Understanding Vygotsky for the Classroom: Is It Too Late?

Abstract

Determining the capability of Vygotsky’s cultural–historical theory to fulfill key functions of educational theory (such as revealing the complexity of apparently simple events) has been hindered primarily by the following factors: (a) inaccurate information about a minor discussion, the zone of proximal development (ZPD), attracted attention early on and became identified as a major aspect of his theory; (b) the unavailability of accurate translations of his complete theory for several years; and (c) the lack of key information in popular discussions of Vygotsky’s work on scientific (subject matter) concepts, a major factor in cognitive development. This article first describes the original misconception of the ZPD, current extrapolations, and discrepancies between Vygotsky’s thinking and those views of the ZPD. Then the pivotal role of subject matter concepts in cognitive development, their relationship to logical thinking, and levels of thinking (pseudoconcepts, preconcepts, true conceptual thinking) are discussed. Implications for education include (a) rethinking classroom practices (accurately assessing the ZPD, collaborative learning in the classroom), (b) providing a sound rationale for reducing the proliferation of content requirements, and (c) refuting the practice of introducing abstract ideas and complex intellectual capabilities in the early grades. Issues in constructing curricula according to Vygotsky’s perspective are also discussed.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Other functions of theory are serving as a framework for conducting research and serving as working models of complex events until other theories are developed (Suppes 1974). The basic components of theories that fulfill these functions are (a) basic assumptions about the nature of the events to be addressed (learning, cognitive development), (b) precise definitions of terms in the theory, and (c) a set of propositions or hypotheses that are testable.

  2. 2.

    An example is Piaget’s theory. Piagetian scholars (Bickhard 1997; Chapman 1988; Lorenço and Machado 1996) stated that interpretations of some of Piaget’s concepts were so distorted that he was criticized for positions he had never taken.

  3. 3.

    The issues were not Piagetian theory as Piaget intended it, but the ways in which the English-speaking psychological establishment had consumed it (Glick 1997, p. ix).

  4. 4.

    The editors stated they had omitted material that they judged to be redundant and added other material (Cole et al. 1978). Furthermore, a comparison of “Tool and Symbol in Child Development” which is addressed in the early chapters of the monograph indicates that the editors invented new subheadings for the text.

  5. 5.

    Vygotsky (1930–1931/1998c) corroborates the Thought and Language (1962) view and elaborates his rationale for the diagnostic role of the ZPD.

  6. 6.

    Specific texts and articles are not cited here because the inaccurate information is almost universally accepted.

  7. 7.

    Some aspects of Vygotsky’s theory appeared in English in the 1920s and in a 1939 publication. Also, a translation of Thinking and Speech entitled Thought and language appeared in 1962. However, these publications did attract the attention of American psychologists.

  8. 8.

    Vygotsky’s grueling academic schedule in the relatively young USSR included a heavy teaching load, supervising research, working with children with physical and mental disabilities, and translating psychological texts from European languages into Russian (van der Veer and Valsiner 1991). His only time for writing was late at night. Also, his short life did not permit him the time to review his many writings to organize them into a more coherent whole.

  9. 9.

    Other terms that he defined uniquely are cultural development (“consists of man mastering processes of his own behavior”; Vygotsky 1982–1984/1997b, p. 243) and cultural age (mental measurement; Vygotsky 1982–1984/1997i, pp. 231–239).

  10. 10.

    Thought and Language (1962) includes the same two chapters on concept development as the 1987 Thought and Language in Vol. 1 of the English translation of Vygotsky’s Collected Works. They are Chapter 5. An Experimental Study of Concept Formation and Chapter 6. The Development of Scientific [subject-matter] Concepts in Childhood.

  11. 11.

    Four chapters in Vygotsky’s Collected Works discuss scientific (subject matter) concepts. Two chapters (Vygotsky 1934/1987a, 1934/1987b) appear in Thought and Language which is in Vol. 1 of the Collected Works in English. One chapter (Vygotsky 1930–1931/1998b) is in Vol. 5 (and also in The Vygotsky Reader) and one (Vygotsky 1934/1994a) is in The Vygotsky Reader.

  12. 12.

    This example also appears in Vygotsky (1934/1987b) and Vygotsky (1930–1931/1998f).

  13. 13.

    The editors of Mind in Society stated that their chapter 6 entitled Learning and Development is taken from a translation of some of Vygotsky’s ideas in a posthumous (1935) collection of some of his essays. Van der Veer and Valsiner (1991) who completed a 10-year study of Vygotsky’s published and unpublished writings identified six essays in the 1935 publication that addressed the ZPD. Cole et al. did not identify the essays that they consulted.

  14. 14.

    Mind in Society stated that the research of Dorothea McCarthy, an American, indicated that children from three to five performed some functions (at the developmental level of 5- to 7-year-olds) “under guidance, in groups, and in collaborating with one another but which they have not mastered independently” (p. 87). This version is contradicted in the translation by van der Veer and Valsiner (1991) which stated that “McCarthy had shown that three- to five-year-old children can perform some tasks independently and other tasks only under the guidance of or in cooperation with an adult” (emphasis added; Vygotsky 1933c/1935, in van der Veer and Valsiner 1991, p. 338). They noted also that McCarthy’s work indicated that “normal children who experienced adult speech environments produced generally longer speech samples to an (adult) investigator than children who either associated with older children or peers” (p. 318).

  15. 15.

    Definitive English translations of Vygotsky’s writings include his Collected Works and the selections in The Vygotsky Reader. Reliable discussions of his work are authored by (a) Vygotsky’s two principal collaborators, A. N. Leont’ev and A. R. Luria (1968), and (b) the 10-year detailed study of more than 250 of Vygotsky’s published and unpublished papers by R. van der Veer and J. Valsiner (1991).

  16. 16.

    For example, the quotation from Mind in Society appears on pages 11, 24, 155, 273, and 341 in Culture, Communication, and Cognition.

  17. 17.

    The emphasis on tasks and assisted performance in instruction doubtless contributed to Wertsch (1984) stating the need for the term intersubjectivity. The term refers to establishing a shared task definition between adult and child which may require the adult to communicate in somewhat simple terms (p. 12).

  18. 18.

    The task in the memory experiments was to choose pictures to serve as recall cues for each of 15 words from a set of 30 pictures. However, the pictures were unrelated to the words; successful use as a recall cue required constructing a verbal structure that linked picture and word. Preschool children, although they attempted the task either (a) chose a picture but later recalled a different word or (b) searched for symbol that had a ready-made connection to the word to be remembered (Vygotsky and Luria 1994, p. 139). One preschooler chose notebooks for the word study but later recalled only the phrase “one goes to school” (Leont’ev 1959). Another chose a picture of a hatchet for the word sun because the picture contained a small red circle (Vygotsky and Luria 1994).

  19. 19.

    Also of interest in that, in discussing various cognitive functions (processes), Vygotsky discussed practical intellect and the higher mental functions in separate sections with separate headings (Vygotsky 1987/1999; Vygotsky and Luria 1994).

  20. 20.

    Leont’ev and Luria (1968) noted that “The nature and internal structure of man’s consciousness as the product of a social history became the basis for all of Vygotskii’s creative work” (p. 341; see also Vygotsky 1925/1997c).

  21. 21.

    The psychological nature of academic concepts differs from the everyday or spontaneous concepts the child learns through his or her daily experience, e.g., table, flower, dog. These spontaneous or everyday concepts do not form a system; they have only empirical connections to the objects they represent (Vygotsky 1934/1987b).

  22. 22.

    Vygotsky (1930–1931/1998b) chastised those psychologists who described adolescence, for example, as consisting of only the “simple growth of the intellect . . . thinking becomes stronger and firmer” . . . but no new intellectual operation appears (p. 30). Moreover, “their view that only the content of the adolescent’s thinking undergoes major changes is a relationship” that “resemble[s] the relation between a vessel and the liquid that fills it” (p. 33) and leads to much “theoretical blundering” (p. 34).

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Gredler, M.E. Understanding Vygotsky for the Classroom: Is It Too Late?. Educ Psychol Rev 24, 113–131 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-011-9183-6

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Keywords

  • Vygotsky’s theory
  • Subject matter concepts
  • Cognitive development
  • Zone of proximal development