‘Mozart of psychology': How Lev Vygotsky helped shape modern thinking

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky

Yakov Berliner/Sputnik; Russia beyond
Lev Vygotsky has been an iconic figure for several generations of psychologists in Russia and overseas. His concepts and theories, developed nearly 100 years ago, have transcended geography and time and are still in use today.

“A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel,” British writer John Ruskin believed. Russia’s Lev Vygotsky, per contra, was a man of many faces. He had an eye for good art, loved the theater, knew literature, spoke several languages, read books like a maniac, including eye-openers by Sigmund Freud, wrote a study on Hamlet, edited magazines and all that jazz before psychology became his main occupation. 

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One of the founders of Soviet psychology, Lev Vygotsky.

Considered by many to be one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century, Vygotsky never received any formal training in psychology. He studied medicine and law and grew up in Belorussian Gomel (then belonging to the Russian Empire) in a well-off Jewish family. A bright student by all accounts, he was allowed to enter the Moscow University, despite discriminatory laws limiting the number of Jews who could receive higher education. 

In 1926, while already working at Moscow’s Institute of Psychology, a 30-year-old Vygotsky stated that psychology had reached a crisis stage and a big solution was required. The only way to confront this problem was through the systematization of data on the human psyche and behavior. It was necessary to develop a sort of grand unified approach to the analysis of the human mind.

Lev Vygotsky with his wife and two daughters.

Vygotsky associated all factors related to the understanding of the human psyche with the challenges of a child’s upbringing. “Through others we become ourselves,” Vygotsky, who has been dubbed the Mozart of psychology, believed. According to him, each person, no matter their age or gender, was made up of unfulfilled possibilities.

3 of Vygotsky’s achievements

From a practical point of view, Vygotsky made several breakthroughs:

1. He delivered a revolutionary thesis: innate abilities affect the development and self-realization of a child, but do not determine them. Vygotsky believed that kids learn through physical interaction. His sociocultural theory asserted that learning is first and foremost a social process in which society and parents play a key role. Vygotsky was the first to acknowledge in post-revolutionary Russia that every child has a chance to grow. He strongly believed that children with learning difficulties, which make communication particularly difficult, could successfully move forward with substantial progress.“In fact, psychology has taught us this for a long time, teachers have known this for a long time, but only now the most important law has been formulated with scientific precision: a child will want to see everything if he or she is short-sighted, hear everything if he has hearing impairment and will want to speak if he has some defects or impediment in speech.”

Best friends playing after school.

2. Vygotsky created the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ (ZPD) theory, which provided psychologists from across the globe with a new approach to assessing and measuring fundamental developmental processes. According to Vygotsky, at every age, a child can only acquire a certain amount of knowledge. In other words, one shouldn’t expect an average four-year old to beat you in chess. Parents, he said, should focus on the so-called zone of proximal development of the child. It can be perceived as a challenge that a child can’t meet by himself right now, but is just on his way to do so. The dynamics of the student’s development at school can also be assessed using the ZDP parameters. While a child can study something on his own, certain things can be confronted only with the help of a parent or teacher. “Development is a continuous self-conditioned process, not a puppet guided by pulling two strings. A child emerges as a separate individual only through interaction and an active participation in the lives of others.”

Chess was a very popular game among children and adults in the Soviet Union.

3. Vygotsky cemented the child’s “First Amendment” right to play, which most psychologists regard as the be-all and end-all of preschool education. Vygotsky believed that play can boost the development of thinking, memory, imagination and doing skills. One hundred years ago the Soviet psychologist foresaw what has been proved today: If a child doesn’t have some play space at preschool age, he or she may later experience problems in learning. Play helps a child evolve. “It’s a source of development,” Vygostsky believed. Children can develop future-thinking, problem-solving and reasoning skills playing games. Play is a key activity that helps create a zone of proximal development, motivating participation, creating action plans in an imaginary situation.

Play can boost the development of memory and imagination, Vygotsky believed.

Paving the way to modern psychology

Vygotsky worked hand in hand with Alexander Luria, the founding father of Russian neuropsychology. Together they carried out a series of research cruises in developmental psychology, pedagogy and psychopathology. 

Vygotsky traveled abroad only once, but his concepts made up lost ground. His works have been reprinted and translated into scores of languages. Vygotskian cultural-historical works on the relationship between language and thought and his theory of development through actions and relationships became the staple of modern psychology.

Vygotsky has an army of followers in Russia and overseas.

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After his magnum opus ‘Thought and Language’ came out in English in the early 1960s, Vygotsky’s ideas spread around the world, with many followers in the United States and Europe. When one of them, award-winning American psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, was visiting the USSR, he approached Vygotsky’s daughter with a big statement: “I hope you know that your father is God for us?” She was totally unaware. 

Students and close associates considered Vygotsky a genius. It was mutual interest on both ends. The pioneering Soviet psychologist had a meaningful, but short life. Vygotsky died of tuberculosis in 1934, at the age of just 37. A significant portion of his work was published by his students posthumously.

Vygotsky's works have been reprinted and translated into scores of languages.

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