If you’ve ever had to read a psychology textbook, you’ve probably come across the name Lev Vygotsky. Most likely he was mentioned in the section of the book on child development or cognitive development and, just as likely, the book contrasted and compared him to Jean Piaget, renowned for his ideas about how children think. How unfortunate—not just for you, but for the people of the world! Because Vygotsky was so much more (Piaget was too, but that’s another story).
Vygotsky lived and worked in the first decades of the Soviet Union. He did his first significant piece of work at age 19—exploring the psychology of art through Shakespeare’s Hamlet—and wrote prolifically until his death from tuberculosis in 1934 at the age of 38. Despite the superficiality of the textbook Vygotsky, there’s much excitement the world over for his ideas, especially on human learning and development, how important play is to development, and what speaking and thinking are. What he says is provocative and, at the same time, just plain common sense.
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.”
I’m a Vygotskian. I find psychology without him uninspiring at best and misinformed and misinforming at worst. I think psychology tries much too hard to act like a science and gets itself into lots of trouble that way. People aren’t stars or plants or organs, so trying to understand us and teach us and help us as if we were violates our very humanness. Vygotsky didn’t do that. He tried to study human beings as the complex beings and doings that we are, not as something simpler. His is a psychology of possibility (not prediction), of development (not diagnosis), of transformation (not treatment), of hope (not hype)—and of the very human becoming activity of human be-ings.
Vygotsky’s ideas have yet to be implemented on a mass scale—so entrenched are the cognitive, behavioral and individualistic biases of the psychological and educational institutions of our day. If you want to learn more and spread the word, here are 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 and practitioners)