Lev Vigotsky – Mozart of psychology, stepchild of adult learning

Dr Katarina Popovic

The work of Lev Vigotsky seems to have a great scientific legacy and relevant contribution to adult learning, but he is still unknown and neglected even among those who work and conduct research in the field of developmental and educational psychology. What are the reasons for that “lack of scientific memory” and should we „re-invent“ Lev Vigotsky?

Lev VigotskyLev Semyonovich Vygotsky (Лев Семёнович Выго́тский) was born in 1896 in Russian empire. His name and works were banned in the Soviet Union for over 20 years, till the death of Stalin. He wrote in Russian language and was almost unknown to the Western world till 70’s, but even than many translations of his works were wrong, misleading or even doubted over their originality. These are the some of the reasons for his late „appearance“ on the scientific stage. One more reason can be found in the fact that Jean Piaget, (famous Swiss developmental psychologist and philosopher, born in the same year as Vigotsky) had enormous impact with his theory of cognitive development. Even though he was known for his epistemological studies with children his theory of cognitive development was applied to adult learning. He dominated the field so much, that Vigotsky’s ideas did not have much chance. Even today, a big shadow of Piaget blot out a deeper view of Vigotsky’s theory and its use in adult learning. His associates and followers spread and disseminated some of his thoughts in North America, but their interpretation was criticized for distortion of his scientific legacy. In spite of a kind of renaissance of interest in Vygotsky and his works in the field of psychology, adult education is still neglecting his ideas. Are there reasons to come back to Vigotsky,? Here are some Yeses.

Development, culture and language

S.Tulimn called him “Mozart of Psychology” and Cole and Scriber agreed, adding that Vygotsky and his colleagues had “formulated a meta-psychology that encompassed among others the moment to moment dynamics of human psychological functioning as a lifelong process of becoming“.

His ideas, based on among others social constructivist theories, put an emphasis on culture and language. Culture is transmitted through the interiorisation of social signs and the major one refers to language. Cognitive and linguistic development are the basis for examination of personal and social development, emotions, personality and learning. Language serves to mediate between environmental impulses and the individual’s response, this carrying an important social role. It shapes the thought, reflects and enhances learning, transforms knowledge and experience. Education is crucial for the development, it shapes and guides it, but it occurs through the process of construction. Vygotsky explained how humans construct minds in interaction with the external world of nature and with other humans.

The Zone of Proximal Development

Probably one of Vigotsky’s ideas that have most influence on education is the zone of “proximal development”. Simply speaking, it is the difference between what a person can do independently, without a help, or with more or less help or guidance. Children develop themselves by facing the tasks and challenges that lie beyond their immediate ability to accomplish, but which lay within a “zone” of possible performance. This idea could be applied on all ages to describe personal and intellectual progress by achieving more and more stages where person can do things independently. The “zone of proximal development” focuses on the functions that are achievable, which gives a teacher a possibility to support development at every age. This concept is very similar to the Bruner’s term “scaffolding”, which involves helpful, structured interaction between an adult and a child, where some tasks are carried out by a teacher, so that a child can concentrate on the difficult ones. In order to achieve the tasks from the next zone, the learner needs help in a form of effective teaching.zone More concrete it refers to teaching that has to be targeted to the zone of the person that learns. This person is therefore seen as an active participant and the role of the teacher is moved from the traditional one to the role of the one who is facilitating meaning construction of the learner, by monitoring, providing help and promoting cooperative learning. This understanding of the role of the teacher as a guide and a facilitator (besides promotion of the learning context in which the learner has an active role) reminds very much on a modern adult teaching approach.

More knowledgeable person

Very close to the concept of the “Zone of proximal development” is the role of a more knowledgeable person. This refers not (only) to the teacher, but it could be anyone who has better understanding or who is more competent than a learner in respect to some task, process or concept. It could be an older person (teacher, coach), but it could be also a younger person, or a peer. Even more, it does not have to be a person at all, but it could be a computer or some kind of electronic supporting system. Important is that this person or source of knowledge has more ability about the topic that is being learned. This, more knowledgeable person becomes a partner in co-constructing knowledge. The modern theories and practices of adult education prove more and more variability when it comes to the sources of learning, and there is a significant shift from the teacher to the family, peers, friends, colleagues or on-line and distance learning platforms.

Adult literacy

Vygotsky’s sociocultural perspective on human development and on the development of thought and speech were crucial for his approach to literacy. His understanding of literacy and interests for the development of literacy among pre-literate peoples had social transformation in its background. According to Vygotsky raising social awareness concerning the role of literacy is an empowerment issue per se, called education aiming social justice and equality. The social and class role of language (where social values are reflected in individuals’ word use, and the person attributes the meaning to words through situated practice), and the importance of dialog add to the similarity with Freireistic ideas, in spite of their differences.

Rethinking of the surplus value

Bridging the Russian and Western School of Psychology, Vigotsky raised many issues that have utmost importance for the adult learning psychology and offer some answers to the still not fully answered questions of adult development psychology. This outstanding thinker, with analytic and creative approach, contributed to several fields, spanning usual disciplinary boundaries.

His contribution varies from sociocultural beginning of human thinking and power of cultural mediation in understanding and transforming educational practices concerning classroom interaction and the role of the teacher and the guide. Construction of meaning, the role of culture and language in the personal development and in the social changes, besides the development in achieving the freedom and independency in problem-solving, next to the teacher as facilitator and the role of the “others” in the learning process. It seems to be amazing how topical and up-dated his ideas are and how fresh some of them still sound in the light of modern theories of adult learning and education. Don’t they deserve new, fresh reading and interpretation by adult educators?


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Kerr, S. (1997). Why Vygotsky? The Role of Theoretical Psychology in Russian Education Reform. Siettle, Washington: Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.

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European InfoNet Adult Education, 03.09.2014