Contribution of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky in Psychology

Outline the Contribution of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky in Psychology and Evaluate his Influence on the Field .

The middle-class Belorussian Lev Vygotsky was born in 1896 in Orsha. The family moved to Gomel upon the father’s promotion to the United Bank in Gomel.

Vygotsky and the family’s other children were given a stimulating, enriching home-education by their mother, a qualified teacher and private tutor. He later entered secondary school education. He was an excellent student, with an outstanding reading speed and memory.

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As a result of anti-Semitism at the time, it was debatable whether he would able to enroll as a student at the University of Moscow. Although the number of Jewish students allowed to study there was limited, he was accepted. However, as he was Jewish, the desired philosophical studies were not open to him Consequently, he began studies in medicine , but then changed to Law.

Vygotsky studied philosophy in his own time. After graduating in Law in 1917, he became a teacher and set up a research facility in order to conduct psychological researches. In 1924, he made a presentation, discussing methods of reflexological and psychological investigations at the Second All-Russian Psychoneurological Congress in Leningrad. As a result of his success, he was offered a position restructuring the Psychological Institute of Moscow where he was able to examine archived psychological research documents. A year later, his dissertation on The Psychology of Art, enabled him to accept a placement at the Psychological Institute of Moscow University.

His increasing reputation allowed him to develop his interest in providing special education services and to reorganise the Psychological Institute of Moscow together with creating research facilities throughout the Soviet Union. His aim was to advance Marxist psychological theories for the social and political difficulties confronting the newly established socialist regime, which would inevitably clash with former Tsarist ideologies. This, alongside a dearth of suitable resources and services, could cause people to feel excluded from full integration in to the new society.

Vygotsky’s concern for the psychological issues involved in providing appropriate interventions for children with learning disabilities impelled him to establish the “Laboratory of Psychology for Abnormal Childhood” in Moscow in 1925.

As a result of contracting tuberculosis, Vygotsky died in 1934 and two years later his name and works were banned by Stalin, who regarded him as an idealist. Stalin rejected the study of pedology–the study of the charactergrowth, and development of children. Consequently, many psychologists and other intellectuals were imprisoned or banned for over twenty years until Stalin’s death. As a result, the research efforts of a number of Russian psychologists, such as Vygotsky, were not known to the west as they only filtered through into the western world in the 1970s.

This purge on pedology lasted until the 1950s, and psychoeducational assessment and the teaching of psychology in schools was banned until the 1980s. Pavlovian psychology, in which conditional or unconditional reflexes were regarded as the main causes of behaviour, was the only official Soviet policy in the field of Psychology.

Vygotsky’s cognitive development theory rested on the belief that children’s thinking was acquired by social knowledge, delivered by either psychological (language, number, art) or technical (books, equipment) means and that language was the tool for developing social knowledge. (Cole, M. & Wertsch, J. V. (1996))

He disagreed with Piaget’s four-stage process theory of cognitive development, which comprised —sensorimotor, pre-operational, concrete operations and formal operations- in other words, development comes before learning. (Piaget. 1936) Vygotsky believed that learning takes place through mediation and the internalisation of social signs, that is to say, language. Vygotsky argued that learning comes before development. His constructivist approach posited three main concepts- internalization, semiotic mediation (using tools such as spoken and written language, maps, signs, mnemonics) and the Zone of Proximal Development.

Vygotsky maintained that culture and language are imperative to cognitive development. (Vygotsky 1962) Speech is a means of communication and socializing which develops into a tool of thought. “Social Speech” is communication talking to and with others— generally at the age of two and will probably involve making eye contact with the other person. It then develops into “Private Speech”, which has an intellectual purpose as the child is verbalizing to himself/herself, for example: “ mmm where did I put that?”. By the age of seven, virtually inaudible to others, “Internal Speech”, is used to self-regulate and becomes thought and the child from a more linguistically and socially adept background will develop this faster. (Vygotsky, 1987). However, research by others (Berk 1986) showed this was not necessarily the case.

Engaging formally or informally in conversation with children helps them to understand their culture and how to respond to their world by showing them the meanings that are attached to objects, events and experiences. As the child develops, he or she begins internalizing the processes used socially and then uses them independently.. (—-)

For a child to achieve independence in learning, Vygotsky suggested that mediation by a “More Knowledgeable Other” was required. This could be a parent, teacher, adult, peer or even mechanical or technical tools. By demonstrating ideas, values, speech, techniques, the mediator helps the child to internalize them and learn.

Vygotsky was skeptical about Intelligence Quotients, which were often regarded as static, and believed that IQ levels could be improved through appropriate mediated teaching. Reuven Feuerstein based his “Instrumental Enrichment Program” on this belief.

The concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) was first discussed by Vygotsky at a conference fifteen months before his death in 1934, in which he maintained that the ZPD is created when someone acts as mediator for another person who is not able to perform a task alone. The ZPD is the area between what a learner can do alone and what a learner cannot do at all. Assisting the learner how to think and how to examine his/her thinking will enable the learner to adapt and learn what he/she can do with help — without giving the answer! This is the area where learning takes place. Naturally, the mediator has to have empathy with and an understanding of the needs and capabilities of the learner. There is little point in giving a learner tasks that are too easy, as the learner will most likely become bored, frustrated and lose interest. Equally, tasks that are beyond their capability will result in the same issues

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In the fields of socio-cultural and constructivist psychology Vygotsky’s work is still relevant today. Although SkinnerPavlovFreud, and Piaget, are considerably more well-known, Vygotsky must be considered as an influential thinker . His work only came to the fore in the 1960s, when his work was translated from Russian. Up to then his writings were largely inaccessible to the Western world because of the Soviet political system as well as his early death at age 37.

By the 1970s Vygotsky’s theories, concepts and ideas were introduced in the fields of educational and developmental psychology. It is true to argue, therefore, that he has left a legacy, which has been taken forward many numerous psychologists.

A major step forward in educational theory was made in 1976 by Jerome Bruner, a social constructivist psychologist, who expanded on the Vygotsky’s mediational theories and his “Zone of Proximal Development” and introduced the term “scaffolding”. ( Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976), (McLeod, S. A. (2012).

A child’s learning is “scaffolded” by parents by using language at the appropriate developmental level of the child. Vygotsky’s theory was to ensure that scaffolding should be available to all ability levels of learners and be geared at the ZPD of the learner, rather than a “one model fits all” approach. Scaffolding should enable the child to tackle a challenge themselves. Most school-teachers are familiar with the term—though not all use the technique!

Similarly, Reuven Feuerstein, the Israeli social constructivist Psychologist developed the process of mediated learning further. His belief that children from the concentration camps in World War 2, suffered from “cultural deprivation” and were not ineducable–as their rescuers believed. He regarded intelligence as modifiable—”Structural Cognitive Modifiability”. (FeuersteinFeuerstein, Falik, and Rand (2006) He created the “Instrumental Enrichment Program”, designed to ameliorate the specific cognitive problems of learners and provides specific mediated interactions that aim to correct the problem. He regarded as crucial the role of mediator and culture to successful learning experiences. The fourteen instruments each refer to particular learning skills, such as organization, categorizing, comparing, analytical perception etc and use Bridging as a method of relating new learning to existing knowledge. This makes the new skill relevant to the learner.

Philip Adey, the cognitive development theorist and influenced by Vygotsky, developed the constructivist and metacognitive methodology of Cognitive Acceleration, which aims to make children think more efficiently and effectively. (Adey P. and Shayer M 1994)

Mathew Lipman was influenced by Vygotsky (Lipman M. 1991) and as an educationalist he was the founder of Philosophy for Children”, an educational programme designed to help children develop critical thinking. Professor Bob Durden, a supporter of Feuerstein’s work, created the ‘Myself as a Learner Scale’ (Burden, R.L. 1998). This measure focusses on one’s perceptions of oneself as learner and problem solver and increases confidence and motivation to succeed.


  • Burden, R.L. (1998). Assessing children’s perceptions of themselves as learners and problem solvers. The construction of the Myself-As-a-Learner Scale. School Psychology International
  • Adey P. and Shayer M (1994.) Really raising standards : cognitive intervention and academic achievement. London ; New York : Routledge,
  • Berk, L. E. (1986). Relationship of elementary school children’s private speech to behavioral accompaniment to task, attention, and task performance. Developmental Psychology, 22(5), 671
  • Cole, M. & Wertsch, J. V. (1996) Beyond the Individual – Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky.
  • FeuersteinFeuerstein, Falik, and Rand (2006), Creating and Enhancing Cognitive Modifiability: The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Program, ICELP Publications. Retrieved from: //
  • Lipman M. (1991) Rediscovering the Vygotsky Trail. Retrieved from: Inquiry: Critical Thinking Across the Disciplines. Volume 7, Issue 2, March 1991
  • McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of proximal development. Retrieved from //
  • Piaget (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1953.
  • Shayer, M and Adey, P (2002) Learning Intelligence, Open University
  • Wood, D., Bruner, J., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry, 17, 89−100.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge MA: MIT Press.
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1987). Thinking and speech. In R.W. Rieber & A.S. Carton (Eds.), The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky, Volume 1: Problems of general psychology (pp. 39–285). New York: Plenum Press. (Original work published 1934.)
  • Feuerstein, R., Feuerstein, R.S., Falik, L., Rand, Y. (2006). The Feuerstein Instrumental Enrichment Program. Jerusalem: ICELP Edition.




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