Lev Vygotsky

The Problem of Teaching and Mental Development at School Age

Original: Problema obucheniya[1] i umstvennogo razvitiya v shkol'nom vozraste;
Translated: by Stanley Mitchell 2017, and published with permission of the estate of Stanley Mitchell © by the Marxists Internet Archive.
First published: in Changing English, Vol 24, No.4. December 2017: 359-371, edited with notes by Myra Barrs ©. This is the version of record.

This is a new translation by Stanley Mitchell of a Vygotskyan text, which, in the translation known from chapter 6 in Mind in Society (1978), has been the locus classicus for Vygotsky’s concept of the ‘zone of proximal/proximate development’ (ZPD). Some significant points of difference between the two translations are:

Myra Barrs
Institute of Education, University College London, London UK

How learning relates to development in children of school age is the most central and fundamental question. Without an answer to this, problems of pedagogical psychology and analysis of the pedagogical process can neither be properly resolved nor even stated. Nevertheless, this question remains the most obscure and unexplained of all the basic concepts on which the science of child development depends for its clarification of the processes involved in children’s education. However, this theoretical confusion in no way subtracts the question from all the contemporary research relating to it. Not a single concrete piece of research has been able to avoid it. If the question remains methodologically unclarified, what this means is that the concrete investigations are based on theoretically vague, critically unbalanced, sometimes inwardly contradictory and unthought-out postulates and premises, irrelevant answers which are the source of a whole range of mistakes.

If we try to find a single root cause for all the very profound mistakes and confusions that we find in this sphere, it would be no exaggeration to say that the main one is precisely this question. Our task is to bring to the surface those unconscious and vague theoretical solutions to the question that lie at the heart of most of the research, to examine them critically, starting from experimental givens and theoretical considerations and to suggest, if only in the most general and condensed form, how the problem might be solved. Roughly speaking, we can order all existing solutions regarding a child’s development and education into three basic groups, which we shall examine separately where they have their fullest and clearest expression.

The first group to appear historically argues that the processes of child development are independent of the processes of education. Education in this kind of theory is seen as a purely external process, which has to be connected in some way with a child’s development, but which by itself takes no active part in that development and changes nothing in it, using the fruits of development rather than pushing it forward and altering its direction. A typical example of this theory is the extraordinarily complex and interesting conception of Piaget, who studies the development of children’s thought quite independently of the process of education.

It is striking how the study of a child’s mental development starts from the basic premise that this process is independent of what the child learns in school – an approach that has escaped the attention of critics to this day. The child’s thought processes and understanding, how it sees the world, explains physical causality, acquires the rules of logic and abstraction – these are regarded by scholars as if they emerged by themselves uninfluenced by school education.

For Piaget the question is one of principle not technique, and this is the method he applies to the study of the mental development of the child, using material which not only denies the role of educational training in solving a problem, but rules out any other kind of learning. A typical example which illuminates all the strong and weak sides of this method may be taken from any of the questions that Piaget asks of a child in a formal setting. When a child of five is asked why the sun doesn’t fall down, it is understood that it not only hasn’t a ready answer, but is on the whole unable to give any satisfactory response whatsoever, even if it is a young genius. The aim of posing such utterly inaccessible questions is to exclude the influence of previous experience and previous knowledge the child may have and to stimulate it with deliberately new and inaccessible questions which allow childish thinking to be established in a pure form, absolutely independent of knowledge, experience and education. If we pursue Piaget’s thinking and draw conclusions from it in regard to education, we shall easily see how extraordinarily close they are to the way the question is posed in research conducted in our own country. The relationship of education to development is often seen here in a manner that finds its extreme and almost grotesque expression in Piaget’s theory. However, it is not difficult to show that it has simply reached its logical and absurd conclusion.

We very often hear that the child psychologist’s task in relation to the processes of education consists in establishing how far those functions have developed in a child – forms of activity, mental abilities – functions that are required to master certain spheres of knowledge and to acquire particular skills. For example, to understand arithmetic the child should possess sufficient memory, attentiveness and thinking ability and so on. The task of the child psychologist is to establish how far this function has matured in order to make the teaching of arithmetic possible.

It is not difficult to see that the processes by which these functions develop are regarded as totally independent of the processes of teaching, which is apparent even in the temporary separation of both these processes. Development has to complete its distinct, finite cycles, specific functions have to mature before the school can begin teaching the child particular subjects and skills. Cycles of development always precede cycles of teaching. Teaching is always tied to the tail of development, development always strides ahead of teaching. Any possibility of discussing what role teaching might have in the development and maturing of these functions and in their activation is thereby excluded in advance. Their development and maturing is taken rather as a premise than as a result of teaching. Teaching is built upon development, changing nothing essential in it.

The second group of answers to the question has as its centre the opposite thesis, which states that teaching is development. This is the condensed and precise formula that expresses the very essence of this group of theories. The theories themselves arise for very different reasons.

In recent times we have witnessed a powerful resurgence in our own country of this essentially dated theory based on reflexology. The formula, according to which teaching is no more than the formation of conditioned reflexes, whether it is the teaching of writing or arithmetic, repeats essentially what has been said above, namely that development is nothing other than the education of conditioned reflexes, and that the teaching process is completely and inseparably at one with the process of child development. In a much older form and on a different foundation the same idea was developed by James, who, like present-day reflexology, distinguished between innate and acquired reactions, identifying the teaching process with the formation of habit and the process of development.

At first sight this point of view may appear much more progressive than the previous one, since if the latter was based on the total separation of the processes of learning and development, then the present one gives central significance to learning in the child’s development. However, a closer look at this second group and its responses shows that for all the apparent opposition of these two viewpoints they coincide on the main issue and appear very similar to one another. ‘Education,’ said James, ‘can best be defined as the organization of acquired habits of behaviour and aptitudes for activity.'[2] Development too is a matter basically of accumulating the greatest possible range of reactions. Any acquired reaction, says James, is usually either a more complex form or a substitute for an innate reaction which the given object tends to elicit in the first place. James calls this proposition a general principle to be found at the heart of the entire process of acquisition, i.e. of development, and it governs the teacher’s every activity. For James each person is simply a living complex of habits.

The question is how from this point of view does child psychology relate to pedagogy, and developmental to educational science. It is obvious that these relationships resemble those of the previous theory like two drops of water. Child psychology is the science of the laws of development or the acquisition of habits, while teaching is an art. Science simply shows the limits within which rules, laws and art can be applied and which must not be exceeded. We see that the new theory fundamentally repeats the old one. The basis of development is conceived as a purely naturalistic process, i.e. as a natural process of complication or substitution of innate reactions. Its laws are natural laws which cannot in any way be altered by teaching, but which simply outline the limits which teaching must respect. That innate reactions are subject to natural laws hardly needs confirmation. More important is James’s assertion that habit is a second nature, or, as Belington said, ten times more powerful than nature.[3]

It is difficult to express more clearly the idea that developmental laws continue to be seen by this group of theories as natural laws, which teaching must take into account in the same way that technology obeys the laws of physics. Teaching is as powerless to change anything just as the most advanced technology cannot alter the laws of nature.

However, while both theories are similar, they do evince an important difference which can be most clearly understood by examining the transient link between processes of teaching and developmental processes. As we saw earlier, the author of these theories stated that development cycles precede those of learning. The school process is tied to the tail of psychic formation. For the second theory both processes occur evenly and in parallel, so that each step in learning corresponds to a step in development. Development follows teaching just as a shadow precedes the object that casts it. Even this comparison seems too marked for the views held by this theory, for it proceeds from the complete merger and union of development and learning processes, not differentiating them at all, and, consequently, presupposing a still closer connection and dependence between the two. Development and learning for this theory coincide with one another at every point, like two equal geometric figures superimposed upon one another. Clearly, any question of what goes before and what comes after makes no sense from this point of view, and simultaneity, synchrony form the basic dogma for approaches of this kind.

The third group of theories seeks to overcome the extremes of the previous two by simply aligning them. On one side the developmental process is conceived as a process independent of learning. On the other, learning itself, as the process in which the child acquires a whole range of new behavioural forms, is considered identical with development. This gives rise to dualistic theories of development, the most outstanding representative of which is Koffka’s study on the psychological development of the child. According to this, there are two processes informing development, different in nature, but connected and conditioning each other. On the one hand, there is growth, which is directly dependent on the development of the nervous system; on the other, there is learning, which, according to Koffka’s well-known definition, is itself a process of development.

There are three new aspects to this theory. First of all, as has already been shown, the merging of two opposite points of view, which, as described above, have been treated separately in every history of the subject. The very fact that these two points of view are united in a single theory shows that they are not opposites and do not exclude one another, but are essentially similar.

The second aspect of the theory, that is new, states that the two basic processes shaping development share a mutual dependence and influence. But Koffka, in his well-known work, hardly dwells on this mutual influence, limiting himself to the most general remarks about the existence of a link between these processes. However, these remarks do tell you that it is the process of growth which prepares and makes possible the well-known process of learning. The process of learning as it were stimulates and advances the process of growth.

Finally, the third and most important new aspect of this theory is the expansion of the role of teaching in the course of a child’s development. We need to dwell more thoroughly on this aspect. It takes us back immediately to an old pedagogic problem, which in recent times has lost its relevance and which usually goes under the name of the problem of formal discipline. This idea, which found its clearest expression in Herbart’s system, can be summed up in a well-known way – namely, that every subject taught entails a definite meaning for the child’s general mental development. Different topics from this point of view will have a different value in the child’s mental development.

As we know, a school founded on this idea bases its curriculum on such subjects as classical languages, ancient culture, mathematics, presuming that those disciplines which have the most value for the child’s general mental development should be given pride of place, regardless of their value in life. It is common knowledge that this theory of formal discipline has led to the most reactionary practical results in the sphere of pedagogy. And the second group of theories that we have examined can be regarded to a certain extent as a reaction to this, seeking to give learning back its independent significance rather than treating it as just one aspect of child development, like gymnastics and formal disciplines, which are supposed to train the child’s mental capacities.

A number of studies have appeared showing the bankruptcy of the basic idea of formal discipline. These studies have pointed out that instruction in one particular sphere had extraordinarily little effect upon general development. Thus, Woodworth and Thorndike found that adults after succeeding in special exercises involving the definition of short lines were unable to define long ones, and less than a third of these same adults, having successfully defined the plane of a certain form, were successful in defining a series of planes of different dimensions and forms. Gilbert, Fracker and Martin have shown that exercises in quick reaction to one type of signal have little influence on reaction to another.

We can cite a whole number of studies of this kind whose results are almost always the same. What they show is that instruction in one activity has very little effect upon instruction in another, even though the latter may be extremely similar to the former. The question to what extent the partial reactions of every day develop the mental faculties of pupils as a whole depends, Thorndike says, on the general meaning of the subjects taught, or, more simply, on the role of formal discipline.

The usual answer given by psychological theorists in pedagogy is that each partial acquisition, each special form of development immediately and uniformly improves general abilities. The teacher thinks and acts on the basis of a theory that sees the mind as a complex of abilities – powers of observation, attention, memory, thought and so on, and every improvement in one ability is an acquisition for all the others. According to this theory concentration on Latin grammar would assist concentration on another subject. The general opinion is as follows: the words “accuracy, memory, observation, attention, concentration” etc. signify real and fundamental abilities that change according to the material upon which they operate. These fundamental abilities change markedly when applied to individual subjects and retain these changes when dealing with other areas, so that if someone does well in one subject then thanks to some mysterious connection he will do well in others that have no relation to the previous one. The argument is that mental abilities act independently of the material upon which they operate. It is considered even that the development of one ability will lead to the development of others.[4]

Thorndike contested the falsity of this point of view in a number of studies, demonstrating the dependence of any form of activity on the concrete material it had to deal with. The development of one partial ability rarely signifies the development of others as well. A careful examination of the question, he says, reveals that the specialization of abilities is much greater than appears at first sight. For example, if from a hundred individuals we take ten, who are able to notice mistakes in spelling or in measuring length, it does not follow that these ten will be better able to tell the correct weight of an object. Similarly, speed and accuracy in addition are quite unrelated to speed and accuracy in thinking up words with an opposite meaning to a given text.

These studies show that consciousness far from being a complex of several general abilities – observation, attention, memory, judgment etc. – is the sum of a multitude of separate abilities, independent of one another and acting on their own. The task of teaching is not the development of any single ability of the mind. It is to develop many special mental abilities to deal with a variety of subjects. It consists not in changing our general attentive faculty, but in developing different ways in which attention can be concentrated on a diversity of subjects.

Methods guaranteeing the special influence of teaching on general development can only be realized via identical elements, identical material and an identical process. We are ruled by habit. From which it naturally follows that to develop consciousness means developing a plurality of partial abilities independent of one another, creating a host of partial habits, since the range of each ability depends on the material worked by the latter. The improvement of one function of consciousness or one side of its activity can influence the development of another only to the extent that there are elements present common to one or other function or activity.

This approach, we know, has been opposed by the third group of theories just discussed. It bases itself on the insights of structural psychology, which show that the learning process can never be reduced to the acquisition of skills, but includes activities of an intellectual nature. These make it possible to apply structural principles found in the solution of one task to a whole series of other tasks. This theory asserts that the influence of learning can never be specific. By learning any one partial operation, the child at the same time acquires the ability to create structures of a definite type independent of the differing material it is using, and independent of the individual elements belonging to this structure.

Thus, the third theory, claiming to be fundamentally new, once again returns to the formal discipline approach, thereby contradicting its own starting point. We remember that Koffka repeats the old formula when he says that learning equals development. But since he does not see learning as just a process of acquiring habits and skills, so he views the relationship between learning and development not as an identity, but something more complex in character. If for Thorndike learning and development coincide in all points like two equal geometrical figures placed upon one another, development for Koffka always takes up more space than learning. One could sketch a schematic relationship of the two processes by imagining two concentric circles, where the smaller symbolizes the learning process and the larger the process of development brought about by teaching.

The child has learned to carry out an operation. In so doing it has assimilated some structural principle whose sphere of application is wider than the type of operation from which this principle has been drawn. Consequently, by taking one step in learning, the child goes further and takes two steps in development, i.e. teaching and development do not coincide.

Having examined these three theories with their different versions of the relationship of learning and development, we are now free to suggest a more correct solution to the problem. The first thing to consider is the fact that a child’s education begins long before it goes to school. School never starts in an empty space. Whatever a child learns in school has its prehistory. For instance, a child begins to learn arithmetic at school. However, long before school it will have had some experience of quantity, it will have come across one or another form of division, magnitude, addition and subtraction, thus the child will already be in possession of a pre-school arithmetic which only short-sighted psychologists do not notice and ignore.

A careful examination will show that pre-school arithmetic is extremely complex, which means that the child pursues its arithmetical development long before it studies arithmetic at school. Of course, this pre-school prehistory does not entail a strict succession between the two stages of the child’s arithmetic development.

The line of school learning does not directly continue that of pre-school development in any sphere. It may turn aside in certain respects, even contradict the line of pre-school development. But whether pre-school learning is directly continued or rejected at school, we cannot ignore the fact that school education never starts from an empty space, but is always confronted with a definite stage of development experienced by the child before school.

More, we find the results of such scholars as Stumpf and Koffka in their attempts to erase the boundary between school and pre-school education extremely convincing. An attentive look shows that education does not begin at school age. Koffka, explaining to teachers the law of child education and how they should relate to the child’s mental development, concentrates his attention on the simplest and most primitive processes, which occur precisely in the pre-school years.

His mistake is that while he sees the similarity between pre-school and school education, he does not see the difference between them, he does not see what is specifically new about school education, and seems to follow Stumpf in considering this difference merely a lack of system in one case and its presence in the other. But it is not only a question of system. School education contributes something fundamentally new to a child’s development. However, these authors are right to stress the undoubted fact that learning begins long before school age. Doesn’t the child learn to speak from its parents? Through question and answer doesn’t the child acquire a whole range of knowledge and information from adults? By imitating adults and receiving direction from them on how to behave doesn’t it develop a whole range of skills?

Obviously, this learning process that takes place before school age differs fundamentally from the process of school education, whose job it is to impart the basics of scientific knowledge. But even when the child asks its first questions and learns the names of surrounding objects, it goes through a definite cycle of education. Thus, learning and development are not encountered for the first time at school, but are in fact connected with one another from the first day of a child’s life.

Hence, the question which we have to ask ourselves is doubly problematic. It divides as it were into two separate questions. We have first of all to understand the relationship between learning and development in general, and then the specific peculiarities of this relationship at school age.

Let us begin with the second question, which will help us to clarify the first question. To define this we shall look at the results of several studies that we believe have a fundamental significance for our problem as a whole and can offer the educational field a new concept of extreme importance without which our question cannot be properly answered. We are referring to the so-called zone of proximate development.[5]

That teaching has in one way or another to synchronize with the child’s level of development is an empirically established and frequently attested fact, which cannot be gainsaid. That reading can only be taught at a particular age, that only at a particular age can a child study algebra – this does not require any proof. Thus, the correlation of developmental level with potentialities of learning constitutes an unshakeable and fundamental fact which we can boldly take as our starting point.

However, it is only recently that the developmental level on its own has been judged insufficient for defining the real relationships of development to learning. We need to define at least two levels of a child’s development, which we must know before we can find the true relationship between the child’s development and its capacity to learn in each concrete instance. The first we shall call the level of actual development. We have in mind the level of development of the child’s psychological functions formed by definite developmental cycles already having taken place.

Basically, we almost always encounter this actual level of development when we try to define the mental age of a child by means of tests. However, simple experience shows that this level of actual development does not as yet adequately define the condition of child development at the present day. Imagine that we have examined two children and set their mental age at seven. This would mean that each child is capable of solving problems accessible to seven-year olds. However, when we try to move these children on with further tests, we find a serious difference between them. One child, with the help of leading questions, examples, demonstrations, will easily answer the tests that are two years in advance of its developmental level. The second child will able to answer tests that are only six months in advance of its level.

Here we come straight to the central concept that is necessary for defining the zone of proximate development. This central concept is in turn linked with a reconsideration of the problem of imitation in contemporary psychology.

In the past the established view took the fixed position that the indicator of the level of a child’s development was only its independent activity in which imitation played no part. This view found its expression in all contemporary systems of test investigations. Only those tests were considered that the child answers independently, without outside help, without examples, without leading questions.

However, this view, as research has shown, does not hold water. Even experiments with animals have proved that actions which the animal is able to imitate lie in the zone of the animal’s own potentialities. This means that the animal can imitate only those actions which in one or another form it finds accessible, and, as Köhler’s (1925) studies have established, the ability of an animal to imitate does not go beyond the limits of the actions it is capable of. This means that if the animal is capable of imitating an intellectual action, then in certain circumstances it will by its independent activity show an ability to perform a completely analogous action. Thus, imitation is closely bound up with understanding, it is only possible in the sphere of those actions accessible to the animal’s understanding.

A child’s ability to imitate is different, and in a series of actions it can go beyond its own capacities, although these are not limitless. With the help of imitation in a collective sphere, under the guidance of adults, a child is able to do much more and to do it with understanding and independently. The difference between the level at which it solves a problem under guidance, with the help of adults, and the level at which it acts on its own defines the zone of proximate development.

Take the example just quoted. We have two children of an equal mental age, seven, but one of them with a minimum of help solves a problem of a nine-year old, while the other reaches only seven-and-half. Is the mental development of these two children the same? From the point of view of their independent activity it is the same, but from the point of view of proximate possibility it differs sharply. What the child is able to do with the help of an adult points to its zone of proximate development. This means that with the help of this method we can take into consideration not only the process of development up to the present moment, not only the cycles completed, not only the processes of maturation, but also those processes which are taking place now and are beginning to grow and develop.

What the child can do today with the help of adults, it will be able to carry out tomorrow on its own. In this way the zone of proximate development will help us to define tomorrow’s achievements and the dynamics of the child’s development, taking into account not only what it has already mastered, but also its process of growth. The two children in our example show the same mental age from the point of view of the developmental cycles they have completed, but the dynamic of their development is quite different. So the child’s mental development can at least be defined by clarifying its two levels – the level of actual development and the zones of its proximate development.

This fact, apparently of little importance in itself, nevertheless has a decisive and fundamental significance, revolutionizing the whole science of the relationship between the learning process and the development of the child. First of all, it changes the traditional point of view on the drawing of pedagogical conclusions from a diagnosis of development. In the past the matter was seen as follows. By means of testing we define the level of the child’s mental development which pedagogy has to take into account and beyond which it must not go. Thus, in the very posing of this question the idea is that teaching should orient itself, in the development of the child, towards yesterday, towards stages that have already been gone through and completed.

The mistakenness of such a view was revealed in practice sooner than in theory. This can be shown most clearly in the teaching of mentally backward children. As is known, studies have established that a mentally backward child has little aptitude for abstract thought. For this reason pedagogy in auxiliary schools seems to have drawn the right conclusion that the teaching of such a child should be based on visual aids. However, experience brought deep disappointment to this special kind of pedagogy. It turned out that such a system, based exclusively on visual aids and excluding anything to do with abstract thinking not only does not help the child to overcome its inborn deficiency, but strengthens this inadequacy still further, accustoming the child exclusively to visual thinking and extinguishing those elements of abstract thinking, which every child has. Precisely because the mentally backward child, left to itself, will never attain any developed forms of abstract thinking, the task of the school is to do all it can to encourage it in this direction, to develop what by itself will remain inadequate. And in the contemporary pedagogy of the auxiliary school we observe this beneficial turning away from the kind of understanding of visual education, which gives their methods their true meaning. The use of visual aids is necessary and unavoidable only as a step towards the development of abstract thinking, as a means, not an end in itself.

Something very close to this occurs in the development of the normal child, too. Teaching oriented on already completed cycles of development is futile from the point of view of a child’s general development. Rather than advancing a process of development, it remains tied to its tail.

As against this old point of view, the concept of the zone of proximate development gives prominence to the opposite formula which states that the only good method of teaching is that which runs ahead of development. The rightness of this point of view can be substantiated by the example of complex teaching. The defence of the complex system of teaching is fresh in everyone’s memory. The question is: was pedology wrong and in what way when it tried to prove by every means possible that the complex system corresponded to a child’s nature.

We believe that the pedological defence of this system was at error not in its use of incorrect facts, but in its incorrect posing of the question itself. It is true that when the child enters school it finds the complex system of thinking more congenial, but it is equally true that it is already at a completed stage of pre-school development, and to build on this means consolidating forms and functions of thinking in the child, which in the normal course of its development should by school age be dying and falling away, making place for new, more advanced forms of thinking, and changing through this reversal into a systematic form of thinking. If pedologists, in defending this system, posed the question of the co-ordination of learning and child development not from yesterday’s point of view, but from today’s, they would not be making this mistake. And it would also allow us to formulate the relationship between learning and development in a more general way.

We know from a whole series of studies that we will not quote from, but simply refer to here, that the development of a child’s higher psychic faculties, specific to man, emerging in the historical development of mankind, constitute an utterly unique process. In another place we formulated the basic law of development in the following way: every higher psychic function in a child’s development makes its appearance twice – first, as a collective, social activity, i.e. as an inter-psychic function; secondly, as an individual activity, as the inner ability of the child to think, as an intra-psychic function.

The example of the development of speech may serve as a paradigm for the entire problem. Speech first arises as a means of communication between the child and the people around it. Only later, by turning into inner speech, does it become the basis for the child’s ability to think, its inner psychic function. Studies by Baldwin, Regnano and Piaget [see note 3] have shown that in a children’s collective the first thing to occur is argument and the child’s need to justify its thoughts. Only later does reflection arise as the distinctive basis of inner activity, a faculty by which the child needs to understand his thoughts and verify them. ‘By ourselves we have no difficulty in believing what we say,’ says Piaget. ‘It is only in the process of communication that we need to test and substantiate our ideas.'[6]

Just as inner speech and reflection arise from the inter-relationship between child and surrounding people, so the source of development of the child’s will is its inter-relationships. In his latest work Piaget shows how the development of moral judgment in a child is based on collaboration. In earlier studies it was found that a child’s ability to subordinate its behaviour to a rule came first, and only afterwards was it able to regulate its behaviour consciously as an inner function.

What we have seen from these individual examples illustrates the general law of development of the higher psychic functions at a child’s age. We believe this law can be applied in its entirety to the process of children’s teaching as well. We have no hesitation after all that has been said in stating the essential characteristic of teaching to be the creation of the zone of proximate development. Teaching engages the child with life, awakens and puts in motion a whole range of inner developmental processes which, initially depending on relations with others in his intimate circle, then undergo an inner development and become part of the child’s own self.

In this sense teaching is not development, but teaching organized on the right basis will facilitate the child’s mental development, bring to life a whole range of developmental processes which outside of teaching would not be at all possible. Teaching therefore is an inwardly necessary and universal moment in the process of developing in a child not the innate but the historical characteristics of a human being. Just as a child of deaf-and-dumb parents, who does not hear the spoken word in his presence, must remain dumb although he has all the natural instincts for speech, and will not develop those higher psychic functions connected with speech, so every process of teaching is the source of development, calling into being a series of processes, which in the absence of teaching would not arise at all.

The role of teaching as the source of development creating the zone of proximate development may be explained more clearly by juxtaposing the teaching of a child and an adult. Until recently very little attention has been paid to the difference between the teaching of adults and the teaching of a child. As is known, adults too have an extremely high capacity for learning. James’s notion that after the age of 25 adults are unable to take in new ideas has been refuted by contemporary experimental research. However, what distinguishes an adult’s aptitude for learning from a child’s has still not been sufficiently clarified.

Indeed, the theories of Thorndike, James and others, that equate the learning process with the formation of habits, make any fundamental distinction between adult and child learning impossible. The very question becomes pointless. The formation of habits is based on one and the same mechanism whether this is habit acquired by an adult or a child. All it amounts to is that one person will form a habit with more ease and speed than the other.

One wonders, therefore, how one would distinguish between teaching an adult to type, ride a bicycle or play tennis, and teaching a child of school age writing, arithmetic and natural science. We believe that the most marked difference between the two occurs in their different relationship to the processes of development. Teaching someone to type certainly means establishing a series of skills, which in themselves change nothing in a person’s mental physiognomy. Such teaching uses development cycles already formed and completed. Precisely for this reason it plays an extremely small role from the point of view of general development.

The processes of teaching writing are quite another matter. Special studies, which we will discuss below, have shown that these processes call to life development cycles of psychic changes that are wholly new and extremely complex, and whose appearance denotes as fundamental an alteration in the general mental physiognomy of the child as the teaching of speech during the transition from infant to child.

We can now try to sum up what we have said and give a general formulation of the relationship we have found between processes of learning and those of development. Jumping ahead, let us say that all experimental research regarding the psychological nature of the processes of teaching arithmetic, writing, natural science and other subjects in a primary school shows that all these processes revolve as if on an axis round the basic new formations occurring at school age, interweaving with the central nerves of the pupil’s development. The very lines of school education awaken inner processes of development. To trace the origin and fate of these inner developmental lines that school education promotes constitutes a primary task for the psychological analysis of the pedagogic process.

Most important about this hypothesis is its position that developmental processes and learning processes do not coincide, that the former follow the latter, creating zones of proximate development.

From this point of view the traditional attitude to the relationship between teaching and development has to change. From the traditional point of view as soon as the child has learnt the meaning of a particular word, for example ‘revolution’, or mastered a particular operation, for example addition or writing, its development is essentially complete. From the new point of view it only begins at this moment. To show how the mastery of four arithmetical sums can give rise to a whole series of very complex inner processes in the development of a child’s thinking constitutes the basic task of pedology in analyzing the pedagogic process.

Our hypothesis establishes the unity, but not the identity of learning processes and the inner processes of development. It presupposes the transition from one to the other. To show how outward meaning and outward ability in the child become inward is a primary object for pedagogic research.

Pedagogic analysis is not a psychotechnology in regard to school. The child’s school work is not a profession, analogous to those of adults. To open up the real processes of development behind the teaching means opening the doors to a scientific analysis of the pedagogic process.

The question is what kind of reality is reflected in psychological analysis. It is that of the real inner connections in the processes of development, awakened to life by teaching at school. In this sense pedological analysis will always look within, like Röntgen’s X-ray. It should enable the teacher to watch the processes of development as they occur in the head of each child during the course of instruction. To lay bare this inner, subterranean, genetic network of school subjects constitutes the primary task of psychological analysis.

The second important moment of the hypothesis is the notion that although teaching connects directly with a child’s development, nevertheless it does not occur evenly and in parallel to the latter. The child’s development never follows school education like a shadow. This is why tests of achievement never reflect the real course of a child’s development. Indeed, the most complex, dynamic dependencies assert themselves between the process of development and that of teaching, and these cannot be fitted into a single speculative, a priori formula given in advance.

Each subject has its own concrete relationship to a child’s development and this relationship changes as the child moves from one step to another. This takes us immediately to a review of the problem of formal discipline, i.e. to the role and significance of each individual subject from the point of view of the child’s overall mental development. This cannot be decided using a single formula, and opens the space for the widest and most varied concrete studies.

We can presuppose that the coefficient of formal discipline, inhering in every subject, will not remain the same in the various stages of teaching and development. The task of pedological research in this sphere is the determination of the inner structure of school subjects from the point of view of the child’s development and the change that takes place in this structure along with methods of school education.

We believe that together with this hypothesis we have introduced into pedology the potential for a boundless field of concrete research, which can alone solve our problem in all its plenitude.

Notes by Myra Barrs

1. The full meaning of obuchenie (the root word from which obucheniya is derived) is not easily conveyed in English. Mitchell’s use of ‘teaching’ is a better translation of obuchenie than its translation as ‘learning’ in Cole et al. (1978), particularly as this article is so focused on pedagogy. But it still does not convey the two-sided nature of obuchenie. Nikolai Veresov comments: ‘Obuchenie is more than teaching, it is a cooperative activity of a teacher and a student’ (personal communication, June 2017). The word ‘teaching’, we might perhaps argue, means far more than ‘instruction’ and in its fullest interpretation implies a two-sided process. Though we have kept Mitchell’s translation of obuchenie throughout the translation, the reader needs to be aware of this fuller meaning of ‘teaching’, and the greater reciprocity that is conveyed by the original Russian word.

2. From James (1899, 29).

3. As far as possible we have tried to identify Vygotsky’s references, which are not specified in his text, but it had not always been possible to locate them. The reference to Belington here is one such instance.

4. It must be understood that the quote from Thorndike here is a translation of a translation. Vygotsky’s original text included no references and this has made the original very hard to locate. The ideas in the passage are familiar in Thorndike’s work, and can be found, for instance, in Thorndike’s The Psychology of Learning (1914). However, the passage from Thorndike that seems closest to this text is one from his book The Principles of Teaching: Based on Psychology (1906, 236-237). The wording of this, though different from both the Mitchell translation and the translation by Joan Simon (Vygotsky 1963), expresses the same ideas in the same sequence.

5. Throughout his translation, Stanley Mitchell used the word ‘proximate’ rather than ‘proximal’, the term we have become familiar with through its use in the 1978 translation. He considered that ‘proximate’ was a direct translation of the Russian original. Other Russian translators whom I have consulted and who, like him, were not familiar with the 1978 translation, have agreed with him.

6. We have been unable to identify this quote, which is, like the others in noted above, a translation of a translation. It appears likely that the quote comes from Piaget’s The Language and Thought of the Child ([1923], 1926 in English translation) which is centrally concerned with this transition from egotistical thinking to more abstract reasoning, with discussion and conversation as the means by which children formulate and test out their ideas in dialogue with others.

A note on the translator

The translator and Russian scholar Stanley Mitchell began his academic life as a lecturer in Russian at Essex University, and then taught in universities and colleges from California to Tanzania. He was Emeritus Professor of Aesthetics at the University of Derby. He published a translation of Georg Lukacs’s The Historical Novel (with his wife Hannah Mitchell) and an introduction to Walter Benjamin’s Understanding Brecht (in 2003). His life work was a translation into English verse of Pushkin’s Russian verse novel Eugene Onegin (2008). Robert Chandler, the editor of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, wrote of this: ‘His translation reproduces every facet of the original: the precise meaning, the wit, the lyricism. Nowhere is there a false note.’

Stanley translated Vygotsky’s ‘The problem of teaching and mental development at school age’ in 2010. He died unexpectedly in 2011. His translation has not been published until now.


Cole, M., V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner and E. Soubermann (eds). 1978. Mind in Society. Harvard: Harvard University Press.

James, W. 1899. Talks to Teachers on Psychology. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.

Koffka, K. 1924. The Growth of the Mind: An Introduction to Child-Psychology. Trans. R. M. Ogden. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co.

Köhler, W. 1925. The Mentality of Apes. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co.

Piaget, J. 1923/1926. Language and Thought of the Child. Translated by M. and R. Gabain. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Thorndike, E.L. 1906. The Principles of Teaching: Based on Psychology. Syracuse and New York, NY: Mason. Available online at https://archive.org/stream/principlesofteac00thor#page/236/mode/2up

Thorndike, E.L. and R.S. Woodworth. 1901. “The Influence of Improvement in One Mental Function upon the Efficiency of Other Functions.” First published in Psychological Review, 8 (3): 247 – 261.

Vygotsky, L.S. 1963. “Learning and Development at School Age.” Translated by Joan Simon. In Educational Psychology in the U.S.S.R., edited with an introduction by Brian and Joan Simon. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 21-34.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1935). Problema obučenija i umstvennogo razvitija v škol'nom vozraste ['The problem of teaching and mental development at school age']. In Umstvennoe razvitie detej v processe obučenija [Children's mental development in the process of learning/teaching]. Moscow: Gosudarstvennoie Uchebno-pedagogicheskoie Izdatel'stvo, pp. 3-19.