Key Figures in Education 1: Lev Vygotsky

In this series we introduce key figures in education, and take a look at pivotal areas of their thinking. Educational research draws on reasearch from a number of fields, and these in turn influence our approaches to designing our lessons and courses. Our aim is to inspire you to revisit these theories and to offer you ways of applying them in your classes.

We start our journey with Lev Vygotsky and explore his influence on education and educational research.

Lev Vyogtksy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Lev Vygotksy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Who is Vygotsky?

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian psychologist, who is best known for his work in developmental psychology and child development.

What are his main theories?

As we learn from Kozulin et al., ‘at the heart of Vygotsky’s theory lies the understanding of human cognition and learning as social and cultural rather than individual phenomena’. He is central to all research done in social development and educational psychology.

He also studied the relationship between speech and thought and instruction and development. He directed us towards the importance of language in cognition by putting emphasis on the importance of social interactions in the development of language as a tool of communication. He explored inner speech and external speech, saying that inner speech is not embodied in words, but we think through language in inner speech.

He is most famous for his concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), which is the difference between what a child (or any learner) can do on their own, without the help of a teacher, and with the help of them. Building on previously gained knowledge is also an important factor in the learning process.

How can we use his ideas in the classroom?

According to Vygotksy’s ideas, we need to distinguish between knowledge as information and knowledge as concept formation. It is also important to mention that it is not enough to take our students’ IQ and age into account, we also need to consider their cultural environment and social background when assessing them. The role of the teacher is also different from the traditional view. Vygotsky encourages us to think of the teacher as a mediator instead of the superior source of knowledge.

Who did he influence?

Several teaching and learning methodologies are grounded in Vygotsky’s theories.

  • As Rose and Martin point out in their book Learning to Write, Reading to Learn, Bruner’s notion of scaffolding ‘was derived from Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal development” (ZPD)’. (page 61).
  • We can also find correlations with Vygotskyan learning theory in the the Reading to Learn programme as the authors explain in their work.
  • Visual Thinking Strategies, the arts-based educational programme was also informed by Vygotsky’s theory of speech and ZPD.

Where can we learn more about Vygotsky’s learning theory?

We recommend the following books and websites.

  • Karpov, Yuriy V. Vygotsky for Educators. Cambridge University Press, 2014.
  • Kozulin, Alex and Boris Gindis. Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Smagorinsky, Peter. Vygotsky and Literacy Research: A Methodological Framework. Sense Publishers, 2011.


  • Kozulin, Alex and Boris Gindis. Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context. Cambridge University Press, 2003.
  • Rose, David and J.R. Martin. Learning to Write, Reading to Learn. Equinox, 2012.
  • Yenawine, Philip. Visual Thinking Strategies. Harvard Education Press, 2013.

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