Sunday, March 29, 2009

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?

7 Baleful Regards:

oshee said...

Your ultimate questions at the end of this make me think about my daughter and how she 'looped' with her class and teacher from first to second grade. I am sure you are familiar with this. I have some strong opinions on how wonderful this was. Only two children left the class over the summer and so only two new children had to rework into the class at the start of the second school year. Plus, she was blessed with a sweet wonderful teacher who had specifically asked to do this with the class after having learned of the potential benefits.
Then to contrast that with my daughter having been homeschooled for half of this, her third grade, year and then worked back into a new elementary school. She being the disruption into the already working coordination of the classroom.
Thank you for writing about this. I will be looking to learn more about Lev. I think his work very much worth additional looks.

Dawn said...

Oshee - I am a BIG proponent of looping - Emily has been looped in K-1 with Ms Deb, and then again the past two years at her school in Montreal.

My worries are a couple, however.
1. Teachers who don't know why they are doing this.

This seems to be true for some - the new reforms says Do it, so they do, without any concept as to why it is better for the class to be structured this way. These are also teachers who may tell you that the older kids are going to be held back by the younger students. They don't understand the theoretical background of multiage grouping AND their internalized socialization as teachers say "One Year - One Class- One Teacher"

My overall worry as a Mom has always been first for Emily's social stability. Once she feels set socially, she relaxes and learns better - She doesn't have to re-negotiate everything.

Now as to your daughter, the best thing about kids is that they are flexible and amazingly able to be fluid in ways adults simply can not. They see things that adults simply refuse to see ( unless looking for it). The problems arise when the new child either has a style which is SO out of sync with the group that the whole group either rejects the style - or the new style rejects other members of the formerly stable group. OR the child has a personality by which it makes it very very difficult for that child to observe, think about what he/she sees and then maneuver into the group.

My role as teacher was to Observe the incoming child and figure out ways to mitigate their discomfort. Did they have a style that would fit with another child? Did they simply need cues as to what questions to ask to gain entry to the play/work? Did we all need to restructure the way we did things to absorb this new member?

The nice thing about having a stable group was that the time it takes to go through all of this with One person is drastically shortened - the patterns of communication are already understood and can be revisited.

You also - as you noted - need to have a GOOD teacher. One whose style is not custodial, but rather humanistic. One who is not afraid to KNOW the children and have the children KNOW her/him.

One of the problems (IMO) with many elementary classrooms is that we are WAY over managing the time that we have decided it takes someone to learn something. We (adults) insist on quiet - on order - on lining up.

When we do this we are robbing children of the time and space to TALK - to authentically NEGOTIATE with one another. To Scaffold each others knowledge. In short, we reinforce a particular power structure.

I think what I love about Lev is his realization that it is Messy - this human learning. It doesn't go one way. It bounces up and down and back and forth. It relies on other people to help us define and give meaning to what we see. It relies on our history - both personal and as a species. Each child should be viewed as an increment forward - a person who will carry all the old knowledge and work that has been done and move it ahead. That Teachers weren't the END of knowledge - we are facilitators to the next level of knowledge - and that we ourselves may never GET to that level, but our students will.

See? I can get mighty passionate about Old Lev.

Madeleine said...

Lev is awesome. You are awesome. And together you are unstoppable. I learned a bit about ZPD in ed school, but I missed all this great social learning stuff, so thank you!

Mignon said...

I wish you did (yet another) blog about education/learning theory. I find your writing so accessible and intelligent.

So... a couple questions:
-My first thought about the self-talk was that it was taking the place of the parent-child interaction. When a child is old enough to articulate, her first conversations are with her parent, and self-talk would be mimicking that. But I understand how both Piaget and Vygotsky as well. I'm curious if self-talk occurs more often and louder if a child is surrounded by other people. Is it a two-way dialogue? Does it differ between boys and girls?

- Just realized my other question is too long and anecdotal, so I'll save you that. But I want to say how much I also appreciated your earlier post about Emily. I remember being so terribly disappointed and ashamed when I first discovered hair in my armpit - I tried to pull it out. My mom was not helpful or supportive and I had 3 brothers. It makes me glad to know that Emily's discovery wasn't as traumatic (for her).

E. said...

Yay! Thanks. I've been told that Vygotsky kicks the ass of Piaget, but I was ignorant as to why, 'til now. (I'm typing w/ one hand as my own fledgling self-talker nurses.)

Thanks, Dawn. You rock.

Jennifer said...

Fascinating stuff - thanks!

Of course now I'm insanely curious on what the social learning theory looks like in the middle school / high school arena -- what changes and what remains the same.

(Obviously your field seems to be ECE, but I know so many high school teachers that are having trouble reaching their students. It just makes me wonder how much can be applied there...)

Dawn said...

Jennifer - I hope you come back to read this comment, as I think this is a really interesting question. Hmmm. Maybe I'll do a whole blog post on what I think this means to teens...

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