Not content with fossilising 50 year old theory from Bloom, Gagne and Kirkpatrick, the learning world digs even deeper into the past to bring back to life a guy who died in 1934!
Having worked my way through 'Thought and Language' and 'Mind in Society' along with several other Vygotsky texts, I'll be damned if I can see what all the fuss is about. He is to the psychology of learning what Lysenko was to genetics. Indeed the parallel with Lysenko is quite apposite. Forgoing the idea of genetics he sees interventionist, social mediation as the sole source of cognitive development. Vygotsky is a sort of ‘tabla rasa’ Lamarkian learning theorist.
Vygotsky’s psychology is clearly rooted in the dialectical historicism of Hegel and Marx. We know this because he repeatedly tell us. His focus on the role of language, and the way it shapes our learning and thought, defines his social psychology and learning theory. Behaviour is shaped by the context of a culture, and schools reflect that culture. He goes further, driving social influence right down to the level of interpersonal interactions. These interpersonal interactions, he thinks, mediate the development of children’s higher mental functions, such as thinking, reasoning, problem solving, memory, and language. He took larger dialectical themes and applied them to interpersonal communication and learning. This is in direct contradiction to almost everything we now know about the mind and its modular structure.
For him, psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs. In this respect he reverses Piaget’s position that development comes first and learning second. Vygotsky puts learning before development - asort of social behaviourist. He's simply wrong.
Very specifically he prescribes a method of instruction that keeps the learner in the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is the difference between what can be known on one’s own and what can potentially be known. To progress, one must interact with peers who are ahead of the game through social interaction, a dialectical process between learner and peer. This is not theory, it’s a trite observation.
The rarely read Vygotsky appeals to those who see teaching and instruction as a necessary condition for learning – it is NOT. It also appeals to sociologists who see culture as a the determinant factor in all learning – it is NOT . As a pre-Chomskian linguist, his theories of language are dated and still rooted in now discredited dialectical materialism.
Sorry - gone on a bit here - but soviet sociology is not psychology.
You say Vygotsky appeals to "... sociologists who see culture as a the determinant factor in all learning – it is NOT." My reponse to this is not original, but a quote from Georg Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness:
"In Marx the dialectical method aims at understanding society as a whole. Bourgeois thought concerns itself with objects that arise either from the process of studying phenomena in isolation, or from the division of labour and specialisation in the different disciplines. It holds abstractions to be ‘real’ if it is naively realistic, and ‘autonomous’ if it is critical."
And again "The totality of an object can only be posited if the positing subject is itself a totality; and if the subject wishes to understand itself, it must conceive of the object as a totality."
Is this post a joke? If not it must the first post I've received that actually eats itself alive.
It's EXACTLY this sort of dialectical 'student politics' twaddle, resurrected from Marx (who, via Engels, stole it from Hegel), that resulted in the crap science (Lysenko, Vygotsky etc) I refer to, and a worldview that gave us crude communism.
Who seriously considers Lukacs as a theorist of any relevance in the 21st century? He was a obsessively Hegelian, couldn't see past dialectical materialism and, even worse, someone who willingly contributed to the arrest of many liberal thinkers in Hungary and elsewhere.
I found this article as fascinating as I found it dense. I can't honestly say that I understood all the references though the thinking behind them is logical and, as I've come to expect from DC, clear and passionate. It is the esothericism that I would criticise. Paricularly since I know how intolerant, Donald, you can be with Academia's taste for obscuring simple ideas in a fog of diletantism. Not, DC, that you're doing that. However, there are many of us who would benefit from your usual down to earth, plain speaking style.
I'd like to add that my regular contact with "trainig designers" has shown me that they rarely work to a solid educational framework. And that they only take refuge in educational theories to justify methods or approaches to deliver training that suit their budget or logistical limitations. And that they do this mainly in a mercenary way.
So, DC, can we expect a simpler version we can use as ammunition when we next are presented with edu-babble?
Thanks for bringing me back to the real world. You're right.
An interesting line of thought - the idea that the learningw orld, in theory and practice suffers from 'dilettantism'.
This is true in both academia and at the coalface. The educational academics, so divorced from reality that they rarely engage with practitioners, flit about plucking bits and pieces from other disciplines, resulting in a soup of sociology, semiotics and other faddish nonsense - and research that, lets be honest, no one reads or uses.
In the design world Bloom, Gagne, constructivism, learning styles, Kirkpatrick and dozens of other non-empirical fads are hauled in to justify some yet more dull learning.
This is why I LOVE the internet and see technology as the most important force in learning. It's a vast empirical testing ground where real people, do real things and phenomena emerge on the backs of workable models. Witness blogs, wikis, MMOGs, wikpedia, games, tagging and all the web 2.0 stuff.
I'll work on a less esoteric critique of Vygotsky.
My first comment was a primer on dialectics for those who might not have understood the context from which Vygotsky wrote. Now that it has eaten itself alive, I wish to make three points and close the argument from my side:
One: Genetics and neuroscience are just a couple of contemporary “scientific” tools that enable us to understand cognition and learning. However, they are just two among a thousand tools. Each tool and method stands to be “discredited” sometime or the other.
Two: Culture is not THE determinant factor in all learning, but it certainly is a factor, and a dominant one at that. Put a well-off London kid in a Mumbai slum for two years with the same learning material that he has access to in London and you’ll know what I’m talking about. This is because perception is a major component of learning and our perceptions are shaped by the cultural air that we breathe.
Three: Georg Lukacs is still seriously taken by social science departments across the world. Just because someone wrote and lived in a period distant from us, it doesn’t make his or her work irrelevant. Theories emerge from contexts (and cultures) and each theory is a conversation with other theories in the past, present, and future. One can refute a theory, but it is most often difficult to say that it is “factually incorrect.”
Now we're talking! Just when I was despairing of the learning industry being able to channel the spirit of a PhD seminar in historiography, you take us there. Kudos (I'm quite serious by the way). I think this level of criticism is mainly absent and very much in need in the current learning industry.
I do have to ask though - what would your "A Team" of disciplines studying learning look like? If culture is not the determinant factor then is there a single one (I think I know the answer here) and if not a single answer or factor then who needs to be at the table for the discussion? Neuroscientists? Anthropologists? Historians? Sociologists? Economists?
Nice challenge Mark. I’m arguing for a heavy does of empirical science focused on some key areas.
1. Experimental psychology - in particular, memory theory. In the end its brains and their cognitive improvement – learning theory is largely congruent with memory theory i.e. how we store, recall and apply knowledge.
2. Epistemology – we now know a lot about the science of ‘knowledge’ through linguistics and psychology, yet most of the theory is ignored.
3. Neuroscience is playing an increasing role, especially in uncovering the complex and modular nature of the brain, and in that respect is really going places. However, there is a danger in it being overly reductive.
I’d like to dump the following:
1. Sociology – forget it – mostly non-empirical rubbish masquerading as science. The idea that everything is a ‘social construct’ and that all learning is ‘social’ is a bogus lie.
2. Psychotherapy – forget it - I blame Carl Rogers for most of the pseudo ‘counselling’, ‘mentoring’, ‘coaching’. It’s another top-down attempt to control people and is ultimately behaviourism by the back door. It treats people like dysfunctional fools with ‘cures’ that are faddish and don’t work.
3. Claptrap like NLP, learning styles, transactional analysis and dozens of other ‘fossil’ theories that never had any scientific basis and just hang around like old clothes in a wardrobe. It’s time learning had a spring clean.
OK, this is the standard 'relativist' reply and I'll try to deal with the points one by one.
1. Genetics (along with evolutionary theory) happens to be one of mankind's most powerful discoveries. When it comes to curing major diseases, explaing most of what we see in the natural world or finding the DNA fingerprint of rapists, give me genetics over dialectical materialism anytime. We've seen what happens in the US with crackpot creationists (or their undercover partners on intelligent design) when we ignore science in this way.
Similarly with neuroscience. We are now making some remarkable progress in unravelling memory, the modular nature of the brain and the interrelationship between perception, language and thought. In other words we have a window into the inner workings of the mind. Once again, let's match this up against dialectical materialism or the 'thousands' of faddish theories that float around in the world of learning (and sociology).
I don't mind seeing both as falsifiable. I do objects to them being relativistically lumped in with crackpot Marxism.
2 Culture is not THE determinant factor. The primary determinant factors are the cognitive capabilities of our brains. As for your London/Mumbai example, any number of twin studies show that genetics plays a powerful role, as does peer group influnece and so on. 'culture' is actually a weak abstract noun that needs to be unpacked. The mind is NOT a blank slate waiting to be filled by culturally determined content - that was a behaviourists folly.
3. The fact that Lukacs is still taken seriously by sociology departments is probably the best argument I have for his irrelevance. Are you seriously suggesting that anyone (other than sociology theorists) are in the slightest bit interested in this stuff. Gramsci maybe, even Althusser (as both had specific points to make about learning and education) but Lucaks - no way.
You ask why ‘learning academics’ have been keen to resurrect an old Marxist like Vygotsky. Well, just like you, they have read him selectively. They often ignore his Marxist pretensions altogether, convert him into a constructivist and develop the emerging themes in his work into canonical formulas.
So you think Vygotsky was wrong. How can you explain, then, your last sentence? Even though Soviet psychologists debated the influence of language and activity on thought, they accepted that mind was structured by mediated social relations. You should ask, but don’t, why they considered this psychology when you consider it sociology. It is not because neuroscientists have wired their brains differently, but because Soviet culture embraced a fossilised version of Marx. Psychology was viewed through the portals of a cultural adherence to ‘dialectical materialism’.
It is ironic given your criticism of Vygotsky’s nefarious roots in Marxism that he was considered dangerous by the Soviet authorities and his work banned for 20 years after his death. That is because he got closer to the spirit of Marxism in his method of inquiry than the authorities cared for. The method is ‘simultaneously prerequisite and product, the tool and the result of the study’, he wrote, in a masterful understanding of the dialectic.
To put you straight on a couple of points in the order they arise: firstly, Vygotsky was more influenced by Hegel and Engels’s The Dialectics of Nature than he was by Marx’s historical materialism.
Secondly, the ZPD is not a theory – it is a concept, and not even a concept that Vygotsky claimed to have originated!
Thirdly, Vygotsky did not say that teaching and instruction are a necessary condition for learning, but they are a necessary condition for learning scientific concepts (as opposed to spontaneous ones) and developing metacognitive awareness.
As for bringing us back to the real world of education, neuroscience and genetics do not hold the key. Advances in those fields hold out the spectre of education as ‘re-wiring’, just like the lives run to mathematical precision in the future state of Zamyatin’s We. Unfortunately for you, thought is produced socially, passed on socially and used socially.
You say "To put you straight on a couple of points in the order they arise: firstly, Vygotsky was more influenced by Hegel and Engels’s The Dialectics of Nature than he was by Marx’s historical materialism."
Read my original post.
"Vygotsky’s psychology is clearly rooted in the dialectical historicism of Hegel"
Whatever the species of dialectical materialism - my point is that dialectical materialism is misleading. It leads to poor history, bad sociology, bad psychology and very bad science (e.g. Lysenko).
Whether ZPD is a theory, concept or invented by Vygotsky or not - it's still banal.
I realize this is an old post, I just want to provide some updated information that should prove useful. Although your interpretation of Vygotsky's ideas may be (mostly) accurate, the data informing your conclusions are not. Specifically, I would like to point to the following two sections:
"He took larger dialectical themes and applied them to interpersonal communication and learning. This is in direct contradiction to almost everything we now know about the mind and its modular structure."
"For him, psychology becomes sociology as all psychological phenomena are seen as social constructs. In this respect he reverses Piaget’s position that development comes first and learning second. Vygotsky puts learning before development - a sort of social behaviourist. He's simply wrong."
You're interpretation of Vygotsky here is spot on but your facts about neuroscience, and therefore your conclusions, are incorrect.
We now know that Piaget, not Vygotsky, was wrong: learning DOES lead development. Unlike genes, in the case of Lysenko, the human brain is almost infinitely malleable.
Modern neuroscience has established the fundamental plasticity of the brain as a demonstrable fact. (Don't take my word for it, I recommend "The Brain that Changes Itself". Reviewed here by the NY Times.)
Although various areas of the brain contain networks of neurons that are better at processing certain kinds of information (vision, faces, sound, touch, etc.), this does not inherently "pre-define" the brain area. Instead, it "suggests" generally where the brain maps for particular functions will end up.
How do we know? Through brain mapping and case studies of people with brain injuries.
One example: It has been found that if brain damage occurs early enough during development, say, in the womb, functions that start sending nerve impulses first (hearing, touch, sight) get first dibs and take over undamaged areas of the brain even if the neurons in those areas would have, under normal circumstances, been recruited for later functions (speech, language, creative or logical thinking).
This is Vygotsky at his most basic. Learning and experience drive brain development, not the other way around. Our brains start out with an over-abundance of neurons and connections. Fundamentally, human cognitive development is a process of strengthening and pruning neural connections based on our learning and life experiences (including social interactions and therefore culture).
Vygotsky may not have had our current knowledge of neuroscience and brain plasticity, but his ideas and models of development and learning are proving to be remarkably accurate.
I kow of o neuroscientist who regards the brain as being totally plastic. It is literally and logically impossible for the brain to be 'almost infinitely malleable'. The limitations are very finite and often limited by genetic factors. The relatioship betwee nurture and ature is complicated but there are hundreds of genetic conditions that limit plasticity in the brain.
Neither do I know of any eurosciatist that regards the brain as being totally undifferentiated. There certainly are geographic areas of the brain associated with specific brain functions - it's complicated but certainly not completely non-modular. Brain injury evidence is veru clear on this point.
I also don't know any, other than die hard behaviourists, who regard the brain as being simply 'filled' by experience. This view was killed stone dead in 1959 by Chomsky who found that experiece alone could ot accout for language acquisition. This pure 'blank slate', 'tabla rasa' empiricist position is no longer viable.
Indeed, the great error in educatio is to simply imagine that all minds are simple, empty, infiitely plastic, vessels waiting to be filled by teachers. Te minutes into ay teaching sessio will show that minds are remarkably resistant to effortless learning. people have different genetic dispositions, some crippling cognitively.
You're absolutely correct -- a great error in the history of education has been the view of minds as “tabula rasa”, empty vessels waiting to be filled. Luckily this is not the Vygotskian perspective or mine.
Based on your other posts, you have some interesting things to say about learning and education, and your skepticism is appreciated. In this case, it is difficult to take you very seriously because of your hasty generalizations and incorrect analogies. It’s also difficult to tell if your views are based on data or a dislike for the origin or followers of a particular view or discipline.
One example is your comparison of Vygotsky to Lysenko. Other than the facts that they are both Russian and were influenced by similar philosophical roots, this is a false analogy. If you judge their work on merit rather than historical or philosophical origins, there are significant differences. Lysenko said that learning and experience can be passed down genetically. Vygotsky said that learning and experience can be passed down culturally. I don’t have any particular aversion to this idea and Richard Dawkins has even suggested the meme as a unit of cultural inheritance.
Another example is your repeated conflation of behaviorism with the concept of Tabula Rasa. They’re not related. Tabula Rasa refers to the “epistemological thesis that individual human beings are born with no innate or built-in mental content, in a word, ‘blank’, and that their entire resource of knowledge is built up gradually from their experiences and sensory perceptions of the outside world.” No perspective on the process of this “build-up” is implied, it could be cognitive or behavioral or social. Behaviorism, on the other hand, explicitly deals with the “building-up” process of human learning and views learning as a nothing more than rehearsing and reinforcing internal and external behaviors.
Vygotsky’s ideas are presented as an alternative to behaviorism and his criticism of reductionist behaviorism is a matter of record.
It is another fallacy to misrepresent my statement that “…this does not inherently ‘pre-define’ the brain area” as a suggestion that the brain is at any point “totally undifferentiated” or that the mind is “empty”, especially in the context of the next statement “…it ‘suggests’ generally where the brain maps for particular functions will end up”.
Studies of brain injuries and neuroscientists who map the brain have indeed demonstrated that specific areas within the brain control certain functions or process particular inputs.
It has also been demonstrated, by Dr. Michael Merzenich, that the infant brain is less differentiated than the adult brain. He also noticed that while individual animals of a particular species may have similar brain maps (arrangements of modules), they are never identical.
The ideas of modularity and plasticity are not mutually exclusive unless you view the brain as a “tabula scripta”, an already written, pre-defined, hard-wired biological machine which can never change. This view flies in the face of the evidence as much as the view of the brain as an undifferentiated mass of neurons. There certainly is a genetic component to brain development as demonstrated by twin studies. There is also evidence that genetics provide a “rough draft” and do not fill in the details of the brain map. This is done through experience and learning which are affected by environment and culture.
While childhood plasticity has long been accepted, the most exciting research is showing the continued plasticity of the adult brain. Neuroscientists have discovered that the sizes and boundaries of functional brain modules continue to change over time and that cognitive abilities can be purposefully shaped and molded through mental exercise and training. Since memory, logical thinking skills, thinking speed, and other components of “intelligence” or “cognition” can be changed and are not simply limited by genetics, then Vygotsky is relevant.
That’s really the point. Cultural factors can affect fundamental properties of the mind. By culture I mean “patterns of human activity and the symbolic structures that give such activities significance and importance.” If your cultural practices include repeated patterns of activities that happen to improve brain processing speed, then your “culture” affects your cognitive ability.
The part of your critique that I find the most confounding is the conclusion after your description of the Vygotskian view of development:
”He took larger dialectical themes and applied them to interpersonal communication and learning. This is in direct contradiction to almost everything we now know about the mind and its modular structure.”
Are you serious? Thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and language being affected by nurture suggests a contradictory brain structure? Or are you suggesting that dialectical themes imply a brain structure? Either way, you are mistaking a phenotype for a genotype. Just because the adult brain has modules linked to particular functions, doesn’t mean the entire structure and all of our cognitive abilities are dictated, a priori, from our genes.
The modern theory of the brain as a flexible, adaptable system provides a neurological basis for the Vygotskian view that sociocultural interactions mediate the development of the human brain, including mental functions once viewed as purely the result of genetic predestination.
The newborn human brain is a “tabula parata”, a prepared slate. It is genetically and structurally prepared for learning and continued development/differentiation.
To quote Dr. Norman Doige:
"...a neuroplastically informed view of culture and the brain implies a two-way street: the brain and genetics produce culture, but culture also shapes the brain."
The University of Madrid gone a different point of view on Lysenko and the genetics in the Soviet Union here:
Anonymous - Lysenko was sunk by soviet sciences within the Soviet Union. He was wrong and evil.in the sense that he used his political position to silence and ruin others.
I don't find ZPD banal, for the mere fact that it is so rarely attended to. While it does strike people as obvious when they hear it, it is rarely used as a teaching construct, at least in math classrooms, where the great majority of the time is spent with material that for most of the students is either already acquired or out of reach at the moment.
It's also tempting to take intuitive observations from a long time ago as obvious, rather than give any credit to the first to notice or expound upon them.
“Pedagogy must be oriented not to the yesterday, but to the tomorrow of the child’s development. Only then can it call to life in the process of education those processes of development which now lie in the zone of proximal development” – Vygotsky
Being true does not make it banal.
"Indeed, the great error in educatio is to simply imagine that all minds are simple, empty, infiitely plastic, vessels waiting to be filled by teachers."
You are joking in using this as an argument AGAINST Vygotsky aren't you? Vygotsky was the foremost critic of behaviourism in his day, and his child development model explicitly shows that child is not born empty but with some social skills that allow it to acquire new skill from the environment.
I find it hard to believe you have read a single Vygotsky article from start to finish if you arrive at position yourself like this.
Vygotsky did not espouse communism, and his Marxism is heavily tempered with the Russian Silver Age of culture. He heavily quotes from Western sources, and paraphrases from dangerously close to bourgeois academics.
What has dialectism to do with communism? Hegel was an Idealist and Lenin re-read him as a materialist. Dialectism is a tool of critical thinking and may or may not be useful just like any other tool of critical thinking. Vygotskys use of dialectical materialism brings him in line with modern neurological science that there has to be a physical basis.
Your acerbic and unsupported dismissals of theories you don't like remind me of the arguments I made in essays I made when I was 14. Support and substantiate your claims or I have no option to view you as another lightweight clueless adult who thinks he knows how to solve education by sticking his oar in. Prove your better than Gove and Wolf. Do proper research and and read holistically, not just selectively.
Calm down 'Connected'. I have read the said texts (I recommend the books not articles)- I said so in the piece.
Your sentence "What has dialectism to do with communism?" beggars belief. Marx, Engels and Lenin swallowed Hegel's 'identity of opposites' wholesale, as did Vygotsky. It's a defunct theory with no real application in modern science or psychology, except in second rate research.
Vygotsky uses the baseless idea that everything is a social construct - there are many features of the mind that are not social constructs.
The last sentence is hyperbolic and stupid. You confuse materialism with dialectical materialism. Materialism is a million miles away from dialectical materialism.
"It's a defunct theory with no real application in modern science or psychology, except in second rate research."
Says who? I really would like to know who your source is for this. I am keen on knowing the cutting edge of all learning theories. If there is a serious scientific debate somewhere that holds this position I would like to read it.
"Your sentence "What has dialectism to do with communism?" beggars belief. Marx, Engels and Lenin swallowed Hegel's 'identity of opposites' wholesale, as did Vygotsky. So Hegel was a communist? What are you jabbering on about? Read and understand the concepts fully.
I see you never seem fully address any issue but to trash everything.
What exactly is your profession?
State what your ideal school would look like if you cannot use any constructivist, social-cultural or CHAT? I would imagine they look like they are now.
Neuroscience is great, but it does not provide a system to deliver content or to allow acquisition. What are you into - Brain Gym? Brain Based Learning?
Do you still believe Vygotskyian theory is rooted in tabula rasa - yes or no?
Read what I said rather than resorting to abuse.
1. Hegel's 'identity of opposites' lies at the heart of dialectical materialism, both are now defunct. Read Popper's The Open Society for a full critique or his article in Mind if you want the flaws in dialectical logic.
2. I never said that Hegel was a communist but Marx and Engels wrote the Communist Manifesto and communism used Dialectical materialism as it's theoretical underpinnning.
3. I don't need half-baked social theory or constructivism to theorise on learning.
4. My ideal school would be populated by students and teachers who used good evidence-based theory and science to guide their practice.
My profession? To rid the world of people who throw about words like 'connected' and think they know it all. I think I can guess yours.
Read my critique of Brain Gym....search for it on my blog!
What's my profession then? You seem such a know it all. You are an extremely unpleasant person who needs to stay out of areas you do not understand. I don't claim to know it all, but do claim to read seriously, and holistically the works of major and minor learning theories. I have rejected many, but still see merit in all.
Out of courtesy for the debate (attempted) we had I will have a look at Karl Popper in more detail, but if that is the sum of your sources for a pedagogy or a learning theory, then I am done here. It would explain the rather different view of Hegel you have, and non-existent theory of learning. But I won't trash his works like you do with scholars you disagree with, even though he is not the kind scholar I particularly think is relevant (I maybe wrong so will check, but there is some major heavy criticism of his selectivity that meant I have never had his works at the top of my list).
I honestly thought that somewhere I was going to to get to some rationale for your reasoning. I would have been happy to have read of another serious theory of learning.
Please learn to debate without trashing and abusing scholars works and the people you debate with and crying wolf.
I Wouldn't bother searching your blog until you reason, and cite sources.
Hold on 'Connected Knowledge' (Can't you use your own name?) Your opening gambit was to accuse me of being "another lightweight clueless adult" who reminded you of your "14 year old self". Is this what passes for debate in your world?
I haven't really taken you seriously, as you started with ad hominem remarks. But it's fun when disciples appear to defend their Gods.
I seem to be the only one in the exchange who has read and quoted from a wide range of sources. Your lack of knowledge of dialectical materialism is obvious. You brought dialectism into the argument then, when I respond, with a short critique, including sources, you admit you haven't read Hegel, Popper or anyone else in the field. I have spent 30 years reading pedagogic theory and research, lecture on the subject and have also spent that time delivering real education and training projects globally. Here's some tips:
1. Use your own name. It's dificult debating with a vague adjective and noun.
2. Don't start a fight with abuse then be surprised when your opponent gets ratty.
3. Don't use words like 'dialecticism' if you haven't done the reading and don't understand the concept.
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