We can consider that his theory has four main aspects:
- The construction of knowledge: he considered that children build their knowledge about the world step by step, and that they are not passive witnesses to this process, but they analyze and revise the ideas that they receive from outside. For Vygotsky, learning involved human beings that created their own view on the new information they received. Knowledge was not simply built for the child, but it is built by and between the child and the sociocultural environment that surrounds him, as knowledge always involves more than a single human being.
- The influence of learning in the development: in Vygotsky’s view, the child faces a socio-cultural conditioning that not only influences, but also determines, to a great extent, the possibilities of his development; this is why Vygotsky insists on the importance of the cultural and social environment that influence this process. One of the most important of his theories is that of “the zone of proximal development”, the area comprised between the level at which a child can execute a task spontaneously, using his own resources, and the level that he could achieve if he received external support (the keys and methods that the teacher gives in order to ease his work, including the emotional support needed for the child to have confidence in himself). Vygotsky amplifies this concept, showing that social interaction shouldn’t happen only between the child and his teachers, but it should involve many other people: family, friends etc. The author talks about the limits of this zone of proximal development, giving examples of activities that children cannot perform at a certain age, and mentioning three ways of taking action:
- Recognizing the importance of individual differences and knowing how to deal with each child’s particular needs and difficulties.
- Evaluating the abilities of social exchange in solving problems, not only spontaneous conflicts.
- Carefully planning the type of social and cultural experiences to which the child will be exposed.
- Education and the social background: the author considered that social influence meant more than the establishing of beliefs and attitudes, and that it greatly influenced the way we think, and the things we think about. Perception, thought and memory are processes strongly influenced by the social environment, which offers different types of classifying, describing and understanding things, depending on the culture we grew up in. Vygotsky signals that the mental structure of all human beings is similar, and understands two levels of functioning: a high one (comprising superior mental processes, that only human beings can perform, which have been formed generation after generation and whose particular form varies from one culture to another), and a low one (inborn functions, part of our biological heritage).
- The role of language in development: Vygotsky considers that an essential aspect in the cultural development of the human species was the genius of man, who was able to transmit his experiences from one generation to another. In this process, language has played a double role: that of a mental heritage and an essential means through which cultural heritage could be transmitted. He says that language is a mechanism of thought and maybe the most important mental heritage, since this is the was information was passed from generation to generation. Learning – which is an external experience – is transformed into an internal experience through language.