6a. Vygotsky’s Constructivism

Chad Galloway
The University of Georgia

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Vygotsky’s Theories

The work of Lev Vygotsky and other developmental psychologists has become the foundation of much research and theory in developmental cognition over the past several decades, particularly of what has become known as social development theory. Vygotsky’s theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985), as he believed strongly that community plays a central role in the process of “making meaning.” Unlike Piaget’s notion that children’s development must necessarily precede their learning, Vygotsky argued, “learning is a necessary and universal aspect of the process of developing culturally organized, specifically human psychological function” (1978, p. 90). In other words, social learning tends to precede development.


In order to gain an understanding of Vygotsky’s theories on cognitive development, one must understand two of the main principles of Vygotsky’s work: the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The MKO is somewhat self-explanatory; it refers to someone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. Although the implication is that the MKO is a teacher or an older adult, this is not necessarily the case. Many times, a child’s peers or an adult’s children may be the individuals with more knowledge or experience. (For example, who is more likely to know more about the newest teen-age music groups, the “raddest” skateboarding skills, how to win at the most recent Nintendo game, or how to correctly perform the newest dance craze-a child or his parents?!)

In fact, the MKO need not be a person at all. Some companies, to support employees in their learning process, are now using electronic performance support systems. Electronic tutors have also been used in educational settings to facilitate and guide students through the learning process. The key to MKOs is that they must have (or be programmed with) more knowledge about the topic being learned than the learner does.

This is supposed to be a flash animation. You’ll need the flash plugin and a browser that supports it to view it.

Caption: This animation depicts Vygotsky’s principles of More Knowledgeable Others (MKOs) and the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). In the first scene a child is wondering how to bake cookies. She then decides to ask a series of MKOs how they bake cookies. She asks first her parents, followed by one of her friends. She then decides to ask her teacher, and then use the computer as a resource. Using the steps she gathered from others she is able to figure out how to bake the cookies. Concept and Creation developed by Yun-Shuang Chang, Hiliary Johnson, and Yi-Wen Tan (2005).


The concept of the More Knowledgeable Other is integrally related to the second important principle of Vygotsky’s work, the Zone of Proximal Development. Taken together, the MKO and the ZPD form the basis of the scaffolding component of the cognitive apprenticeship model of instruction. Vygotsky (1978) defines the ZPD as the distance between the “actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86). Vygotsky believed that when a student is at the ZPD for a particular task, providing the appropriate assistance (scaffolding) will give the student enough of a “boost” to achieve the task. Once the student, with the benefit of scaffolding, masters the task, the scaffolding can then be removed and the student will then be able to complete the task again on his own.

This is supposed to be a flash animation. You’ll need the flash plugin and a browser that supports it to view it.

Caption: In the animation, a bar with many divisions is presented. On the left-hand side the divisions start as a yellow color. The divisions slowly change hue from yellow to red across the bar. The right-hand side ends in red. Yellow represents ‘things that can be done on own.’ Red represents ‘things that can not be done, even with support.’ A sliding, two pane, window is positioned on the bar. This window represents the ZPD. The window on the left represents an area on the bar that ‘needs little support.’ The bar divisions are a yellow color to light orange color in this pane of the window. The window on the right represents an area on the bar that ‘needs much support.’ The bar divisions are a dark orange color to red color in this pane of the window. Before the animation begins, the window is near the left end of the bar. Most of the bar is in red. As the animation progresses, the window slides to the right. Most of the bar becomes yellow. Because the bar is mostly yellow, the person is ‘able to do more’. Flash animation by Benjamin Rockwood (2002).

As can be seen in the animation above, the ZPD is the area between the things that a learner can do on her own and the things that she cannot yet do, even with assistance. As we learn, this zone shifts to the right because we are able to do more and more things on our own. A key concept here is that the learner does the “whole” task with support as opposed to breaking tasks down into component skills to be learned in isolation.

Example of ZPD

Maria just entered college this semester and decided to take an introductory tennis course. Her class spends each week learning and practicing a different shot. Weeks go by and they learn how to properly serve and hit a backhand. During the week of learning the forehand, the instructor notices that Maria is very frustrated because she keeps hitting her forehand shots either into the net or far past the baseline. He examines her preparation and swing. He notices that her stance is perfect, she prepares early, she turns her torso appropriately, and she hits the ball at precisely the right height. However, he notices that she is still gripping her racquet the same way she hits her backhand, so he goes over to her and shows her how to reposition her hand to hit a proper forehand, stressing that she should keep her index finger parallel to the racquet. He models a good forehand for her, and then assists her in changing her grip. With a little practice, Maria’s forehand turns into a formidable weapon for her!

In this case, Maria was in the Zone of Proximal Development for successfully hitting a forehand shot. She was doing everything else correctly, but just needed a little coaching and scaffolding from a “More Knowledgeable Other” to help her succeed in this task. When that assistance was given, she became able to achieve her goal. Provided with appropriate support at the right moments, so too will students in our classrooms be able to achieve tasks that would otherwise be too difficult for them.


Wertsch, J. V. (1991). Voices of the mind: A sociocultural approach to mediated action. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


“Vygotsky was a genius. After more than a half a century in science I am unable to name another person who even approaches his incredible analytic ability and foresight. All of my work has been no more than the working out of the psychological theory which he constructed.” –A. R. Luria

This bibliography was created and compiled in order to provide readers with a list of Vygotsky’s seminal works and to make links to Internet resources readily available for those who wish to broaden their research and obtain additional information regarding Vygotsky, his work, and his considerable influence on the fields of educational psychology and related areas of expertise.
Vygotsky, Lev S. (1978).  Mind in society: Development of higher psychological processes. Edited by Cole, M., John-Steiner, V., Scribner, S., Souberman, E. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Book Review by Lucas Jensen, November 2007.

Mind in Society is a collection of some of Vygotsky’s most important articles concerning human cognitive development. It was compiled in 1978 by Vygotsky scholars and academics with the goal of introducing his work to the West. Vygotsky himself did not write Mind in Society; it was carefully assembled from the various writings he left behind in his untimely death. The editors connected the works in such a way that it reads like the unified whole of an intentional book, rather than a compilation.

A common focus of the work is Vygotsky’s fascination with and study of the development of higher-ordered thinking in human beings. Vygotsky makes a distinction between primate and human child development by noting that children engage in egocentric speech to help solve a problem as well as using tools. This combination of using tools and speech to address problems is important throughout Mind in Society. He sees humans as distinct from animals because we engage in a dialectical, adaptive form of development, thus rejecting a behaviorist or Piagetian view of human intellectual development. Vygotsky sees intellectual development as both an internal and a social process that is complex and interwoven. When children are left alone, their speech moves from the social to the egocentric and becomes internalized, so they look to their environment–which could include signs, tools, or peers–to help them solve problems.

Vygotsky also notes that human beings have the ability—in contrast to animals—to perceive “real objects”—objects that have a sense and a meaning beyond shapes and colors—that we can understand and describe through external or internal speech in our environment. As children gain in the use of speech and visual perception, they begin to synthesize “elements of past experience with the present,” reconstructing their memory into a mediating influence between them and their environment. Vygotsky also notes the importance of play and pre-written language to human development.

The second half of the book introduces the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development and its implications for education. This is arguably the most important contribution of Vygotsky’s work, the idea that human development is a social process wherein learners use more capable peers to advance their own intellectual development. Vygotsky defines Zone of Proximal Development as “the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers”. For Vygotsky, development and learning are not the same; they are dynamic processes that result in these gaps of development level that must be addressed through social cooperation and interaction with more capable peers or adults.
Vygotsky, Lev S. (1986).  Thought and language. Newly revised and edited by Alex Kozulin. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Book Review by Lenrose Fears, November, 2007.

This 1986 edition of Lev Vygotsky’s seminal work, Thought and Language, was revised and edited by distinguished Russian-American psychologist, Alex Kozulin. Kozulin has contributed much to the understanding and appreciation of Vygotsky’s work by documenting, detailing, and explaining Vygotsky’s theories using language that is succinct, contemporary, and reader-friendly. Included in this edition are new material and references that were previously unavailable. Kozulin’s introduction, entitled “Vygotsky in Context”, summarizes 20th century psychology and includes biographical information on Vygotsky’s brief life (1896-1934). His translation of Vygotsky’s work is covered in chapters one through seven, which is followed by detailed notes and a comprehensive bibliography and index.

In Thought and Language, (also known as Thinking and Speaking), originally published in 1934, Vygotsky presents his belief that although the development of thought and language are similar processes, they are independent of one another and develop separately. Vygotsky reached his conclusions regarding thought and language development by observing and studying the behavior of apes, specifically chimpanzees. Vygotsky considered the behavior of children in the early stages of development to be similar to the behavior of chimpanzees. Initially, children learn the names of objects because they are instructed by an authority figure to do so. Eventually, they develop an independent curiosity about objects and want to know what they are called. This curiosity leads to a significant increase in vocabulary. When children have developed the desire to learn language on their own and begin to experience success, the processes of thought and language acquisition become integrated.

Vygotsky considered word meaning to be the smallest unit of speech and believed that the understanding of word meaning continues to evolve throughout childhood. Vygotsky developed his own interpretation of Piaget’s theory of “egocentric speech” in young children. “Egocentric speech” is talking aloud to oneself. Piaget believed that when children did this, they were actually attempting to communicate with others, but were failing because as children, they were too young to truly comprehend and internalize the viewpoint of another person. As they developed this ability with maturity, the egocentric speech would begin to disappear. According to Vygotsky, egocentric speech among young children is basically thinking out loud because children have not learned to internalize their thoughts. Once they develop this skill, the egocentric speech begins to subside. Therefore, it can be argued that speech develops into thought instead of thought preceding speech, or speech and thought developing simultaneously.

Vygotsky stressed the importance of socialization in the development of thought and language. He believed that speech was originally social in nature and used as a communication tool. Thought and language are eventually determined by society and both develop according to cultural conditions.
Wertsch, James V. (1988).  Vygotsky and the social formation of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Book Review by Fred Zimmerman, November 2007.

Wertsch, an eminent Russian and Vygotskian scholar, did much of the work on this book over the period of a decade from the mid 1970’s to the mid 1980’s. As a Fulbright scholar, he made numerous trips to the Soviet Union to do his research and perform interviews which became the basis for the book.

The author begins the book with a comprehensive biographical sketch of Vygotsky’s early life from childhood through his later education and professional training. He came from a rich cultural environment fostered in his family life in rural Russia before the revolution. Wertsch puts Vygotsky’s work and his theories very much in the context of his early life and the socio-historical milieu of pre- and post-revolutionary Russia and its Marxist socialist foundations. In this vein, he states a key tenet that Vygotsky espoused, that development occurred within a socio-cultural historical context and that it occurred from birth through death. Wertsch touches on the fact that Vygotsky lived a short life himself, dying in his late thirties. The author couches Vygotsky’s massive accomplishments and legacy in the context of his short life.

Wertsch gives a detailed and thorough analysis and dialogue on both Lev Vygotsky the man, as well as the leading scholar and academic who spearheaded radically new theories of learning and educational psychology. Initially he comments that although Vygotsky is commonly categorized as an educational psychologist, it is incorrect to pigeonhole him strictly in this way. He states that Vygotsky was able to take psychology and make it part of a unified social science that separated his approach from others with a more narrow focus.

Wertsch proceeds to explain in detail the core theories and practices to which Vygotsky devoted his life over a period of nearly two decades. His comparisons and contrasts with other leading contemporaries and notable theoreticians in the field, including Jean Piaget, are enlightening in helping to highlight and clarify Vygotsky’s ideas and models. Key themes expounded upon by Wertsch include Vygotsky’s theoretical approaches around three core themes: 1) A reliance on a genetic or developmental method (ontogenetic and phylogenetic); 2) the claim that higher mental processes have origin in social processes including language, and 3) the claim that mental processes can be understood only if we understand the tools and signs that mediate them (semiotic mediation).

The author talks about Vygotsky in conjunction with other Russian social scientists of that period working actively within the framework of socialist ideology and Marxian foundations that intersected with social science and psychology. Wertsch states: “Their focus was motivated by Soviet psychologists’ desire to play an active role in the construction of a new socialist society.”

Among Vygotsky’s contemporaries was a school of Soviet psychologists that came to be known as the Kharkov Group. Many were contemporaries or students of Vygotsky who carried forward his work and helped it expand and evolve after his death. The members of the group centered many of their theories around the concept of activity, henceforth defined as Activity Theory. Wertsch explains that this is an expansion and extrapolation of Vygotsky’s foundational themes, again tangent to a Marxian approach to psychology. Some of these psychologists became the preeminent psychologists in the post-revolution Soviet Union. Members include: Leontyev, Luria, Mikhailov, Ilyenkov, Zinchenko and others.

Wertsch talks about Vygotsky’s central belief in language as the source of development on the interpsychological, and intrapsychological planes, touching on intersubjectivity. Again this work being centered in social context, allowing child-adult interaction to guide the process. This work became the locus of social constructivism, now seeing a resurgence in educational research and practices.

In the final chapter, Wertsch illuminates an important fact that among his contemporaries Vygotsky’s work often broke with a strict Marxian socialist basis. Wertsch’s analysis is around Vygotsky’s seminal work, Mind in Society. He talks about how many subsequent social scientists (Bakhtin), have attempted to expand upon Vygotsky’s key theories, and by doing so have helped to broaden Vygotsky’s appeal, including the West. Wertsch concludes by citing the timelessness of Vygotsky’s genius, and how his ideas have transcended historical, social, and cultural barriers.

Wertsch – Biography

James V. Wertsch: Biographical Summary

By Fred Zimmerman, November 2007.


(Photo & biographical information used by permission, J. V. Wertsch, Nov. 30, 2007).

Professional Profile:

  • Marshall S. Snow Professor in Arts & Sciences
  • Professor, Anthropology
  • Affiliated Professor, Education
  • Affiliated Professor, Philosophy – Neuroscience – Psychology
  • Affiliated Professor, Psychology
  • Affiliated Professor, Russian
  • Director, International and Area Studies
  • Director, McDonnell International Scholars Academy

Professional Biography:

James V. Wertsch, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Anthropology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. He holds joint appointments in Education, the Russian Studies Program, and the Program in Philosophy, Neuroscience, and Psychology, all in the Department of Arts & Sciences. He is the director of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy. His topics of study and areas of expertise include collective memory and identity, especially in Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union, as well as in the United States, international studies, psychology, and education. After finishing his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1975, Wertsch spent a year as a postdoctoral fellow in Moscow, where he studied linguistics and neuropsychology.


“Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind” (Harvard University Press, 1985) “Voices of the Mind: A Sociocultural Approach to Mediated Action” (Harvard University Press, 1991); “Mind as Action” (Oxford University Press, 1998) “Voices of Collective Remembering” (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

Wertsch’s research is concerned with language, thought, and culture. For the past several years, he has focused on collective memory and identity in countries such as Russia and Ukraine, and he is now examining these topics in the Republic of Georgia. Using Georgia as a natural laboratory for the emergence of democracy and civil society, Wertsch recently co-edited a volume on the “Rose Revolution” in that country (“Enough! The Rose Revolution in the Republic of Georgia in 2003,” Nova Publishers, 2005). Wertsch also organized an international conference on “Negotiating a New National Narrative in Georgia” at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Conference Center in August 2005.

Wertsch holds honorary degrees from Linköping University in Sweden and the University of Oslo in Norway, and he is an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Education.

In His Own Words:

“My work is concerned with collective memory and identity. I have particular interests in how these issues play out in Russia, the Republic of Georgia , and Estonia , but my research is also motivated by a broader set of concerns about the nature of collective memory in general. In previous writings I have drawn on the ideas of L.S. Vygotsky, M.M. Bakhtin, and others in order to examine problems of language and thought from a sociocultural perspective.

I am currently working on several projects in the South Caucasus, especially the Republic of Georgia. This includes collaborating with colleagues on efforts to understand the emergence of civil society, and democracy in this region. Of particular interest for me is how schools and other institutions are harnessed to create and maintain official collective memory.”

For More Information

Compiled by Lenrose Fears, November 2007.

Lev Vygotsky and Vygotsky Resources: Overview of Activity Theory: The Vygotsky Approach http://ei.cs.vt.edu/~cs5724/g5/activity.html

The Vygotsky Internet Archive:  http://www.marxists.org/archive/vygotsky/

Social Development Theory:  http://www.instructionaldesign.org/theories/social-development.html

Vygotsky Resources: Review & Analysis of Vygotsky’s Thought & Language: http://www.kolar.org/vygotsky/

Social Constructivism:  http://www.kolar.org/vygotsky/

Morris, C. (2011). Vygotsky resources. Retrieved from http://www.igs.net/~cmorris/vygotsky-files.html

The Vygotsky Resources website contains a comprehensive and thorough selection of Internet resources and links pertaining to Vygotsky and his work under the headings of biographical information, theories, information for teachers, Vygotsky’s theories in practice, and other resources.

Maddux, C., Johnson, D., & Willis, J. (1997). Educational computing: Learning with tomorrow’s technologies. Retrieved from http://viking.coe.uh.edu/~ichen/ebook/et-it/4vygo.htm

This website lists and describes the four principles of a Vygotskian classroom, and also contains links to other information on Social Contructivist theories. It may serve as a quick and easy reference for educators who are interested in developing an instructional plan for their classrooms based on Vygotskian theories.


APA Citation: Galloway, C. M. (2001). Vygotsky’s Constructionism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, amd technology. Retrieved (insert date) from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/