Issue 176 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1994 Copyright © Socialist Review

All in the mind

How do children learn as they grow up? Right wingers would have us believe that they need strict and traditional methods of teaching. John Parrington argues that we can understand a lot more by looking at the work of the revolutionary Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky

Major steps forward were made by a group of Russian psychologists in the 1920s and 1930s, working under the guidance of Lev Vygotsky, who died 60 years ago this month. Vygotsky's work is of particular interest to socialists because of his use of Marxism in the search for understanding human consciousness.

Why is Vygotsky's work of such interest? After all, practically all of the different schools of psychology in Russia at this time identified themselves as 'Marxist'. The problem was that this usually consisted simply of tacking a few quotations from Marx and Engels on to an already existing, often mechanistic, view of the mind. In contrast Vygotsky declared that 'a materialist psychology has to be built having learned the whole of Marx's method'. This meant identifying the material factors which shape the mind as it develops through childhood.

What are these factors? For a start, we are born into and grow up within a social environment. The process of mental development is characterised by a transformation of the 'lower' or natural functions into 'higher' or cultural ones, which are specific to human beings. Society provides the material for this transformation in the form of language. Vygotsky argued that words can be viewed as a sort of 'psychological tool'. Unlike regular tools, which are used to control and transform the natural world, words act upon the mind itself.

Vygotsky demonstrated that language increasingly plays the role of a kind of 'scaffolding' in helping to organise our practical activities. At first this function is overt, such as children talking to themselves as they play, but it continues, although hidden, even after words become internalised as thoughts later in a child's development.

His view of the mind as social in its origins, even down to its very structure, is completely different from the picture presented by most mainstream psychologists, who tend to counterpose the individual and society.

This is only one side of the equation that describes the development of the mind. The other crucial factor is the role of practical activity which, as it becomes linked to words in childhood, ensures that the social structuring of the mind is far from a passive process. Indeed, Vygotsky believed that this linkage was the key to understanding human consciousness.

Instead of being a passive recipient of information, the child actively seeks out the words and concepts that make sense of its everyday practical experience. This continual testing of the meaning of language against reality is one of the features that allows the child to reach towards future knowledge and abilities. It is apparent in the incredible creativity and questioning nature we associate with children.

Of course under capitalism such creativity is all too often stifled early in life and instead we see a passive adaptation to the values and language of society. However, this potential of the human mind remains, and in a period of social crisis the gap between the dominant ideas of society and the reality faced by workers can become so great that the questioning and creative sides of the human character can surface. Vygotsky's ideas help to explain how people can rapidly begin to challenge, at times of great social upheaval, views they have held for most of their lives.

Vygotsky himself rarely dealt with directly political questions, such as the growth of class consciousness. Part of the reason for this was that he was formulating his ideas in a situation where the workers had already seized power. Vygotsky and his colleagues were totally committed to ensuring that the new socialist state would survive. Their main goal was to develop ways of dealing with some of the enormous practical problems facing Russian society. It was a country attempting to move rapidly from semi-feudalism to socialism whose backwardness was further exacerbated by world war and civil war.

The problems included widespread illiteracy, cultural differences, and an almost total absence of services for those who were mentally retarded or otherwise unable to participate in the new society. At the same time the goal of education in the new socialist state was seen in a much wider perspective than these immediate concerns. At the heart of this revolution in education was the ideal of the 'development of the total personality of all human beings'.

Vygotsky's views on education follow on from his general ideas about the mind. They have great relevance for the present debate over teaching methods. In the same way that he saw social interaction acting as a kind of 'scaffolding' for the development of the child, Vygotsky believed that individuals learnt best when learning was part of experiences. This stands in contrast to the Tories who, as part of their attack on education, want teachers to concentrate on the formal aspects of skills such as reading and writing rather than relating them to the students' own interests and experience.

Interestingly, Vygotsky's approach has been recently vindicated by a series of studies in the United States which have successfully taught literary skills precisely along the lines he proposed. One group, working in a deprived area of Chicago, situated reading and writing in more everyday activities like talking, drawing and even play, while in a school in Arizona, writing classes were geared to the children's every day experiences outside the classroom. This took the form of project work whose content was drawn from the working class community where the knowledge of parents and other workers in the community was enlisted. In these studies, spelling and grammar were not ignored, but the emphasis was put primarily on treating reading and writing as communicative and meaningful. With such an approach even the most uninterested or apparently incapable children made dramatic improvements in their literary skills.

Vygotsky was also highly critical of the sort of tests which the Tories have tried to introduce into schools. He attacked their class and cultural bias, and also made the criticism that such tests tell us very little about learning potential. He proposed that a true assessment of a child's ability should not just consider what it can achieve unaided, but also what can be achieved through collaboration with others. Of course such cooperative learning is exactly what the Tories would like to stop in our schools.

As well as his general interest in educational issues, Vygotsky was also particularly concerned with the problems faced by those with learning difficulties. Indeed, he practically founded what we call special education. He investigated the nature of 'mental illnesses' such as schizophrenia, began to look into the biological basis of consciousness and even advised the film director Eisenstein on how to portray complex ideas visually on the screen.

At their height in the late 1920s Vygotsky's views about the mind were among the most influential in Russia. Tragically, Stalin would all too soon put an end to the exciting period of creativity and experimentation that flourished after the revolution. Vygotsky was denounced for 'bourgeois idealism' (mainly due to his willingness to consider the work of psychologists such as Freud and Piaget) and after his death in 1934 his work was banned.

The psychology that then became dominant was Pavlov's reflexology, a sterile and mechanical view of the mind admirably suited to the totalitarian system that grew up under Stalin. It is a sign of Vygotsky's importance that his work is gaining prominence again after being buried for so many years.

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