Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896–1934) is best known for his theories of cognitive development in which he explored the importance of culture, language development, and the use of cognitive apprenticeships in the classroom. Although he was a prominent researcher in the Soviet Union during the cultural revolution, his writings were officially banned when Joseph Stalin (1879–1953) came to power and were overtaken in prominence by the growing influence of Jean Piaget (1896–1980). It was not until his works were translated from the original Russian several decades after his death that many European and American psychologists took note of Vygotsky's writings and began to incorporate his theories into their research and teaching practices.

Vygotsky graduated from Moscow University in 1917 with a degree in law and a specialization in literature. While attending Moscow University, Vygotsky concurrently attended an unofficial, anti-czarist institution known as Shinyavskii University where he studied a number of disciplines including history, philosophy, and psychology. These experiences led him to return to his hometown of Gomel, Byelorussia, to teach at a local teachers' training college, where he also established his first psychology laboratory to study handicapped and mentally retarded children. In 1924 Vygotsky accepted an invitation to join the Institute of Psychology at Moscow State University (formerly Moscow University) where he completed his dissertation in 1925. He then founded the Experimental-Defectological Institute at Moscow State University II, where he advanced the field of special education by incorporating Marxist and other psychological influences into his research. At the end of Vygotsky's career, political and cultural changes in the Soviet Union caused him to lose the directorship of the Institute, though he continued to remain on its faculty until his premature death in 1934 at the age of 37. Vygotsky was associated with a number of prominent Russian and Soviet researchers and theorists during his career, including his friend and colleague Alexander Romanovich Luria, and A. N. Leontiev. He was a contemporary of many notable psychologists, including Jean Piaget.


Though Vygotsky was not well known in Western Europe or North America until the late 1950s, his work in special education and cognitive development has led to important developments in classroom learning. For example, Vygotsky was a firm advocate for integrated classrooms in which disabled students are educated alongside their peers, and he is known as one of the founders of special education. In addition, his theories on thought and language development are among the most well known of his contributions.

Vygotsky believed that “the most significant moment in the course of intellectual development, which gives birth to the purely human forms of practical and abstract intelligence, occurs when speech and practical activity, two previously completely independent lines of development, converge” (Vygotsky, L. S., 1978, p. 24). That is, when thought and language become one, the individual is able to analyze the world in more complex ways, to parse words and use them to form new meanings, and to organize thoughts. Vygotsky stressed that it is through the tools provided by language that meaning is assigned to what the child perceives, an act that is infused with cultural relevance. The words people use and the ways in which they use them convey certain elements of culture that are passed from one person to the next.

Through his theories of cognitive development, Vygotsky (1978) proposed that children develop most effectively and efficiently when they are engaged in tasks that are within their zone of proximal development which he defined 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). In other words, children often learn best when they are given tasks that are slightly beyond their ability to perform alone, but can perform when aided by someone who is more cognitively advanced.

A discussion of Vygotsky's work is not complete without reference to his proposition that development is situated within a culturally specific social-historical context. Vygotsky believed that development stems from relationships and social activities, whereby culture is imparted to the learner through both organized and unorganized activity. As Vygotsky sought to research various aspects of development, one of his primary concerns was to use appropriate methodologies. He believed that laboratory experiments, for example, were not applicable to the real-world experiences of the participants. Instead, Vygotsky believed that it was important to study development within natural contexts. He also believed that the researcher should determine the most appropriate unit of analysis. In Vygotsky's research, for example, he often broadened his unit of analysis beyond the individual to include ecological factors.

As a result of Vygotsky's work, there have been a number of theoretical, methodological, and practical advances in psychology, education, and a wide variety of other disciplines. Barbara Rogoff's influential concept of guided participation is a contemporary idea inspired by Vygotsky's work. Also, many researchers have developed ecologically valid research methods. Developmental theorists have expanded Vygotsky's work to discuss the ways in which culture, history, and context play important roles in human development. Lastly, many pedagogical techniques used worldwide stem from Vygotsky's advocacy for the education of disabled students along with his theories of thought and language development and the zone of proximal development.



Vygotsky, L. S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press and Wiley.

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

Vygotsky, L. S. (1988–1999). The collected works of L. S. Vygotsky (Vols. 1–6). New York: Springer.


Moll, L. C. (Ed.). (1990). Vygotsky and education: Instructional implications and applications of sociohistorical psychology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Newman, F., & Holman, L. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist. New York: Routledge.