Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was born in Russia in 1896, earned his law degree, became interested in psychology at age 28, and died 10 years later of tuberculosis.
This would hardly seem like sufficient time to produce of a highly influential theory of children's cognitive development, but, fortunately for us, that is exactly what happened.
Influenced by the cultural views of Karl Marx, Vygotsky believed that a child's development can only be understood in its social cultural context. Culture provides the tools -- speech, writing, and numerical systems -- that ensure an individual's productive involvement in society. Parents and teachers are responsible for bringing these cultural tools to their children. In early childhood, parents engage their children in dialogues, encouraging speech and exchange of language. As children grow into middle childhood, dialogues must be supplemented by formal instruction to ensure mastery of the tools at more abstract levels, and to encourage children's collaborative and productive application of the tools in society.
SPEECH AND PROBLEM SOLVING
Vygotsky's descriptions of children's early speech development and its effects on problem solving are particularly insightful. Like Piaget, Vygotsky described the young child's speech as highly egocentric, uttered with little intent to communicate or sense of the perspectives of the listener. But unlike Piaget, Vygotsky argued that talking out loud in social play -- even without communicative intent -- provides a distinct advantage to the child: Spoken words help children solve problems! As children narrate their activities, their spoken words guide their movements and enhance their approaches to problem solving. For example, talking out load about the features of pieces of a puzzle makes it easier to position the pieces correctly ("The straight pieces go on the outside and the other pieces go inside.") Talking about the size of the wooden blocks helps the child stack the blocks successfully. ("The big ones go on the bottom and the little ones go on the top.")
Since the child's egocentric speech is aimed at no one other than the self, at some point the child realizes that there is no need to say the the words out loud. Vygotsky suggests that the spoken words begin to internalize: spoken words become whispers, whispers become inaudible movements of the lips and finally, the lip movements disappear. The words are still "spoken," but only inside of the child's head. The child's egocentric spoken words have been transformed into inner speech. This inner speech or "language in the head" is private, personal, and purposeful, organizing and regulating the child's thinking, reasoning, and problem solving.
FORMAL INSTRUCTION: SCAFFOLDING IN THE ZONE
Vygotsky recognized that very young children learn basic language skills quite spontaneously and efficiently in dialogues or conversations with parents and caregivers. However, to ensure that children become productive members of their society, parents and teachers must see to it that children master the tools of the culture -- reading, writing, arithmetic -- in a timely way. Vygotsky argued that these goals can only be accomplished through a unique approach to formal instruction that integrates teaching and learning in an intensely social experience (Wertsch & Sohmer, 1995). "Formal instruction" is accomplished within the child's zone of proximal development -- the gap between what a child can achieve while working independently on a problem, and what the same child can achieve when provided with optimal support from from the adult and challenging learning materials (Vygotsky, 1978). The teaching andlearning process follows this sequence:
- First, the adult observes the child's spontaneous ability to solve a given problem, thereby estimating the lower limit of the "zone."
- The adult then creates a state of joint collaboration with the child-- a social interaction in which the child and adult share responsibility for solving the problem.
- Then the adult estimates the upper limit of the zone by scaffolding -- that is, by providing support (e.g., hints, cues, strategies, encouragement) that enable the child to function at a higher level than the child accomplished without support. That level of support is maintained until the child begins to grasp the nature of the problem.
- Finally, the adult gradually transfers responsibility for solving the problem to the child by progressively eliminating the scaffolds. As the scaffolds gradually disappear, the child learns to perform independently at the upper limit of the zone of proximal development (Rogoff, 1986; Diaz, Neal, & Vacchio, 1991).
Unfortunately, implementing Vygotsky's concepts in contemporary schools and classrooms presents many challenges (Hausfather, 1996). How can a single teacher hope to collaborate with 20 - 30 children in a typical elementary school classroom? How can teachers learn this approach when teacher training programs school systems continue to promote instructional models that place teachers in active roles and children in passive roles, highly inconsistent with Vygotsky's collaborative teaching and learning. Clearly, incorporating Vygotsky's views into contemporary schooling will require significant change in approaches to teacher training, curriculum design, and instruction.