Vygotsky again

I enjoyed revisiting the work of Lev Vygotsky in Saturday’s second T&L session. Vygotsky’s ideas on the relationship between thought and language were the inspiration for my first ever blog post in 2008, and subsequently my first conference proceedings paper, which explored his the two key principles in the context of reflective blogging:

  • Thought is not a solely individual activity.
  • Thought is related to language.

I mentioned in my Michael Young response – somewhat cheekily – that some people get more conservative as they near the end of their lives. I knew Vygotsky died young, but had never considered the impact of this on his legacy before. At the time of his death his ideas still seemed radical and vibrant, and his followers resolved to keep them alive.

In Saturday’s session we compared Vygotsky’s theories of thought and learning with those of others like Piaget (our brains seek out patterns and construct models of them), Rogers (learning is self-discovered, self-appropriated), and Bruner (‘too often, human learning has been depicted in the paradigm of a lone human organism pitted against nature’).

Vygotsky, like Bruner (the ‘scaffolding guy’), emphasises the social aspect of learning:

  • children are particularly interested in the activities of the people they care about
  • more experienced others support their learning.

Regarding thought and language, Vygotsky found that from around the age of two, social speech begins to be utilised for egocentric speech, which is not physically internalised until later. Language is therefore shown to be a not simply a tool for communication, but a framework of symbols that facilitate the organisation of concepts.

We considered the tools of language & learning; the technical tools (e.g. pen, keyboard) that bring about changes in other objects, and psychological tools (speech/blog post) – devices for mastering mental process, and a link was made with Sherry Turkle’s work on the effect of technology on the way we use language. I read her book Alone Together last year after watching Shimi Cohen’s video short about it. The book is actually more about her research on the use of sociable robots in the caring industry – which is even more unsettling than the ideas Cohen hones in on.

I’d only vaguely heard of Susan Sontag before – the author of On Photography – from which I found this quote that suggests why certain people feel compelled to take endless pictures on holiday;

The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. (p. 10)

I can relate to that but I think I’ll have to take a closer look at Sontag’s work to understand the relevance to thought, language & learning.

We also watched an RSA Animate clip of a Stephen Pinker talk on language as a window into human nature. He spoke about different kinds of human relationships – Dominant, Reciprocal and Communal. You don’t engage in reciprocal behaviour in a communal relationship, therefore you don’t ask your family to contribute financially to Christmas dinner (or do you?!) One of the take-away points was that explicit language is an excellent way of creating mutual knowledge – with explicit language you can’t maintain the fiction; everyone knows what everyone knows.

George Lakoff also got a look-in during this session – his book Metaphors we live by was another one I bought and started in the last couple of years but didn’t get anywhere near finishing. Lakoff writes about metaphor and the impact of how we talk about things on how we think and act around them. For example, we commonly talk about argument as ‘war’ – if we applied a different metaphor, it is likely we would ‘argue’ differently. It would be a good idea to look out this book again – I wonder if I still have it?

The last note I wanted to make about this session was that there was a diagram that piqued my interest about the public space and its impact on thoughts & actions (Vygotsky/Harre). I guess I was thinking it might be a useful basis for discussion with my own students at technical induction and on the Open Practice unit – hopefully we’ll get access to the slides from the session and I can look further into this – and all the connections above.

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