Vygotsky and Montessori: One Dream, Two Visions

By Bodrova, Elena | Montessori Life, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Vygotsky and Montessori: One Dream, Two Visions


Bodrova, Elena, Montessori Life


MONTESSORI AND OTHER APPROACHES

With interest in Lev Vygotsky's theories spreading among educators, comparisons are being made between his theories and the other theoretical perspectives on children's learning and development. The theory most often compared to Vygotsky's cultural-historical paradigm is the genetic epistemology of Jean Piaget. Fewer comparisons are made between the views of Lev Vygotsky and Maria Montessori, although, like Piaget, she was Vygotsky's contemporary and both of them were revolutionaries in their fields. Contemporary is not meant here in the literal sense, since there is a 25-year difference in age between Montessori and Vygotsky (who was born in 1896 and died in 1934). We can think of them rather as belonging to the same era and being influenced by similar ideas and inspired by similar dreams. Of those, the most notable one is the ambitious vision of building a new human by the means of education and thus curing the ills that afflict the society.

The challenge of comparing the theories of Vygotsky and Montessori is partially due to the fact that the objects of comparison are quite different. On one hand, we have Lev Vygotsky, whose brilliant insights into the nature of learning and development set in motion entire new disciplines and approaches, but who did not live long enough either to turn his ideas into a complete theory or to build a system of instruction on the foundation of these ideas. On the other hand, we have Maria Montessori, who developed a more specific but at the same time more cohesive theory of child development, from infancy through middle childhood into adolescence, and designed an instructional method to maximize children's learning.

Thus, in comparing theories, we will in fact have to compare Montessori's theory with either Vygotsky's original ideas, which he elaborated on at different levels of detail, or with the theories that Vygotsky's colleagues and students developed based on these ideas. In comparing practical implications of these theories we will have to deal with an even greater number of variables: not only did Vygotsky's followers develop instructional methods of their own, but even the Montessori method is not viewed any longer as monolithic, and rather as changing to take varying forms while accommodating different social contexts.

Therefore, in this short article we will focus only on the major themes in Vygotsky's theory of learning and development and compare the implications (either theoretical or practical) of these major principles with the Montessori approach. Although the direct correspondence between the issues addressed by the two authors may not always be present, hopefully this comparison will illuminate some similarities and differences between these two influential educational philosophies.

Theory and Methodology of Child Study

Although Vygotsky's theory of learning and development cannot be fully understood in isolation from his general cultural-historical approach, it is possible to identify several major principles that apply primarily to the development of an individual child. The first principle is central to Vygotsky's view on child development: it is the idea of the social situation of development being the "basic source" of development. This idea underlies Vygotsky's understanding of the mechanism behind children's transition from one age to the next. He sees the sequence of stages (or ages, as he called those) as determined by the interaction between children's existing and emerging competencies on one hand and their social situation of development on the other. For Vygotsky, social situation of development represents the initial moment for all dynamic changes that occur in development during the given period. It determines wholly and completely the forms and the path along which the child will acquire ever newer personality characteristics, drawing them from the social reality as from the basic source of development, the path along which the social becomes the individual. …

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