Vygotsky, social environment and development

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The 1917 Revolution created a breakthough in materialist theory of learning, writes Shirley Franklin

Vygotsky lived in Russia between 1896 and 1934. He was driven by his commitment to promote the development of children and adults and to create the best possible educational opportunities for the population of revolutionary Russia. All aspects of his approach to psychology and theory of children’s development — play, thinking, learning, language, the zone of proximal development, working with people with learning difficulties, mental health issues and more — are rooted in a social and materialist theory of learning.
Throughout his life he strove to develop a psychology based on Marxist thinking that addressed how social environments shape people’s development. Vygotsky’s most well-known theory is that of the Zone of Proximal Development. The ZPD is essentially a social theory as it recognises a role for a more competent other person — a More Knowledgeable Other — guiding a learner through the medium of language, which plays a key role in the mediation of thinking and learning. The ZPD, and its social interactive elements, is at the heart of Vygotsky’s thinking about development.
Less well-known than ZPD, but nonetheless fascinating is Imagination and Creativity in Childhood, published in 1931 as Stalinism increased its stranglehold over Russian society, including over the study of a dialectical materialist psychology. Here, Vygotsky discussed the importance of imagination, drawing on other writers and researchers such as novelist Leo Tolstoy and the behaviourist psychologist Pavel Blonskii, analysing the different creative activities in which children use their imagination. He looked at children’s play, storywriting, drawing, role-play and drama, science and technology. Despite the constraints of Stalinism, Imagination and Creativity shows Vygotsky’s determination to create a revolutionary cross-curricular theory of child development, teaching and learning that met the needs of every Russian child.
The development of the imagination is crucial because it “is an important component of absolutely all aspects of cultural life, enabling artistic, scientific, and technical creation alike.” Vygotsky argued that through imagination we develop new ideas. New ideas do not come from nowhere; they are based on our experience but combine with our imaginative faculties, “When, in my imagination, I draw myself a mental picture of the future life of humanity under socialism or a picture of the struggle of prehistoric man, in both cases I am doing more than reproducing the impressions I once happened to experience. I am not merely recovering the traces of stimulation that reached my brain in the past. I never actually saw this remote past, or this future; however, I still have my own idea or picture of what they were or will be like.”
Our imaginations are essential for the future of societies. The ability of our brains to “rework elements of past experience to generate new propositions and new behaviour”, plays a crucial role, “If human activity were limited to reproduction of the old, then the human being would be a creature oriented only to the past… It is precisely human creative activity that makes the human being a creature oriented toward the future, creating the future and thus altering his own present.” Vygotsky did not think that children simply learned by doing, or so-called “pickup”pedagogy.
His work outlines specific roles for a parent, adult or indeed a “More Knowledgeable Other” in general. The “objective use and objective meaning of play, of which the child himself is unaware”, is important. For the child, Vygotsky considered play to be the “highest level of preschool development”, creating a zone of proximal development because of the way the child reworks what she has seen in real life. In all play activities children draw from their reallife experiences, copying what they have perceived. The play of very young children is mainly imitative, such as playing families or simple drawings.
As they mature, they bring in more imagination, embellishing on what they have seen to create the new. So, as the child matures the nature of play moves from copying to becoming more abstract creations of the child herself. Because all play and all creative experiences draw on real life experiences, the more varied these experiences are, the more material the child has to draw upon, “The richer a person’s experience, the richer is the material his imagination has access to… The implication of this for education is that, if we want to build a strong foundation for a child’s creativity, what we must do is broaden the experiences we provide him with…the more a child sees, hears, and experiences, the more he knows and assimilates, the more elements of reality he will have in his experience, and the more productive will be the operation of his imagination.”
Compare this vision to the current focus of education systems on narrowing down learning to “core” subjects and little more. Vygotsky’s work on imagination shows us how important it is to understand the processes of learning, and how important it is to make the experience of learning engaging and motivational. Developing a successful learner should not focus on the measurable grades and the disconnected fragments of knowledge today’s education systems favour. Rather, society needs a cross-curricula, interconnected educational experience for all, focused on interactive learning processes in order to support the highest development of children’s and young adults’ imaginative, investigative potentials.