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Lev Vygotsky`s Social Development Theory

For Lev Vygotsky language is a human “invention” that is used as a means of achieving the goals of social living. And the best way to understand it, they both believe, is by adopting a genetic approach to the study of the ways in which it functions as a tool in the situations in which it is used. Vygotsky develops this insight in terms of semiotic mediation, based on an analogy with the mediating function of material tools in human activity.

As Cole (1993) points out, explicating Vygotsky’s ideas on this subject, all tools have a dual nature as artifacts: they are simultaneously both material and ideal, and so require of their users both physical and intellectual activity. “They are ideal in that they contain in coded form the interactions of which they were previously a part and which they mediate in the present (e. g. the structure of a pencil carries within it the history of certain forms of writing). They are material in that they are embodied in material artifacts.

This principle can be applied equally whether one is considering language/speech or the more usually noted forms of artifacts such as tables and knives which constitute material culture. What differentiates a word, such as “language” from, say, a table, is the relative prominence of their material and ideal aspects. No word exists apart from its material instantiation (as a configuration of sound waves, or hand movements, or as writing, or as neuronal activity), whereas every table embodies an order imposed by thinking human beings. ” (p. 249)

Vygotsky’s interest was in the transforming effect of introducing tools into the relationship between humans and their environment and, in particular, in the effect of signs used as psychological tools to mediate mental activity: “By being included in the process of behavior, the psychological tool alters the entire flow and structure of mental functions. It does this by determining the structure of a new instrumental act, just as a technical tool alters the process of a natural adaptation by determining the form of labor operations” (1981, p. 137).

Vygotsky identified a variety of sign-based tools that function in this way – various systems for counting, mnemonic techniques, works of art – but the one that he undoubtedly considered to be of greatest significance – the “tool of tools” – was language. For language not only functions as a mediator of social activity, by enabling participants to plan, coordinate and review their actions through external speech; in addition, as a medium in which those activities are symbolically represented, it also provides the tool that mediates the associated mental activities in the internal discourse of inner speech (Vygotsky, 1987).

Vygotsky argues that there are two separate “roots” to what he calls “intellectual speech” (by which he may be taken to mean speech which is recognizably based on the adult language). Both a phylogenetic analysis of the behavior of anthropoids and an ontogenetic analysis of the behavior of human infants led Vygotsky to draw the following conclusions: 1. As we found in our analysis of the phylogenetic development of thinking and speech, we find that these two processes have different roots in ontogenesis. 2.

Just as we can identify a “pre-speech” stage in the development of the child’s thinking, we can identify a “pre-intellectual stage” in the development of his speech. 3. Up to a certain point, speech and thinking develop along different lines and independently of one another. 4. At a certain point, the two lines cross: thinking becomes verbal and speech intellectual (1987, p. 112). Vygotsky fixes this point at about the age of two. Prior to this point, Vygotsky notes, the child does recognize a small number of words for objects, persons, actions, states, or desires, but these are words that have been supplied by other people.

However, when he reaches this milestone, “The situation changes; the child feels the need for words and, through his questions, actively tries to learn the signs attached to objects. He seems to have discovered the symbolic function of language. Speech, which in the earlier stage was affective-conative, now … enters the intellectual phase” (1987, p. 82). In Vygotsky’s scheme, however, the predisposition to interpret experience does not initially involve speech, but is more akin to the chimpanzee’s toollike manipulation of objects.

Only when both preintellectual speech and prespeech thought have reached a relatively high level does language proper begin: “To ‘discover’ speech, the child must think” (1987, p. 112). Halliday, on the other hand, has very little to say about the intellectual development of the child prior to the emergence of language, although he does state that “the child has the ability to process certain highly abstract types of cognitive relation which underlie (among other things) the linguistic system” (1978, p.

17). Besides, Vygotsky’s identification of the discovery that things have names as the chief characteristic of the breakthrough that occurs at this age is probably partly accounted for by the salience of this aspect of the child’s concurrent speech behavior and by his relative ignorance of the earlier phases of language development, which have only become known since his time (Wertsch, 1985).

But just as significant, I believe, is the fact that, both in his analysis of inner speech and in his study of concept formation, it was word meaning that he selected as the critical unit for making the bridge between thinking and speech. The critical phrase here is “functions which we presume to be general to all cultures” or, as he put it a little earlier, “creating his own language on what is presumably a phylogenetic model.

” What Halliday seems to be suggesting is that the protolanguage emerges from the child’s “natural” adaptation to, and interaction with, a social environment. With the child’s switch to the adult language, on the other hand, we see both the influence of an already existing cultural tool on the phylogenetically “natural” protolanguage, and the consequences for the child’s ability to participate in social activity which result from the dramatic expansion of his meaning potential. However, the transition is not made entirely on the child’s initiative (Halliday, 1975, p.

24). This is not very different from Vygotsky’s more general account of the way in which participation in cultural practices leads to modification and transformation of the individual human’s “natural” functions. In the earliest stage of interaction with others, Vygotsky states, contact is established through touching, cries or gazes – forms of direct relation that are also found among anthropoids. “At a higher level of development, however, mediated relations among people emerge.

The essential feature of these relations is the sign, which aids in establishing this social interaction. It goes without saying that the higher form of social interaction, mediated by the sign, grows from the natural forms of direct social interaction, yet is distinguished from it in an essential way. ” (1981, p. 160) In the chapter from which it is taken, this passage is immediately followed by the account of the development of pointing as a sign, which was quoted at the beginning of this section.

And, on that basis, Vygotsky goes on to draw the following conclusion: “We could therefore say that it is through others that we develop into ourselves… The individual develops into what he/she is through what he/she produces for others. This is the process of the formation of the individual” (1981, pp. 161-2). As has already been mentioned, Vygotsky’s central preoccupation in his work as a psychologist was to construct an explanation of the development of what he called the “higher mental functions.

” From the outset, he assumed that such an explanation must be both historical and cultural: Fully-formed adult mental activity is not simply the outcome of maturation and individual experience, it is also profoundly enriched and transformed by the “assimilation of the experience of humankind” through the individual’s engagement in social action and interaction, mediated by the use of semiotic tools. In the former, Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory of the development of mind is set out in broad terms. It is here that we find his “general genetic law of cultural development”:

“Any function in the child’s cultural development appears twice, or on two planes. First it appears on the social plane, and then on the psychological plane. First it appears between people as an interpsychological category, and then within the child as an intrapsychological category. This is equally true with regard to voluntary attention, logical memory, the formation of concepts, and the development of volition. ” (1981, p. 163) The connection between the two planes is found in the mediating function of signs and, in particular, of speech.

Experienced first in interaction with others, the functions of speech are gradually internalized and become means for self-directed mental activity. “A sign is always originally a means used for social purposes, a means of influencing others, and only later becomes a means of influencing oneself” (1981, p. 157). This general principle was subsequently developed in more detail in Thinking and Speech (Vygotsky, 1987) through a number of investigations, both theoretical and empirical, into the relationship between social speech, inner speech, and thought.

For Vygotsky, one of the most important prerequisites for progress in unravelling this relationship was the choice of an appropriate unit for the analysis of verbal thinking. This he found in “word meaning. ” Initially, his choice of this unit was motivated by the fact that it captured the characteristics of verbal thinking as a whole, rather than separating it into its separate components of speech and thinking. Word meaning, he argued, “belongs not only to the domain of thought but to the domain of speech” (1987, p. 47).

However, by the time he embarked on the introductory chapter to Thinking and Speech, he had come to recognize that, to fulfill his overall goals, the analysis of the development of word meaning must be carried out, not only in connection with the development of individual verbal thinking, but also in connection with the function of the word in communicative interaction (Minick, 1987). This is made clear in his statement that: “it may be appropriate to view word meaning not only as a unity of thinking and speech but as a unity of generalization and social interaction, a unity of thinking and communication” (1987, p.

49) This brings to the next aspect of Vygotsky’s thinking his focus on “the social situation of development” (Vygotsky, 1987). It was in this context that he developed his concept of the “zone of proximal development, ” to account for the role of teaching in the child’s learning. The first thing to note is that, although Vygotsky enunciated the concept in relation to the assessment and instruction of school-age children, it is clear that he considered the principles on which it is based to be of very general relevance.

Thus, in more recent work, it has been applied both to adult learning and also to children’s learning before the years of schooling. In fact, in his explanation of the concept of the zpd, Vygotsky proposed that this form of assisted learning should be treated as a general developmental law: “We propose that an essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers” (1978, p. 90).

A significant feature of this formulation is that it makes clear that the zone of proximal development is not an attribute of the individual learner but rather a potential for his or her intra-mental development that is created by the inter-mental interaction that occurs as the learner and other people cooperate in some activity. It is important to ask, therefore, what conditions must be met if this interaction is to enable the potential for development to be realized.

One criterion that Vygotsky emphasized was that it should take the form of assistance that enables the learner to achieve, in collaboration with another, what he or she is as yet unable to achieve alone. Hence Vygotsky’s formula that “the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development” (1978, p. 89). But not arbitrarily so, for the upper limits are set by the learner’s state of development and intellectual potential (1987, p. 209). A second criterion that Vygotsky emphasized was that the assistance should be relevant to the learner’s own purposes.

Taking the example of children learning to write, he argued that, if the teaching is to be effective, the activity to which it is addressed should be perceived as meaningful, satisfying an intrinsic need in the learner, and “incorporated into a task that is necessary and relevant for life” (1978, p. 118). All in all, in his brief working life, Vygotsky did not himself put forward a fully articulated theory of education and, even if he had, his theory od social development would not have been entirely relevant to the very different world in which we live today.

The appeal to Vygotskyian theory, therefore, is not an attempt to revive a revolutionary, but outmoded, pedagogy; rather, his theory provides the point of departure for an ongoing inquiry by educators from many countries, as they bring his seminal ideas on learning and development to bear in constructing solutions to the contemporary problems of public education in their different societies.

Works Cited

Cole, M. Remembering the future. In G. Harman (Ed. ), Conceptions of the human mind. Essays in honor of George A. Miller (pp. 247–65). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, 1993.

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