Vygotskian Theory and
 Special Education Practice in Russia

By Harry Daniels


This paper discusses tensions and dilemmas that arise in the implementation of Vygotskian psychology. It analyses the development of special educational needs (SEN) provision and practice in the former Soviet Union from this perspective and identifies similarities and differences with the changes in emphasis being witnessed in England and Wales. The analysis is illustrated via reference to interviews conducted during recent visits to Russian schools and the Moscow State University.


In this article we propose to describe the way special educators in Russia use Vygotsky's theory to develop methods and materials for children with special educational needs (SEN) and to discuss some of the differences between the way Vygotskian psychology has been developed in what was the Soviet Union and is now Russia and the way it is applied in England and Wales. We should like further to illustrate how Vygotsky's theories are applied in the special reading programme used throughout what was the Soviet Union for pupils with developmental delay. We saw the programme in action during a visit to the Academy of Pedagogical Sciences Institute of Defectology in Moscow during 1991 and on a subsequent visit in the spring of 1992. This Institute, now renamed the Russian Institute of Defectology within the Russian Academy of Education, was founded by Vygotsky in 1934 and provides a scientific, research and clinical advisory centre for the whole of Russia. Our argument will be that the same dilemmas face teachers and special educators in Russia as those that face us in the United Kingdom. A central dilemma is that of the tension between instruction and acquisition, specifically between a centrally controlled curriculum, the contents of which are transmitted to children by teachers and the more familiar liberal tradition in the United Kingdom. Our argument is that both positions have much to gain from each other.

Vygotskian Theory

As is now well known in the West, the Soviet psychologist L.S. Vygotsky (1896-1934) proposed a theory of the social origins of higher mental functions. For the purposes of this article it is sufficient to restate selected elements of what is a rather diffuse and at times frankly obscure collection of articles. One of the fundamental differences between the previous Soviet system of education and our own is the nature and role of instruction in children's learning.

As a semiotician Vygotsky was interested in the process of cultural transmission and specifically in the role of what he termed 'psychological tools' in the process of internalisation by individuals. The Soviet system developed a sophisticated view of education as a process of cultural transmission with instruction as the vector of culture. Vygotsky proposed a socially-driven stage theory of psychological development in which instruction, when it was correctly targeted in the child's zone of next development, was seen as the key to progress. The role of speech as a mediator between the social and the individual was celebrated in his widely known but often poorly translated Thinking and Speech (popularly known in the west as Thought and Language).

One of the key issues to be explored in this article is with respect to the pedagogic context which is commensurate with Vygotsky's writing. In Russian psychology there is a tension between interpretations which have suggested that instructional activity leads directly to the formation of specific thoughts and those which allow for an active response on the part of the pupil to instruction. This is of course not unfamiliar in our own educational context. Both interpretations involve two forms of concept formation: one in informal everyday contexts (spontaneous concepts) and one in formal instructional contexts, usually schooling (scientific concepts). The two forms interact as the everyday concept brings breadth and richness to the abstract theoretical scientific concept which in turn brings generality to everyday concepts (Daniels, 1993).

The way this body of work has been interpreted since it was written in the 1920s and 1930s has varied according to the ideological and theoretical contexts in which readers and translators of his work have themselves been working. Dr Vorenkova, one of the researchers at the Russian Institute of Defectology and co-author of the reading instruiction manual used in all auxiliary schools for pupils presenting similar difficulties to those who are described as having moderate learning difficulties in this country, claimed in an interview (March 1991) that Vygotsky's theory of instruction is the major impetus for all her work in reading (Vorenkova & Kolomytrina 1989).

Within the Russian Institute of Defectology there are 20 laboratories, each one focusing on a different type of disability, such as visual impairment, partial hearing, motor impairment, mental handicap and developmental backwardness. The Institute and its laboratories have two main functions: firstly to carry out research and related clinical work and secondly to pioneer special teaching methods and textbooks for particular disabilities. The Institute provides educational materials, textbooks and in-service education for special schools and teachers across the whole of Russia. It should be noted that the functions which the Institute now performs for Russia were until August 1991 provided for the whole of the Soviet Union. The implications of this very high level of centralisation in the context of the geography of the former Soviet Union and indeed even for the Russian Republic are considerable. For example children may still have to travel through seven time zones for specialised assessment at the Institute. This was the structure of a state controlled system of special scrutiny and intervention.

In summary we are concerned with an early twentieth-century Soviet psychologist who wrote on matters of cultural transmission. The culture in which he wrote was that of a centralist command control authorisation regime. The educational system was structured to realize the demands of the command control state. This paper will consider the possibilities for the future development of the original writing and the present system and reflect on issues of relevance to readers in the United Kingdom.

The Context for Special Educational Provision

Before we describe how Vygotsky's theories are applied we need to give a brief outline of the context in which they are used. We deliberately use the terms 'handicap' and 'defect' since these are the literal translations of the words used by the educators that we met.

A strong distinction was made in the Soviet Union between children seen as being delayed in their development and those who have what are deemed to be mental handicaps arising mainly from organic causes. It remains to be seen whether this distinction will survive the transition to the form of democracy that arises in Russia. In an interview conducted in early April 1992 the Director of the Institute made it clear that the system of categorisation that had applied in the days of the Soviet system had profound implications for large groups of children. He quoted a figure of 2.6% of the school population in Russia in segregated special schools. This figure does not include those children who would be described as having severe learning difficulties in the United Kingdom who are at present outside the school system and whose numbers and location are not available to the Institute. Similarly those children who experience severe physical and neurological difficulties and are non-ambulant remain outside the school system. It is also interesting to note that the concept of emotional and  behavioural difficulty did not find an official place in the old Soviet system.

This reflects the priorities of the old order. In the former Soviet Union educational activity was preoccupied with the efficient teaching of content and tended to ignore the social and emotional development of the child. It was, as it were, that the gaze of education was focused entirely upon academic outcomes to the exclusion of affective consequences. This is an interesting example of the way in which beliefs about teaching may be manifested in special educational categories.

At present auxiliary schools cater for the developmentally delayed pupils whose educational difficulties are thought to have social and family origins. These are pupils who are considered to need specialised and structured teaching which will enable them to overcome their delays and gradually catch up with their peers. The driving force in this kind of education is structured instruction.

In contrast, the vast majority of children with `defects' (i.e. disabilities) are educated in special schools and are considered to need different kinds of teaching methods from children in ordinary schools. All these schools use textbooks developed by researchers at the Institute of Defectology. These are based on the correct identification, diagnosis and categorisation of pupils in order to select the appropriate programme for them. The view is that those children who have handicaps caused by organic damage need different teaching from those whose backwardness is due to social deprivation.

A distinction is also drawn between secondary and primary defects. The primary defect is one which leads to a secondary defect which otherwise might not have arisen. For example a child who has a primary defect of hearing impairment may develop a secondary defect of language delay. Teaching methods concentrate on the primary defect and on improving cognitive skills. Special educators do not, therefore, share our notion of a 'continuum' for SEN. They see it as ignoring important qualitative differences between children with varying disabilities and as neglecting their needs for separate provision and separate teaching methods and materials.

As mentioned above, the Soviet system of special education was based on a clearly formulated and explicit theoretical framework which is substantially derived from the work of Vygotsky. Vygotsky's theories provide the starting point for an approach in which instructional methods and textbooks are developed in accordance with his ideas both on the role of instruction and on the relationship between learning and development. Vygotsky's position was that instruction actually created the possibilities for development rather than being seen as subordinate and incidental to developmental processes. The organisation and content of teaching implied by this suggestion is directed towards the formation of developmental possibilities rather than trailing behind developmental inevitabilities.

Instruction is only useful when it moves ahead of development. When it does, it impels or awakens a whole series of functions that are in a stage of maturation lying in the zone of proximal development. Vygotsky (1987) p. 212

Zone of Proximal Development

In the West it is claimed that Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal development as "the distance between a child's actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the higher level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Wertsch, 198S, p. 68). The emphasis in Soviet writing such as that of Davydov (1988) is much more on the role of adults rather than peers. This difference is not accidental. It reveals profound differences in pedagogic organisation and in particular in the understanding of the roles of instruction and classroom talk. The most obvious difference we observed between Soviet and British classrooms (both special and mainstream) was with respect to the amount and form of classroom talk. In the Soviet Union in 1991 we observed no official child-child talk. All talk was supposed to be between the teacher and the pupil. The presumed view is that language mediates the transmission of social, cultural historical understanding. This is in clear opposition to British classrooms where pupil talk is celebrated and encouraged for the creation and acquisition of understanding in social settings. The use of the term `social' here is key. In the Soviet Union it has cultural and historical connotations, in England and Wales it has interpersonal connotations.

Petrovsky (1992) has described the relation between the ideology of the Soviet state and the culture of schooling in a way that reinforces this point:


You need not go to the museums or study the archives to visit the USSR of the time of the `full-scale construction' and the `final victory' of socialism. Just go to a kindergarten. Until very recently any kindergarten was a small Soviet Union of the 1930-70s in the Big Soviet Union of the 1980-90s. It was trough the first years after the October revolution that we began to assume that our today's life should be sacrificed for a beautiful and glorious life of tomorrow. Marching children felt as if they were marching into communism. In the 1930s this assumption became a dogma and was never questioned any more. The brief thaw of the 1950s-1960s which melted away the many ice-floats of the social order did not influence the cornerstones of the social attitude towards childhood, and in the 1970s, the stagnation time, kindergartens became the national parks of the socialist world order. Even now parents see slogans, citing, Dzerginsky, the KGB father and first patron, coming across them in some kindergartens. This is an island of the past in our today's life. You can name it a `totalitarian society', or the administrative-command system if you prefer to be euphemistic, as you like.


Instruction and Curriculum

Whilst the Soviet classrooms that we observed in 1991 revealed a strong emphasis on instruction, they did not reveal the form of interactive pedagogy that we expected to find. We are familiar with a form of pedagogy which in England is called Vygotskian and is based on interactive learning. Much of the instruction that we observed in the Soviet Union is what Davydov terms `formal'.

The main method of instruction is the illustration/explanation method, or, alternatively the receptive-reproductive method. (Davydov, 1988, p. 31)

The curriculum is based on the systematic and hierarchical description of knowledge and skills to be acquired. Content defines teaching method, resources and timing of the educational process. Teaching is oriented towards theoretical knowledge and the progression of the process of acquisition is designed to follow the history of the development of the concept.

In their learning activity, school children reproduce the actual process whereby people have created concepts, images, values and norms. In the process of learning activity, the younger generations reproduce in their consciousness the theoretical wealth that mankind has accumulated and expressed in the ideal forms of social culture. (Davydov, 1 988, pp. 2 1-22)


The Special Curriculum

Teachers using the system transferred from the Soviet days deliver a curriculum which in the case of special children employs a multisensory method and an analytical synthetic system. A minimum number of appropriately organized tasks are presented to children designed to foster analysis and theoretical generalization. The content of school subjects is organized in the form of general and abstract issues.

The assimilation of knowledge that is general and abstract in nature precedes the pupil's acquaintance with more particular concrete items of knowledge, pupils deduce the latter from the general and the abstract. (Davydov, 1988, pp. 23-24

We observed a special class kindergarten (6 year-olds) for developmentally backward children in a Russian language lesson (it should be noted that for many children in the former Soviet Union Russian is not their first or even second language). A multisensory approach was used, recognisable from the textbook developed at the Institute of Defectology by Dr Vorenkova and colleagues. Children working on this page are required by their teacher to perform a number of oral tasks and copying tasks related to the target letter sound.

Following Vygotsky's emphasis on the role of instruction, we expected to find clearly stated curriculum intentions along with materials and lesson plans that announced instructional directions. However we also expected to observe pedagogic practice which was sensitive to the everyday understanding which pupils had already acquired. This accords with our interpretation of the notion of teaching within the famous `zone of proximal development' where there is a high degree of negotiation between teacher and taught. This process of negotiation provides the arena in which the richness of everyday understanding by pupils can be brought within the framework of systematic and organised understanding that is provided through appropriate instruction. What we found was a number of situations in which teacher talk (instructing, explaining, questioning) occupied at least 80% of the lesson time. Indeed in classrooms which were unfamiliar to us for their lack of pupil talk we rarely heard children talking to one another; they were either working on their own in silence or responding to teacher demands. Rather than the active model of pupil we had come to expect within neo-Vygotskian practice in England and Wales we observed remarkable passivity on the part of pupils. Children were seated in formal rows of desks with no opportunity for small group interaction or peer co-operation. Much of the teaching and learning involved drills, repetition and rote learning.

Instruction in reading and writing for children with developmental delay involves a scheme of pre-writing language teaching using analytical-synthetic methods, made particularly possible and appropriate by the fact that the Russian language is phonically regular, with one to one correspondence between sounds and letters. Thus there is a structured program of phonic instruction. This contrasts starkly with what we were told was the case for mainstream pupils. Formal primary schooling begins at the age of 7 years in the former Soviet Union. It is expected that children will come to school at the age of 7 already able to read. Indeed one of the markers of developmental delay at age 7 is the inability to read. Children are supposed to acquire the ability to read through a variety of literacy experiences in the family. Great emphasis is placed on the oral tradition of the Russian folk-tales. These stories are told to children from a very early age by parents, grandparents and care-givers in nurseries. There is a gradual transition from the telling and retelling of these folk-tales to the shared lap reading with care-givers, to independent reading of the stories. Books used to be cheap in the former Soviet Union and there has been consistent political pressure since soon after the Revolution and the subsequent Civil War to eradicate illiteracy. Hence there have been frequent reminders to parents of the virtues of early literacy in the home. If these practices do not result in the acquisition of reading on the part of an individual child then notions of deficiency or developmental delay are invoked. Where the unofficial pedagogy of the pre-school literacy practices is informal, interactive and based on a tacit model of a process of acquisition, the official pedagogy of schooling in cases of deficiency and developmental delay is didactic and predicated upon an explicit transmission-based model.

Special Reading Program

The special reading program for the developmentally delayed makes use of a series of illustrations of simple words (initially one syllable, then two syllables and so on) featuring a common sound (either a consonant or a vowel) in which children identify the common element (e.g. initial letter or middle sound). They are then asked to draw the shape--on the blackboard, in the air (fine motor training and movement), then traced or copied in their own book. For example, for a curved shape, (the letter `s' in Russian) they are asked to imagine the scales of a fish, they `draw' a `c' shape in the air (smooth and round), they say the letter sound, one or two children are invited to draw it on the blackboard between lines, and finally they draw it (copied or traced) in their books again between lines. The textbook uses a system of `colored block' notation--a blue rectangular block represents a consonant, a red block a vowel, a green block a soft consonant. These blocks function as an aid to children in recognising and sounding out words: first they sound out a word, then they are asked to represent a word in blocks. Correct letter formation is very much part of the drill and, again learning to read, write and sound the letter `s', the children are asked to write seven examples of `s' in their books and then mark the one which they think is the best. Teaching reading and writing (as other subjects) involves frequent drill, repetition, rote learning and teacher instruction. The teacher is the more experienced adult who instructs the children in order to create the opportunity for their development or learning. The lessons themselves were highly structured. Each teaching period lasted about one hour. Within each teaching period children would be taught intensively for periods of about 5 to 7 minutes on a particular topic.

These shorter periods would be separated by very short periods of relaxation. The closest example that approximates to the practices we saw in the Soviet Union would probably be direct instruction. Interestingly direct instruction is also a highly didactic, highly structured form of pedagogy which is invoked when the predominantly acquisitional pedagogy of the classroom is seen to have failed or when the child is seen as a failure. As mentioned above the Soviet interpretation of Vygotsky's notion of instruction is that children learn through teacher instruction and this proceeds most effectively in the formal, disciplined and highly structured settings in the classrooms which we visited. This should be compared with the form of schooling that is developing as an alternative in the new Russian context. A teacher from an `alternative' school in Moscow provides the following description of a new view of special provision, a view which echoes some of the developments with which we are familiar in the West and also one which revives memories of the `free school' movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Kovcheq (The Ark) was founded in 1990 by the Institute of Children's Speech Therapy in Moscow. Its purpose is to provide education and support for emotionally disturbed children in a school environment.

At the Institute worries arose concerning the fate of the school-age patients in therapy groups. State-run public schools tend to reject children with emotional and behavioural disorders out of fear that they may upset the other children. However, those who worked with disturbed children for months, or even years, felt they should not be denied schooling. Educational groups were set up to enable disturbed children to communicate and study with their peers under the guidance of psychologists, enthusiastic, open-minded teachers who had grown dissatisfied with the methods employed in ordinary schools. The teachers themselves did not fit in the state-managed school environment.

One third of Kovcheq's students have emotional or behavioural disorders. In each class there is a child with a serious emotional problem, such as autism, schizophrenia, epilepsy, balance impairment, stammering. All of the children in Kovcheq either experienced problems in other schools or were thought by their parents to be likely to have problems in the future.

The parents, like the children and teachers of Kovcheq, chose the alternative school because they were dissatisfied with official state-controlled education. In the attempt to achieve (our) goal we developed a special climate of informal, honest relationships between teachers and students, and an atmosphere of love and care for each others' needs and interests. We found that other children who have not been diagnosed as having medical problems also flourish in this environmental. These children had learning or behavioral problems in Moscow public schools. The official state-run system expects every child to develop in accordance with a set pattern. Producing behavioural conformity takes precedence over concern for the inner world of the child. Public schools rarely seek an individual approach to educating a disturbing child. Children often do not enjoy enough freedom and respect, enough love and care. Many children have low self-esteem and grow to hate learning. Some of them refuse to attend school at all.

At Kovcheq our top priority is to nurture the children's emotional involvement in the learning process. We believe it is paramount for the pupil to have full confidence that she or he will never be `put down' at Kovcheq, that her or his feelings will always be acknowledged. Our policy is that it is not the student who must fit the school, kut the school that must fit the needs and interests of the student. (Ivanova, 1992, p. 1)


As observers of a system which is undergoing major revision we have been faced with the task of trying to unravel the implications of a series of changes which raise questions of fundamental importance for our own situation. The complex relationship between theory and practice is often obscure and difficult to disentangle from cultural backgrounds. Our observations suggest to us that the relationship between Vygotsky's work and the practice of teaching is a case of particular and substantial complexity. That the same theoretical base can be used to justify what would appear to be irreconcilable practices attest as much to general ideological differences as to particular pedagogic traditions. This is made abundantly clear when teachers from both state and alternative schools cite Vygotsky as the source of inspiration. It will be interesting to see whether as general ideological differences decrease between the new Russia and the United Kingdom, the respective pedagogic practices linked with the theoretical formulation of Vygotsky also draw closer together. We are faced with an interesting irony. We have observed and talked with Russian teachers and academics who argue that they are trying to create a form of schooling that will liberate the Russian population from the pedagogy of totalitarian oppression with its damaging social and affective consequences. They are transforming one interpretation of a Vygotskian psychology couched in terms of the instructional transmission of cultural and historical imperatives into a form in which individual interpretation and response in a personalized pedagogy is seen as the way forwards towards the creation of a more democratic form of schooling.

Our feeling is that both positions have much to gain from each other. The Soviet system produced a strong theoretical analysis of the role of instruction and proposed detailed practical analyses of the pedagogic implications of particular aspects of the content of instruction. In particular it suggests that the direction of flow from particular to general or abstract so familiar to us in the West may be misguided and that children should be introduced to general principles as quickly as possible and then taught how to apply them. The new Russian system has inherited this legacy. We have suggested in this article that there is great dissatisfaction with the forms of interaction that obtained in Soviet classrooms and also with the lack of attention to the social and emotional aspects of schooling.

It may be that the experience derived from the United Kingdom will be of interest to the Russian system as it constructs its new educational vision. Perhaps we, in turn, could benefit from their approaches to aspects of instruction. There would appear to be a need for a mixed economy in both contexts.



DANIELS, H. (1993) Charting the Agenda: educational activity after Vygotsky (London, Routledge).

DAVYDOV, V.V. (1988) Problems of developmental teaching: the experience of theoretical and experimental psychological research, Soviet Education, xxx(9), pp. 1-81.

IVANOVA, T. (1992) Kovcheq. An alternative school, mimeograph.

PETROVSKY, V.A. (1992) Preschool education between two epochs, mimeograph.

VORENKOVA, B.B. & KOLOMYTRINA, I.B. (1989) The Alphabet (Moscow, Moscow Publishers).

VYGOTSKY, L.S. (1987) Thinking and speech, in: R.W. REIBER & A.S. CARTON (Eds) The Collected Works of L.S. Vygotsky: volume 1-Problems of General Psychology (London, Plenum Press).

WERTSCH, J.V. (Ed.) (1985) Culture, Communication and Cognition (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).


By HARRY DANIELS & INGRID LUNT Department of Educational Psychology
and Special Educational Needs, Institute of Education, University of
London, 25 Woburn Square, London WC1H OAA, United Kingdom

Source: Educational Studies, Mar93, Vol. 19 Issue 1, p79, 11p, 11bw. Item Number: 9602220261