Vygotsky. If you have been around education for any length of time, it is one of the names that gets kicked around in conversations about the philosophy and pedagogy of education. Usually filed under "names I can say that show I know something about the foundational origins of education" along with Piaget, Erickson, Pavlov, Skinner, Freud, Dewey, Montessori, Waldorf, Bruner...and many, many more. Prior to my decision to devote my academic life to him, I knew the same cursory information. A few of his main concepts. Enough lingo to get me by sounding like I knew of what I spoke.
So, at the request of E, I am going to give you a quick and dirty thumbnail of Lev Vygotsky. Maybe I can even communicate why I think he is/was so brilliant and my part in moving his theories forward. But no promises there.
So who was this guy? A Russian Jew, born at the turn of the last century. Not the most progressive place to be born a Jew, let alone a smart Jew who wanted to further his education. He was lucky. He worked hard. He was chosen for one of the token spaces in University for a Russian Jew, but denied his first field of study because of his religion. And he was around during the Russian Revolution, which clearly influenced some of his writings...but mostly, he was incredibly smart. And forward thinking. And observant. Died in 1934 of tuberuloisis. He was 38.
Most of his writings were locked up - first banned by Stalin, then shielded by the Iron Curtain from the rest of the world. It wasn't until his texts started to wander out of Russia - rough translations in the early 60's and better ones in the mid 80's - that the rest of the world started to realize what had been sitting in front of them.
Now, you have to remember when Lev was writing and thinking, the world was coming to grips with some of the first theories of why we do what we do - Freud was at his heyday, Jung was right behind him. Piaget was studying mollusks and psychoanalysis and Pavlov was figuring out that dogs can be conditioned to salivate.
Much of what was being discussed and written concerned the Individual. The effects on One. Person as Island. We humans like to believe that we are each uniquely special - that we can control our own destinies and desire to learn. It still resonates in the "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" ideology that any person can achieve anything at any time - if he or she WANTS it enough. It emerges from the "Tabla Rasa" idea of a child - a blank slate upon which anything can be written, from this Watson quote: "Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist... doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. I am going beyond my facts and I admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been doing it for many thousands of years" (Watson, Behaviorism, 1924, p. 82; 1930, p. 104).
But not Lev. He started to formulate theories on how Humans cognitively work in groups - How we use symbols (including language) to share information with one another. How those symbols are then taken and expanded or changed by other groups of other humans. How intelligence can not be defined by giving the correct answers on any given standardized test...but must be defined by how that individual navigates in his/her culture of origin with the symbols that are valued by that social structure. Further beyond this, Vygotsky suspected that we could never truly gauge the IQ of a person as a static fixable number (Like Binet and Piaget) , but that we should rather look at the individual in a continuum of learning, assuming that we all go through stages of apprenticeship and expertise. He called these fluid stages the zones of proximal development.
Vygotsky then went on to say that he suspected that we learned better Together. He posited that humans learn better when we have access to other humans - that we model for one another. He first looked at Mother/Child pairs. He noticed that these mother and child pairs seemed to work in a unique manner. He called it scaffolding. In essence, the expert (mother) provides a variety of tactics and techniques for the apprentice (child) to learn any given task ( language, feeding oneself) and that the scaffold/support is expanded, deconstructed and reconstucted in fluid movement with the growth of apprentice (Child). Vygtosky only had time to really look at this in a uni-directional way - Adult to child. I also think it moves from child to child as a matter of course.
Because Lev was thinking and writing at the same time as Jean Piaget, one would have to know that they observed something similar about children at work/play. They both noticed that they talk to themselves. However, they came to very different reasons as to what the purpose of this "self-talk" was in the cognitive development of children.
Piaget saw it as a sign of the immature thinker. The child had not yet developed the skills to think internally ( without speaking) and so talked out loud to problem solve. Piaget decided that this tendancy disappeared when the brain and problem solving had matured. Piaget liked nice linear things.
Vygotsky noticed the same "self-talk" but viewed it very differently. He viewed it as the accelerant for cognitive development. It was not an immature mind at all. It was evidence of the child acquiring the tools of the culture (as well as self regulation) and allowed the observer a window into the mind of the child - before the child internalized that information and no longer spoke it out loud.
My favorite Vygotsky quote is "From the Social, comes the individual". In this, he sums up something fundamental about how I believe humans learn. We are first and foremost products of a specific social group ( usually our family of origin). We then go forth and use the tools that we have learned and apply them successfully ( or unsuccessfully) to other social groups - usually child care or school situations for most western children. Children - as apprentice thinkers in our culture - have to form and reform LOTS of information to be able to function in each of these groups.
For instance, if you have a Preschool classroom of 14 children and 2 teachers -that individual child must (mediate) learn bits and pieces of 15 OTHER already formed cultural worlds. Those 16 people have to then teach or share enough of those worlds between each other to be able to agree on a Symbol system that will work in THAT space for THOSE individuals. Every time a child - or worse a Teacher - enters or exits that whole balance is disrupted and the process begins again.
My interest lies in the social use of the private speech - the self talk of children. I do not think it is purely cognitive in nature. It has a social function. I think of it as potentially the "glue" that binds the classroom together. I think that children - as apprentice thinkers - are broadcasting information for their peers by way of this speech. I also suspect that children hear and retain this information from their peers and then use it as a way to mediate information - to rebuild their social and cognitive construct in the classroom through each other. I further suspect that when children are given LOTS of time to get to know each other ( vis a vis talking - long play sessions ( minimum of an hour as it takes kids at least 20 minutes to get a play scenerio planned in order to then go forwards with it) - staying with a stable group of classmates over 2 to 3 years, etc) that we may see less hostile activity (ie bullying) and much better overall learning because they have done the work of constucting a set of social rules and knowledge together.
If I cast my mind outwards and start to think about classrooms in which the social life - and by this I mean the cooperation and coordination of any given class towards a common goal through the shared/mediated knowledge of each others knowledge and cognition - leads the learning?
What would teaching look like? What would those children be like who came out of those schools?