Scientific vs. Spontaneous Concepts: Vygotskian perspective

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  • Scientific vs. Spontaneous Concepts: Vygotskian perspective

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Vygotsky borrowed the terms spontaneous and non-spontaneous from Piaget; however, he included scientific concepts in non-spontaneous and preferred the term everyday concepts to the term spontaneous.

Distinctive characteristics of the two types of concepts

Vygotsky distinguished between spontaneous and non-spontaneous concepts in several ways. First of all, the most crucial difference between them is that the former come from outside the system, while the latter develop only within the system, where they receive awareness and deliberateness. “In the acquisition of scientific concepts, the system must be built simultaneously with their develop­ment. The concept of system organization thus becomes a crucial one.” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 197)

Vygotsky claimed that scientific concepts, since they are scientific in nature, presuppose a place in the system of concepts. Therefore, all scientific concepts are related to each other in one way or another:

[…] the very notion of scientific concept implies a certain position in relation to other concepts, i.e., a place within a system of concepts. It is our contention that the rudiments of systematization first en­ter the child's mind by way of his contact with scientific concepts and are then transferred to everyday concepts changing their psychological structure from the top down. (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 172-173)

Non-spontaneous concepts, including scientific concepts, develop in the process of acquiring a system of knowledge that a child receives during instruction, while spontaneous concepts are formed during a child’s practical activity through direct interaction with other people in everyday life. You can find some more information about importance of instruction for the development of concepts in late-bilingual students in the article Word as a Tool for Scientific Concept Development.

The third distinction that Vygotsky made is the different paths that the two kinds of concepts follow in their development: “…the development of the child's spontane­ous concepts proceeds upward, and the development of his scientific concepts downward…” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 193).

The two lines of development are called "bottom to top" and "top to bottom". Development of "bottom to top" is revealed in the development of everyday concepts. Everyday concepts arise when a child is confronted with real things, whose content is explained to him by an adult. Only gradually is the child capable of giving the verbally-logical explanation of the relationships which cause the everyday concept to exist.

Vygotsky concludes that scientific concept development starts with a verbal explanation that later is connected to the child’s experience. The initial verbal definition serves as the crucial moment in the development of scientific concepts. If this definition is given within a fixed system, it descends to the concrete phenomena that a child encounters in everyday life, while the development of everyday concepts proceeds outside an organized system and gradually rises to the level of generalizations and abstractions. Table 1 below summarizes the most important features of the two types of concepts.

Table 1. Most important characteristics of spontaneous (everyday) and non-spontaneous (scientific) concepts.

Spontaneous (everyday) concepts Non-spontaneous (scientific) concepts
are never introduced to a child in a systematic fashion or explicitly connected with other related concepts are presented as a system of interrelated ideas
originate in everyday life, i.e. are acquired by the child outside of the context of explicit instruction originate in classroom instruction, i.e. are explicitly introduced by a teacher at school
develop from “bottom to top”, from the child’s experience to generalizations and abstractions develop from “top to bottom”, from a verbal explanation to concrete everyday phenomena
provide the basis for the development of scientific concepts cover the most essential aspects of an area of knowledge and extend the meaning of everyday knowledge

Interrelatedness of the two types of concepts

Besides the above stated differences between scientific and spontaneous concepts, Vygotsky also perceived their interrelatedness, their ‘reciprocal dependence’, and their constant influence on each other. Both kinds of concepts belong to the semantic aspect of speech development and the development of both is crucial for a child’s intellectual growth.

John-Steiner and Mahn (1996) also point out that Vygotsky recognized not only dissimilarities between the two types of concepts but also their interdependence. They mention Vygotsky’s (1986, p. 157) claim that the development of both spontaneous and scientific concepts “are parts of a single process: the development of concept formation which is affected by varying external and internal conditions but is essentially a unitary process, not a conflict of antagonistic, mutually exclusive forms of thinking”. According to John-Steiner et al (1998), Luria contributed to this issue with his concept of ‘interfunctional organization’, which he drew from Vygotsky’s idea of interrelation between scientific and everyday concepts, and “in which scientific concepts rise on the foundation of everyday concepts and, in the process, fundamentally change the everyday concepts by drawing them into systemic relations” (p. 128).

In following the paths of their development, the two kinds of concepts meet each other half way and provide the necessary support for their mutual development. Vygotsky (1986) noted that “from the very beginning, the child's scientific and his spontaneous concepts … develop in reverse directions: Starting far apart, they move to meet each other” (p. 192). He continued:

In working its slow way upward, an everyday concept clears a path for the scientific concept and its downward development. It creates a series of structures necessary for the evolution of a concept's more primitive, elementary aspects, which give it body and vitality. Scientific concepts, in turn, supply structures for the up­ward development of the child's spontaneous concepts toward consciousness and deliberate use. (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 194)

Role of spontaneous concepts

Vygotsky raised the question of the origin of scientific concepts in the mind of a child. Unlike Piaget, he believed that neither the system nor the awareness associated with it entered the sphere of a child’s concepts from outside, replacing the familiar-for-the-child’s way of thinking. He continuously emphasized that both the system and the awareness of scientific concepts required the existence of a child’s rather rich and well-developed spontaneous concepts. The initial system that arises in the sphere of scientific concepts structurally extends to everyday concepts, reconstructing them and transforming their internal nature as though from the top.

Vygotsky viewed “scientific concepts as the gates through which awareness enters the realm of children’s concepts” (Vygotsky, 2005, p. 213). A. Kozulin’s translation affirms that, “reflective consciousness comes to the child through the portals of scientific concepts” (Vygotsky, 1986, p. 171).

However, the development of scientific concepts in children is possible only when the development of spontaneous concepts reaches a certain level of maturation. Only when the spontaneous concepts of a child reach a certain level that is characteristic for a child of an early school age, can the child be cognitively and psychologically ready to start acquiring scientific concepts. At the same time, scientific concepts, with their high structure of generalization, influence the development of spontaneous concepts and cause changes in their structure. Thus, Vygotsky stressed the importance of spontaneous concepts for the development of scientific concepts.

In other words, the processes of the development of spontaneous and scientific concepts are intertwined and affect each other. Vygotsky put emphasis on the fused nature of the process of concept development. According to him, “mastering a higher level in the realm of scientific concepts also raises the level of spontaneous concepts. Once the child has achieved consciousness and control in one kind of concepts, all of the previously formed concepts are reconstructed accordingly” (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. 191-192).

Weaknesses and strengths of the concepts

Vygotsky claims that at different stages of development of the same child, different strengths and weaknesses in everyday and scientific concepts can be found.

The weaknesses of everyday concepts arise, according to Vygotsky’s research, in an inability to be used abstractedly and voluntarily; in such situations, an incorrect use of everyday concepts prevails. The weakness of scientific concept is in its verbalism, which Vygotsky sees as the main danger in the development of scientific concepts, i.e. insufficient saturation with the concrete. The strength of scientific concepts lies in their con­scious and deliberate character. Spontaneous concepts, on the contrary, are strong in what concerns the situational and empirical.

We can make the conclusion that the process of concept development is multidimensional. Although spontaneous and scientific concepts follow their own paths of development, their interrelatedness and mutual dependence should not be underestimated.


Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and Language (A. Kozulin, Trans.). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

John-Steiner, V., & Mahn, H. (1996). Sociocultural approaches to learning and development: A Vygotskian framework. Educational Psychologist, 31(3/4), 191-206.

John-Steiner, V., Meehan, T.M., & Mahn, H. (1998). A functional systems approach to cognitive development. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 5(2), 127-134.

Vygotsky, L. S. (2005). Myshlenie y Rech [Thought and Speech]. Moscow: Labyrinth.

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