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A Vision of Vygotsky
Selected Excerpts

Hello and welcome to a glance into our book, A Vision of Vygotsky (2002), which is published by Allyn & Bacon of Boston, MA.


Education is just as meaningless outside the real world as is afire without oxygen, or as is breathing in a vacuum. The teacher’s educational work, therefore, must inevitably be connected with his creative, social, and life work.(Vygotsky, 1997, p. 345)

This is a book about Vygotsky: the man and a vision of his pedagogy. our purpose is to introduce students of education and psychology to Vygotskian theories of teaching, learning, and development as described in the legacy of his written documents. The complexity of the sociocultural context of our time raises new questions and calls each of us to reexamine, rethink, and regenerate principles and practices that inform the pedagogical context of today. Our own search for new understandings of teaching, learning, and development has led us to Vygotsky, the educator/psychologist from the past who offers hope for the future.

Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who continues to influence educational thought decades after his death. John-Steiner and Meehan (2000, p. 37) describe Vygotsky as a “distant teacher” whose work continues to inspire us to think and rethink his constructs as well as our own educational processes. In pre- and post- revolutionary Russia, he generated enthusiasm and excitement in his continuing search to comprehend and articulate the processes of learning. The fact that we are able to know even parts of his life is a tribute to the power of his ideas as very little was written about him while he was still living. His legacy does not include an autobiography, nor a complete biography; rather, it leaves us with ideas that are relevant for our own time.

The Vygotskian Metaphor: Water

One of the greatest influences on Vygotsky was his early study of the work of the philosopher, Hegel. In his own work, Vygotsky tried to apply the Hegelian theory of dialectics: the combination of two seemingly opposite elements into one distinct entity. This new synthesis of elements contains the properties of both, yet the distinct properties are changed by the very process of combining them. Vygotsky (1986) used the metaphor of water to explain his perceptions of teaching, learning, and development within the sociocultural context. Water, when separated into its parts, is qualitatively changed. The separate atoms of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen are not water; it is their union that creates water. If we want to understand the properties of water that extinguish fire, we cannot do so by studying the separated elements because hydrogen (H) burns and oxygen (H2O) sustains combustion. It is only by conceiving of the union, or the synthesis of its parts, that we can understand the properties of water that allow it to extinguish fire (Figure 1: The Vygotskian Metaphor of Water).

Just as one cannot separate water into its distinct parts (H20) and still maintain the integrity of water, so, too, one cannot separate the individual from the context and still have a complete understanding of either. The unification of a person within that social, cultural, historical, and political context informs our understanding of this dialectical relationship. We will extend this Vygotskian metaphor of water to our interpretation of pedagogy. In this text pedagogy will not be two separate processes of a teacher, teaching or a learner, learning. Rather, pedagogy, itself a dialectic, is the reciprocal relationship between teaching and learning, creating more than the sum of its parts.

 FIGURE 1 The Vygotskian Metaphor of Water.


Vygotskian psychology challenges us to see the dialectical union of teaching and learning as they are enacted in human development. In his own work, Vygotsky consistently juxtaposed the work and ideas of others to generate his own views on teaching and learning. “He integrated the ideas of his contemporaries, his collaborators, and his distant teachers as part of his ongoing construction of new ideas” (John-Steiner & Meehan, 2000, p. 38).

Vygotsky saw teaching and learning as braided together in all human development. Therefore, we should study them together as we seek to understand human development through our research and learning. As Moll (1990) reveals, Vygotsky “insisted on the dialectical study of what we could call whole activities … psychological activity in all its complexity, not in isolation” (p. 6). In our study of pedagogical practice, we must look holistically at teaching and learning, learning and developing, and at individuals within their sociocultural, historical, political context. Vygotsky related development of individuals as integrally tied to development of the collective in which they learn and play (Souza Lima, 1995). In other words, we must look at mind in society, in the spirit of Vygotsky’s 1978 book of the same name.

In keeping with this Vygotskian practice of making our work dialectical, in A Vision of Vygotsky we will examine what we have learned from him as we compare and contrast his ideas with those of others. We recognize that our philosophical perspectives can both support and constrain our thinking process because not any one perspective or theory alone can totally express our experience. Just as Vygotsky compared theorists, we will demonstrate how a Vygotskian perspective can be complementary to and enhanced by a Freirian perspective of critical pedagogy. We will continue to juggle and juxtapose thoughts and theories, all the while maintaining our focus on the centrality of language as our salient theme.

The Overriding Theme

The overriding theme of this book will be language. When we speak of language, we refer in the broadest sense to semiotic mediation within the limitless boundaries of culture, history, and sociocultural context. We see language as a holistic reflection of experiential and cognitive knowledge grounded in sociocultural, historical, and political context. Many different perspectives have been represented in the work of Neo-Vygotskian scholars, which will be further examined throughout the chapters. Although these scholars share a common frame based on Vygotsky’s work, they have interpreted his work through their unique lenses, adding a complexity to his original work because of their distinct perspectives.

For our purposes, we will use the words social cultural and sociocultural interchangeably, and, in so doing, we assume that the historical and political influences are a part of any context. Our intent remains constant: We are referring to the complex relationship of teaching, learning, and human development. In addition, we will use the terms interactionist and constructivism interchangeably. In the glossary, we will explain how constructivism and constructionism have different meanings in the literature.

Visually Vygotsky: A Road Map for Readers

Throughout this book, a road map will connect the various parts to the whole as we theorize Vygotsky’s constructs of teaching and learning within human development. Each chapter will open with a quotation from Vygotsky, which will serve to introduce the readers to the conceptual development to follow.

In working with teachers, we often use visuals to explain the complex ideas and relationships inherent in Vygotsky’s work. When we feel we don’t have the time to share the visuals, and have them strewn about among our teaching materials, students invariably start to rummage though them, talk about them, and then begin to scribble their own graphic representations of Vygotskian thought. As one teacher so clearly said to us recently, “Why didn’t you just show us these? Now, I get it!”

Given the powerful responses we have had to the visuals, both with students in our classes and with participants in conference presentations, we will share “Visually Vygotsky” with you as part of the path winding throughout the book. While we recognize that a one-dimensional representation is rarely adequate to fully encapsulate the meaning of abstract concepts, the visuals are still useful to generate ideas with others. It is often the very notion that the visuals do not totally capture the essence of the ideas that leads to more discussion, more ways of representing, more ways of understanding the complexity of our own thinking, speaking, knowing, and learning.

What Is New about Vygotsky?

The fact that educators continue to reapply his work in their everyday lives in different ways is what is so enduring and endearing about the man and his vision. Our purpose, however, is to expand the answers to this question by using Vygotsky’s own words as he studied psychology to make sense of pedagogy. By doing this, we hope to continue in a Vygotskian holistic spirit and unify the dialectical worlds of teacher education and educational psychology.

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