Vygotsky: My Final Take

I have to be honest, my deep dive the other week into the mysteries of Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Language left me, in the parlance of today’s politics, “harmed” (and possibly “triggered”).  By the end of a few nights of reading Vygotsky’s technical sentences and lofty concepts, my brain felt like a Belgian waffle.  Vygotsky talks about the internalization of concepts; after reading his work, I had internalized a sense of failure.  It’s tough going, dense and abstract, not exactly the kind of thing you can absorb while relaxing on the couch at night, stealing glances at “Lone Star Law.” It takes a sustained effort before you finally start to pick up what he’s saying.  Then you turn to Page 2.

Amazon.com: Mind in Society: The Development of Higher Psychological  Processes (8601300367804): Vygotsky, L S, Cole, Michael, John-Steiner,  Vera, Scribner, Sylvia, Souberman, Ellen: Books

What’s fascinating about Vygotsky is that, like Dewey, lots of people like to quote him, or to cite his concepts, but not only do these people definitely not read Vygotsky, you can tell they don’t.  The proof’s in the publishing.  At least with Dewey, you can find fairly modernized, updated, widely available versions of many of his books (and he wrote more books than the total number of shirts you’ve probably worn in your life).  But although I had no trouble picking up a somewhat newish copy of Thought and Language, when it comes to purchasing the Vygotsky book that most people seem to quote, Mind in Society, I found it surprisingly difficult to find anything approaching a modern copy.  The book I finally laid my hands on is colored a shade of teal I haven’t seen in 30 years, with a title font that looks like the calligraphic equivalent of those weird aristocratic accents you used to hear in movies from the 1960s: completely archaic.  You half expect Chapter 1 to be titled “Values Clarification.”

But Vygotsky is quoted everywhere.  Open any modern, blandly inoffensive Heinemann book about how to teach children, and you’ll see matronly, loving-looking women cooing over children, and then you’ll find a Vygotsky quote, there on the page to add some intellectual depth, a Mind in Society quote, usually something about the Zone of Proximal Development or “more capable peers.” Where are all these people getting their copies of the book?  (I’ll tell you where: Wikipedia.) The point is that Vygotsky is still amazingly fashionable, an apparently easily digestible, roundly accepted genius whose work can be stretched out to support anything from Fuzzy Math Concepts to Radical Pointed Equity.  

What have I learned now that I’ve read Mind in Society and a good bit of Thought and Language?  Not as much as I thought I would.  Or perhaps I should say, exactly as much as I thought I would: not a lot.  One thing I’ve realized about reading difficult writers: it takes a while to learn how to “speak them.” You have to “speak” Vygotsky, or Dewey.  I remember learning in college about Leo Strauss’s theory — in “Persecution and the Art of Writing” — that ancient philosophers purposely obfuscated their work to hide it from the guardians of popular convention.  It sometimes seems that way to me when you reach back into the ages and read complex, subtle thinkers from long ago: it’s almost as though their work is written in code.  It usually has something to do with jumping into a conversation, a discourse, with all of the unfamiliar terminology that entails, the disciplinary shorthand of the esoteric researcher.  Or other times, it’s just out and out indigestible prose.  Rousseau is not like that.  Dewey was definitely like that.  It took me a while to unlock his notion of “growth” (and even then, it took an insightful professor to help me do that).  Vygotsky is better than Dewey, but I had the same basic problem.  And with Vygotsky, there are the attendant, nagging concerns about his work being translated, or incompletely recovered.  Like, I’m still not entirely sure that Mind and Society wasn’t stapled together by a bunch of Harvard professors.  Either way, I definitely get the sense that I still haven’t quite found the key, I need more time to settle into the vocabulary of the discipline, like there’s a lot more still there.

It strikes me that what we think the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) is doesn’t actually seem quite like what Vygotsky was describing.  The ZPD is not just a way of saying that we should teach into what children are ready for, because Vygotsky does not mean we should base our understanding of that on any preconceived notion of biological stages of readiness (as Piaget would say).  Instead, he’s making a more subtle point about how learning — academic learning — actually creates the ZPD because it arrives out ahead of the slower but fuller notion of “development” (which seems to be where a student really internalizes learning and knowledge and makes it his own).  

When you get down to it, Vygotsky is fairly supportive of traditional academic content, which he calls “scientific learning” — he believes this kind of traditional learning is tremendously beneficial as a compliment to native learning (“spontaneous learning”).  Unlike Romantic thinkers, he doesn’t venerate a child’s natural acquisition of cultural tools, but writes of how that sort of learning is only advanced by more typical academic work — the very work which actually creates the ZPD.  

Again, the ZPD is not a large percentage of Vygotsky’s work in either of the two main books I read.  But I think what’s so alluring about it is that it’s a concept that sounds elusively like a scientifically understandable “shortcut” to understanding how children learn best.  It sounds like something you should be able to calculate, just like the Chinese kayak coaches, who used to simply do quick blood tests on their athletes to tell if they were training effectively.

Of course it’s not that easy.  There is no exact science of knowing just where a student is.  There are simply too many dynamic factors in the interplay between spontaneous and scientific concepts.  The way Vygotsky leaves this necessary assessment is entirely unfinished or open-ended.  He just doesn’t address all possible questions, and in a way, you can’t do it.  There’s no recipe.  For instance, clearly there is a difference between a student who has more natural intelligence and can therefore move more quickly through, say, new math equations, than a student who does not.  Certainly native intelligence is not a concept that Vygotsky touches on, yet that surely influences the ZPD in a sense.  So does the development of so-called “spontaneous concepts” — which would include, for instance, a student who enters school with more background knowledge (an understanding of cultural references in a particular reading passage, for example).  More and greater background knowledge or even simply heard vocabulary is surely not the sort of academic or “scientific” learning that Vygotsky (as far as I can tell) indicates is the creation of the ZPD.  Yet any teacher can tell you that background knowledge is a hugely important key in what allows one student to progress more readily than another, to have a larger ZPD.

Another tension implied in the ZPD is the idea that you should undertake instruction in advance of development.  You have to go out ahead of students — but not too far ahead.  That’s a tricky line, and one Vygotsky doesn’t really carefully explore.  When you think about it, it’s hard to make sense of Vygotsky’s idea that we should teach out ahead of development, because that sounds suspiciously like teaching students things that they simply aren’t ready for, all in the name of softening the ground.  That’s a fine line.

And even though Vygotsky surely inspired many, many followers and adherents, those following in his wake don’t seem to have advanced his idea of the ZPD much at all.  I went down the Vygotsky / ZPD rabbit hole on Jstor the other day, and there are plenty of articles about it and decades of further research, but good information about the science of the ZPD, or even systematic studies of how to identify the ZPD — at least under the headings of Vygotsky and his terms — seemed particularly elusive.  Again, it seems like the the richer, more fruitful work is under the vein of formative assessment and of feedback — particularly in the way that researchers like John Hattie conceive of feedback — as actually running from student to teacher, to allow a teacher to see learning through a student’s eyes.  There’s no recipe, only inquiry.  Teaching, in a sense, is inquiry.

Another one of the big issues that the ZPD calls up of course is the truth of assessment.  Vygotsky actually seems most concerned with the fact that two students virtually the same in physical ages might be four years apart in intellectual development — in their capacities to learn with basic guidance.  This would seem to imply that a typical standardized test would miss this significant difference, measuring only what two students could do independently.  It makes you wonder if educational assessment should, in some sense, be measuring students’ development (the traditional idea), or their ability to learn, which is what the ZPD seems to imply.

Add into this the notion of assessment measuring growth and you have three very separate components of achievement that could be measured:  present development, potential for learning at present, and growth over a set period.  Of these, to me, the second one, Vygotsky’s, does seem the most flimsy.  Because what this is measuring is not, in some sense, overall capacity for growth — as in, out in the future.  It’s only measuring potential for learning right now.  Why this is different than present development is interesting — and is all left pretty open-ended by Vygotsky.  It’s not surprising to me that this notion of assessment has caught on more as an instructional tool than on a measure of student progress.

The other challenge with Vygotsky’s thinking is that, for him, learning and development are so dynamic that they’re never really finished.  For him, learning is always in some form of mutation or assimilation.  For example, he says that we learn math initially, but then we spend many years building on that first knowledge as we learn deeper and more advanced concepts.  Or how learning our native language is only a start — and after learning more about a foreign language, for instance, we develop a greater and deeper understanding of our own language.  

There is something in Vygotsky’s notion of teaching (as opposed to the internalization of knowledge, what he calls an individual’s “development”) that is sort of like trail breaking.  One guy goes out (the teacher) and breaks trail, and from then on, the student can use that trail (development) to travel back and forth, making the trail better and more sure.  But seen this way, teaching in the sense of what I used to call “exposure” (i.e., just “exposing” the students to concepts or concepts, rather than ensuring they really understand it) could be seen as completed work for a teacher.  Or at least, Vygotsky’s sense of the dynamic, ever-changing relationship between what is taught and what is imbibed and internalized by students casts doubt on the surety of any particular concept ever being completely “learned.” So when do we know when a child has “learned” if development never really stops?

What really is most fascinating to me about Vygotsky’s work though, is his — revolution, I believe — idea that the entirely of what we learn is actually appropriated through social interactions, via the use of what he calls cultural tools (such as gestures and language).  In a way, it reminds me of Harold Bloom’s old notion that William Shakespeare “invented the human” — because Shakespeare’s characters “overhear themselves” and thereby develop self-knowledge.  It’s as though Vygotsky is saying that the very ways we learn to think, to express ourselves, and to understand ourselves are — not from overhearing ourselves, but from listening to others.  

This is demonstrably true for very young children.  I see my two year-old son so quickly appropriating the cultural “tools” of communication: raising his voice at the end of question sentences, developing non-verbal gestures (nods and pointing), even rolling syntax structure around, over and over again, to try it on (he often will ask, “Why?” and then answer it himself, in a kind of syntactical shorthand: “Because!”).  And it’s true, I think, for all of us: this is the gift of a teacher’s metacognition, of allowing students to overhear him in his conception, of how he attacks a problem.  These patterns that teachers use themselves and share can be appropriated by students — and thus can become a student’s own methods of understanding a particular task.  

The metaphor I will take away from Vygotsky is the following:  “An essential feature of learning is that it creates the zone of proximal development; that is, learning awakens a variety of internal developmental processes” (90).  That notion of development being “awakened” by new, academic learning, is important.  It’s very different — and far truer an explanation of how we learn, in my view — than the notion of simply “soaking up” new knowledge piece by piece.  Instead, we pick and choose; our developmental brain turns over and over new bits and pieces of knowledge.  Our spontaneous learning is only “brought up” by our academic or traditional learning (the “higher concepts” as he calls them), and our academic learning made more “real” by our spontaneous or practical learning.  That interrelation — between practice and theory, as we might say in education — is where the real magic happens, when the airy vagaries of theory are filled out into the substantiality of real situations involving real children and teenagers in our classrooms; while the routine, daily toils are lifted from the realm of mindlessness and superstition up to the light of truth and understanding.  I wholeheartedly agree.  That approach — very fruitful.

I sense there’s more in Vygotsky that what little I have pulled out here to examine, especially in Thought and Language.  But as I alluded to at the start, there’s only so much experimental psychology and learning science that I can take at one sitting.  Hopefully all of this “learning” has expanded my Zone of Proximal Development, and when I take my next pass at this stuff (perhaps via Vygotsky’s sometime-foil, Piaget?), I’ll have an expanded capability.