04 Vygotsky


The 77% Weekly

The 40/52 weeks-a-year, spiritual-religious newsletter 

04/40 From Rabbi Brian

Some Learning on Learning


Today’s newsletter is a little less spiritual-religious, and a little more educational. The topic is learning.  As I love learning, I thought you might enjoy this too.  It’s a little meta-learning – we will learn about how we learn.

Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was a 20th century educational theorist who came up with several great ideas pertaining to thought, language, and learning. I want to share two of his brilliant ideas with you that I picked up when I went back to graduate school for a Masters in Education.



Vygotsky suggested that thought and language are intertwined. As we think in language, it is difficult – if not impossible – to separate our thoughts from our language. Go ahead and try!

Vygotsky futher proposed that the clearer we are in our language, the clearer our thinking can be. And this is most important.

People who have a good grasp over language — both in vocabulary and grammar — tend to have clearer thinking than those who do not. The former are able to express themselves more easily and be understood more frequently. The latter — those with a limited vocabulary and poor grasp of grammar — might find communication more difficult.



Vygotsky is most famous for his explanation of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The meaning of this term is a little complicated at first, but I’ll explain it to you using your hands as a metaphor:

  • Your left hand is everything you can’t do and need others to do for you.
  • Your right hand is everything you can do without help, without even thinking about it or putting much effort into it.


The distance between your two hands is the zone of proximal development. It’s the difference between what you’re incapable of achieving and that which you can do flawlessly. Learning is all the stuff in between.


Now, let me break down the stages of your ZPD – the space between your hands – so you can see how learning works.


(It amazes me that so few of us, despite our years of schooling, never learned about how learning happens!)


Imagine that in between your hands (what you don’t know on the left and what you do know on the right), there are these three additional spaces:

  • How well you can do something with a lot of help (2)
  • How well you can do something with a little help (3)
  • How well you can do something on your own, but it’s a little choppy as you guide yourself through what you’re doing. (4) It’s that stage before mastery when you have to instruct yourself in the way that the person in the previous stage would instruct you, if they were still helping you.

(My students, to whom I teach this, often believe that they know something when they are only on stage 4.  And, this isn’t good.  You’ll find out why in a moment…)


Here are all five stages: 

  1. you can’t do the task
  2. you can do the task assisted 
  3. you need some help
  4. you can do the thing on your own – albeit awkwardly
  5. you can do the thing seamlessly without even thinking about it.

Vygotsky pointed out that in times of stress, or for some other reason, we slip back into a previous state. (Students taking a test know this all too well.)   

Sometimes we go from 5 to 4! We move backwards… we go from being able to do something flawlessly to doing it awkwardly. Why is this?

Let me explain with the example of driving a car. This is probably something you can do well, without assistance.  


If you can drive well, you don’t have to think about the individual steps. Steering, braking, changing lanes, signaling, and parking are such common actions that you no longer have to consciously think about them. We could even say they are brainless, mindless actions — because they require no conscious thought. They are automatic. You’re at stage 5 — all the way on your right hand.


However, there might be times when driving is no longer seamless and you bump down a stage. In this case to stage 4.   

  • You’re in a country you’ve never visited before, and you must drive on the opposite side of the road
  • You’re trying to teach someone how to drive, and it’s difficult to explain the steps to them, because it’s so easy for you and you never really thought about the individual steps
  • A big truck almost crashed into you and you’re still a bit anxious from almost having become one with the road

When we go from that “automatic” stage (5) down a level (4), It’s not that we need someone’s help in driving (3) — we’re still capable of doing it by ourselves — but we might find our movements choppy as we talk ourselves through whatever we’re doing.  


This explains why, when we’re stressed out, we often talk to ourselves more. We’re just a little bit removed from the automatic, smooth state. We coach ourselves to get things done.


Here’s a moral to this: Life throws proverbial wrenches at us. When this happens, we go from automatic actions (in which we perform well) to awkward actions (in which we perform badly or not so well). Let’s not beat ourselves up for not performing well when we are stressed!


Spiritual-religious advice: If a friend or loved one is talking out loud a little bit more, chances are they’re a bit thrown off by something, and they’re talking more to help themselves get by. So, be kind to them.  


With love,

Rabbi Brian

Support ROTB…

Schedule a monthly recurring donation to ROTB and receive a FREE DOWNLOAD

$77 a month

$6.42 a month
($77 a year)

$3.34 a month

($1 an issue)



Or, make a one-time donation …






Donate Donate Donate Donate


I thank you. -Rb 

ROTB’s newsletter, website, and podcasts cost thousands of dollars to publish and maintain.  Please consider making a US tax-deductible contribution to help defray the costs. Details about donations to ROTB.

Share with a Friend


Also by Rabbi Brian

77% Weekly
Rabbi Brian

A Story of Humanity

A Story of Humanity   I’m the 30-year-old assistant rabbi of Temple Judea — a congregation of a few thousand in Tarzana, California.   It’s my

Read More »