Exploring children's learning
Exploring children's learning

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Exploring children's learning

5 Social constructivism

5.1 Cultural tools

Vygotsky (1896–1934) wrote two important books, Mind in Society (1978) and Thought and Language (1986), which were only widely published after his death. Due to state suppression, since they challenged some of the orthodox beliefs of the Soviet regime, these books took some time to come to the attention of developmental psychologists. Vygotsky came, independently, to much the same conclusions as Piaget about the constructive nature of development.

However, he differed in the role he ascribed to the social and cultural world surrounding the child. Vygotsky's perspective was that human history is created through the construction and use of cultural tools (a means of achieving things in the world which are acquired during development and passed on to subsequent generations. Cultural tools can be either physical (e.g. a hammer) or psychological (e.g. language) in nature). The inventive use of tools is what makes, and has made, humans human. Cultural tools are ways of achieving things in the world, acquired in the course of development and passed on to subsequent generations. So, for example, a hammer is a physical example of a cultural tool: it is a means of knocking sharp objects (e.g. nails) into surfaces. Its form and function are the result of generations of cultural development and adaptation. Moreover, its meaning and use is not immediately obvious to someone who has never come across a hammer before, or who has never needed to knock nails in – this information is also culturally transmitted. Each generation may adapt a hammer for its own needs or use it in new ways; a process referred to as ‘appropriation’.

Not all cultural tools are physical objects: they include ways of thinking as well as ways of doing. For example, perhaps one of the most significant cultural tools people use is language, and it shares the same characteristics attributed above to the hammer: long-term cultural development, adaptation, transmission and appropriation. Vygotsky proposed that it is through social interaction that ways of thinking begin to be appropriated by children, not, as Piaget thought, by children constructing them on their own. Cognitive development takes place within a social context and is supported by it.

Activity 4 Thinking in context

0 hours 15 minutes

This activity will demonstrate how even adult cognition is facilitated by the social context.

Try these two puzzles and write down your answer to the first puzzle before moving on to the second.

Puzzle 1

There are four cards, labelled either A or D on one side and either 3 or 7 on the other. They are laid out like this:

A rule states: ‘if A is on one side then there must be a 3 on the other’.

Which two cards do you need to turn over to find out if this rule is true?

Puzzle 2

As you walk into a bar you see a large sign stating that ‘To drink alcohol here you must be over 18’. There are four people in the bar. You know the ages of two of them, and can see what the other two are drinking. The situation is:

  • Ailsa is drinking beer;

  • Dymphna is drinking Coke;

  • Maureen is 30 years old;

  • Lauren is 16 years old.

Which two people would you need to talk to in order to check that the ‘over 18 rule’ for drinking alcohol is being followed?


Puzzle 1

The correct response is A and 7 but most people answer A and 3. Clearly, turning the A over will enable you to check that there is a 3 on the other side of that card. You need to check that the 7 also does not have an A on the other side, as that would ‘break’ the rule if it did (an A must have 3 on the other side). Turning the 3 card over will not help you because the rule only states what should be on the other side of an A card; it does not insist that all 3 cards must always have an A on them. However, people often make this (logically false) assumption.

Puzzle 2

This puzzle requires exactly the same reasoning, but you are more likely to solve this one first time around. This is because the problem is embedded in a familiar social situation. The correct solution is to ask Lauren what she was drinking, and ask Ailsa her age.

Your knowledge of the social situation means that you are less likely to make the same kind of mistake that you did in Puzzle 1 – the equivalent error in this problem would be to assume that the rule ‘implies’ that if you are over 18 you must be drinking alcohol (and so you would ask Maureen what she is drinking)! In the context of this puzzle, such a suggestion is clearly illogical.

The puzzles illustrate the significance of reasoning and cognitive ability being embedded in, and affected by, particular social contexts. The second puzzle is much easier than the first for most people, but the logical form of the reasoning required in both puzzles is the same. The significance of social context for Vygotsky is well illustrated by his views on the development of thought and language.


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