Lev Vygotsky - Developmental Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Lev Vygotsky
Developmental Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1896, Orsha, Russian Empire


DIED 1934, Moscow, Soviet Union


Educated at Moscow State University and at Shaniavskii Moscow City People’s University



Lev Vygotsky was the rare psychological theorist whose ideas explode with popularity decades after his or her death. In Vygotsky’s case, the delay was due in part to the slow pace of translation of some of his works, originally written in his native Russian. Some of them lay dormant for years before being introduced to Western theorists, and some were even censored for a while. The additional reason is that he died far too young; he had far too little time for his theories to be recognized before he succumbed to tuberculosis at the age of 37.

Vygotsky was one of the earliest psychological theorists to take culture meaningfully into account. His overall developmental theory is considered sociocultural in nature, and it involves two main theses. The first is that cognitive growth depends on the culture and social influences of one’s environment. And the second is that learning itself is primarily social in nature, and that our cognitive capabilities grow more advanced through interactions with others more competent than we are.

Vygotsky viewed development itself as unfolding on four different levels, all of them interrelated:

Microgenetic development is defined as small changes that occur over brief periods of time.

Ontogenetic development occurs over the entire course of an individual’s life (this is the type of development on which many developmental psychologists primarily focus).

Phylogenetic development has to do with evolutionary forces that shape development over thousands of years.

Sociohistorical development has to do with cultural changes that have made a difference in our experiences and in the ways we learn.

In an important departure from other theories of development, Vygotsky felt that culture matters so much that an individual’s development depends on his or her culture, with people from different cultures not necessarily passing through the same stages cognitively or intellectually.

One of Vygotsky’s best-known theories involves what he called the zone of proximal development. This zone is found in the gap between what a learner can do on her own and what she can do with the encouragement and guidance of someone more advanced. Vygotsky considered this the sweet spot, where real cognitive growth happens, and good teachers focus their efforts on this zone. Let’s say a toddler is looking at her older brother’s wooden train tracks. She tries to fit them together on her own but can’t construct much; she puts two pegs together rather than matching up a peg with a hole. Her brother, though he sometimes shoos her away, is feeling kind, and he sits down on the floor with her and shows her how the matching pieces fit. She does this at first with his help, as he presses along with her to help her secure the pieces snugly together. Soon she can do it on her own, and before long she has constructed a track 2 feet long. Because her brother met her within the zone of proximal development, neither giving her directions way over her head nor replicating the mistakes she was making, she was able to learn, and her growth has taken off accordingly.

In Vygotsky’s view, learning is more active and collaborative than it appears in the passive or self-directed processes postulated by other theories. Learning involves teachers who carefully tailor their lessons to the needs of their learners. Any teacher who believes in meeting students exactly where they are individually is operating within this theory, and if teachers do their work well, they will likely see successful student growth. And cooperation between the learner and the teacher, whether the teacher is a sibling, a friend, a parent, a coach, or an official school instructor, increases the learner’s motivation and encourages the learner to work through problems and develop effective strategies for accomplishing tasks and mastering skills.

Vygotsky argued that different cultures have different tools of intellectual adaptation, which are the structures that a culture puts in place to help individuals learn. Different communities, in view of their needs, vary widely in the skills they prize. If you grew up in a place where you hunted for your food from a young age, you likely developed enhanced spatial skills relative to others your age living in other cultures. Or let’s say you had artist parents who always focused a lot on teaching and appreciating different colors of the spectrum. In that case, it could very well be that your color-discrimination ability took off in early childhood and remains excellent.

Vygotsky posited that the process of development, helped by culture and interactive learning with others more skilled than we are, is how elementary mental functions grow into higher mental functions. Elementary mental functions are those that infants are born with, such the ability to sense things, attend to stimuli, perceive the world around them, and remember various experiences. Higher mental functions come in time, directly spurred on by the sociocultural experiences that make learning happen.


Though some of his works took decades to be translated, Lev Vygotsky’s popularity has not slowed down. His theories have been widely embraced within education, and they influenced other notable developmental psychologists, such as Jean Piaget. Vygotsky had a wide range of collaborators with whom he shared his ideas, and together they made up an informal group known as the Vygotsky Circle, whose theories about the social and cultural aspects of psychology spurred further study.


Vygotsky’s theories about cultural tools of intellectual adaptation seem to have been particularly ahead of their time, as contemporary research on a variety of skill sets gives us new examples of the ways his ideas apply across cultures

Number systems have gained particular attention lately. Different languages have different ways of naming numbers. In Japan, for example, which uses a base-10 naming system, as do China, Turkey, North Korea, and South Korea, there is a consistent and systematic way of naming numbers that includes the base-10 logic throughout, with the number 11 called the equivalent of “10-1,” the number 12 called “10-2,” and so on, whereas the naming conventions for numbers in English-speaking countries are idiosyncratic and don’t follow the same consistent logic. One possible result, as cross-cultural research has suggested, is that American preschoolers show deficits in number fluency that may even continue through adulthood.

Another fascinating area of research, which began long after Vygotsky’s time but nonetheless illuminates why his theories still have such value, concerns the notion of perfect or absolute pitch. Long a coveted trait among musicians, perfect pitch is the ability to identify the exact pitch of a musical note without having a reference point, a fun party trick whereby someone can accurately call out “C-sharp!” after a fork is clinked to a glass. Many of the most talented and disciplined musicians never possess this skill, whereas those who do have it often display it in early childhood, during musical training. It was long thought to be a genetic fluke. But recent research shows that it may be more environmentally derived than previously realized and may illustrate Vygotsky’s concept of tools of adaptation. There is a higher prevalence of perfect pitch in places where the spoken language is a tonal language. In a tonal language, such as Mandarin or Cantonese, listeners must learn to distinguish tonal fluctuations between words that otherwise would sound the same, because these differences in tone, or pitch, give the words different meanings. For example, the sound ma, when pronounced as if being read aloud, connotes scolding. Pronounced as a question—ma?—it has the meaning of “rough.” And ma-a-a, drawn out in a whine, means “horse.” (This sound can indeed mean “mother” as well, if it’s pronounced at a higher starting pitch.) But in English, there are no such differences. Sure, tone and pitch can convey a lot about your emotional state or about which words of a sentence you want to emphasize, or about whether something is a question or a statement. But individual words don’t become different words simply because of what tone they are on the scale. If you say elbow in a high pitch or a low pitch, it has the same meaning. If you say el high and bow low, or el low and bow high, it simply doesn’t matter—it’s known and understood as the same word. Vygotsky’s theory would suggest that because speakers of tonal languages are forced to learn to pay attention to, and eventually discriminate among, these tones from the time they first begin to hear people speak, they are more likely to develop perfect pitch. Vygotsky never investigated this issue himself, but his theories were prescient, and they show that it is not just our genetics or our individual experiences but also the tools of our cultures that explain how we become who we are.