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Lev Vygotsky: Learning, Teaching and Knowledge

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist who focused on the psychology of children. Vygotsky was a Social Constructivist. He believed that learning took place when collaborating with others. Children build a construct - their perception of the world - through interaction, primarily with adults. His main contributions to education are his understanding of how intellectual development and learning interact, via the Zone of Proximal Learning (see below); his championing of play as a fundamental means of intellectual development; and his exploration of the relationship between thought and language.

Learning occurs within the zone of proximal development, which is the difference between a child's actual developmental level and his/her level of potential development. Learning builds on, moves ahead of and stimulates intellectual development. Play is the main source of intellectual development for the preschool child. Learning takes place through interaction with 'more knowledgeable others'. The primary vehicle for learning and intellectual development is language. Vigotsky suggested there are two primary means of learning: Social Interaction and Language.
Social Interaction.

Learning occurs through interaction with others (mainly parents, teachers, and siblings) on the social level. The child internalizes the knowledge. Then the new knowledge or skill can be mastered and built upon. A child learns through shared problem-solving experiences with someone else. Generally, the person working with the child accepts the responsibility for guiding the problem solving, but eventually transfers the knowledge to the child. The child begins by solving the problem only with assistance; when (s)he is able to solve the problem without assistance, (s)he has learnt that skill or knowledge.

Vygotsky stresses language as fundamental to learning and development. It is primarily through speech that adults transmit knowledge to children; as a result, not only do the childs language skills improve, but so too does the learning process. Children learn to internalize their own self talk - private talk - and use it to direct behavior. Lev worked with (and greatly influenced) famous neuropsychologist Alexander Luria. These two, along with Alexei Leont'ev, studied the impact of culture on language, which later developed into Cultural-Historical Psychology.

Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky focused on the relationship between learning and intellectual development. Unlike Piaget, who said that learning was dependent on development, Vigotsky stated that learning and development worked together; learning led to development, which enabled greater learning, which led to greater development, and so on. Vigotsky proposed a zone of proximal development, which is the distance between a child's actual development level and the child's level of potential development. Actual development level is what the child can do independently; this is what was normally seen as a childs level of intellectual developmental: what functions are already mature. It can also be described as the level of maturity of the child. This level was usually gauged through testing. Level of potential development is what the child can do with the assistance of others (adults or more capable peers); this shows what functions are in the process of maturing. Learning takes place only within the zone of proximal development. If the task only requires the child to do what they can already do, they are not learning; if they are asked to do more than what they can do with assistance, they will not succeed, and learning will not occur. Children imitate their teachers (adults, teachers, more advanced peers). The more a child takes advantage of adult assistance the broader the zone of proximal development. Learning is not development; however, mental development progresses as a result of learning and therefore, one cannot developmentally progress without learning and vice versa. Learning leapfrogs ahead of development and then drags development along with it and then leapfrogs ahead again continuously.

So through learning, the actual development level progresses to where the level of potential development previously was; meanwhile, if learning continues to be properly directed, the child's level of potential development has progressed further. Parallels have been drawn between this understanding of learning and scaffolding. The gradual release of responsibility model of instruction also fits within Vygotsky's framework: the teacher models an activity, then the student performs the activity with assistance from the teacher, then the student performs it with feedback from the teacher, and finally the student performs it independently. Vygotsky's zone of proximal development can also be applied to peer review in the classroom. When two students review one another's work, the first student is at their "actual level." Through working with their peer and reviewing their work and gaining new insight and ideas, the student reaches their "potential level".

Play and Learning

Vygotsky did extensive research on the role of play in development, and said that play was an essential part of learning for preschool children. He found that through play, preschool children learn how to separate the meaning of an object from the object itself, which he believed to be of fundamental importance in human development. Children also learn self-control, and develop their will. This is because all play has rules; by submitting his/her desires to the rules of play in order to enjoy playing, a child learns to set aside short-term wants for a long-term gain, and learns to exercise his/her will. Vygotsky found several paradoxes in play: 1) What looks like spontaneous play is actually a carefully constructed environment with its own set of rules; and 2) the child adopts the line of least resistance, i.e., he does what he feels like most because play is connected with pleasure. At the same time, he learns to follow the line of greatest resistance; for by subordinating themselves to rules, children renounce what they want, since subjection to rule and renunciation of spontaneous impulsive action constitute the path to maximum pleasure in play. (1933, page 12) Play is the leading source of development in preschool children: Play also creates the zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form; in play it is as though the child were trying to jump above the level of his normal behavior" (1933, page 16).

Teaching is the process which enables learners to gain knowledge or skills that lie within their zone of proximal development. Teaching moves learners from merely imitating a behavior or completing a task only with assistance to demonstrating independence in behavior and thought. A teacher is anyone who has a higher level of understanding or ability level than that of the learner with respect to a specific task, process or concept. This person is normally thought of as being a teacher, coach, or an older adult; however, peers and even computers could fulfill this role as long as the criteria previously mentioned are adhered to. Vygotsky called this person a more knowledgeable other. Learners play an active role in learning. Teachers and learners work together to create a collaborative reciprocal experience. Teaching by modeling - which invites learners to imitate - is an acceptable method; in Vygotsky's writings, he refutes negative views of imitation as a means of learning. Teachers need to ensure that they are teaching within a learner's zone of proximal development; if they teach to the learner's demonstrated ability - their actual development level - their teaching will lag behind the learner's zone of proximal development, and little learning or development will take place. On the other hand, if they teach at a level which is beyond the learner's zone of proximal development, no learning will take place: the learner does not yet have the intellectual capacity for that learning. Gauging a learner's level of potential development can be done by seeing whether a learner can accurately imitate the teacher's modeling of a skill or knowledge, or by assessing whether a learner, with assistance, can complete a task. If so, that learning lies within their zone of proximal development.

Knowledge is the skill, concept or task being displayed for learning. Knowledge is gained through interaction with others. Learners construct their own perception of reality through that interaction. Part of the process of learning is the internalizing of knowledge.

Berk, Larua.E. (1997). Child Development, Fourth ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Cole, M. (1977). Readings on the Development of Children. New York: Freeman. Lundstrom, Kristi and Baker, Wendy (2009). To give is better than to receive: The benefits of peer review to the reviewer's own writing. Journal of Second Language Writing (18), pp. 30-43.

Richard-Amato, Patricia A. (2010). Making It Happen: From Interactive to Participatory Language Teaching: Evolving Theory and Practice. White Plains, NY: Pearson Education. Vygotsky, L. (1933), (trans. Catherine Mulholland). Play and its role in the Mental Development of the Child. Soviet Psychology, 1966, No. 6. Retrieved from Vygotsky, L. (1978). Interaction between learning and development. From Mind and Society (pages 79-91). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Preliminary Research:

Vygotsky refutes Koffka's arugement that a child experiences all of life as play. "Only theories maintaining that a child does not have to satisfy the basic requirements of life, but can live in search of pleasure, could possibly suggest that a childs world is a play world." (1933, page 16). However, I wonder at the different childhoods experienced by a child in Vygotsky's world, and in ours. I'm assuming a lot here, but compare Vygotsky's knowledge of childhood - living in tsarist Russia, then under Communism, in an age where life was more rigorous, harsher, and demanding on children - with the experience of children in 21st century western culture... Think of our students: don't some of them seem to 'live in search of pleasure'? Do children in our society really have to worry about 'satisfying the basic requirements of life'? Is it possible, then, that it is no longer true that "play is really a particular feature of preschool age" (ibid, 18)? And if play does continue on into later years for children in our culture, this leads to two questions: 1) when do children stop playing? and 2) what implications does that have for teaching? Andrew.

Wiki page created for Principles of Learning (EDUC5001), July 2010, by Andrew Cohen, Jennifer Levine, Neil Cornett, and Christina Chu. Retrieved from