| Historia y biografía de Lev Vigotsky | MR Online Historia y biografía de Lev Vigotsky

For a progressive pedagogy: Why we need Vygotsky

Originally published: For a progressive pedagogy: Why we need Vygotsky on April 1, 2024 by Jane Bassett (more by For a progressive pedagogy: Why we need Vygotsky) (Posted Apr 13, 2024)

What does the work of a Russian psychologist and educationalist who died in 1934 have to tell us about how human beings learn and develop? What can it say to us about what kind of education system we should create today? The answers to these questions lie in the incredibly rich series of ­writings produced by Lev Vygotsky in the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917. Vygotsky sought to explore how to support children (including those with special ­educational needs) to learn in the context of the construction of a new society, but he also went much further, developing an understanding of how we become conscious, thinking and feeling beings.

This article looks at Vygotsky’s relationship to the Russian Revolution and explores his key ideas about how we develop concepts and learn, as well as about the nature of imagination and play. It also discusses the progressive potential of what is probably his most famous theory, the “zone of proximal development”. It then contrasts Vygotsky’s ideas with the ­increasingly ­prescriptive pedagogies and curricula that are embedded in neoliberal ­education policy.

My focus will be on the education system in England, but similarly ­prescriptive policies can be found far more widely, including, for example, in the stress on formal examinations and tests in the United States and Australia and the overt censorship of texts available to children in U.S. schools. In Texas, for instance, ­legislation enacted by the Republican Party means that one ­objection from a parent can lead to the withdrawal of a book from the ­curriculum and school libraries. Victims of this policy include The Bluest Eye, an anti-racist ­literary ­classic by African-American writer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison.1 Such ­measures reflect a highly ideological and centralised view of the purposes and limits of state education, which flows from the needs of ruling classes to both control what students learn and to produce a workforce sufficiently flexible and adapted to the needs of the market. By contrast, the work of Vygotsky, as well as other progressive thinkers such as Brazilian ­educationalist Paulo Freire, can be drawn upon to articulate what kind of pedagogy and curriculum we might want—both now and in a future socialist society.

A detailed account of Vygotsky’s work illuminates much of what is so ­profoundly alienating about our curent education system. It can also help us ­understand the nature of the battle we face if we want a humane education system that values children, rather than profits. As in every part of British society, students and educators are working in a system that is in crisis, as ­evidenced by massive underfunding and cuts, the exodus of teachers and support staff, collapsing buildings, and the growing number of students experiencing mental health problems and alienation from the school system. These problems must be seen as a result of the Tory education policies and the agenda of the New Right: academisation, privatisation and rigid control of the workforce, policed by Ofsted.2 These reforms have deprived teachers of a sense of autonomy and control over what is happening in their classrooms, taking away their power to decide how best to support the children they teach.

Officially endorsed approaches to the curriculum, pedagogy and learning are being imposed alongside draconian policing of behaviour and uniform. The impact of this type of regime falls most heavily on black students and those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). One result of this is the growing use of exclusions and “off-rolling”, whereby “difficult” ­students (that is, those who require additional care and ­support) are removed from a school roll, with the school ­suggesting to their parents that their child might be better educated at another ­institution or at home. The goal is often to ensure that these “problem” students are prevented from ­negatively impacting on the school’s ratings in league tables.

These practices have been accompanied by the deliberate limiting of the educational opportunities open to working-class students, both black and white, through the implementation of a restricted, ­exam-oriented curriculum that narrowly focuses on “the basics” and thus devalues creativity and the arts. National Education Union (NEU) official Ken Jones, writing in Educate, the union’s national magazine, illustrates this by pointing to the stark contrast between the quality of creative facilities in independent schools and those in the state sector. Indeed, between 2015 and 2023, the state sector saw a fall in the number of students going onto GCSE and A Level courses in arts subjects.3 Moreover, the relentless focus on examination skills is also destroying creative approaches to “academic” subjects.

Vygotsky: life, work and the Russian Revolution

Vygotsky was born in 1896 to a middle-class Jewish family in the city of Gomel, which is now in Belarus but was then a part of the empire ruled by the Russian Tsar. Jewish people were subject to growing discrimination across the Russian Empire, and violent pogroms against Jewish communities were on the rise. Despite being subject to Tsarism’s racist laws against Jews and the ­imposition of an antisemitic quota system and ­“Jewish Lottery” for entry into the higher education system, Vygotsky ­succeeded in securing a place at Moscow University, where he ­studied law. He also simultaneously enrolled to study philosophy, literature and ­psychology at the private Shanyavsky University, where he completed his thesis on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet.4 Sometime after the Russian Revolution took place in 1917, he returned to Gomel and was involved in teacher training and other activities there before moving back to Moscow in 1924.

Vygotsky was a polymath. Highly educated, he was able to speak a number of languages. He also possessed a huge range of interests, including a deep regard for poetry and the theatre. One of his first works, The Psychology of Art, deals with aesthetics, and literary references run through even his very theoretical works such as Thinking and Speech.5 During his professional life, he was deeply involved in ­developing new ideas in the realms of psychology, learning and education, and he sought to explore these at both the theoretical and practical levels.

Vygotsky wrote extraordinarily widely, and it is impossible to cover all of his work. Indeed, my own perspective on his writing is perhaps limited by my background as a secondary school English teacher; there is far more to be said, for example, about his work on play and how it can illuminate what education could be like for children of primary school age. Similarly, there is much more that could be written on what his ideas might tell us about developing concepts and knowledge in mathematics and science. Vygotsky developed these ideas through his work with a range of subjects, including those whom we would now describe as children with SEND as well as orphans and street children.

Vygotsky died an early death in 1934, aged 37. Shirley Franklin’s short book Vygotsky, Education and Revolution gives a clear and useful account of his life and his key ideas, as does Understanding Vygotsky: A Quest for Synthesis by Jaan Valsiner and René van der Veer. Both underline the incredible impact of the Russian Revolution on his thinking.

The upheaval and hopes brought by a revolution are inevitably reflected in demands for better, emancipatory education. For instance, there was intense debate among supporters of the Paris Commune, the French working-class uprising of 1871, about the type of education system needed in the new society they hoped to construct. Marxist historian Sandra Bloodworth describes the educational reforms brought about by the Commune regime in Paris:

A third of children had no access to education at all, and the Commune would try to implement compulsory and equal education for both boys and girls. Teachers’ wages were raised, with women and men on equal pay. A school of industrial arts was established with a woman as director. Students would receive scientific and literary instruction, then use some of the day for the application of art and drawing to industry.6

The Commune was drowned in blood by a vicious counter-revolution in May 1871. Nonetheless, its “polytechnic” view of education resurfaced in Russia after the October Revolution in 1917. The ideals of the Bolshevik Party stood in sharp contrast both to the later Stalinist “reform” of the Soviet Union’s education system in the 1930s as well as to the instrumental and authoritarian system we face today. The introduction to the Soviet government’s 1918 Education Act stated:

The personality shall remain as the highest value in the socialist culture. This personality, however, can develop its inclinations in all possible luxury only in a harmonious society of equals. We do not forget the right of an individual to his own peculiar development. It is not necessary to cut short the personality, to cheat it, to cast it into iron moulds, because the stability of the socialist society is based not on the uniformity of the barracks, not on artificial drill, not on religious and aesthetic deceptions, but on an actual solidarity of interests.7

Provisions of the act included the introduction of compulsory education up until 17 years of age, free hot meals for children, the establishment of a collective (including students) to run schools, and the abolition of both homework and corporal punishment.8

Vygotsky was committed to these values and the projects of building a new society and a new education system. He spoke of the revolution as “our supreme cause” while at a conference in London and wrote that “the ­revolution undertakes the re-education of mankind”—a reference to Leon Trotsky’s description of the revolutionary process as transforming humanity.9 In the years following the revolution, fired by the hopes it brought for a new society, he elaborated his ideas on education, language and learning.

His development of these ideas must be seen in the light of the huge ­practical problems faced by the new socialist order, but also as part of the enormous intellectual ferment and excitement generated by the Russian Revolution. Moscow was at the centre of flourishing debate and discussion in the ­political realm as well as in the wider cultural and artistic spheres. Vygotsky was very much involved in the networks at the centre of these debates. For example, he was friendly with the poet Osip Mandelstam, and his ideas also display clear similarities with the work of other Soviet theorists such as the linguist Valentin Voloshinov (to whose work I refer below).10 His work in education and psychology should also be seen in the context of his sustained collaboration with various colleagues, particularly ­developmental psychologists Alexander Luria, who later made significant advances in ­neuropsychology, and Aleksei Leontiev.11

Despite his high ideals, Vygotsky worked under difficult conditions. Educationalist Myra Barrs, writing in her excellent Vygotsky the Teacher: A Companion to His Psychology for Teachers and Other Practitioners, described the poverty and desperation that followed the First World War, the Russian Civil War and the Soviet famine of 1921-22. This series of catastrophes led to a ­situation in which there were about seven million street children in the Soviet Union. At one time, a thousand street children were arriving in Moscow every week, and Vygotsky and his colleagues worked with some of these.12

A more problematic aspect of Vygotsky’s work is his involvement with expeditions led by Luria to the Central Asian portions of the Soviet Union, where they intended to explore the psychology of “primitive” peoples. There is insufficient space here to explore this topic in depth. Nonetheless, it seems clear that these expeditions and ethnological research projects were Eurocentric at best and drew on what we would now recognise as racist assumptions. Van der Veer and Valsiner explore this in some detail.13

It is also necessary to note Vygotsky’s use of some terminology that we would very much avoid today. As Franklin points out, terms such as ­“defectology”, “abnormal”, “handicapped” and “retarded” do not “sit well in the context of our current understanding of SEND”.14 No educator or others concerned with supporting children or adults would use such language now.

However, Vygotsky’s interest in and work with children with SEND, which he continued to develop throughout his life, consistently point to an ­understanding of what we would now see as a “social model of disability”. According to this view, disability is not a natural outcome of the person’s impairment, but rather a ­consequence of how society fails to make the world accessible to such an individual. Barrs comments that Vygotsky was “searingly critical of traditional approaches to the education of handicapped children, which he saw as condescending, philanthropic and pitying”. He insisted upon the active and difficult effort that all children, including those with SEND, necessarily make in learning.15 Both Barrs and Franklin write interestingly and in detail on this.16 It is also evident that he took great care with the individuals he supported; Barrs cites case notes from when he worked at the Experimental Defectology Clinic in Moscow, which record in detail his interactions with a boy, Kolya, and his mother and teachers.17

Despite the difficulties Vygotsky faced, such as the lack of even basic ­education and literacy in many parts of the country, as well as his own failing health, his work still stands out today and is a testament to his ­commitment to the idea of building up a new society. However, by the time of Vygotsky’s death in 1934, the Soviet Union was in the grip of Stalinism. Many of the gains of the October Revolution had been rolled back, and the education system had reverted to the oppressive and authoritarian features prevalent under Tsarism. These included the reintroduction of traditional subject-based teaching and the abandonment of the “activity methods of a project-based curriculum”. There was also a return to homework and formal, highly ­disciplinarian forms of instruction as well as the appointment, rather than election, of headteachers.18 By the early 1930s, Vygotsky came under pressure from ­official disapproval and attacks, which culminated in the Anti-Paedology Decree of 1936.19 Much of his work was unpublished in the Soviet Union until after Stalin’s death in 1953.20

When it was “rediscovered” in the West in the 1960s, Vygotsky’s work was initially published in bowdlerised form, which disguised the Marxism that grounded his approach. Barrs, drawing on the detailed work of Italian ­psychologist Luciano Mecacci, has shown how much of Vygotsky’s research and writing has emerged piecemeal, often heavily edited and in a variety of translations. Of the work most familiar to readers in Britain, what many know as Thought and Language appears in the later Collected Works of L S Vygotsky as “Thinking and Speech”. Barrs was ­particularly critical of the “essays” in the collection Mind in Society, published in 1978, which she described as “a very flawed set of excerpts” that were heavily and creatively edited. She described how extracts were cut out and sections from different texts were added into the text. Much of his writing can now be found in fuller form in the Collected Works, and I draw on these here.21

In addition, there has been much debate over the ­accuracy of the various translations from the original Russian text, and there is controversy over what Vygotsky actually wrote. These debates have shaped the reception of a number of his ideas, including a long discussion of what he understood by the notion of the “zone of proximal development”.

Language and consciousness: the development of concepts

In the last year of his life, Vygotsky was planning books on both ­consciousness and the emotions, but he finished neither before his death. Still, a ­preoccupation with these themes runs through his writing.22 At the core of his thinking is a search to understand how we develop into conscious, thinking and feeling human beings.

Voygotsky’s theory is based on the Marxist understanding that ­individuals are shaped and socialised by the society they inhabit. As Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote, “Language is as old as consciousness; language is practical ­consciousness that exists for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well”.23 Voloshinov, Vygotsky’s ­contemporary, argued along similar lines, referring to language as a collection of signs and stating, “Individual consciousness is not the architect of the ideological ­superstructure, but only a tenant lodging in the social edifice of ideological signs.” Given this, Volshinov insists on the centrality of dialogue and that the “individual consciousness not only cannot be used to explain anything… [It] is a social-ideological fact”.24 Vygotsky draws on similar understandings of ­language, and on the work of those, such as Friedrich Engels, who saw ­language and words as symbolic tools.25

Vygotsky refers to “word-meaning” to describe how a child’s ­consciousness and inner speech develop as they mature and interact with the social world. Barrs argues:

Like Marx, Vygotsky’s view of the relationship between consciousness and ­activity was interactionist. Mind is formed through interaction with others, through experience in the world and in relation to human culture. The role of language is fundamental to this interaction. Through language, higher mental functions are internalised and developed. Consciousness is thus the product of these social and cultural processes. Higher mental functions, ­interacting in increasingly complex psychological systems, are then integrated in the ­continuing development of the mind, in a process of constant dialectical change.

As Vygotsky puts it in the closing lines of Thinking and Speech:

If language is as ancient as consciousness itself, if language is consciousness that exists in practice for other people and therefore for myself, then it is not only the development of thought but the development of consciousness as a whole that is connected with the development of the word. Studies consistently demonstrate that the word plays a central role, not in the isolated functions, but the whole of consciousness. In consciousness, the word is what—in Feuerbach’s words—is absolutely impossible for one person, but possible for two. The word is the most direct manifestation of the historical nature of human consciousness.26

Vygotsky stresses this social and dynamic view of development ­throughout Thinking and Speech, although he does not engage deeply with the more ­ideological implications of Marx’s insight that “the ruling ideas in any society are those of the ruling class”.27

He does, however, engage with other ­psychologists, particularly Swiss child development theorist Jean Piaget. Piaget’s view of childhood development was and remains immensely influential, and Vygotsky both admired his work and profoundly disagreed with it; indeed, a chapter in Thinking and Speech is devoted to this.28 One aspect of this disagreement is how the two viewed “egocentric speech”—the way young children, as they acquire language, speak their thoughts out loud, particularly when thinking through a problem (and, of course, as adults we still do this when struggling to think through an issue). Piaget sees early childhood and egocentric speech as “autistic” in character.29 This is not a reference to our modern understanding of neurodivergence, but rather to a now obsolete clinical notion that children experience an initial stage of “autism” that involves a tendency to engage in self-centred fantasy thinking that is unrealistic and has to be dispensed with in order to enable ­psychological maturation. In contrast, Vygotsky argues that the child uses egocentric speech actively as a tool to help direct thinking, and that it increasingly moves from the middle and end of an activity to taking on a directional, ­planning role. He compares this to the “well-known developmental sequence in the naming of drawings”: “A small child draws first, then decides what it is he has drawn; at a slightly older age, he names his drawing when it is half-done; and, finally, he decides beforehand what he will draw”.30 As the child matures, their use of ­egocentric speech declines, and it gradually becomes inner speech—language as a tool for thinking. If we think about children in a classroom talking out loud, planning and thinking through problems by speaking, we can already begin to see the inappropriate and potentially damaging nature of those current pedagogies that focus on even small children sitting for long periods while being formally instructed.

This social and historical understanding of how the child internalises language underlies Vygotsky’s theories on the development of concepts. Crucially, he differentiates between the concepts we learn in the course of everyday life and what he describes as “scientific” concepts: abstract concepts that we acquire through education and schooling.

It is important to note that, when discussing how scientific concepts are taught to children in school, Vygotsky insists upon the importance of the role of educators and their necessary function in challenging students—a riposte to the right-wing myth that progressive education is all about allowing ­students to flounder and waste time, rather than being ­presented with the “right” knowledge to memorise (an issue I discuss below). Indeed, he stressed that the importance of challenging students meant not simply submitting them to rote learning, and he believed that this approach should also be taken to the teaching of students with SEND. According to Vygotsky, scientific concepts “are not simply acquired or memorised by the child and assimilated by their memory” but “arise and are formed through an extraordinary effort of their own thought”.31

Piaget argued that childhood thinking is replaced by adult thought, but Vygotsky saw things differently. He suggested that the relationship between everyday concepts and scientific concepts should be viewed as dialectical. To demonstrate this, he drew on experiments using coloured blocks with names on them (now known as “Vygotsky blocks”), with the goal of exploring how young children develop their thinking by arranging the blocks. Initially, their selection is random, but over time they begin to develop more objective ways of grouping together the different blocks, culminating in what he terms the “pseudo-concept”, which is apparently abstract but actually rooted in concrete thinking. For Vygotsky, the concrete reality of children’s lives and understandings are not lost during their development, but instead become part of the abstract concepts they meet and develop in education.

Crucially, for Vygotsky, both everyday concepts and ­scientific concepts are transformed by the development of the other; for example, he wrote about how the learning of a foreign language is wholly different from learning one’s native language—and thus extends an abstract understanding of linguistic forms in both the target language and the mother tongue. Similarly, a child’s understanding of basic arithmetic and numbers is transformed by studying algebra, which involves generalisation and abstraction. This runs counter to theories of education and pedagogy that treat children as blank slates and dismiss the value or relevance of their backgrounds, existing knowledge and previous experiences to their current education. In “The Problem of Teaching and Mental Development at School Age”, Vygotsky states:

The first thing to consider is the fact that a child’s education begins long before they go to school. School never starts in an empty space. Whatever a child learns in school has its prehistory.32

This is also a strong counter to right-wing educationalists’ arguments against schools nurturing students’ bilingualism, which often claim that this works against social and racial integration and confuses students. In fact, there is plenty of evidence that supporting children’s mother tongue is important for their emotional and social development and that it aids concept formation.33

The zone of proximal development

The notion of the zone of proximal (or “proximate”) development is perhaps the best-known of Vygotsky’s theories.34 It remains extremely important, ­providing a powerful theoretical support to the notion of learning as a ­collective, social activity. As such it also backs up the use of mixed ­ability groupings in classrooms, where students learn from one another. For ­example, some ­students may be more capable in a particular field or, due to their ­background, may have access to a greater understanding of a particular issue. In such a scenario, the role of an educator or other adult is central to guiding and ­supporting students, whether they are working individually or in a group; for instance, the educator might supply some additional ­information and ask a question that pushes students towards greater understanding.

Understanding the complexities of this form of teaching and learning is important in order to be able to counter ­right-wing arguments against ­progressive styles of education. These are often caricatured as aimless group work and are rejected in favour of rigid setting and streaming, where children with similar levels of ­current attainment are grouped together for lessons.

The theory of the zone of proximal development begins from a ­consideration of how to best assess a child’s development and the progress they are making. Crucially, Vygotsky challenges the idea that the only ­reliable method of establishing this is in “independent activity” without outside help, which is the underlying (and heavily ideological) assumption of the examination-driven systems that students experience today in Britain and many other countries. He argues that such assessment will only show us what the child has already learned, thus ­failing to challenge them and to establish how different students are developing and maturing. As he puts it:

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.

With guidance and support, the child is able to do much more than by ­themselves, and this points to their zone of proximate development, which will vary from child to child. The zone of proximate development is that space between what the child can already do unaided and what they are unable to do; it is the range of things they can do only if helped by a “more knowledgeable other”.

The concept of the zone of proximal development has been criticised for being less developed and concrete than much of Vygotsky’s work; some have referred to it as “under-specified” and theoretically fuzzy.35 It is also unclear what he meant when he talks about testing in his writings, although it seems almost certain that he is referring to the tests associated with Alfred Binet and the s0-called Binet-Simon Intelligence Quotient (IQ) tests. These were the first practically useable examinations used to determine IQ, a highly contested and controversial concept. The abuse of these tests has been shown, for example, by Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.36 Vygotsky, as Barrs points out, favoured more varied forms of assessment and testing, and he “emphasised the need for more holistic ways of looking at children’s progress at school”.37

This ambiguity can be seen in the practical applications of the theory. So, for example, the concept of the zone of proximal development underlies the theories behind “assessment for learning”, an approach which was first developed by Dylan Wiliam and others at King’s College, London in a series of pamphlets initially called Inside the Black Box.38 These focus on informal assessment—questioning, peer discussion, giving effective feedback and so on—and have also been attacked as lacking rigour. Conversely, the concept has been misused to justify a focus on examination and test outcomes. As Barrs says, it is used as “just another, more detailed, measure of attainment, or as a way of setting targets for children to reach or exceed”. She notes that, in some educational settings, children’s zones of proximal development are routinely measured and recorded, with some commercial schemes using them to inform children of their “level”: “In our measurement-obsessed culture any form of assessment that results in a number is likely to be taken up and reified in this way”.39 Nonetheless, the notion of the zone of proximal development should be celebrated as a powerful reinforcement of the importance of education as a social activity, stressing the role of other people and of collaboration.

Imagination and play

Less easily instrumentalised and measured are imagination and play, which were areas Vygotsky explored extensively. His arguments in “Imagination and Creativity in Childhood”, which he wrote in 1932, are central to this. As he puts it:

Imagination, as the basis of all creative activity, is an important component of absolutely all aspects of cultural life. It enables everything around us that was created by the hand of man, the entire world of human culture, as distinct from the world of nature.40

Drawing on the work of a 19th century French psychologist ­Théodule-Armand Ribot, Vygotsky argues that every individual is creative, not just those we know as outstanding geniuses (somewhat ironically, he cites three white men, novelist Leo Tolstoy, inventor Thomas Edison and biologist Charles Darwin). In fact, human history and culture are a ­product of ­“collective creativity, which combines all these drops of individual creativity”.41 This has huge implications for how we consider the importance of the ­imagination and play in the education of young children. More broadly, it stands in stark contrast to the ideology that lies beneath the highly prescriptive and limiting pedagogies pushed by the government and Ofsted, which have resulted in the loss of creativity across the curriculum and at all ages.

“Imagination and Creativity in Childhood” involves a detailed exploration of an account by Tolstoy of his involvement in what we might now describe as the “co-construction” of a story with a group of peasant children. According to Tolstoy, the children initially refused to write anything because they felt the story he suggested was beyond them. Yet, once he started the story off, “all the children participated in writing it”, pouring in their own suggestions and ideas. Vygotsky provides an explanation of this, writing that the “children understood this real joint work with an adult writer to be a truly collaborative effort, in which they felt themselves to be equal partners with adults”. He argues that this approach ­“awakened in these ­children a method of expressing their ­experience and attitude towards the world that had been completely unknown to them previously”.42

The role of the educator in intervening in learning is crucial, but Vygotsky challenged the notion that children are empty vessels into which we must pour what that we think is important:

Correctly and scientifically understood, the concept of education does not at all mean artificially inculcating children with ideals, feelings and moods that are totally alien to them. The right kind of education involves awakening in the child what already exists within him, helping him to develop it and directing this development in a particular direction.43

Paulo Freire similarly criticised what he called the “banking concept of education”, which turns students into passive “containers” into whom ­teachers pour their expertise.44 Vygotsky stresses the idea of drawing on the actual lives and experiences of children: indeed, he follows this up by looking at the research done on the writing of street children, citing some examples.45 He ­subsequently reinforces his argument through discussion of children’s ­dramatic activities, showing that children learn through activity and ­stressing that the significance of their collective activity lies “not in the product of ­creation, but in the process itself”. Discussing one production of a school play, he notes that the “intrinsic value of children’s creative processes are particularly clearly manifest in the fact that auxiliary operations, for example, technical work to prepare the scenery, take on, in the children’s eyes, no less importance than the play and acting itself”.46

This focus on active learning also underlines Vygotsky’s discussion of the importance of imaginative play in “Play and its Role in the Mental Development of the Child”. Of course, children play from an early age, but Vygotsky suggests that, after the age of three years old, imaginative play develops as a response to the “realisation” that their desires cannot be immediately met. Thus, play “must be understood as the imaginary, illusory realisation of unrealisable desires”.47 This entails the child stepping out of their normal perceptions and the emergence of what Vygotsky describes as a divergence between their visual field and the field of meaning:

Thought is separated from objects because a piece of wood begins to play the role of a doll and a stick becomes a horse. Action according to rules begins to be determined by thought, not by objects themselves. This is such a reversal of the child’s relationship to the real, immediate, concrete situation that it is hard to evaluate its full significance.48

One consequence of this is that the child starts to apply “rules”. For instance, if they are playing sisters with their sister, they impose a structure on this play and act out something that is different from their normal relationship. As a result, “The play creates the zone of proximal development of the child. In play a child is always above his average age, above his daily behaviour; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself”.49

This has major implications for how we consider education in the early years of children’s lives, where official policy has dismissed or downplayed the significance of play in favour of direct instruction by a teacher. In an extended analysis of the impact of neoliberal policy on children in the early years sector, educationalists Celia Burgess-Macey, Clare Kelly and Marjorie Ouvrey have pointed to evidence that supports Vygotsky’s view of the importance of play. Their research shows how the place of play has been steadily undermined by an insistence on more formalised teaching and ­instrumentalised ­assessment focused on “school readiness”, that is, the ­preparedness of young ­children to enter the school system. Against this, they observe the crucial importance of play in child development:

Play maximises neural networking opportunities and is a central mechanism in facilitating social, emotional and academic development in young children. All important and intimate cultural practices associated with family and community life are source material for children’s play.50

Burgess-Macey, Kelly and Ouvrey also argue that, in early years settings, “the environment is structured, so that children have the opportunity to use playthings as vehicles for their learning”, with the educator using this for intervention and the assessment of progress. They provide a wonderful illustration of this with an account of “learning with sand”.51

Since the election of Tony Blair’s New Labour in 1997, measures have been introduced that have sought to gradually align early years education with Year One (the first year of primary school). This has involved introducing ­new assessments, including “baseline assessment”, which “involves assessing four and five year olds against standardised, culturally specific criteria in the first few weeks after they enter the Reception class”.52 These sorts of assessments force educators to focus on tracking and reporting achievement, using information from tasks that do not take account of individual children’s trajectories.53 Baseline assessment has been suspended, but the pressure to measure and instrumentalise the education of even very young children continues and can be seen as part of a wider attack on progressive education.

The attack on progressive education

In the wake of the boom following the Second World War, the needs of the economy for a better educated workforce—and pressure from below to move away from the rigidities of the divide between grammar schools and secondary modern schools—fuelled expansion of the education sector. New universities and ­polytechnics were set up, and comprehensive education was introduced. Schools began to adopt more child-centred ways of teaching and also responded to the need to challenge oppression with the adoption of ­anti-racist and anti-sexist policies in schools.

Such practices always faced attacks from the right wing. These included the ­publication of the so-called Black Papers in the late 1960s and the Thatcherite attack on the Inner London Education Authority’s anti-racist and anti-sexist ­policies in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and the advent of economic downturn and neoliberalism, these attacks have been embedded in official policy. In this context, it is worth remembering a remark attributed to an unknown official at the Department for Education in 1980: “Students must be taught to know their place again.” The past 40 years have seen this sentiment play out in privatisation, Ofsted’s surveillance of schools and educators, and the increasing policing of the curriculum and pedagogy.54

Official rhetoric proclaims that all children have the right to equal access to education and, crucially, a “knowledge-rich” curriculum. While he was ­education secretary, Michael Gove claimed that teachers had previously failed black and working-class student through “the soft bigotry of low expectations”—a phrase drawn from U.S. president George W Bush—when he introduced the new National Curriculum in 2013. Nick Gibb, until recently the long-standing minister for schools, declared in a collection of essays for right-wing think-tank Policy Exchange that the reshaped National Curriculum provides “knowledge-rich” education, the need for which is backed up by a “compelling social justice case”.55 This rhetoric is ­reinforced by the pervasive “culture wars” waged by the New Right, which ­encompass attacks on “wokeness” and progressive movements in ­education. At the wilder extremes, Tory MPs such as Miriam Cates have referred to ­supposed ­brainwashing in schools, claiming educators want to inculcate “Cultural Marxism”—a trope used by the far right and often linked to antisemitism.56

Key battlegrounds today include the calls to decolonise the curriculum (the potential for which is actually tightly limited by both the National Curriculum and the examination system) and the recent guidance on how schools should respond to transgender students. In the process of attacking progressive ­education, myths about curriculum and pedagogy are perpetrated in rhetoric and right-wing ­publications as well as in official policy. Thus, for instance, we see the advocation of a false dichotomy between “knowledge” (however this is defined) and skills as well as attacks on group work in favour of direct ­instruction. There is also a commitment to rigid testing and streaming, with strong opposition to mixed ability teaching. Other prongs of the attack on ­progressive education include the dogmatic insistence on phonics as the only way to teach reading, a focus on memory and rote learning, and reliance on high stakes ­testing and examinations such as the Key Stage 2 SATs, GCSEs and A Levels.

Whose knowledge?

For progressive educators, and for Vygotsky, who often talked about the content of what children learn, there is no dichotomy between knowledge and skills. Of course, this does not mean that “facts” are irrelevant. Nor does it mean everything has to be acquired through a caricature of “discovery learning”, a form of ­experiential learning with minimal guidance from a teacher. These are precisely the sort of strawmen attacked by right-wing educationalists such as Katharine Birbalsingh, the headteacher of Michaela Community School in North West London, which is known in the press as the “strictest school in Britain”. Drawing on the works of U.S. educationalist E D Hirsch, Birbalsingh asserts:

As Hirsch makes clear, it is traditional teaching of knowledge, not progressive “discovery learning”, that fosters a child’s self-esteem. Discovery learning is precisely the thing that disengages a child and makes him give up on learning. Teachers are often told by their teacher training tutors, senior team managers and Ofsted inspectors that children should be left to discover things for themselves. “Whatever you do, don’t give them the answer!” This is precisely the opposite of what we should be doing.

The progressive way of teaching befuddles children, encourages them to misbehave and makes them switch off because they don’t know the answer. Then they feel stupid. They don’t presume the fault lies with the teacher for not teaching them properly.57

This is a parody of progressive teaching. Obviously, there are times when a teacher will give students key knowledge; at other times, however, they will instead give them access to the resources they can use to investigate for ­themselves. Alternatively, teachers may ask students to consider the reliability of what they are told, the relevance of other factors and how all this fits with their own experience and knowledge. Vygotsky forcefully advocates such an approach. Knowledge—whether of the periodic table, the Holocaust, the slave trade or the factors causing climate chaos—is important. However, so are the skills that enable us to use, analyse and challenge this knowledge. “Teaching properly” means mixing methods and adapting to the subject and the students.

Moreover, what is meant by knowledge, and who defines it, is vital. How knowledge is transmitted is always subject to contestation. One example is the debate over the content of school history classes. In 2009, Conservative Party leader David Cameron attacked “state multiculturalism” and argued for “proper teaching of British history in our schools”, proclaiming, “We must defend our armed forces, our monarchy, our democratic traditions”.58 Yet, in 2013, when his government proposed the current National Curriculum, an outcry from history teachers and professional historians forced the Tories into a limited retreat.59

Government policy on what “knowledge” should be taught is inevitably linked to the Teachers’ Standards, which refer to “fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”.60 Of course, the ideas that these are fundamental British values seems ever more ironic in the light of the openly racist rhetoric from politicians and the media against migrants and refugees. Indeed, there is no clearer illustration of the ruling class’s need to control what and how schools and colleges teach than its pressure to censor discussion of Israel’s attempted genocide in Gaza. Still, educators, alongside students and parents, have pushed back against the suppression of discussion, reigniting the issue of decolonising education, which was previously also a powerful component of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Ofsted subject reviews

The push to control both curriculum and pedagogy is reflected in the “subject reviews” published by Ofsted, which collate research about teaching and ­learning in various subject areas. These reviews typically presume the value of more formal, disciplinarian methods of learning, even though this is badly evidenced. Indeed, both the English and Media Centre (EMC)—a highly respected charity focused on English teaching—and the Association of Teachers of Mathematics have ­criticised the assumptions of the reviews and the rigour of the research cited by them.61 For instance, the EMC’s extended critique of Ofsted’s subject review of English states:

Foundational knowledge in English is different from a subject such as chemistry or maths, where understanding something may be a requirement for the next stage in learning. In English, knowledge is more recursive, can build up in different sequences and does not fall flat if a specific bit of knowledge hasn’t yet been taught.62

The critique points to the narrow range of factors that Ofsted considers in its review, pointing to an obsession with learning and extending vocabulary—which is, after all, only one aspect of language—and the lack of concern for structure and syntax. It also criticises the review’s unsubstantiated claims about the need for decontextualised teaching of grammatical knowledge in order for students to learn to write clearly and creatively. Of course, grammar and a wider comprehension of how ­language works is fascinating and can illuminate students’ choices in writing and their understanding of what they read. However, it can also lead to what teachers refer to as “feature spotting”, an obsession with the naming of parts of speech, rather than asking students to respond critically to what they read. As Vygotsky suggests:

Educational experience, no less than theoretical research, teaches us that, in practice, a straightforward learning of concepts always proves impossible and ­educationally fruitless. Usually, any teacher setting out on this road achieves nothing except a meaningless acquisition of words—mere verbalisation in children—which is ­nothing more than simulation and imitation of corresponding concepts that, in ­reality, are concealing a vacuum. In such cases, the child assimilates not concepts, but rather words, and he fills his memory more than his thinking. As a result, he ends up helpless in the face of any sensible attempt to apply any of this acquired knowledge.63

These concerns also underline criticisms of the official endorsement of phonics and an explicit focus on decoding as the principal approach to teaching children to read. Ofsted English subject review says, “Once children are fluent in word reading, they are able to focus on comprehending what they read.” It then suggests that children should practise with “decodable books”, so that they do not need to “guess” meaning.64 Yet, as Macey, Kelly and Ouvrey argue:

Studies have shown that learning to be literate is a complex process but in government documentation it has been conceptualised as linear, involving the acquisition of skills. Literacy is a cognitive process, but also a social, cultural and emotional one… Reading and writing always take place in a context, in the overlapping spaces of home, school, work and community, and in different languages, requiring different practices for different purposes.65

Of course, phonics is a part of learning to read, and it can benefit some children. However, placing phonics at the absolute centre of learning to read ignores the wider context—and, indeed, the pleasure and motivation that is so important to learning. It is clear that inadequate research is being used to bolster highly ideological, pre-set positions about knowledge and pedagogy. Despite this, the fear of Ofsted within the education sector creates huge ­pressure to conform.

Oak Academy: production line teaching

These highly ideological assumptions about curriculum and pedagogy are reflected in a plethora of schemes of pedagogies and approaches to teaching and learning such as Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction and Teach Like a Champion.66 They are also found in the approach to teaching promoted by Oak Academy, an online organisation and website that is endorsed and funded by the government. Set up during the Covid-19 pandemic, when schools and colleges were teaching mainly remotely, Oak Academy provides increasingly extensive teaching materials. As the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) recognises, this was helpful to teachers facing the challenges of online learning during the pandemic (although it assumed that students had access to computers, which was frequently not the case).67 Oak Academy has now been awarded £43 million to develop ­curriculum resources and has gained the status of an “arm’s length” organisation. It is being promoted as the answer both to teacher workload and—unofficially—to the ­supposed inadequacies of planning by teachers working to meet the actual needs of their students. Oak Academy’s “Three Year National Strategy” document makes extensive claims in this regard, suggesting that it is “supporting those in the most deprived areas”, with “a third more lessons being taken in these communities”.68 Nonetheless, despite its claim that all its lessons are ­adaptable, and that ­teachers will be using their expertise and knowledge of their ­students for their own planning, it is far too easy to envisage schools where this ­pedagogy is simply imposed.

NATE declined to be part of Oak Academy’s advisory group due to ­“scepticism about its claim to be ‘arm’s length’ and thus independent of its funder, the Department for Education, and…a fundamental pedagogical disagreement with the Oak model of English so far evident from its published materials”.69 The National Education Union (NEU) opposed the official endorsement of Oak Academy, noting, “Amid increasing regulation, English schools and ­teachers have retained a tradition of curriculum autonomy, which they ­continue to value greatly”.70 As NEU general secretary Daniel Kebede points out, despite claims that Oak Academy resources would be created “by and for ­teachers”, these are actually “developed through a commercial ­tendering process with different organisations, including multinational ­companies, ­bidding to develop these packages”.71

Oak Academy’s packages of curriculum material are highly formulaic. The “lesson planning” section gives a basic outline of a lesson: a starter quiz, slide deck or video, plus a worksheet and exit quiz, accompanied by a transcript to be followed by the teacher. This format is used throughout the thousands of lessons on the website. Of course, any of these resources might be useful in teaching. However, if you consider the experience of students—confronting five lessons a day that are all in the same format whatever the subject and ­heavily based on whole-class teaching—you can understand the growing alienation in our schools.

John Yandell, a professor in the Institute of Education at University College, London, carried out a detailed exploration of one English lesson produced by Oak Academy. It was focused on “The Tiredness of Rosabel”, a short story by Katherine Mansfield. Yandell’s analysis is too detailed to repeat in full here, but the outstanding message is that the lesson seems to wholly omit any reason why we—or 15 and 16 year olds—might want to read and enjoy imaginative literature of any kind. There is no reference to the type of discussion a class of students from different backgrounds could bring to bear on the story and how they might respond to it as individuals. Yandell asks: “Is this how reading works? Do we all read a text in the same way? Do we all bring to a text the same prior experiences, beliefs and values? Does a text mean the same thing to each of its readers?” Instead, students are guided through what is regarded as key knowledge with a decontextualised quiz focused on “the naming of grammatical parts”, which are “abstracted from any meaningful use of language”. The reading of the actual story itself is interspersed with questions, with a “model answer” provided while a voice-over from the teacher informs us, “The thing here is to test that what you’re getting is what I’m getting.” In fact, the lesson is based around the ­requirements of the GCSE English exam.72 As Vygotsky said, “A word devoid of thought is a dead thing.” Quoting Russian poet Nikolai Gumilev, he continued, “And like bees in the deserted hive / The dead words have a rotten smell”.73


It is difficult to imagine students in elite public schools being subject to such reductive approaches to their education. Neither are they enduring the ­continuing effects of austerity. As Britain approaches a general election, there are many demands educators and parents should be making. These include, most obviously, funding education, retaining staff and making buildings safe, as well as reducing the baleful influence of privatisation on our school system. Yet, even on these basic issues, Keir Starmer’s Labour Party gives us little for which to hope.

We need much more than a change in government; we need a mass ­movement that challenges neoliberalism’s effects on education and seeks, ­ultimately, to build a “harmonious society of equals”. This means confronting the top-down, ­disciplinarian approaches imposed on our education system. Moreover, it means challenging a curriculum and pedagogy that reduce learning to sets of supposedly measurable targets. Vygotsky’s work—with its focus on the complexity of learning, the importance of ­imagination and creativity, and the benefits of collaboration and ­discussion—helps us imagine what a socialist education system would look like.

Jane Bassett is a retired teacher and National Education Union activist. She is a member of Hackney Socialist Workers Party and Hackney Stand Up To Racism.


  1. Hixenbaugh, 2022.
  2. Ofsted—the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills—is the state department that inspects schools. Far from being a neutral inspectorate, it has been used as a weapon to push through privatisation and to discipline schools and teachers.
  3. Jones, 2024.
  4. The Shanyavsky University was founded by gold mining magnate Alfons Shanyavsky in 1908. It was nationalised after the Russian Revolution and then became a part of the Moscow State University.
  5. The Psychology of Art was completed in 1925, but it was not published until the 1960s—see Vygotsky, 1971.
  6. Bloodworth, 2021, p2.
  7. Rosenberg, 1972, p2.
  8. Rosenberg, 1972, pp5-6.
  9. Franklin, 2021, pp10-14; van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991, pp55-56.
  10. See Voloshinov, 1973. It is likely that Voloshinov was arrested sometime in the 1930s and died in Stalin’s purges. Mandelstam, who Vygotsky quotes in his writing, wrote a poem satirising Stalin and died in a transit camp in 1938.
  11. Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991, pp288-292. Luria and Leontiev both eventually moved to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkov as their collective disintegrated under the pressure of official disapproval from the Soviet state. In particular, during the 1930s, Leontiev increasingly moved away from Vygotsky’s approach and towards one more acceptable in Stalinist Russia.
  12. Barrs, 2022, p5.
  13. Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991, chapters 9 and 10.
  14. “Defectology” was the area of research in the Soviet Union that investigated the development of children with SEND and the training of teachers to work with these children. The word appears in documents such as “The Fundamental Problems of Defectology”, written by Vygotsky in 1929—see Vygotsky, 1987a.
  15. Barrs, 2022, p37.
  16. Barrs, 2022, chapter 3; Franklin, 2021, chapter 7.
  17. Barrs, 2022, pp116-117, drawing on Vygotsky’s notebooks.
  18. Barrs, 2022, pp163-164. Rosenberg, 1972, pp19-24; van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991, p288.
  19. Paedology is the study of child development and behaviour. It is also known as “child science”.
  20. Van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991, pp374-389.
  21. Barrs, 2022, pxiv and throughout.
  22. Barrs, 2022, pp182-185.
  23. Marx and Engels, 1968, p51.
  24. Voloshinov, 1973, pp12-13.
  25. Engels, 1934.
  26. Vygotsky, 1987b, p246.
  27. Marx and Engels, 1968.
  28. Vygotsky, 1987b, chapter 2; see also Barrs, 2022, pp168-172.
  29. Vygotsky, 1987b, p222.
  30. Vygotsky, 1987b, p28; Barrs, 2022, pp168-172.
  31. Vygotsky, 1987b, p127.
  32. Vygotsky, 2017.
  33. See, for example, Gregory, 2017.
  34. “Proximal zone of development” is the better known rendering of this concept, but one translator, who had not seen the version in Mind in Society, felt “proximate” was nearer to the original text. See Barrs, 2022, pp143-144.
  35. Barrs, 2022, pp155-157; van der Veer and Valsiner, 1991, pp336-348.
  36. Gould, 1996, pp146-157.
  37. Barrs, 2022, p148.
  38. Wiliam and Black, 2010.
  39. Barrs, 2022, p157.
  40. Vygotsky, 2004, pp10.
  41. Vygotsky, 2004, pp10-11.
  42. Vygotsky, 2004, pp47-51.
  43. Vygotsky, 2004, p51.
  44. Freire, 1982, pp45-46.
  45. Vygotsky, 2004, pp51-69.
  46. Vygotsky, 2004, pp72-73.
  47. Vygotsky, 2016, p7.
  48. Vygotsky, 2016, p13.
  49. Vygotsky, 2016, p18.
  50. Burgess-Macey, Kelly and Ouvry, 2020.
  51. Burgess-Macey, Kelly and Ouvry, 2020.
  52. Reception is the final year of early education before a child enters Year One.
  53. Burgess-Macey, Kelly and Ouvry, 2020.
  54. See, for example, Reay, 2017.
  55. Simons and Porter, 2015, p14. Cited by Yandell, 2017, p247.
  56. Walker and Crerar, 2023. The notion of “Cultural Marxism” was first put forward by the Nazis. It is frequently used by the modern far right to suggest a radical-left conspiracy, often supposedly led by Jews, to overthrow “Western values”—see Hanebrink, 2018.
  57. Birbalsingh, 2015, p38. On Hirsch, see Feinberg, 1999.
  58. Quoted in Yandell, 2017.
  59. Mansell, 2013.
  60. For the full document, see https://tinyurl.com/y2baem23
  61. McCallum and Bleiman, 2022.
  62. McCallum and Bleiman, 2022.
  63. Vygotsky, 1994, p356.
  64. The English subject review is available online at www.gov.uk/government/publications/curriculum-research-review-series-english/curriculum-research-review-series-english
  65. Burgess-Macey, Kelly and Ouvry, 2020.
  66. Rosenshine, 2012. See also https://teachlikeachampion.org
  67. National Association for the Teaching of English, 2023.
  68. This document is available at https://sanity-asset-cdn.thenational.academy/files/cuvjke51/production/13406956f18d87d1e213b4e7e8854abb7db64bc9.pdf
  69. National Association for the Teaching of English, 2023.
  70. National Education Union, 2022.
  71. Kebede, 2024.
  72. Yandell, 2020.
  73. Vygotsky, 1987b, p245.


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