2 Vygotsky and socio-cultural psychology
The principal historical figure behind socio-cultural psychology is Lev Vygotsky, who lived in Moscow during the 1920s. By all accounts he was an unusual man, a many-talented individual who directed plays and wrote about subjects as diverse as art, neurophysiology and Marxist theory. But his main occupation was as an educational psychologist, mainly working with children who had severe physical and mental disabilities. Inspired by his practical educational experiences as well as Marxist ideas about the importance of the development of tools for the beginnings of human society, he developed a new theory of cognitive development and learning. Central to this theory was the use of one distinctive tool – language – which he suggested had originally enabled human thinking and social behaviour to become distinct from that of other animals.
It is commonly accepted that language is a defining human characteristic – no other species uses a communication system so complex, and our entire way of life depends on its use. Language enables us to share experience, within and across generations, in ways that other species cannot. Members of each new generation of chimpanzees, dolphins, or any other intelligent species have no comparable way of learning from their elders; most of the knowledge each individual animal gains dies with them. But Vygotsky realised that language is more than a complex, highly effective medium for sharing information. Once humans learn their first language, it becomes inextricably interwoven with the patterns and contents of their thoughts. In acquiring a language, Vygotsky suggested, children gain a tool for thinking. As he put it, ‘Children solve practical problems with the help of their speech, as well as with their eyes and hands’ (Vygotksy, 1978, p. 26). He went on to argue that humans gain a cognitive advantage over other species not only because individual experiences, realisations and solutions to problems can be shared much more explicitly, but also because the fusing of language with thought provides children with the means for a unique kind of mental development.
Vygotsky did not live to see the full effect of his ideas on the world of psychology, as he died in 1933 at the age of 37. His book Thought and Language, published the year after his death, created much interest in his native country, but then it was banned because of its incompatibility with the Pavlovian psychology officially sanctioned at that time by the Soviet authorities. An English translation of Thought and Language first appeared in the early 1960s (Vygotsky, 1962). That book was, in any case, only a partial account of his theory and it took until the 1970s and 1980s for much more of his work to become available outside Russia, and for its impact on education and the social sciences to begin to be apparent (e.g. Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985). By the mid 1990s, Vygotsky's work had inspired a new kind of perspective on human thought and action which, as mentioned above, has become known as socio-cultural psychology.
From Vygotsky we have the notion of language serving two functions: as a psychological tool and a cultural tool. As a psychological tool, we use it not just as a classification system for organising our thoughts, but also for reasoning, planning, reviewing. This ‘psychological tool’ provides what Derek Edwards (a British psychologist and educational researcher whose work has been strongly influenced by Vygotsky's ideas) calls a ‘semiotic technology’, which:
… breaks the world down into its component parts and processes, as mining and metallurgy do, and puts them together again as in craft workshops and factory production, in new or imitative ways, in the form of sentences, propositions, versions.
(Edwards, 1997, p. 44)
Our use of language as a cultural tool involves us in a two-way process of constant change. ‘Culture’ is the joint knowledge available to members of social groups which provides the basis for co-ordinated social activity. Gaining access to the culture of society is a formative influence on our ways of thinking. Each day our interactions bring our society alive again, and we can reshape the culture of our society by our own involvement in it. We use language not only as a means of sharing information in society, but also as a way of making things happen – by influencing the actions of others.
Unlike most other psychological theories which have influenced educational practice, Vygotsky's is not an individualistic theory of learning and development. It is an interactive theory, which aims to deal with the activities of teachers or others with guiding influence as well as with those of the ‘learners’. For these reasons, the socio-cultural perspective built upon the foundations of Vygotsky's work has recently been seen by some second language learning researchers as offering a better basis for future applied research than the more individualistic perspectives which have been used hitherto in the second language acquisition (SLA) field (Van Lier, 1996; Lantolf and Appel, 1994; Lantolf, 2000a and 2000b).
From a socio-cultural perspective, then, we take our first, infant steps as social beings, not as individuals. As Vygotsky suggested – and as others such as the developmental psychologist Jerome Bruner have since described more explicitly – right from infancy language allows a complex interplay between cultural development and individual development. Bruner says, ‘One of the most crucial ways in which a culture provides aid in intellectual growth is through a dialogue between the more experienced and the less experienced’ (Bruner, 1971, p. 20). Michael Halliday also neatly describes the Vygotskian conception of the role of language in education by saying: ‘When children learn language … they are learning the foundations of learning itself (Halliday, 1993, p. 93).
While Vygotsky's own research was not based on the analysis of life in mainstream classrooms, it has in recent years provided the stimulus, and an important part of the theoretical basis, for practical, applied research into the process of teaching and learning in schools. This kind of socio-cultural educational research is described in the next reading.
Reading 1: Language for teaching a language (PDF, 5.3MB, 15 pages)
Now read ‘Language for teaching a language’ by Neil Mercer which has been attached above. Having read the chapter once, now go back through it and consider the following questions:
Mercer refers to the exchange structure Initiation-Response-Feedback (IRF) as an almost universal feature of classroom discourse. How aware are you of the prevalence of IRF exchanges in the discourse of classrooms you are familiar with?
Mercer identifies various linguistic techniques frequently used by teachers (elicitations, recaps and reformulations). What function does he suggest the use of these techniques has in common?
Can it safely be assumed that particular forms of language have particular functions?
Mercer describes language teachers ‘code-switching’ between their learners’ first and second languages, and suggests some of the functions of this kind of switch. How does what is described relate to your own experience of first language and second language use? What professional attitudes to ‘code-switching’ as a classroom practice have you encountered?
Is the concept of ‘scaffolding’ different from the more general notion of ‘help’? How does it relate to activities that you have carried out as a teacher?
You will have seen that the socio-cultural approach to the study of classroom education as described by Mercer is based on a detailed analysis of the discourse of classroom life. Essential for carrying out this kind of analysis of the process of teaching and learning is data consisting of recorded interactions between teachers and learners (and also amongst learners, if they have opportunities to interact in the classroom). In the next activity you will use a video extract to analyse classroom interactions.
Activity 2 Video: analysing classroom interaction
For this activity you will need to watch video sequence entitled ‘Russia’. This sequence was recorded in a private primary school in Moscow, in an English lesson where the teacher was teaching her usual (small) class of 7- and 8-year-olds.
You will need the transcript of the early part of this sequence for part of this activity. You should also note that Mercer uses part of this transcription in the reading for Activity 1.
Watch the sequence first without referring to the transcript, then use the transcript to answer these questions:
Download and mark on the transcript the first six examples of an IRF exchange.
Looking at each of the six IRF exchanges you have identified, consider in turn: the kind of information or knowledge the teacher is eliciting; the content of the responses the children make; and the feedback that the teacher provides. What does this tell you about what the teacher is expecting of the children, their own understanding of what is going on, and the learning she is hoping to encourage?
Considering the sequence as a whole, identify any examples of recaps and reformulations in the feedback the teacher provides. Then consider how, if at all, the teacher's use of these techniques corresponds to the educational functions attributed to them by Mercer in the reading for Activity 1. If their functions seem different, what functions would you attribute to them?
Identify any ‘code-switching’ from English to Russian carried out by the teacher. What pedagogic or social functions do you think these switches may perform? How justifiable do you feel this switching is, from the point of view of effective teaching?
The reading by Mercer in Activity 1 described how language may be analysed as a tool for the creation of shared knowledge and the ‘scaffolding’ of learning. Do you think any of the teacher's interactions in this sequence would qualify as examples of ‘scaffolding’?
Transcript: Russia. Copyright © 2000 The Open University and Macquarie University (See Special Restriction in Acknowledgements Section).
The responses of a member of the course team to this activity were as follows:
I noticed that it was not always easy to ‘code’ the talk into IRF exchanges, as some of the interaction did not fit this idealised pattern. For example, the responses by a child to the first questions the teacher asks are not followed by straightforward ‘feedback’ on the quality of the answer provided, but by interruptions by the teacher as she attempts to ‘shape’ the child's behaviour and the answer being offered (‘No, answer from your place please’ and ‘I have got many’).
A well-known fact of language research is that spontaneous speech rarely fits neatly into any system of categorisation. Nevertheless, analytic categories such as IRFs can be very useful for making sense of what is going on; and much of the talk in this sequence does fit, or approximate to, a series of IRF exchanges. In this respect the video extract shows a very typical episode of classroom life.
The first two examples of interactions that I decided qualified as IRF exchanges were as follows (T = teacher; C = child):
T: Have you got any toy animals, Ksiusha?
C: I have got a cat.
T: (Interrupts) No, answer from your place please.
T: Have you got any toy animals at home?
C: Yes, I have, I have got many toy animals at home.
T: At home, that's right.
It seemed to me that the teacher was eliciting contributions which required children to provide answers which reflected accurately the grammatical structure and lexical content of the English she was using in her own questions. The children provided answers which tended to confirm my judgements about this; and the teacher's feedback was almost always concerned with correcting the contributions the children made so that they conformed more precisely to her model. From the way that they so readily took part in this kind of exchange, I would infer that the children's past experience of English lessons with this teacher had enabled them to become familiar with the ‘ground rules’ that normally operated in her lessons – implicit rules for using language which generate exchanges with this kind of content and structure.
I noticed no ‘recaps’ in this sequence, but ‘reformulations’ were very common. The first I noticed was in IRF exchange (2) above.
The instances where the teacher switched briefly from English into Russian seemed to me to correspond roughly to the functions of code-switching identified by Camilleri (as reported in Mercer, ‘Language for teaching-and-learning’. That is, the teacher used Russian to amplify what she wanted children to do or understand, rather than offering them a translation of the main content or what was being said in English. Her remarks also seemed to fulfil a social function of encouraging the more reticent children. For these reasons, I find her ‘code-switching’ a perfectly legitimate way of using shared language resources to sustain the teacher/learner relationship and ‘scaffold’ children's efforts.
I considered that parts of the video sequence might qualify as ‘scaffolding’ because the essence of that kind of intellectual assistance is that it offers learners a simplified and supportive environment for trying out skills, presenting knowledge or solving problems. This then enables learners to operate at the boundaries of their competence, falling back on the support of the teacher if they move ‘out of their depth’. By offering the children a regular, simple and repeated form of question, and one which contained in it most of the resources for producing an appropriate and correct answer, this teacher could be considered to be scaffolding the language learning of her class.