Lev Semenovich Vygotsky


The Mozart of Psychology

Personal Background

Lev Vygotsky is an “outstanding scientist”, an “eminent scholar”, and even a “genius”. “A Well-known philosopher and historian of science Stephen Toulmin once called him a Mozart of Psychology” (Vygodskaya, 1995). This genius was born on November 5, 1896, in Tsarist Russia,and died on June 11, 1934, at the age of 36, suffering with Tuberculosis.

Vygotsky was born to a middle class jewish family. Before his first birthday his family moved to the city of Gomel. There were eight children in the family and Lev was the second child of the family. His family was one of the most educated in the town. His father, Semion L’vovich, graduated from the Commercial Institute and worked as a manager at the Gomel bank. He was an intelligent man of wide interests, fluent in foreign languages. His mother Cecilia also was well educated, trained as a teacher and fluent in several languages. He married to Rosa Smekhova, and they had two daughters.

Vygotsky with his beloved wife and children

He received his elementary education at home, studying independently and having a tutor for consultation. He passed an exam for the first 5 years of grade school and entered into a private all boys secondary school. He graduated from secondary school with a gold medal at the age of seventeen, after that, entered the University of Moscow and at first he studied medicine, then switched to law.

After He studied a range of topics while attending university, including sociology, linguistics, psychology and philosophy. He possessed an excellent reading speed and memory, hence become an outstanding student in all the subjects.

Career History

After graduating from the University of Moscow, Vygotsky returned to Gomel and started his career with teaching. There he engaged in a wide variety of intellectual activities. He taught psychology, he began to take an interest in the problems of handicapped children and continued his study of the theory of literature and the psychology of art. After his first professional successes in psychology (papers submitted to national congresses), in 1924 he settled in Moscow and began work at the Institute of Psychology.

In 1925 Vygotsky finished his thesis on The Psychology of Art. He also became a junior psychologist at the Psychological Institute of Moscow University and was soon highly regarded in the field. Vygotsky instigated special education services in Russia, he restructured the Psychological Institute of Moscow and set up research laboratories in all the main cities of the Soviet Union. He was to write over 180 papers, some of which are only now being published.


Vygotsky theoretical perspective can be understood best in terms of three general themes that run throughout his writings:

  – The use of a genetic, or developmental method;             

  – The claim that higher mental functioning in the individual emerges out of social processes; and

 – The claim that human social and psychological processes are fundamentally shaped by cultural tools, or mediational means. (Lock 2005)

Socio-Cultural Development


Vygotsky saw human development as a socio-genetic process with learning coming about through social interactions between children and adults. He believed that education “generates” and leads development, which is the result of social learning through the internalisation of culture and social relationships, so parents, caregivers, peers and the culture at large were responsible for the development of higher order functions.

According to Vygotsky, “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological). This applies equally to voluntary attention, to logical memory, and to the formation of concepts. All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals.


Vygotsky and cohort theorists Piaget, Bruner and Dewey fall under the paradigm of constructivism. Constructivism is a proposed method of knowledge development based on an individual’s active participation in problem-solving and critical thinking. The individual literally constructs their own knowledge base using old constructs in new situations, and adapting them to fit newly learned information. In this process the individual is formulating new constructs. This learning method occurs in the socio-cultural milieu of society and depends on interaction with other individuals. Vygotsky’s theories fit within the realm of constructivism.

The Zone of Proximal Development (Z P D)

An important concept in sociocultural theory is known as the zone of proximal development. According to Vygotsky, the zone of proximal development “is the distance between the actual development 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” (Offord, 2005). Essentially, it includes all of the knowledge and skills that a person cannot yet understand or perform on their own yet, but is capable of learning with guidance.


“Vygotsky’s scaffolding” is a term used to describe a method of teaching that involves providing resources and support to students as they learn new concepts. As the students develop skills in those areas, the supports are gradually removed so the student can accomplish a task with no assistance.


Higher mental process is mediated by tools. Tools can take one of three forms – symbols, material or human beings behaviour. Semiotic mediators are pre-programmed psychological tools. Symbols such as language are psychological tools that mediate an individual’s psychological processes, material tools mediate between the individual and nature. The mediation between individuals is the development of intramental abilities through intermenta.


Application of the theory to the classroom/teaching

There are many aspects of Vygtosky’s sociocultural learning theory that are applicable to classrooms. His basic theme is that “Social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development” The key to maintain social interaction is using corporative learning strategies.

One aspect that can be used in the classroom is conducting activities which children can communicate with each other. Vygotsky explains that before a child can have an internal conversation with themselves they need to be able to dialogue with others (Pressley & McCormick, 2007). This shows the importance of encouraging conversations with students, especially at the preschool age. Interacting with the students about what they are doing, seeing and thinking helps them to develop external conversations which then lead to internal ones later on.

Another aspect useful in the classroom is scaffolding, which helps the child in his or her zone of proximal development in which the adult provides hints and prompts at different levels. So the teacher can help the child with a task and then gradually lessen that help so they can do it more themselves. Cognitive development moves forward largely because the child is in a world that provides aid when the child needs it, and can benefit from it. This can be guiding and coaching in such a way that the teacher does not give too much help, but just enough to encourage the student to find the answer or complete the skill.


Time line of Vygotsky’s Life

1896 ->
1909 ->
1912 ->

1917 ->

1924 ->
1934 ->

Lev Vygotsky was Born ia small town called Orsha .
Bar Mitzi aged 13.
Graduation from Jewish school.
Lev began studying law, philosophy and history at the Moscow State University
Graduated from University
Began to work in Psychology.
Got married to Roza Smekhova and later had 2 children with her,
Died of tuberculosis

1936 ->
1953 ->
1956 ->

Vygotsky’s work banned in the USSR.
Stalin Died.
Ban on Vygotsky’s work was lifted.



– Cherry, K. (2013). Sociocultural Theory – What Is Sociocultural Theory. Retrieved November 7, 2013, from http://psychology.about.com/od/developmentecourse/f/sociocultural-theory.htm

– Ivic, I. (1994). Lev S. Vygotsky. The life and work of Vygotsky, XXIV, 471-485. Retrieved from http://www.ibe.unesco.org/publications/ThinkersPdf/vygotske.pdf‎

– Offord, L. (2005, May 5). The Mozart of Psychology. Retrieved from http://vygotsky.afraid.org/

– Shestov, L. (2008, April 30). Lev Vygotsky – New World Encyclopedia. Retrieved November 6, 2013, from http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Lev_Vygotsky

-Vygodskaya, G. L. (1995). His life. School Psychology International. Retrieved from http://graduatestudenthelp.com



4 thoughts on “Lev Semenovich Vygotsky

  1. Vygotsky has developed a socio-cultural approach to cognitive development. He developed his theories at around the same time as Jean Piaget was starting to develop his theories (1920’s and 30’s), but he died at the age of 38 and so his theories are incomplete – although some of his writings are still being translated from Russian.

    • It is really a misery that the world loses such a precious psychologist in such early age. Even though so many years have passed, Vygotsky’s thoughts, ideas, and works not only belong to history, but they still interest people. In one of his articles, A. Leontiev wrote of Vygotsky as a man decades ahead of his time. Probably that is why that he is for us not a historic figure but a living contemporary.

    • Yeah, he also believes that young children are curious and actively involved in their own learning and the discovery and development of new understandings/schema. However, Vygotsky placed more emphasis on social contributions to the process of development.

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