, it's the gap between what a child knows and what they do not. Acquiring the missing information requires skills that a child does not yet possess or cannot use independently, but a more knowledgeable other can help.

The More Knowledgeable Other

Vygotsky's "more knowledgeable other" is a person who has greater knowledge and skills than the learner. Often, this is an adult such as a parent or teacher who provides educational opportunities, such as guided instruction, within a child's zone of proximal development.

Figuring into Vygotsky's thinking was the fact that kids also learn a great deal from peer interactions. In fact, children often pay more attention to what friends and classmates know and are doing than they do to adults. Teachers can leverage this tendency by pairing less skilled children with more knowledgeable classmates whom the former can observe and imitate.

No matter who serves as the more knowledgeable other, the key is that they provide the needed social instruction within the zone of proximal development, when the learner is sensitive to guidance.

Sociocultural Theory

Lev Vygotsky also suggested that human development results from a dynamic interaction between individuals and society. Through this interaction, children learn gradually and continuously from parents and teachers.

However, this learning varies from one culture to the next. It's important to note that Vygotsky's theory emphasizes the dynamic nature of this interaction. Society does not just impact people; people also affect their society.

Vygotsky's Contributions to Psychology

Vygotsky's died of tuberculosis on June 11, 1934, when he was just 37. Still, Vygotsky is considered a formative thinker in psychology, and much of his work is still being discovered and explored today.

Although he was a contemporary of Skinner, Pavlov, Freud, and Piaget, Vygotsky's work never attained their level of eminence during his lifetime. The Communist Party often criticized Vygotsky's work in Russia, making his writings were largely inaccessible to the Western world. His premature death also contributed to his obscurity.

Despite this, Vygotsky's work has continued to grow in influence since his death— particularly in the fields of developmental and educational psychology.

Learning is more than the acquisition of the ability to think; it is the acquisition of many specialised abilities for thinking about a variety of things.—Lev Vygotsky, Mind in Society, 1978

It wasn't until the 1970s that Vygotsky's theories became known in the West, as new concepts and ideas emerged in the fields of educational and developmental psychology Since then, Vygotsky's works have been translated many times over and have gained international recognition, particularly in the area of education.

In a ranking of eminent psychologists, Vygotsky was identified as the 83rd most influential psychologist during the 20th century.

Vygotsky vs. Piaget

Piaget and Vygotsky were contemporaries, yet Vygotsky’s ideas did not become well known until long after his death. Although their ideas have some similarities, there are also significant differences.

Vygotsky's Theory
  • Stresses the role of culture, suggesting cultural differences can have a dramatic effect on development.

  • Emphasizes the importance of more knowledgeable adults and peers.

  • Heavily stresses language's role in development.

Piaget's Theory
  • Breaks development down into a series of predetermined stages.

  • Suggests development is largely universal.

  • Focuses a great deal of attention on peer interaction.

  • Largely ignores the role of language in development.

If you're interested in reading some of Vygotsky's works, many of his writings are available in full-text format at the Vygotsky Internet Archive.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How did Piaget and Vygotsky view the journey of cognitive development?

    Vygotsky theorized that cognitive development occurs in collaboration with and learning from others and could not happen in the absence of language and interaction. Piaget believed that children learn independently and come to their own individual understanding of the world.

  • How were Piaget and Vygotsky similar?

    Both Piaget and Vygotsky acknowledged the role of peer interaction in children's learning, a gradual process that happens in sequential stages. They felt that nature and nurture both play important roles in this process.

  • How is Lev Vygotsky's theory used today?

    One way is in the application of the zone of proximal development theory. Students best bridge the gap between what they know and what they don't in an ongoing process that involves both group interaction and scaffolded levels of instruction. This allows them to learn new concepts while also developing social skills.

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  1. Haggbloom SJ, Warnick JE, Jones VK, et al. The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology. 2002;6(2):139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139

Additional Reading
  • Vygotsky LS. Thought and Language. Kozulin A, trans. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press; 1986. (Original work published in 1934)

  • Vygotsky LS. Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1978.

  • Vygotsky LS. Thinking and Speech. Minick N, trans. New York: Plenum Press; 1987. (Original work published in 1934)

  • Woolfolk AE. Educational Psychology (14th ed). Pearson; 2019.