The constructivist claim that knowledge is socially constructed and driven by peer-interaction is frequently defended by references to the theories of Lev Vygotsky. Most major initiatives during my time as a teacher have been (apparently) been based on the writings of this Russian psychologist who died in 1934. He is one of the main foundations of constructivist theories of learning … or so I thought.
I came across this Russian article: Vygotsky under debate: two points of view on school learning which argues that much of interpretation of Vygotsky’s work was appropriated by theorists in the West keen to marry his theory to Piaget’s. The authors claim that the view of Vygotsky, as a social interactionist, is based principally upon a single chapter in one of his books ‘Mind in society’, where he discusses the ‘Zone of Proximal Development’ and that a broader review of his work points towards an alternative interpretation of his work.
Much of the socio-cultural approach to learning attributed to Vygotsky may actually stem from a Western misrepresentation of his work.
The authors suggest that a more complete view of Vygotsky reveals an interpretation of his theory that is potentially at odds with social-constructive theories of learning. This alternative view of Vygotsky is based on the view that his later work led towards seeking to understand the processes by which formal knowledge becomes internalised through education. In essence, they claim, Vygotsky can be interpreted as supporting the role of instruction and transmission of knowledge.
The article goes on to focus on the work of Menchinskaia, a student of Vygotsky but little known in the West. Part of her absence from Western educational theory is explained, by the authors, to be because her work was badly received by Western theorists like Davydov (who had helped popularise the interactionist interpretation of Vygotsky’s work). Her methods were apparently seen as ‘too empirical’.
Thus, she was not a theorist but a researcher trying to accumulate data in order to enhance her understanding of school-age developmental processes. Furthermore, she adopted a starting point opposite that of Davydov while she was trying to further her comprehension of what was happening in pupils’ minds.
The authors argue she sought to restore Vygotsky’s research programme to the point that he left it – by attempting to systematically study the relationship between instruction and intellectual development. “Designed to discover the actual mechanism by which the subject content that is provided by instruction is turned into individual knowledge, abilities, and skills …”
For example, Menchinskaia found in her studies that concrete content is often an obstacle to the assimilation of academic knowledge. An experiment with a control group showed indeed that the group that had the advantage of direct and abstract teaching succeeded better in solving exercises than did the group that obtained strong empirical scaffolding during the lesson.
She also pursued a research program that Vygotsky apparently set himself before he died so young, to explore the internal processes involved in the learning of particular subject material. i.e. that learning could not be described by a general formula, but by wide and varied researches to uncover how knowledge was assimilated within different disciplines.
The authors are swift to say that they merely wish to offer up this alternative view of Vygotsky’s theories – contrasting how his work has been interpreted in the West compared to Russia. However, one quote rather reveals the authors’ feelings about the popular view of Vygotsky:
The literature provides evidence of a proliferation of thinking around Vygotsky’s work, and nobody would find this proliferation regrettable. It is certainly a source of creativity and innovative ideas. Nonetheless, it is more problematic to take hold of authors and make them assume positions that they themselves would refuse. Internationally, Vygotsky’s name is so recognized that it is enough to invoke the memory of a “cursed” psychologist, as we can invoke the names of painters or poets who were criticized and insulted when alive and whose deepness we sadly discover only many years after their disappearance.