"Vygotsky - a Reawakened Star"

This is the headline of an article about Vygotsky written at the University of Joenkoeping in Sweden. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian Marxist psychologist and pedagogue active from the years before the revolution until his death in 1934. His theories, for a long period unknown outside Russia, have gained an increasing echo among radical psychologists and pedagogues during the last decade, not least in the US, but also in Europe.

This is the headline of an article about Vygotsky written at the University of Joenkoeping in Sweden. Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian Marxist psychologist and pedagogue active from the years before the revolution until his death in 1934. His theories, for a long period unknown outside Russia, have gained an increasing echo among radical psychologists and pedagogues during the last decade, not least in the US, but also in Europe

Anyone interested in psychology and pedagogy has every reason to be acquainted with Vygotsky. I would go further and add that Marxists have a particular interest in shedding light upon his ideas. The fact that a Marxist psychologist from the 20s can arouse such a response shows how relevant and modern Marxism is.

Vygotsky's research was extensive, despite his short life and he worked out a wide range of Marxist based psychological and teaching theories. His writings consist of 270 scientific articles and 10 books, and cover psychology as well as pedagogy, art and aesthetics, and sociology.

Vygotsky's writings were banned in the Soviet Union in 1936, two years after his death. All scientific and cultural freedoms were suppressed when Stalin launched the great terror and purged and killed most of the revolutionary guard from 1917. Despite this Vygotsky's ideas were kept alive by a small group of Russian scientists.

Vygotsky's life

Vygotsky was born in 1896 in Gomel, Belarus. Like many other socialist and left-wing intellectuals, he came from a Jewish family. Jews were oppressed in tsarist Russia and were excluded from many state jobs. They couldn't move freely and only 3% of the Jewish students were admitted into the universities. However, Vygotsky was among the lucky ones and he got a place. At university, between 1913-1917, he studied law, literature, art, philosophy and history, and was influenced by the revolutionary currents in Russia.

During the year of revolution 1917, he started to work as a teacher in his home city Gomel. He wrote a lot of articles, organised study circles and became a popular lecturer. He was in touch with the radical cultural movement and was influenced by Stalinslavsky the playwright, and Mayakovsky the poet. He also collaborated with Eisenstein, the film director.

In 1919 Vygotsky caught TB, a disease that severely affected him at times and which in the end led to his death. However this did not stop him from continuing his persistent work of developing a psychology theory based on Marxism and dialectical materialism. Vygotsky's aim was to create a unified theory about the social and psychological development of humans.

His breakthrough came in 1924 when he became a researcher at the Psychology Institute of Moscow University. By 1925 his doctoral thesis, The Psychology of Art, was finished. This work contained a long essay about Hamlet had already been written in 1915 when Vygotsky was only 19. This thesis, however, was never discussed because Vygotsky was affected by TB. Because of this, and also because Vygotsky was absorbed by so many other urgent tasks, this work was not to be published until 1968.

"In Moscow he was soon recognised as a great thinker, driven by enormous energy. A group of colleagues and students gathered around him with the aim of spreading his ideas and reshaping psychology. During this decade Vygotsky worked more intensely and productively than ever. It was a period of fast developments and sudden changes. The enormous energy of Vygotsky (he published many articles, worked in many institutions and gave long lectures), reflected the unbound energy and activity in the Soviet Union after the revolution." (www.hj.se/~iste/laerare/vygotskij.html)

Vygotsky became part of the so-called "troika" together with psychologists Alexev Leontiev and Alexander Luria. He worked at the Commissariat for Education together with Lenin's wife Krupskaya. During this period he also founded an institute for research into disabilities and treated disabled children.

In 1933, just before his death, Vygotsky presented some of his most important theories. During a number of lectures in Leningrad the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) theory was formulated. It deals with the question of what a child can learn at any given moment, and has been received a lot of attention from modern day pedagogues.

At the same time he wrote his book 'Thought and Language', which analyses the formation of human consciousness and emphasises the role of language in the development of thought. Vygotsky dictated the last chapter of this book from his deathbed.

The pedagogics of Vygotsky

The pedagogic theories of Vygotsky are based on a Marxist view of relations between human consciousness and the material world. This implies that the development of human thought is determined by the environment. Hence all education has a social character, and is dependent on both the reality surrounding us and our own experience.

All learning takes places through our interpretation of the impressions and experiences that we have of the real world. Learning is a process inside ourselves. "From a scientific point of view, strictly speaking you cannot educate anyone else", writes Vygotsky. We teach ourselves and are therefore our own teachers. For this reason the experiences of the student means everything in education.

"In this sense, education in every country and in every epoch has always been social in nature. Indeed, by its very essence it could hardly exist as anti-social in anyway. Both in the seminary and in the old high school, in the military schools and in the schools for the daughters of the nobility, just as in the schools of ancient Greece or those of the Middle Ages and of the East, it was never the teacher or the tutor who did the teaching, but the particular social environment in the school which was created for each individual instance." ( Vygotsky, L.S., Educational Psychology, p. 47, St. Lucie Press, Florida, 1997)

In traditional schools the students are passive receivers of the teacher's instructions and lessons. According to Vygotsky this is a psychological absurdity because it emanates from a wrong conception of how students are actually learning in reality. It is not the teachers that should teach the students, rather the schools should be organised in such a way as to make it possible for the students to teach themselves.

According to Vygotsky the teacher should be the track upon which the train coaches move freely and independently. The track only gives the coaches the direction of their own movement. The teacher's role is to organise the social environment of the students and to control that the interaction between the students and this environment is functioning. This in no way implies a less important or a passive role for the teachers in schools.

"Though the teacher is powerless to produce immediate effects on the student, he is all-powerful when it comes to producing direct effects on him through the social environment. The social environment is the true lever of the educational process, and the teacher's overall role is reduced to adjusting this lever. Just as a gardener would be acting foolishly if he were to try to affect the growth of a plant by directly tugging at its roots with his hands from underneath the plant, so the teacher is in contradiction with the essential nature of education if he bends all his efforts at directly influencing the student. But the gardener affects the germination of his flowers by increasing the temperature, regulating the moisture, varying the relative position of neighbouring plants, and selecting and mixing soils and fertilisers, i.e., once again, indirectly, by making appropriate changes to the environment. Thus the teacher educates the student by varying the environment." (Educational Psychology, p. 49)

For this reason learning is regarded by Vygotsky as an interaction between three active elements: an active student, an active teacher and an active social milieu within which they are all moving. From this a number of pedagogical conclusions flow, which are accepted by most of the current progressive educational schools. The most important factor in teaching is to arouse the interest of the students in the subjects that are being studied. To achieve this the following is necessary:

- New knowledge must be linked to something already known by the student. Or as pedagogues express it today: teaching must emanate from the pre-knowledge and pre-understanding of the students.

- The different topics at school must be interconnected with each other instead of being divided up. Education should be interdisciplinary in the form of themes and projects.

- Repetition and reiteration must be avoided as it is the kiss of death for the student's interest. Instead the subject should be presented, initially, in its briefest and simplest form, covering the most important facts and relations. Later, the teacher can return to the subject in a deepened and extended form with new facts, conclusions and generalisations. Then interest will be aroused by itself.

- The education system must be linked to living reality. Knowledge in school and knowledge of everyday life must hang together. Teaching should begin with things that the children are naturally interested in.

These conclusions were certainly not be drawn by Vygotsky alone. You can find them in most modern educational schools. His main contribution was that he gave these schools a theoretical basis. Hence there is both theoretical and practical proof for a democratic and student-active pedagogics in the school system. This gives increased strength to all teacher-trainers, teachers and other pedagogues who for decades have worked to transform the education system. And yet changes in the school system are moving at a snail's pace. The structure of the school system is largely the same as before, in particular at senior and grammar school levels. Students are still divided into groups of 20-30, the topics are still divided up, school-books and texts take up a great deal of space. School and society are separated.

The main instrument used to maintain this structure is the system of graduated certificates. This promotes competition, forces the students to study the same facts irrespective of their previous knowledge and interest, and splits up the knowledge into small pieces which are soon forgotten by the students.

This is due to the role of the school system in capitalist society, which ultimately is to preserve the existing system and divide the students along class lines. That is why the bourgeoisie is assiduously combating and trying to discredit every attempt to really change the education system. The battle over pedagogy in the school system is therefore a reflection of the political and social struggle in society. And the struggle for the creation of a genuinely democratic education system is linked to the struggle for a socialist change of society.

Martin Oscarsson, (April, 2001)
teacher and editor of the 'Socialisten', The voice of Marxism in the Swedish labour movement

Bibliography of Vygotsky's works:
Thought and Language, Cambridge, MA, MIT, Press, 1962, (His work on the development of consciousness, published at the beginning of the 60's and partially published on the Internet)

The Psychology of Art, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, 1971, (His work on aesthetics published in English and partially on the Internet)

Mind in Society, The Development of Higher Psychological Processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, published at the end of the 70's.

Educational Psychology, St Lucie Press, Florida 1997, (Up until 1988 Vygotsky's most important pedagogical work, written in 1925, could only be read in one library in Moscow after special permission from the KGB. The new Russian edition came out in 1991 and the English in 1997.)

The Collected works of L.S. Vygotsky, vol. 1-5, Plenum Press, New York, 1997 (they do not cover his writings on art and pedagogy.)

On the Internet the following texts are available on the Marxist Internet Archive at
- Consciousness as a problem in the psychology of behaviour, 1925
- The Psychology of Art, 1925
- The Historical Meaning of Consciousness as a problem in the psychology of behaviour, 1925
- The Psychology of Art, 1925
- The Historical Meaning of the Crisis in Psychology, 1927
- The Problem of the Cultural Development of the Child, 1929
- Thinking & Speech, 1934
- Vygotsky on Pushkin (a Comparison of Pushkin's presence and absence, to be found in the 1962 and 1986 editions of Thought and Language).