Why We Value Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky, a man who was born November 5, 1896 and died at 38 years of age. His death at such a young age was due to tuberculosis. Vygotsky attended school in Orsha, which is is north of Moscow, Russia. After he completed his degree at Moscow University in 1917, he taught literature and psychology before beginning a career as a researcher and leader of several institutions in post-revolution Russia.

Late in his life, he knew he would lose his battle with tuberculosis, so he undertook a “brain dump;” he wrote profusely but spent little time rewriting and editing. Because of the unpolished nature of some of this work, and the fact that much of his work was written in his native Russian, it was decades before his work was sufficiently understood by western scholars that it informed their research agendas and the learning spaces they designed.

Many scholars value Vygotsky for his contributions to methodology (he was a leader in using qualitative methods) and in defining approaches to science (he is credited with founding sociocultural theory) as much as for his discoveries. Alex Kozulin noted in the prologue to his book Vygotsky’s Psychology (1990),

Vygotsky’s writings offer little in terms of ready-made answers to scientific puzzles. His skill was primarily that of turning what appeared to be answers to puzzles into new and more profound questions. He could accomplish this only because for him any particular problem was always seen as just one of the many facets in the development of human scientific and humanistic thought taken in the totality.

For Vygotsky, one’s psychology is the product of complex dynamics between the individual and his or her social environment, and new discoveries raise more questions that can only be understood using inclusive methods. For Vygtosky, learning is a social process.