March 17, 2013
Lev Vygotsky was a brilliant psychologist who lived and worked in the first decades of the Soviet Union. His writings and teachings—he began very young (when only 19) and died very young (when only 38)—have been inspiring and teaching psychologists and educators for many decades. His understanding of human learning and development, of how important play is to development, and of what language is, were revolutionary during his time.
Vygotsky’s approach was cultural. To him, human beings create who we are—on the species level and the person level—by creating culture, adapting to the culture we create, re-creating it, adapting to the re-creation, and so on.
Vygotsky’s approach was social. To him, what we do we do with others—like learning to speak by having “conversations” with our mothers, brothers, sisters and fathers, long before we know the language— and that’s how we become the unique person each of us is.
Vygotsky’s approach was developmental. To him, what we need to be looking at is not merely who people are now, but also—and at the same time—who they are becoming. Because if we only relate to who we are and what we can do today, we’ll never learn to do new things.
Vygotsky’s approach was monistic and wholistic. To him, human intellect and human emotion are a unified process, not two separate and distinct human systems that compete with each other. To separate them and focus only on the intellectual, he said, creates “a one-sided view of the human personality.”
Sadly, despite interest in his work all around the world by academics and cursory reference to him in education courses, Vygotsky’s ideas are still rarely implemented on a mass scale—so entrenched are the cognitive, behavioral and individualistic biases that characterize the psychological and educational institutions of our day.
As someone who, for decades, has been “Vygotskian-izing” how education, psychology and psychotherapy are done, I’ve experienced its power and humanity in many different contexts and countries. If you want to learn more and help spread the word, here’s a few places to start:
Mind in Society (a short introduction to Vygotsky’s own writing)
Lev Vygotsky (a documentary film about his life and current implementations of his ideas)
Mind, Culture and Activity on Vimeo (lectures and interviews with Vygotskian scholars)
Vygotsky at Work and Play (my book showing some of what the Vygotskian-izing of psychotherapy and education looks like)