There’s a lot there: One chapter of Vygotsky’s “Thought and Language”

Vygotsky Notes: Chapter 6, Thought and Language

It has taken me some time, but I spent the past week working my way through a single chapter of Vygotsky’s Thought and Language.  This post is a summary of some of the remarkable things I found in there.  I choose this chapter because it contains mention of Vygotsky’s famous concept: the Zone of Proximal Development.  But, my goodness, there is so much more in just this single (lengthy) chapter.

Vygotsky starts off slowly, drawing a distinction between a child’s spontaneously learned concepts and more “scientific” ones, learned through deliberate instruction.  In fact, later in the chapter he says that this duality is merely a stand-in for the wider tension between instruction and natural development.  

Many writers in education, especially those with a Romantic or progressive or, as we’d say now, “student centered” bent — which is to say, most right-thinking educators — I would say believe one or both of the following ideas:

1  A child’s natural process of acquiring knowledge is more “natural” and therefore more effective than the process of deliberate “instruction”; in fact, instruction is only effective in sofar as it attempts to mimic a child’s natural process for acquiring what Vygotsky calls spontaneous concepts.  

2  If you must instruct deliberately, not only must you mimic the child’s process of natural learning, but you must attempt to teach into what he is ready for at the given moment, based on what he can accomplish independently, with minimal guidance.

Vygotsky disagrees with both.

The chapter really heats up when Vygotsky writes, “Deliberate introduction of new concepts does not preclude spontaneous development, but rather charts the new paths for it” (152).  This reminds me of John Hattie’s notion of the teacher as “activator”: the notion that a teacher gets a child started on a learning process, but that the meat of the work is the child’s to do to begin to assimilate (“construct”) that knowledge.

Vygotsky critiques Piaget’s ideas for being too simplistic about the difference between the two types of concepts; Piaget believes that socialization and maturation is merely a process of more advanced adult ways of thinking gradually forcing out and replacing child-like ones (what Rousseau calls the “bruising” a child experiences in bumping up against the limits of his own thinking in the adult world, governed by adult rules).  

This creates a practical difficulty in Vygotsky’s view: on the one hand, Piaget counsels educators to study spontaneous concepts and how children acquire them, and to base instruction on those, but on the other, he suggests that this way of learning is devoid of critical thought, logic, and other mature concepts.  In a sense, it has nothing to offer teachers because it is so infantile and bound to be replaced anyway.  Because there is no transition, there is only fighting.  “He means,” writes Vygotsky, “that the child’s thought must be known as any enemy must be known in order to be fought successfully” (157).

I thought this was a really interesting way to frame the paradox of the romantic view of children and their learning: one the one hand, it’s easy to venerate it, because children seem to acquire things so easily, but on the other, we know that their prodigiousness is a kind of parroting or memorization, not a method of complex thinking.  At an even more basic level, understanding how children think and then attempting to base on our instruction on that is not quite what’s wanted: instead, Vygotsky says, we should focus our instruction on where a child might go from his current point.

Vygotsky says that Piaget uses something call Claparede’s Law:  We become more aware, consciously, as things become difficult and we have need to be conscious.  Piaget uses this (the “bruising” idea) as a way of saying that children sort of figure things out.  But Vygotsky seems to — not disagree, just to think that this idea is incomplete.  Instead, children do realize their methods of thought are incomplete, but they actively learn new ones from adults.  Bruises aren’t the only reason for development: “As one cannot derive awareness from the need of awareness, one also cannot derive the development of thought from the failure of thought” (165), he writes.

Then Vygotsky moves to attempting to bridge the gap.  He uses the metaphor of a chess player whose perception increases and therefore he can improve his strategy.  What he is driving at is that students pick up new thinking skills from scientific instruction.  Specifically, he writes, we start to be able to “generalize” our acts, which in turn helps us begin to regulate our thinking.  “School instruction induces the generalizing kind of perception and thus plays a decisive role in making the child conscious of his own mental processes.  Scientific concepts . . .  seem to be the medium within which awareness and mastery first develop, to be transferred later to other concepts and other areas of thought” (171).  Vygotsky seems to say that we learn how to think from school, which is an interesting insight.

That said, it’s not that specific subjects help us substantially more than others (he rebuts the notion, which he says comes from Hebart, of “formal discipline,” later in the essay, but he suggests that many formal school subjects affect us in different ways.

This whole view is, again, surprisingly “pro-education” in a fairly straightforward way that many educational thinkers are simply not.


Vygotsky steps back and writes about how the relation of spontaneous and scientific concepts is just a small debate within a much larger question:  the relation between school instruction to natural mental development.  He identifies three main theories that attempt to answer or to reconcile this relationship.  The second two of these don’t particularly stand out, but the first theory, which Vygotsky says is most persuasive, stands powerfully to this day as most people’s “common sense” answer to reconciling teaching and natural development.

This belief is the notion that instruction and development go together, mutually dependent:  Development is a “process of maturation subject to natural laws, and instruction as the utilization of the opportunities created by development” (174).  Vygotsky says that often we try to separate the products or the effects of the two, which is based on the notion that “development can run its normal course and reach a high level without any assistance from instruction — that even children who never attend school can develop the highest forms of thinking accessible to human beings” (175).

This is a really fascinating idea and a very powerfully influential one among many people in and outside of education, who advocate for less or different forms of instruction than are typical.  Wouldn’t children just learn to think and be smart, capable adults, even if they weren’t educated traditionally at home?  

This is the classic question of homeschooling: won’t children just do as well even if they’ren ot in school?  It’s like with diet: most people turn out to be reasonably healthy and reasonably normal size, no matter how fastidious their diets are as children.  Isn’t the intellect the same?

For Vygotsky, even if we are talking about a child in school, we’re still talking about teachers taking their cue from natural development “phases”: You can’t teach a one year-old to read, after all:  “The analysis of learning is thus reduced to determining the developmental level that various functions must reach for instruction to become feasible” (175).  I would say that we, today, still consider this to be “common sense.”

Traditional psychology thinks that instruction only develops the particular faculties (and leaves development untouched.  Teaching a child to write exercises the ability to write — it doesn’t mean a child’s natural development happens more quickly.  The child isn’t suddenly able to maturely process information at the age of 8 any more quickly.  Development happens biologically on its own.  Piaget feels this way too: that a child goes through stages “regardless of any instruction received” (176).  The measure of where a child actually is is his ability (for Piaget) to answer generic / standardized test-style questions.  Those tell the tale, and they’re basically unmoved by instruction.  They relate to a general mental development, which happens independently.  

But Vygotsky critiques this view for two reasons.  First, he does think that instruction influences development.  More on that later.  But more important, he believes that this view leaves the teacher in too reactive a position, waiting around until a child is ready to begin learning.  It is not so much that the teacher should not wait until the right moment, just that Vygotsky thinks that waiting until the child is “ready” is too long: “instruction hobbles behind development” and development is untouched by instruction itself.

In fact, Vygotsky begins to submit his own research findings here, which directly contradict this Piaget-ian view of instruction “lagging behind” development.  Specifically, Vygotsky writes that his findings surround the “temporal relation” between the time something’s taught to when it’s learned conclude that, “instruction usually precedes development” (184).  Vygotsky cites the example of a student who does not understand much from the first three or four steps of learning arithmetic, but on the fifth step “something clicks” (185).  “This cannot be the general rule.” You simply “cannot . . . set in advance the curriculum” to work perfectly in each situation.  

I thought this was really interesting.  He’s saying that “exposure” in the sense that you might say “I exposed a child” to a concept (which we are often taught, as teachers, to say is inferior to “I taught a child”) is okay sometimes, because often development happens at later stages even in sequential curriculum.  Fascinating.

Vygotsky elaborates: it’s as though when a child is instructed in something — “learns,” as he puts it — “the development of that operation or concept has only begun” (185).  “The curve of development does not coincide with the curve of school instruction; by and large, instruction precedes development” (185).

This is just a fascinating idea.  It implies several possibilities:  First, that one can “learn” something, but not really understand it until later.  Second, that instruction is a kind of creating a path on which one can travel later on.  Third, that one is in a way turning over and over the things one has learned until he understands them more deeply.  This calls to mind the metaphor of the chess player that Vygotsky alludes to.  It also brings to mind my own development in the spring of 2001 as a whitewater kayaker: faced with a complex hydraulic on a river in Vermont, my mind did not understand how to make my body react to it.  Yet I thought about it all off-season, thought of it as I encountered other similar hydraulics down south, and by the time I returned I understood this same hydraulic in an entirely new, deeper fashion a year later.

It all comes to a head in the next section.  It is here that Vygotsky really makes history.  Not only does the traditional view of development as untouched by instruction prove misleading, but it’s measurement of “development” — by what a person can do independently — is in fact a misleading understanding of development, a grave misunderstanding of where a person is in his development.  

Instead Vygotsky gave children hard problems, but a little bit of help (“the first step in a solution,a  leading question, or some other form of help”).  In doing this, he found vast differences in what children could accomplish: given two eight year olds, one might do 9 year old problems and another child could do 12 year old ones.  Here he writes what would become a famous sentence:

“The discrepancy between a child’s actual mental age and the level he reaches in solving problems with assistance indicates the zone of his proximal development” (187).  This measure, he writes, gives a more helpful clue than “mental age” to how a child is progressing intellectually.  And then a famous quote:

“What the child can do in cooperation today he can do alone tomorrow” (188).  He adds what seems to me a more neglected but equally powerful line:  “Therefore the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as at the ripening functions” (189).

Yes, instruction must be based on some minimal level of development.  But instruction must also consider the highest level of possible development: “instruction must be oriented toward the future, not the past” (189).

Again, it’s a really interesting notion because it brings us back to the question of: if you teach it, but they can’t do it independently, did they learn it?  Or if they “learned” it, but they still don’t really understand it until the fourth or fifth step (as Vygotsky says sometimes happens) — and that fifth step is next year — have you really taught?  And how do you know if you taught?  


All very interesting.  This is just one chapter, of course, in one book, but I’ve spent a week trying to read, understand, and digest it.  There’s a lot there in Vygotsky, and I look forward to reading the rest of the book, now that I’m sort of “inside” Vygotsky’s way of thinking and seeing the world.  I actually just got Vygotsky’s (even better known?  I can’t tell) other book, Mind in Society, which actually seems to be the famous one that everyone quotes.  I’m interested to see what’s in there.  But I’m pleased to be pushing up against the “common sense” ideas — as they were then and still continue to be.