Vygotsky and the Promise of Public Education

by Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur (Author)
©2017 Textbook XXXII, 312 Pages
Series: Educational Psychology, Volume 16


Vygotsky and the Promise of Public Education recontextualizes the scholarship of educator and psychologist Lev Vygotsky, highlighting its relevance to contemporary issues in public education. Emphasizing the historical, social, and cultural formation of conscious awareness, Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur advances Vygotsky’s project with current research in psychology, enabling the redefinition of central concepts such as learning, teaching, and developing. This attention to how we conceptualize learning and teaching is vital to the project of crafting schools to fulfill the promise of public education. Written for teacher candidates, educators, researchers, and policy-makers, this book both recognizes the complications of teaching and learning in public schools and contributes to the scholarship on the critical possibilities of schools as social institutions. The significance of public education for each and every child and teacher, and the future that is created in each student-teacher relationship, is re-centered as, perhaps, the most worthwhile project of our time.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Photos, Tables, and Figures
  • Photos
  • Tables
  • Figures
  • Foreword (Artin Göncü)
  • Preface
  • Audience and Organization
  • Overview of Chapters
  • Moving Forward
  • Acknowledgments
  • Unifying Theory and Practice
  • Chapter 1: Vygotsky’s Unifying Approach
  • Lev S. Vygotsky: Portrait of an Educator and a Psychologist
  • An Outline of Events
  • An Outline of Ideas
  • The Unity of Opposites: A Grounding Principle in Vygotsky’s Theory
  • The Unity of Individual and Social Environment
  • The Unity of Psychological Functions
  • The Unity of Nature and Culture
  • The Unity of Theory and Practice
  • The Purpose and the Promise of Public Education
  • Chapter Summary
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter 2: Understanding Learning and Development
  • Introducing Learning and Development
  • Development as Historical, Social, and Cultural
  • Development as a Historical Process
  • Development as a Social Process
  • Development as a Cultural Process
  • Perezhivanie and the Social Situation of Development
  • The General Genetic Law: From Natural to Cultural Development
  • The Zone of Proximal Development: When Learning and Teaching Lead Development
  • Redefining Development and Developmental Periods
  • Between Actual and Possible Development
  • Educational Implications of the ZPD
  • Chapter Summary
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 3: What Is Thinking?
  • Cultural Mediation: Technical and Psychological Tools
  • Social, Private, and Inner Speech
  • Social Speech: Speech for Others
  • Private and Inner Speech: Speech for Oneself
  • The Development of Concepts
  • Syncretism, Potential Concepts, and Thinking in Complexes
  • Everyday and Academic Concepts: The Ideal of Integration
  • Chapter Summary
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 4: Reconsidering the Role of Play and Imagination
  • The Work of Imaginative Play
  • On Play: Remembering, Thinking, Feeling, Imagining
  • Social and Self-Understanding
  • Representing and Abstract Thinking
  • Word Meaning and Concept Development
  • Self-Consciousness and Self-Direction
  • Imaginative Play Across the Life Course: Imagining Roles and Rules
  • Preschool Years: Make Believe and Pretend
  • Elementary School: Making and Attending to Rules
  • Secondary School: Performing, Imagining and Creating
  • Improvising: The Role of a Lifetime
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 5: Redefining Teaching and Teachers’ Work
  • The Educator as Mediator
  • From Classroom Discourse to Exploratory Talk and Dialogic Pedagogy
  • Why the Form of Social Speech Matters for Learning-Teaching
  • Classroom Discourse: From Default to Dialogue
  • Dialogue and Dialogic Teaching
  • Engaging Students and Co-Creating Learning Communities
  • Learning to Learn in Ms. Julie’s Kindergarten Classroom
  • Negotiating Students’ Interests in Ms. Emily’s Mixed Grades 4–7 Classroom
  • Questions, Evidence, and Argument in Ms. Rebecca’s Grade 11 Biology Class
  • Chapter Summary
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 6: Attending to Diverse Experiential Histories
  • Experiential Histories and the Shaping of Imagined Futures
  • Seeing Difference, Rather Than Deficiency
  • Situating Students in Relation to Their Social Environments
  • Acknowledging Social Relations and Recognizing Effects
  • The School Context: Situating Learning and Ability in Schools
  • Chapter Summary
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 7: What Are We Teaching?
  • Talking to Learn: Joint Thinking, Imagining, and Creating
  • Returning to Everyday and Academic Concepts
  • Elaborating Vygotsky’s Position
  • Empirical and Theoretical Learning
  • The Role of Inference in Learning and Teaching
  • Chapter Summary
  • Notes
  • References
  • Chapter 8: Assessment for Learning
  • Revisiting Alfred Binet’s Intelligence Testing
  • The Role of Assessment for Learning
  • When Assessment Is Dynamic
  • Chapter Summary
  • References
  • Chapter 9: Nurturing the Creative and Moral Imagination
  • Extending Imaginative Play to Foster Imagination and Creativity
  • Developing Moral Imagination
  • Moral Imagination: Social Futures and the Creation of Culture
  • Chapter Summary
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter 10: Crafting Schools for Unknown Social Futures
  • Making Learning, Teaching, and Developing Visible
  • Returning to the Purpose and the Promise of Public Education
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

| xi →



Photo 1.1. Lev Vygotsky and daughter, Gita.

Photo 2.1. Infant and father 1: An undirected gaze.

Photo 2.2. Infant and father 2: A shared gaze.

Photo 2.3. Infant and father 3: A shared gesture.

Photo 2.4. Infant and father 4: A new interest.

Photo 2.5. Infant and father 5: A shared interest.

Photo 3.1. The play setting: Marbles rolling down the ramp (right) to the catcher (left).

Photo 4.1. Vivi: “Press the button … on!”

Photo 4.2. Alex: “I know what I could use for wheels.”

Photo 4.3. Alex: “… red wheels.”

Photo 4.4. Alex: “Brm, brm, I have wheels now.”

Photo 5.1. Children in Ms. Julie’s classroom using the Checklist and Placemat. ← xi | xii →


Table 3.1. Developing thinking: Unorganized heaps, potential concepts, and complexes (including pseudoconcepts).

Table 3.2. Abstracting and generalizing through thinking: Everyday and academic concepts.

Table 5.1. Comparing characteristics of classroom discourse and dialogue.

Table 7.1. Representing part-whole relations.

Table 8.1. Characteristics of education programs based on mediated learning.


Figure 2.1. Simplified view of the relationship between critical and stable periods.

Figure 6.1. Overlapping frames: Learning through social relationships, social practices, and social relations in school.

Figure 6.2. Matrix of interaction: Mediated learning and psychological tools (adapted from description in Kozulin, 1998, pp. 76–77).

Figure 7.1. Children’s solutions for beginning addition and subtraction problems (early Grade 2) (adapted from Schmittau, 2004, p. 24).

| xiii →


Artin Göncü

During the last four decades, scholars have advanced Vygotskian approaches to the study of human development and education, addressing how children’s social, cultural, and activity contexts contribute to their development, and examining how Vygotskian theory can be translated into educational practice. Until the emergence of Vadeboncoeur’s book, however, advances in Vygotsky’s theory across different strands of educational practice have remained separate from one another. After a period of pause, this volume has emerged as a comprehensive resource that integrates the existing work in child development and education while expanding the theory to address significant questions regarding what to teach students and how to do so, how to address diversity in human development and educational practice, and how to assess the development of children, teachers, and institutions. As such, this volume serves as a landmark for developmental and cultural psychologists, educators, policy-makers, and students engaging readers with the major tenets of Vygotsky’s theory in conjunction with extensions of it with courageous clarity.

One significant contribution of this book is its presentation of Vygotsky’s conceptualization of human development as a “unity of opposites.” Much unlike the other dominant theories that rendered human development as a conflict/crisis ridden process, Vygotsky’s emphasis on the importance of the ← xiii | xiv → relationship between opposing features in a system—as generative, transformative, and mutually constitutive—provides an alternative to views of development that locate it as an individual, natural process that unfolds on its own time. In the beginning chapters, the unity of individual and social environment, nature and culture, and different psychological processes, such as affect and cognition, are described as functioning together to create development. It is in this discussion that Vygotsky’s unit of analysis, “perezhivanie,” is examined to indicate the working together of affect and cognition in enabling individuals’ adaptations to and transformations of novel social situations. Throughout the chapters of Vadeboncoeur’s book, the unity of theory and practice is illustrated exemplifying the reciprocal interaction between the two, and signifying the importance of collaborations among researchers and teachers to advance understandings of how human development is shaped by participation in educational contexts.

After having set the stage as such, Vadeboncoeur articulates how this unity of opposites is accomplished. Several chapters are devoted to the presentation of Vygotsky’s ideas about speech and its role in human development. By drawing from previous literature and based on her own data, Vadeboncoeur argues that speech serves as a bridge among the individuals and their social, cultural, and historical contexts. Through speech, children and others construct intersubjectivity, or shared meanings, whereby children’s existing understandings are expanded and supported by adults and peers. It is through speech that cultural tools for thinking and doing are made available for children and their possible uses are indicated.

Intersubjectivity is established in the zone of proximal development (ZPD) in social practices, as in taking a walk in the park and in imaginative play. Much unlike many previous presentations that discussed separately how the ZPD is created either in play or in problem solving activities, Vadeboncoeur discusses both by giving equal weight to each activity and illustrating how children’s participation in and appropriation from these activities is made possible. As such, this book is a rare contemporary guide that makes available for the reader the contribution of children’s engagement in cultural activity and the role this contribution plays in developing everyday and academic concepts. Moreover, this book presents a model of play as a life span activity and elaborates the possible ways in which play contributes to the development of self, social relationships, and consciousness.

Illustrated in the second half of the book, Vadeboncoeur’s work sheds light on four fundamental and enduring questions of educational practice, namely, ← xiv | xv → (1) conceptualizing the practice of teaching in the classroom, (2) addressing the diversity of students’ experiences, (3) linking conceptual development with assessment through dialogue and learning talk, and (4) extending the development of imaginative play, imagining, and creating through moral imagination and the anticipation of social futures.

With regard to the former, Vadeboncoeur argues that if development is a process of welcoming the young into communities by making available the tools of culture in a manner that is connected to the learner’s existing capacities, then the job of the teacher becomes one of engaging in dialogue with learners around concepts and knowledge while crafting appropriate ways of supporting their participation in knowledge communities. Basically, dialogue mediates engagement with the curriculum, as well as illustrating ways for thinking about the process of engaging curricular concepts. This process of dialogic engagement distinguishes the Vygotskian teacher from others as one who uses her power not in imposing her preconceived notions on children of what she deems to be valuable for children’s learning, but rather in bridging the child and the curriculum to inquire into matters including the history of curricular knowledge, why it is considered worth learning and for whom, and what is absent from the curriculum. As a community, children and teacher inquire into ways of thinking about the curriculum, as well as making their own contributions. Examples drawn from extant literature on classroom discourse and the vivid illustrations coming from Vadeboncoeur’s own data from an array of classrooms, kindergarten to eleventh grade, provide exemplars in application and the benefits of this approach.

On the question of diversity of experience, the reader is presented with a penetrating analysis of how educators should address difference, however defined, among students in the classroom. Building on Vygotsky’s notion of guiding children’s development in their ZPDs and also drawing from examples from gender and cultural studies, Vadeboncoeur proposes to focus on students’ lived experiences in making decisions about how best to address their educational needs. This approach acknowledges the need to consider children’s ethnic and racial identity, gender, and social class as established categories that require just treatment in the classroom. However, it also provides the caveat that essentializing categories of experience as a rubric for social justice may prevent the provision of just experiences given the heterogeneity of experiences within categories. Vadeboncoeur’s alternative proposal is informed, empowering, and hope-inducing: Examine children’s lived-experiences in relation to their interpersonal, meaning, symbolic, and material contexts; ← xv | xvi → consider their reasons for wanting to build on such experiences; and provide appropriate means for expanding them in view of institutional priorities. For any sensitive teacher and researcher, this approach to difference raises a significant challenge that we should face in our day-to-day living; how much do we know about the students we teach and how do we justify our practice in view of who they are? The following chapters provide Vadeboncoeur’s responses to this question building from Vygotsky’s foundation.

Linking conceptual development and assessment, the reader is presented with a critical distinction between assessment of learning and assessment for learning. Vadeboncoeur argues that the pervasive form of assessment in North America, misled as it is, is the assessment of learning. Based on a distorted view of learning, assessment of learning assumes that tests measure the individual child’s production of isolated, static, and presumably universal facts that are also assumed to be expressed through the same representational means all over the world. By drawing from cross-cultural research, however, Vadeboncoeur identifies the fallacies involved in this approach, and in its stead, following Vygotsky, she advances assessment for learning. Assessment for learning defines learning as a dynamic process that evolves through children’s participation in learning-teaching, thus, assessment retains its direct relationship to future teaching and is indelibly connected to conceptual development in the social practices of classrooms and cultural communities. In this view, there is no ideal final place to be reached in children’s development. Indeed, development is an ongoing process and assessments that are not used by educators to shape future instruction reflect a loss of potential learning opportunities. What is assessed when students and teacher work together in relation enables the teacher to aim instruction in the ZPD and ensures that students have multiple opportunities to engage conceptually. Assessment for learning evolves in a dynamic fashion just as the learning process itself does. As such, assessment for learning flexibly follows the means and contexts of learning as they exist in each cultural community including children’s ways of engaging in and appropriating from cultural activity.

Fourth, this book both presents Vygotsky’s theory and the relevant research drawn from many different fields to integrate ideas about child development and education. In addition, it describes the anticipation of the developmental path of young children along moral dimensions in relation to educational and developmental practice. Vadeboncoeur makes recourse to notions of “prolepsis” and “moral imagination” in articulating her views. Prolepsis describes the assumptions about the future that shape the actions of students and teachers, ← xvi | xvii → and moral imagination describes the judgments we make about relationships and ourselves in relationships as engagements of possibility and responsibility. That is, any kind of engagement brings with it a sense of exploring the unknown future as it also assumes adoption of responsibility and care for others. Any kind of participation comes with both analytic and empathic obligation. For example, as we work on a group project we make decisions both about division of labor as we also consider how our actions affect other participants. According to Vadeboncoeur, this is the promise of public education; opening up possibilities of engagement for the young, providing ways of caring and responsible forms of engagement, and doing so in a reflective dialogic manner through collaboration.

As such, for any scholar, policy-maker, caregiver, and teacher, this book lays out a comprehensive foundation for raising and teaching children and youth, as well as doing research with and about them. This prose written in a flowing manner clearly presents Vygotsky’s theory of cultural development and expands it in informed ways. Finally, by integrating seemingly separate lines of scholarship in the service of providing a unified approach to development and education, Vadeboncoeur’s book emerges as a fine example of cross-disciplinary work.

| xix →


Currently, a small but growing number of books explicate and extend the ideas of Lev Semenovich Vygotsky (1896–1934). Many of these books focus on early childhood and elementary education, in part, because his most widely known ideas seem to be more appropriate for younger learners. This quantity of books will surely increase over the next few decades given the publication of The Collected Works of L. S. Vygotsky in English between 1987 and 1998 and the wealth of knowledge these six volumes represent. Indeed, with access to the majority of Vygotsky’s writing in English, it is a generative moment in history. Scholars have noted that there is still more to be translated into English, including some of his early literary work. Access to these translations may further situate his ideas along with the philosophical commitments that motivated and shaped them. My interest is in how his writing addresses contemporary educational concerns and how it may be elaborated to better speak to our particular historical moment.

In writing this book, I had two overarching purposes. The first was to contribute to the ongoing conversation on the significance of Vygotsky’s work to learning, development, and teaching today. This significance derives, in part, from his emphasis on attending to the unity of opposites and his remarkable capacity to approach educational and psychological issues holistically and to “think things together.” His body of work offers refreshing insights into ← xix | xx → many long-acknowledged problems facing educators in schools on a day-to-day basis. As such, this book underscores the ways Vygotsky’s unified approach may address intractable issues in formal schooling; issues that reduce the potential of teachers to support the learning and development of all students given the diverse range of their educational histories.

A second overarching purpose was to enable educators to engage with Vygotsky’s ideas in such a way that they become useful in actively shaping contemporary human life. For example, educators may reimagine their role in creating social futures for and with children and youth, and reimagine education as contributing pathways to the creation and attainment of these social futures. Students and colleagues of Vygotsky, Alexsei Leontiev and Alexander Luria (1968), noted that “Vygotskii demanded that psychology become more than a scientific study of education and go beyond abstract theoretical knowledge and intervene in human life and actively help in shaping it” (p. 367). The central notion here is to enable readers to study theoretical and practical ideas, consider applications to particular classroom and/or learning contexts, and draw general educational implications. In short, to be able to think and to feel through the ideas, to see students, classrooms, and learning contexts differently, and to consider acting in potentially new ways to transform the world as a result.


XXXII, 312
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. XXXII, 312 pp.

Biographical notes

Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur (Author)

Jennifer A. Vadeboncoeur is Associate Professor of Human Development, Learning and Culture in Education at the University of British Columbia. She earned her PhD from the University of Colorado-Boulder.


Title: Vygotsky and the Promise of Public Education
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