I’ve had Lev Vygotsky’s “Thought and Language” on my to-read pile (located on the floor of my office) for sometime. More importantly, I’ve had Vygotsky himself on my “to-read” pile for sometime, too. I wanted to take some words here to mentally run through my understanding of him and my context for encountering him — and to describe my initial understanding of his theories — before I write about what I learn from reading his work.
I first came across Vygotsky and his theories in grad school. He, along with Piaget (and they are always paired, aren’t they?), was practically the first thinker we studied, and really one of the only ones, insofar as we actually slowed down to tease out some of his theories (which we hardly did with anyone else — Rousseau, Dewey, Plato — they were barely given a short paragraph). But clearly it was Piaget and Vygotsky who were, in some sense, considered the most important thinkers in education by my ed college circa 2009. We learned about his famous conception of the Zone of Proximal Development, and it was his theories about the social nature of learning, paired with Piaget’s notions of developmentalism, and some good solid stuff about schemas and cognitive load and such that really formed the theoretical backbone of our learning about learning science. It seemed — and it does seem to me now — that most of us, most average, fairly enlightened educators — are some variety of social constructivist — at least in so far as we tend to believe Piaget and Vygotsky. Scratch the surface and I bet you’d find that most of us, within our fairly organic, holistic visions of how learning actually takes place, believe that humans are active constructors of meaning.
More specifically, I think a sort of “common sense” understanding (it was Henry Giroux, of all people, the critical theorist suspicious of any received wisdom, who taught me to keep on guard for that term!) of learning theory would include five different notions of how we learn. I share these, or more accurately, they are mine, projected onto others in my profession, because I want to elaborate them at the start because I want to test them against what I learn from Vygotsky to see how I can challenge or advance my own “common sensical” understandings.
These notions about how we learn are the following:
1. Our sources of learning are many and varied and extend well beyond formal and intentional settings.
2. Our brains are all set up to process new information and to make it our own (“learning”) in roughly similar ways. I.e., the internal processor of a human brain is similar in structure in each person. There is a structural component — the mind is set up to grow into a structure, like any other physical part of the body.
3. “Brain Maturation”: These processors (structures) develop and mature naturally in their ability to receive and process new information in more sophisticated ways. This is true both for decision making processes (certain parts of the brain simply must mature) and for knowledge processing. This is essentially a biological process of physical maturation of the structure of the brain.
4. But apart from this notion of simple development, instruction can help also. I think of it the same way that your arms and legs develop: Yes, you will continue to grow as a teenager, until maturity; but your limbs can be improved by exercises. This is the role of instruction.
Learning math, for example, makes you sharper at picking up new material (you learn how to learn) and at thinking more clearly (you learn to think analytically, to differentiate, to identify solutions, to narrow down, etc.). Formal instruction helps you get better at acquiring and at processing, and at analyzing and evaluating. (This is the notion that so-called “critical thinking” skills can be taught and improved on.)
5. But there is a second “system”: not so much the internal processor that takes information in and sifts it, but the different file cabinets that the information is sorted into. These are the network of various schemas that we use in order to make sense of a thing. These are different for all people, and in turn influence the sense we can make of information we acquire. This is the place where we actually “construct” our knowledge and is almost entirely influenced by our environment (which books we read, which words we hear first and when, how we are taught to problem solve).
So essentially these understandings can be boiled down to two observations:
First, we have two different “systems”: one for acquiring and processing information, and another that stores it and offers old information as context to the processor for making sense of information.
Second, that our learning is regulated by a natural, biological development of our brains, as well as an immensely complex interplay between the sources of our information and our two systems outlined above.
Now, what would Vygotsky say to these suggestions?
A little more personal background, first.
I came across Vygotsky again in my research around student conferences; once again, his notion of the ZPD (as I refer to it) and the notion of a more capable peer seemed to be the theoretical grounding of so much of what I could tell was working in practice. I did a long comparison of Vygotsky and Piaget, reading back through my old ed psychology book, and found myself agreeing far more with Vygotksy. I remember thinking about him just what I thought about Dewey: here was a thinker whose aim was to honor and account for the sheer complexity inherent in the learning process: its situational nature, its contingency on a variety of environmental factors, its socio-cultural underpinnings. Last week I wrote about how much Diane Ravtich’s grown-up version of historical inquiry appealed to me in its patient, nuanced approach to understanding the past — especially compared to the simplistic triumphant list or revisionist-critical approaches she derides and which I have been reading. It seemed to me the same with Vygotsky: here is a thinker who is both deeply complex and attuned to contingency and nuance, but one whose theories are also (apparently) resounding in their simplicity. That degree of simplicity in an overarching theory — one which is not reductionist but which accounts of multiplicity or is even based on an understanding of such — seems to me the usual form of the most profound insights.
That plus, to say again, the fact that in some ways it seems that it’s Vygotsky’s basic insights that underpin most “modern” or cutting edge movements in ed practice, that made me want to go back and actually read his work. Perhaps it more fair to say that many modern movements in education in so far as they tie themselves to a kind of learning science or psychology of learning seem to find their way back to Vygotsky for their backing.
So, now for what he himself says.
The first thing I noticed is that whether it’s his own writing or whether it has something to do with the translation from Russian, Vygotsky is surprisingly easy to read, even eloquent or literary. It’s hard not to be surprised — his work is peppered with references to philosophers, writers, even poets. At one point, he spends time analyzing the educational theories of . . . Leo Tolstoy. This is no dry, scientific writing or dense philosophical tangle (like Dewey). He’s amazingly clear and lucid, and he himself has clearly read widely, perhaps in a number of different languages.
I sometimes find it’s easier to start in read a new work by picking up an especially important chapter and “finding my way in” that way. It can take a while to learn an author’s style or way of thinking, so with Vygotsky, I decided to start in by finding the chapter that introduces the famous Zone of Proximal Development and to see if I could begin reading that chapter first, a chapter carrying the inauspicious name, “The Development of Scientific Concepts in Childhood.”
It was here that I first came across the Zone of Proximal Development. It was not what I expected. More on this in a subsequent post.