Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who made a great contribution in the fields of child development and cognitive psychology. He was born in Western Russia (present day Belarus) in 1896, same year as another famous psychologist, Jean Piaget. He is often known as the “Mozart of Psychology” because, just like the famous composer, Vygotsky came up with several different theories in a short span of time, demonstrating his ingenuity. However, his life was cut short by tuberculosis and he died at the age of 38 leaving many of his theories incomplete. Vygotsky graduated with a degree in law in 1917 from Moscow State University. There he studied a range of subjects including psychology, sociology and philosophy. Vygotsky formally started his career in psychology when he became a research fellow at the Psychological Institute in Moscow.
To understand Lev Vygotsky’s theories, we need to understand the political situation in Russia at the time. When he began working on his theories, Marxism had just replaced dictatorship. Individuals were expected to sacrifice their personal gains for the greater good of the nation; success of an individual was considered a success for the culture. It was in this environment that Vygotsky came up with the Sociocultural Theory. This theory stressed the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition. He believed that since the development was greatly influenced by the culture, it varied from society to society, contradicting the beliefs of Jean Piaget, who maintained that the elementary steps in cognition development were universal. Two of the main principles of Vygotsky’s theories were the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). MKO refers to someone who has a greater understanding or a higher skill level than the learner. This may be an adult or a teacher or it might be the child’s peer. In recent times, MKO can be taken to be a machine or even a software. The concept of More Knowledgeable Other is integrated with the Zone of Proximal Development. There is a difference between what a child can achieve independently, called actual development, and what he can achieve with the guidance of an adult, called the level of potential development. The distance between the two development levels is called ZPD. He realized that what a person could be taught mattered more than what the person actually knew. Furthermore, Lev Vygotsky was the first psychologist to document the importance of self-talk for cognitive development. Although psychologists at the time agreed of its existence, they assigned no cognitive value to private talk, or inner speech as it was known. Vygotsky, however, believed that, through inner speech, a child regulated its activity and these children were more competent socially than those who did not indulge in it.
Lev Vygotsky is considered an influential thinker in psychology, and much of his work is being discovered and translated even today. Though he was a contemporary of Piaget and Freud, he failed to gain prominence partly because of his early death, and because the Communist Party tried to suppress his work, which became accessible to the West only in the 1960s. Still, his work is considered an important contribution in the fields of education and development psychology.