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Published by: Joanne on Jul 18, 2008
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Galina Dolya and Sue Palmer(TES Primary Forum, 2004)
© Sue Palmer, 2004
Galina Dolya and Sue Palmer(TES Primary Forum, 2004)
The Life of Vygotsky
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Lev Vygotsky was born in 1896 in Russia, and grew up in the city of Gomel. Aftergraduating in history and philosophy, he taught at a variety of schools in his hometown, where he was also active in theatrical and literary circles, before moving in1924 to work in the Institute of Psychology in Moscow.Over the next ten years, he produced several seminal works, including
Thought and  Language
(1932). Around him gathered a circle of brilliant young scholars, includingLuria and Leontiev, who created a school of Soviet psychology based on his work.Vygotsky himself died of tuberculosis in 1934, at only 38 years of age.Sadly, his genius coincided with Stalin’s regime. The work of the Vygotskyan schoolwas deemed ‘reactionary bourgeois pseudo-science’ and was repressed. For twentyyears after Vygotsky’s death, it was forbidden to discuss, disseminate or reprint any of his writings.In the mid 50s, the major works reappeared in print, and their translations in the 1960sled to worldwide interest in Vygotsky. The work of many modern-day educational
theorists, including Jerome Bruner, owes much to his inuence.
However, some works remained undiscovered for another twenty years, including the
outstanding book, Pedagogical Psychology (1926), nally published in 1991. Though
little known in the West, this work has had considerable impact on contemporaryreform of Russian education.He lived for only 38 years, but in his last decade (1924 – 1934), the Russian thinkerLev Vygotsky transformed the study of developmental psychology. His Cultural-Historical Theory caused an explosion of interest in Russia, and inspired muchoriginal research by other psychologists. Tragically, these innovative and inspirationalideas were immediately suppressed. In Stalinist Russia, suggestions for teachingchildren – indeed anyone – to think for themselves were not acceptable. For manyyears, Vygotsky’s works could be read only in a single central library in Moscow, byspecial permission of the secret police.After Stalin’s death, however, Vygotsky was rediscovered by another generation of psychologists and teachers. When his work was translated in the 1960s, the depthand scope of his educational vision dazzled academics around the world. Americanscientist Stephen Toulmin called him ‘the Mozart of psychology’ and Jerome Brunerwrote that “Vygotsky’s Theory of Development is at the same time the Theory of Education”.For teachers, Vygotsky provides a theoretical underpinning for effective practice. He
identies the key elements in successful teaching, learning and development – so that
one says to oneself, “Ah, that’s why I’m doing it! That’s what’s happening inside thechild’s head!”
Cultural tools and the development of higher mental functions
Vygotsky believed that true education is not the mere learning of specic knowledge
and skills. It is the development of children’s
learning abilities
– that is, theircapacity to think clearly and creatively, plan and implement their plans, andcommunicate their understanding in a variety of ways. He believed this could be doneby providing them with a set of ‘cultural tools’ for thinking and creating.The key to human intelligence – the characteristic that makes us different fromanimals – is the ability to use various types of tools. Vygotsky claimed that, just ashumans use material tools (such as knives and levers) to extend our physical abilities,we invented psychological tools to extend our mental abilities. These tools are thesymbolic systems we use to communicate and analyse reality. They include signs,symbols, maps, plans, numbers, musical notation, charts, models, pictures and, aboveall, language.Cultural tools are not inherited genetically. They are developed and preserved in ourculture. Vygotsky believed that the purpose of education is to introduce children tothe full range of cultural tools and, show how to use them to analyse reality quicklyand successfully. Children can then look at the world, as Vygostkyan scholarZaporozhets put it, through “the glasses of human culture.”Using cultural tools, children develop new psychological qualities, which we callabilities. These are the mental habits people need to be successful in particular
intellectual or creative elds. The better children’s grasp of the appropriate culturaltools, the greater their abilities in any eld.The development of abilities leads to a owering of children’s personalities. They
begin to plan and organize their own activities, openly express their point of view,provide non-standard solutions for problems, interact freely with other people and,most importantly, believe in themselves and their own abilities.
Thought and language
The main premise of Vygotsky’s most famous work is the interrelationship betweenthought and that most universal of cultural tools – language. He maintained thatthought is ‘internalized language’.When small children are playing, they often keep up a running commentary on whatis happening: “And now the train’s going round the tower, and it’s banging in to thetower, and – oh no – the tower’s toppling down…”. Vygotsky calls this an externalmonologue. As time goes on, the external monologue is internalized as thought.
(When dealing with a challenging situation, children and adults often nd it helps to
externalize their thoughts again: they begin ‘thinking aloud’ to clarify what they aredoing or trying to understand.)

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