Lev Vygotsky
(1896 - 1934)

  1. How does Vygotsky believe we learn best?

    In most science classes you will usually learn that the combination of two Hydrogen atoms, and one Oxygen atom, creates water, a natural resource that makes up 70% of the Earth's composition. While both the elements, Hydrogen, and Oxygen are each their own whole element, they combine to make another whole. Now that the basics have been covered, consider the possibility of creating water without one of these particular elements. You are probably thinking that it is not possible, and if you are-You're right (as far as we know in the world of science). According to the Constructivist Learning theorist Lev Vygotsky, thinking and speaking are like water. Both thinking and speaking are separate and whole/complete entities, however, they both interact to create another whole/complete entity. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that while elements are each their own whole entities, they were developed from something, and didn't just appear from nothing. Dependant upon levels of interaction and stimulation, elements can react to one another in more or even less intense ways. Similarly, neither thought nor speech are composed of one another, but based upon levels of interaction and stimulation in an individual's environment, a child's development and cohesion of thought and speech can be highly effected. Accordingly, Vygotsky believes that:

    The relation of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought. In that process, the relation of thought to word undergoes changes that themselves may be regarded as development in the functional sense. Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them. Every thought tends to connect something with something else, to establish a relation between things. Every thought moves, grows, and develops, fulfills a function, solves a problem.

    Moreover, in terms of verbal experience, Vygotsky points out the following:

    The nature of development itself changes, from biological to sociohistorical. Verbal thought is not an innate, natural form of behavior, but is determined by a historical-cultural process and has specific properties and laws that cannot be found in the natural forms of thought and speech…The problem of thought and language thus extends beyond the limits of natural science and becomes the focal problem of historical human psychology, i.e., of social psychology.

    Thus, social interaction is vital to the learning experience, it not only influences how we learn, but also what we learn.

    Vygotsky presents a complex theory regarding the processes of thought and language. Speech is comprised of sets of sounds known as words. Without words, speech does not exist. Most importantly, without the presence of any meaning, speech has no relevance. Relevance is achieved through social interactions, and is changed based upon the context of a situation. If a child lacks certain levels of interaction, they will tend to digress in their ability to perform social speaking, and will focus their speech in egocentric speaking manner, where the child believes that their way of speaking is the way that all people converse. Thus, "Egocentric speech, springing from the lack of differentiation of speech for oneself from speech for others, disappears when the feeling of being understood, essential for social speech, is absent." Thus, Vygotsky poses the concept that words are understood and created by our environmental interactions. His novel, Myshlenie i rech (Thought and Language), also translated as Thought and Speech, is an analysis of several theories/studies presented by theorists of his time. Vygotsky presents his analytical theories, "in the form of a critical dialogue in which the survey of conflicting approaches is interspersed with experimental data and theoretical constructions. The participants in the imaginative dialogue in Myshlenie i rech are William Stern, Karl Buhler, Wolfgang Kohler, Robert Yerkes, and above all, Jean Piaget. One of his first goals in the book, "was to show that thought and speech have different roots, merging only at certain moment in ontogenesis, after which these two functions develop under reciprocal influence. Accordingly, thought and word are two separate connections, which are able to function with one another to create other connenctions. Overall, "Thought and speech turn out to be the key to the nature of human consciousness."

  2. What does Vygotsky believe we learn?

    In a less complicated explanation, WHAT Vygotsky believes we learn, has a direct link in his belief on HOW we learn. Vygotsky's beliefs in social learning are the coat-tails that a great deal of his theories ride upon. In other words, what we learn is the following: how to learn based on our surroundings, history, and cultural artifacts. Thus we learn how to speak, and think, and think using speech in our thoughts, all through these interactions. Vygotsky's investigations have shown that thought and speech, "are, on the contrary, delicate, changeable relations between processes, which arise during the development of verbal thought." Thus, our thinking and speaking are not static. Instead, they are active interactions that constantly change and develop, when coupled with socio-cultural-historical encounters.

  3. Describe the historical and social context that Vygotsky came out of.

    Historical Context - Social Theory from Karl Marx
    Vygotsky was influenced by the writing of Karl Marx. Not only was he extremely familiar with Karl Marx's social theory, he postulated that psychology was subjugated by psychoanalysis and behavior. As a response to behaviorism theories, he created the concept of artifact-mediated and object-oriented action (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky saw a direct relationship between humans and objects of the cultural environment. Karl Marx's influence may be responsible for Vygotsky's beliefs, especially the ones: (1) that work shapes our environment, and (2) his position of children's mastery over tools.
    Vygotsky believed that no "philosophical system, including Marxism, would be able to help psychology until it had established an intermediate link in the form of methodology…" and he sought to make psychology scientific for the rest of his career.

    Historical Context - Psychological Theory from Piaget
    In Thought and Language, Vygotsky analyzed Piaget's work, especially Piaget's concept of egocentrism. Vygotsky concluded that Piaget overlooked the role of the child's activity while thinking (from his foundational thinking about children's mastery over tools). Vygotsky also believed that Piaget's was influenced by his personal theory, and that Piaget had no scientific facts for his findings. Vygotsky built his theories on the strength of Piaget's theories. "Piaget's view may hold true for the particular group of children he studied, but it is not of universal significance." Vygotsky claims, "On the contrary, the child never really comes into contact with things because he does not work. He plays with them, or simply believes them without trying to find the truth." Piaget, 1969

    Historical Context - Philosophical Theory from Hegel
    Hegel believed that the progress in knowing must be taught by the subject matter itself and its content (loosely quoted from Hegel's Science and Logic). Vygotsky believed that people are closely tied with their culture, and that thoughts must be determined by the nature of the subject matter. Hegel's philosophy is one of history, where ideas are of a historical concept, and ideas which make sense in context to the entire culture. Vygotsky's philosophical theories from Thought and Language mirror Hegel's philosophy.

    Historical Context - Philosophical Theory from William Stern
    Social Constructionism Introduced

    Vygotsky believed that higher mental functions occur as a result of cultural environment, and the relationships between infants and caretakers. This became the basis for his scaffolding theory, i.e., parents provide children with new stimulation/information. Vygotsky believed intelligence was a process activity. William Stern, on the other hand, believed that individuality, not social construction, was the true essence of personality and intelligence. William Stern discovered the differences between the chronological age of a person, and the mental age of a person could increase over time. Stern decided to classify people by types. In Thought and Language, Vygotsky spends considerable time theorizing that development took the opposite course of Stern's theories. With this in mind, Stern becomes another powerful influence for Vygotsky's theories.

  4. How can Vygotsky's theories be applied to the classroom?

    Vygotsky believed that learning environment through socialization was virtually immeasurable and consequential. Through socialization, according to Vygotsky, learning is something that we can grow into. His definition of socialization contained two strands: (1) The history, cultural and language has been handed down to us by those before us. This social aspect of Vygotsky's thinking is that we use our cultural language and artifacts to facilitate meaning. (2) Socialization also means that we must communicate with others to gain access to the intellectual life of those around us. Since he believed that socio-cultural influences were basal, he believed that language was the bridge to our own thoughts, and the thoughts of those in our zone .

    The Teacher's Role in a Vygotsky Classroom

    In the Vygotsky model classroom, the teacher has a role to scaffold, or assist, the emerging competencies of the students. Students are guided through assistance in two ways: (1) Teachers create social environments (zpd) of what the student can achieve independently, and what the student can achieve with assistance from a more-skilled peer, and (2) They scaffold, or assist the learners and are responsible for necessary dialogue. The dialogue ensures that students understand the tasks, and provide an opportunity for the students to reflect on experiences. Communication is the essence of the socio-cultural experience when students are learning and problem solving. Through language and culture, teachers and students negotiate meaning. The teacher should design engaging distributed social activities.

    Small Group and Large Group Activities.

    One way a teacher can encourage socialization is to create small and large group activities or learning projects. The teacher initiates the information and/or task to be gained, and through social interaction with peers in group activities, students can verbalize their thinking, and demonstrate their understanding. Utilizing thought for reflection and language for communication, students can dynamically move back and forth from intra- to inter-personal communication.

    Two Strands Of Socialization Facilitate Higher Order Learning

    In a Vygotskian classroom, students should be able to construct their knowledge via interaction with others. Socialization does not require formal structure - students can develop new zones of proximal development, through free play or social time in the classroom.

  5. How does (or can) technology enhance the application of these theories?

    The classroom contains wonderful social ties necessary for learning in Vygotsky's theories. Using computers for technology in the classroom can augment and enhance the social dynamics of his theory by adding a prominent cultural tool. In order to utilize this technology, teachers can create lessons that require students to work in groups with task-related interaction, and utilize their higher order thinking skills.

    If technology is utilized correctly, it can promote formal and informal learning groups, as opposed to students who work in isolation from one another.

    Students can be experts, equal peers, or apprentices at any time in the classroom environment. Lessons should include using computers, and designed so that tasks can promote socialization and effective working relationships. Students need to communicate to complete projects, to solve problems, and to effectively finalize their tasks. Teachers can incorporate Vygotsky's theories into their lesson plans by allowing for socialization opportunities.

    Vygotsky in the classroom may be like the following:

    A Model Lesson Plan Using Internet Resources for Lower Elementary Students

    Section 1 - Background

    Title: Seeing the Size of a Whale is Believing the Size of a Whale

    Description: The first goal of this lesson is to introduce students to the actual average length of three whales, the blue whale, the humpback whale and the Pygmy whale. The second goal is for students to collaborate, work together in groups, and learn through discussions with one another, about whale facts.The third goal is for students to decide, through group decision making, how they will create a life-size representation of a whale's length.The fourth goal is for students to create a model of their own body lengths so that they can compare their actual size, with the actual size of each whale in length.

    Primary Subject: Integrated Science Math Unit

    Grade Level: Second Grade

    Internet Activity Structure: Interactive Modeling, Simulation and Visualization Resources

    Time: This unit will be delivered in segments throughout the week, with the time intensive activities completed on Day 2, and if necessary, Day 3.

    Section 2 - Focus

    Essential Concepts:Students will collaborate to demonstrate actual lengths of three whales. These three whales have a great variance of length from 20 feet to 100 feet. One obvious choice is to collaborate how to measure and cut out and attach together paper from the brown paper roll. They may decide to use their cut-out shapes, attached together to represent how many students it would take to find the length of a whale.Parent Volunteers may scaffold and assist them, if necessary, with their decision-making, and learning processes.

    Objectives: Students will:

    • Collaborate and learn how to work in groups to accomplish decisions and tasks.
    • Learn from their peers.
    • Learn from Parent Volunteers how to dialogue, and how to navigate on the Internet for research.
    • Create life-size models of the lengths of the Humpback Whale, the Blue Whale, and the Pygmy Whale.
    • Visualize each whale length.
    • Discuss differences and comparisons between their human body sizes and the sizes of whales.

    Anticipatory Set:The teacher reads at least one book about whales during circle time, noting that whale lengths and sizes vary greatly, and asking for reflection and discussion at the end of the story.The teacher explains to the class that students will outline their shapes, compare, and contrast their size to the sizes of different whales.The teacher explains to the class that they will read and talk about different whales while reading sites from the Internet. The teacher also explains that students will talk about how they want to create life-size whale models. The teacher needs to find a designated area in the school where lengths of the whales can be duplicated (i.e., a hallway or the gym). When a designated place has been determined, the teacher can use masking tape and labels to measure and tape the appropriate lengths from the brown paper roll.

    Teacher Materials Required:

    • Large roll of brown paper cut into 5-foot long lengths
    • Books about Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, and Pygmy Whales
    • Masking Tape (enough for a 200 foot layout)
    • Measuring tape
    • Designated area for whale measurements
    • Length list for whales
    • Word list for whales
    • Diagram of whales with common parts labeled (fins, etc.)
    Parent volunteers for scaffolding and Internet Activity

    Whales Average Lengths
    Humpback Whale 50 feet
    Blue Whale 100 feet
    Pygmy Whale 20 feet

    Student Materials:
    • Pencils and drawing materials
    • Computers with Internet access
    • Crayons or colored pencils

    Section 3 Procedures and Activities

    Body Tracing Activity: Have students work in groups of two or three. The teacher can demonstrate using two students first. Have one student lie on the paper, face up; with the other student trace the outline of the student lying down. Have the student stand up without tearing the paper. Have students cut out their body shapes. Have parent volunteers assist when students' need assistance. Also ask the parent volunteers to measure each shape, and write the height on the back, and ensure each student's name is also on the back. Have students collaborate peer to peer to decide how they prefer to trace, color, and cut-out their outline shapes of each other. The end result is that students trace each other's body. Have students fill in their details i.e. color hair, eyes, mouth, clothes. Have students draw and color the clothes onto their shapes, if desired.

    Internet Activity: Divide classroom students into groups of two or more. Each group is assigned a Parent Volunteer. The Parent Volunteer connects to at least two website URL's and has students view whales, and discuss what they see. The goal is to discover the lengths in feet, and differences between the Humpback, Blue, and Pygmy Whales. Parent Volunteers have students listen to audio recordings on the Web sites about the whales. Parent volunteers also use whale words from the word list during Internet discussion times.

  6. Word List
    Live birth
    Tail flukes
    Breath air

    Problem Solving: Separate the entire class into three groups. Each group will represent one whale. Have students collaborate on how to represent what they learned from the Internet about the size of each whale. They can use the backs of their life-size outlines, or choose another method. Each group's goal is to create a visual representation the actual lengths of the Humpback Whale, the Blue Whale, and the Pygmy Whale.

    Section 4

    Assessment/EvaluationEvaluation/assessment rubric: 

    Item  Score
    Collaborate to reach a decision  
    Create a visual representation of a whale  
    Understand comparisons between humans and whale sizes  

    Closure: Debrief students during circle time regarding various sizes of whales, and humans.Each student will dialogue in circle time, one at a time, to discuss what was important to them about this lesson.

    Section 5 Sources




    [1] Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language, MIT, 2002, from page 197-202.
    [2] Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language, MIT 2002, from pages 55-56.

Page authored by Suzann Connell and Princess Charles

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