Relocating the Laboratory:
40 Years of Collaborative Research on Culture

Sylvia Scribner Award Address
AERA Denver, Colorado
May 2nd, 2010
Michael Cole, Ray McDermott, Luis Moll,
Denis Newman, Olga Vásquez, Katherine  Brown, Robert  Lecusay

Michael Cole
(back to slides)

The Initial Problematic of LCHC: How to understand cultural variation in intellectual Performance.


The Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition has its roots in the problematics of social science attempts to understand population variations in cognition that were roiling American academia in the late 1960’s, efforts to link those variations to strategies for improving the educational performance of ethnic minorities in the United States associated with the poverty program, and the political/moral issues that were a part of the Civil Rights movement.

                Starting with the academic issues, the 1960’s were a period of a number of cross-cultural research programs, associated with UNESCO’s promotion of universal education following World War 2, that connected education, economic development, and political independence. One of those programs, sponsored by Educational Development Corporation centered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, became concerned about the apparently severe educational difficulties experienced by children from non-literate populations in newly decolonialized countries in Africa.

                I was trained as an experimental psychologist in the tradition of American learning theory, so I was in for some rude shocks when I was sent to Liberia. When given experimental tasks that were used as measures of cognitive ability in the United States, even when care was taken to use indigenous materials and painstaking back-translations of instructions to establish locally appropriate replicas, it appeared that local adults as well as their children were severely mentally retarded. They could not solve the simplest of children’s jigsaw puzzles, they uses strategies often observed among rats in studies of probability learning, they could not sort a set of 8 cards according to dimensions of color form and number, and so on. 

                But surprisingly, they did not appear in the least retarded in my everyday dealings with them, and when care was taken to construct numerical tests that drew upon central local activities such as growing and trading rice, they not only manifested an uncanny ability to bargain effectively about the conditions of cooperating in our work, but a perfectly logical system of mathematical measurements and an ability to estimate amounts of rice that far exceeded that of Yale undergraduates when I brought the newly minted test procedures home.

                For several years I was privileged to be able to continue that initial in collaboration with John Gay, a mathematician-turned-missionary in Liberia, Joe Glick, a colleague at Yale, and Don Sharp, a Yale undergraduate, then graduate student with me at UC Irvine, and then a colleague in follow up research in the Yucatan. The core emphasis in this research was to begin, so to speak, from two direction. First, we conducted ethnographic studies of people’s everyday activities which we took to be the touchstone upon which experimental work should be built. But, ethnography being the time consuming task that it is, and cognitive experiments being the quick-and-easy-to-administer tasks that they are, we simultaneously began to administer such tasks to schooled and non-schooled populations of people of different ages, using whatever ethnographic information we had at hand in the process.

This work rather quickly demonstrated that standard cognitive tasks involving memory, categorization, inferential and deductive reasoning improved markedly as a function of years of education, not age. This finding itself was of interest, given the perfect confounding of age and education in Euro-American developmental research started in the age range from 5-7 years. Of still greater interest was the discovery that by successively modifying the cognitive tasks to simulate more closely the conditions of remembering in people’s everyday lives or by selecting materials where local people experienced no difficulty whatsoever categorizing (e.g., kinds of leaves from local vines and trees), the apparent inabilities in basic cognitive processes that standard test results pointed to evaporated and, as in our early work, it was sometimes the case that the educated people were at a distinct disadvantage.

This work was all published long ago, and I do not need to elaborate on it here. Even for those who are not familiar with the work, these brief description should be sufficient to sustain the following points concerning the intial intellectual problematic of LCHC.


1)      When making comparisons of cognitive performance, familiarity with content of tasks and the ordinary uses to which those contents are put is crucial. Western graduate students simply failed to learn to categorize locally familiar flora.

2)      The immediate setting/ context within which the same content is presented is crucial: Categories of corn, that local people teach us in ethnographic elicitation fail to control people’s behavior if they are asked to categorize them in a seemingly simple sorting task: Categories of leaves that people can categorize flawlessly they fail to categorize if they are associated with arbitrary names as part of a seemingly simple categorization task.


Repeated observations of this kind led us to focus on the non-transparency of experimental tasks: even if the content of a task was familiar, even when under some conditions people demonstrated their ability to categorize, deduce, remember, etc., the discursive frame of the tasks we presented appeared to obscure, rather than make clear, their intellectual abilities. These same observations made us suspicious of claims that schooling brings about a marked change in intellectual development because the structure of the standard cognitive tasks is derived from the structure of tasks encountered in school. Through this tortuous route we were brought back to the problem of the ecological validity of psychological tests in a powerful way.

These research issues intersected importantly with social and political events co-occurring in the United States. The War on Poverty and the advent of Project Headstart, combined with the Civil Rights movement, focused public attention on the causes of the poor perfomance of American minority group children in school to an unprecedented degree. The dominant explanation of the performance gap invoked the idea of “cultural deprivation,” resulting from hundreds of years of slavery and segregation which had produced devastating effects on the education and economic circumstances of America’s Black population, while a combination of poor education, discrimination, and language barriers produced similar effects on the Latino population. Hence, Project Head Start as a means of overcoming the family-borne deficits with which children came to school.

The alternative explanation, offered provocatively by Arthur Jensen in 1969 was that such poor performance was the result of genetic factors that limited the afflicted populations to learning in a lower order fashion.  Whatever the explanation, it was based upon performance on the same set of widely used tests that we had been experimenting with, and coming to doubt the meaning of, in our cross-cultural work.

This confluence provoked the following question among the grant officers at several foundations: If a culturally sensitive methodology could be devised to demonstrate intellectual competence among Liberian rice farmers and Mayan peasants, might not a similar approach help to explain the sources of poor cognitive performance among U.S minorities? This question offered a special kind of hope. If a substantial amount of cognitive variability could be associated with cultural causes, and some of those causes could be pinpointed, school programs might be modified to unleash misdirected intellectual resources. At the same time, a larger, more representative group of Americans would have access to institutions of higher learning bringing much needed additional talent and diversity into the top echelons of science, public policy, and economic life.  We were asked to undertake such a research program.

In principle, of course we could conduct such research. But in practice, it was impossible. Politically organized, and furious at the purposes to which well-meaning social science research in minority communities had been put, local communities were well organized to exclude intrusion of Anglo researchers. When I approached various community leaders and tried to explain my goals, I was told to my face that I was just another colonizer, come to extract resources from the local community to my own personal advantage. Luckily, I met with a somewhat less hostile, but no less skeptical, reception among minority group academics.

For more than a year, I conducted discussions with Black psychologists who knew of my work and just as importantly, knew of their own difficulties in developing their own research agendas to address the same problems. Written reports of our work in Africa were appearing, and the appeal to the everyday life of people as the cornerstone for developing psychological analyses resonated with these colleagues’ own sense of a core problem with standard, academic, comparative cognitive research. But they had no experience in conducting such research, and no institutional home in which to organize to learn how to do it.

                This mutual need became the foundational principle of LCHC. We all knew that we were addressing a problem, and addressing it in a way, that had no academic pedigree. We needed to work out methods together. We needed seek and/or develop a theoretical foundation as well as concrete methods. And we needed, eventually, to link this research to education. Most importantly, we had to proceed in a way that blocked long standing relations of domination. We needed to create a system where different participants ran their own projects, under their direct supervision, but where there was constant interchange about methods and theories. Where possible, “cross-over” studies would be conducted in which, for example, black and white researchers would work in both black and white communities or problems of mutual interest. Support monies would go directly to the principle investigators of the different projects, so financial domination was ruled out. And the major arena of collaboration was a seminar where everyone offered their ideas, brought their problems and their students to the table, so that, collectively, we could figure out a way to supercede the intellectual and political shortcomings that history had bequeathed us.

Thus began the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition.





Ray McDermott

(back to slides)

LCHC at The Rockefeller University in New York City in the 1970s: A Staging Ground for a Long March

LCHC at The Rockefeller University in New York City in the 1970s was a Staging Ground for a Long March:

from studying Minds in Isolation,

to studying Settings for Engaged Activities,

to gaining More Situation Sensitive Methods of Analysis,

and all this as just the beginning for the achievements

of the next three decades in California when the Lab built

Sustainable Programs of Cognitive and Social Change.

My goal is to celebrate what we were doing then, to hint of a topsy-turvy mix-and-match of success and failure that flowered our path, and to suggest how

the work has fitted the demands of new circumstances. The Long March continues.

The Ongoing Context

First, let's get the emotional and social context. In the early-1970s, popular rumor had it that members of Congress were carrying the Coleman and

Moynihan Reports in their pockets, and, in a desk drawer, they kept Jensen's fraudulent claims on the racial organization of inherent intelligence. By the first

two reports, economic deprivations were contributing to an ongoing culture of poverty and minority school failure; by the latter, genetics were the problem.

Either way, Congress had no reason to throw money at irremediable built-in problems. In contrast, everyone at the Lab was overwhelmingly committed to

equality and the fight against racism. We were upset that psychology and the social sciences were being used and abused to hurt the kids we wanted to help.

This was our primal scream.

The Ongoing Content

Although our social mission was clear, most other things—the specific problems we had to address, the methods we were to find useful, the theoretical

languages we could stitch together—all these were up for grabs. About ten of us spent the Spring of 1976 tackling the foundations of IQ tests and

achievement tests. The group included:

Mike Cole and Sylvia Scribner fresh from fieldwork in Liberia where people had their own intelligent and instructive ways around the blind-side

enthusiasms of experimental inquiries; a small group of disappointed psychologists fresh from battles with IQ tests and in search of new analytic tools for

working with non-mainstream populations; one Skinnerian behaviorist and one anthropologist, both resisting any effort to phrase the differences between

kinds of people in terms of what might be in their heads. It was a great environment for kinds of research people—various by gender, race, social class,

discipline, theoretical baggage—to figure out what was meant by easy-to-use messy words: big ticket items, like knowledge, language, memory, expression,

motivation, and smaller issues, more behaviorally available, like attention, inattention, stimulus, response, question, answer, and experimental control. In

1976, we worried, in the language of the day, about natural vs. experimental settings, a strange division that invited a double illusion:

- first, because well controlled experimental settings were not put together by  people fully involved in and dependent on social relations, they were therefore

the key to measuring the human mind, and

- second, because uncontrolled natural situations were not put together by people fully involved in and dependent on social relations, they therefore could tell

us nothing about the mind.

The repetition and contradiction in the last two sentences revealed an idiocy and defined an opportunity to explore the possibility that all settings, whether

experimental or natural, were relentlessly well ordered. Local circumstances are so tidy that anyone willing to look can figure out how people attend to and

draw meaning from each other in ways wonderfully intelligent. People use each other as environments in their struggle to reorganize their lives, and even

under pathological conditions, even in schools and families, a fully functional intelligence is always available for the looking.

Our hope was to produce accounts of children and their adults being bright and wonderful in ways under-described, unappreciated, and rendered

unintelligible by more arbitrary, partial, and, only in these ways—like Arizona immigration laws—more controlled methods.

We borrowed the term ecological validity—and cultural, institutional, and historical validity —to cover the work of describing local events as well organized

pieces of much larger series of events across a social structure or political economy. We came to call the whole project Ecological Niche Picking (Cole,

Hood, & McDermott, 1978). Our first effort bore a subtitle, Ecological Invalidity as an Axiom of Current Experimental Cognitive Psychology. It announced

what we were opposed to, namely the limits of laboratory psychology lied and applied to a social world more complex, temporal, and sensuous than

experimental theory took into account. From that beginning, the Lab's work has continued to engage the conditions that led to the concern for ecological

validity. A life is after all what happens to it. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that. So too the life of Ecological Niche Picking. Over the next 30-years, much has

happened to it. Even when the phrasing was by-passed, which is fine, because it had grown from our concern for children, worked on with children over

time and circumstance, and coordinated with theoretical traditions that might help, it took hold in the fabric of Lab activities. Gradually, it was allowed to

grow into its own conclusions. This is the best that can happen to an idea.

And now the conclusion with the most generalize-utility, right down to the present. Once the decision was made to study the world in situations, insisting

that education have relevance to the conditions of its use was an easy evolution. Learning value (exchangeable as degrees on the labor market) and use value

had grown apart right down to the biographies available to little kids in school; conditions of teaching/learning and conditions of knowledge use had to be,

and still must be, recoordinated.

New projects at the Lab have used the systematics of the social world to increase the ecological validity of what and how children were asked to learn.

For example, information technologies were on the rise, and the 5th-Dimension computer clubs of the 1980s replaced the cooking clubs of the 1970s.

For example, political economies were increasingly going global, and so too was American educational theory and assessment techniques. This fit of Global

Norming became the negative context for the Lab reaching beyond national borders, and the afternoon clubs spread around the globe.

More importantly, children and adults were being moved into different niches of the knowledge cycle, and the new clubs were specifically designed to make

both adults and children bring something useful to the table—useful both in the sense of what they knew and could share, and useful in the sense of what

they did not know but could learn from the others present. As the first step to knowledge, ignorance was always welcome at the table.

Most importantly, in a further fit of ecological validity—Down with Global Norming!—the clubs started to take on a life affirming agenda: no longer

enough to have an afternoon club to think with, or to gather data from, it became important to reorganize the biographies of the children—and their adults

and their communities. The methods of psychological inquiry had gone from finding out what was in isolated heads to organizing the circumstances in

which heads—many at a time—could together transform their own circumstances.

The Ongoing Contest

I have covered only developments in the Lab. Many who left the Lab still work in wide ranging ways responsive to the problems of ecological validity,

some to study the people's funds of knowledge, some to study the people's knowledge of funds, and all of us to get funds, please Guard, some funds in

exchange for our knowledge. Others worked to reorganize university research and still others to organize, from the ground up, some ground-down

institutions beyond school budget lines. Through it all, most have kept their commitment to confronting inequality and saving children from new rounds of

degradation at the hands of researchers. We cannot say we have made the world a better place, but we can claim to have reshaped and sharpened the tools

available. If the country is ever again to take seriously the promises of education in a living democracy, we might find ourselves useful.


Luis Moll
(back to slides)

If Sylvia, Michael, Ray and other colleagues in New York were the first-generation Labbies, and those who joined the Lab after its move to San Diego the second generation, then I must be generation 1.5.  I first joined the Lab in New York in 1977 as a pre-doctoral fellow from UCLA, with the goal of writing my dissertation, a bilingual version of a referential communication study, and learning more about the Lab’s work.  I was particularly interested in the combination of anthropological and psychological methods to address issues of culture and thinking that Michael was then calling an “ethnographic psychology”  (Cole, 1978), and how those ideas may apply to the study of cultural diversity and education in the US, especially as it pertained to Latino students.  As an added bonus, something I did not anticipate, I also learned a little bit about Vygotsky and cultural-historical theory as well.  

                Shortly after my return to UCLA to submit my dissertation, I joined the Lab re-located now in San Diego.  With plenty of help from others, I submitted a successful proposal to conduct a micro-ethnographic study of bilingual classrooms (Moll, Estrada, Díaz, & Lopes, 1980), patterned after Bud Mehan’s (1979) detailed analysis of classroom interactions.  A key event in this work was when Esteban Díaz joined the Lab and we collaborated on this and other projects with Latino students and families. 

From that initial classroom ethnography, we developed a “teaching experiment,” in the Vygotskian sense of the term, which became our prototype for subsequent work.  Let me explain.  The initial study had revealed details about the social organization of instruction in a bilingual program.  It turns out that the children rotated from a Spanish- to an English-language classroom as part of their school day, which allowed us to study the same students “doing reading” in two different language environments.   In particular, we had shown in the initial study that the English monolingual teacher, as part of his ability groupings, relegated competent readers in Spanish to doing low-level phonic and vocabulary drills in English, even those children who were advanced readers in Spanish and were verbally competent in English.  We traced the discrepancy in instruction, where the same kids looked smart in Spanish but slow in English, to three factors:  One was that the teacher in English did not know what the students were capable of doing in Spanish.  Another was the overriding concern then, as it is now, with providing lessons on decoding and other forms related to the sounds of English before the children are allowed to engage in more complex reading tasks.  So the when the kids never quite sounded right to the English teacher, he organized more decoding practice for them, seriously constraining any meaningful activities with texts.

Our teaching experiment involved how to re-mediate that trap: how to help children in the lowest reading group in English resemble those in the highest group in Spanish (e.g., Moll & Díaz, 1986, 1987). By joining the children in having discussions in Spanish of the stories the children were struggling to read in English, we first established that the children could comprehend in English more than what they could display in that language. Accordingly, we then picked more complex text, first reading aloud the story to the children, while asking them to concentrate on understanding it, establishing that making sense of text is always the higher order goal of reading. Once we discussed the story, in a mix of Spanish or English discourse, as needed, we started distributing responsibility for reading the text, where the children would progressively read aloud more, and we would help them decode, but always in the context of making meaning with text.   We then concentrated on using a similar strategy to mediate the children’s reading of texts at grade level. The theme that emerged from this work informed our subsequent efforts: building in various ways on the cultural resources for thinking available in the immediate environment. 

                While Esteban and I were developing this work, I remember that Alonzo Anderson and Bill Teale were developing what would become important and influential work on early literacy, documenting pre-schoolers “literacy events” in everyday family and community settings among low-income Mexican, Anglo, and Black families (Anderson, Teale & Estrada, 1980).   In particular, they documented the life experiences and the variations that lead to the development of early literacy, and challenged the common assumption that the cultural factors of these low-income groups are deleterious to the development of literacy (Anderson & Stokes, 1984).  Jim Levin and Margaret Riel, in addition to coaching us patiently on the use of computers, developed early word processing software that greatly facilitated our work.  In the time I was at the Lab, Peg Griffin and Mike started the 5th Dimension after-school club, which has been a leading activity of LCHC ever since.  And Denis Newman, along with Mike and Peg Griffin, generated a project that would result in the book “The construction zone,” an elaboration of Vygotskian ideas in practice, which he will discuss next

After 7 years of working at LCHC, I accepted a regular-line position at the University of Arizona, where I have now worked for almost 25 years.  But LCHC and its theoretical tenets, methodological lessons, and collegial working arrangements, have travelled well, and they are well internalized, one could say, becoming the foundation of my teaching and research for all these years.

Denis Newman

 (back to slides)

                I had gravitated to studying how children develop their thinking, talking and social capacities out of a skepticism about the content of the current psychology textbooks.  I found myself in a developmental psychology Ph.D. program at City University of NY Graduate Center, where I could delve into the theories and studies of cognitive growth. My school was across town from The Rockefeller University where the lab was located and I was lucky enough to have an advisor, Joe Glick, who had worked with Mike and could insert illustrations from the work in Liberia into discussions of the cognitive tasks that were the mainstay of developmental research. The debate in the field at the time was to what extent Piaget’s stages were context specific—if a task was presented to the child with familiar materials, they may exhibit thinking associated with a higher stage than if the questions were asked in an unfamiliar form. One way or another, however, the debate was about what happens in a demarcated context in which the task is presented and the child’s response recorded. Several of us got research assistant jobs and trekked regularly up to Rockefeller where something else entirely was happening.  Ray McDermott and Ken Traupmann and others were holding after school cooking clubs and three-year-olds were being videotaped at play.  At first it was disturbing to be pulled away from what seemed like the pure environment of cognition into a messy and uncontrollable world of real kids.


When Mike and the lab relocated to UCSD around 1978, I was lucky enough to be part of the migration and part of a project, which had just received funding, aimed squarely at the problem of identifying tasks in different settings.  At UCSD, Bud Mehan introduced us to two of his former students, Marilyn Quinsaat and Kim Whooley, who were teaching at an elementary school in Oceanside, north of the campus.  By this time I was ready to accept that classrooms were something more than a messy version of the psychological laboratory.  Mike has already introduced the motivation for what we began referring to as the Oceanside School Project. Our initial question was: can a task presented in a formal test predict achievement on the same task when encountered in everyday life?  Peg Griffin, who came to the lab with a serious understanding of how language is used, had an intellect sharp enough to connect the collaborative activities with the teachers to the theoretical underpinnings as we began to understand what we later called the “construction zone” or the systems of social support that made cognitive growth possible.  Of course, “The Construction Zone,” also became the name of the book that Peg and Mike and I published about this project (Newman, Griffin & Cole, 1989).


This was an extraordinary time given the range of backgrounds, cultures, and intellectual traditions of the people in the lab. The lab meetings drew participants from around the university and around the world. Often we found ourselves speaking a language that left newcomers puzzled. But the energy was high and ideas like the zone of proximal development began to be assimilated into a view of the world where the mind is connected to the tools and society outside. A concept like mediation began to seem obvious and readily applied in many areas of our work. With Laura Martin and Margaret Riel (Newman, Riel & Martin, 1982) we put together an understanding of the limitations of cross-cultural Piagetian research. With Jim Levin, we began to set up computer networks expanding the tools that mediate communication.


This all came back into our classroom research where cognitive tasks could be seen as supported by the teacher, the tools, and the other students. Our basic problem was to understand what it even meant to identify a cognitive task outside of the laboratory.  Our problem was a little more tractable because we were trying to compare how tasks emerge in formal and less formal events within the confines of a classroom. Over a period of two years, we collaborated with the teachers to create full curriculum units in which we identified a specific task that we embedded in a one-to-one tutorial (to represent the traditional laboratory test), in small group activities, and in whole group lessons. We collected video records of all these classroom events because we saw each as an interactive construction to be inspected in detail for how or whether the task appeared. 


For example, in our chemistry unit, we embedded Piaget’s famous combinations task in which children are asked to find all the pair wise combinations of a set of objects.  In a one-to-one tutorial we presented the children with the task of finding all the ways that a set of six movie stars could go together.  The classic solution to this problem is what Piaget called “intersection”--the child creates a conceptual matrix to generate all possible pairs. A less sophisticated method is to make up pairs until “you can’t think of any more” which lacks the certainty of “intersection”. 


This is the task that we wanted to confront the children with outside the rigid control of the tutorial session with our research assistant. At a later time, as part of the chemistry unit, groups or three or four children worked on their own with beakers of sodium meta-bisulfate, Clorox bleach, copper sulfate, and potassium iodide, each pair of which produces a distinctive reaction.  The teacher instructed them to fill out a worksheet to record what happens when you combine all the pairs of chemicals.  The children displayed their own varied motivations to find as many ways as they could to mix the chemicals.  None of the groups, however, started the activity by setting out the find all the pairs.  In other words, the task they had been asked to solve in the laboratory was not immediately apparent to them.  It was only when it came to checking to see if there were any more pairs to mix, that the task we had sought emerged in some groups.


Outside of the laboratory, children must find the task as a solution to an emergent problem.  If the task does emerge, it is often difficult to identify which member of a group was responsible.  As a result we found it very labor-intensive to “score” the data even with full video records shot from two angles. In contrast, laboratory tasks are designed for precise replication and easy recording and scoring of the response.   


The insight about how cognitive tasks emerge in interaction was the starting point for a deeper understanding of testing as a special context, how children can adopt cultural tools and take them to another level and about cognitive change in general. The lab gave us a wealth of colleagues with whom to explore these ideas and a unique environment in which new intellectual tasks could emerge.


I was with the lab in San Diego for about five years and went from there to R&D organizations, rather than taking a university job.  I found myself building technology environments for schools including ways for teachers to use the Internet for sharing their work.  While I was building and trying out new cultural tools, it was always mixed in with considerations of how, for example, an intelligent tutoring system is used by instructors mingling its lessons with the conversation. Or how an online game engages children within the same classroom. There was always the structuring of the teacher and the institution inherent in the design.


My current venture, started seven years ago, is a research company called Empirical Education that tests the effectiveness of educational products sold to schools. It might seem a far cry from examining classroom videos for traces of cognitive tasks but the fundamental work that Empirical Education does is hugely influenced by what I brought with me from the lab. Ecological validity is still a basic problem in conducting experimental studies in school settings (Cole, Hood & McDermott, 1979). How do we get the same task (“intervention” or “treatment”) to happen reliably in multiple settings, that is, to have enough control to know what is happening without allowing the work of the research to distort the activity? 


Accepting that cognitive processes begin externally and especially in social interactions with adults and peers (e.g., working with manipulatives in a math lesson) before becoming abstract and internal (a symbolic cognitive procedure), entails that implementing educational programs requires establishing systems of interaction.  A new educational program can never be a magic pill.  For example, the introduction of computers into classrooms where the software is designed to be used as part of the classroom instruction or “integrated with the curriculum” can create massive variability because of differences in teacher training and in teacher interest in using computers. But if, in order to reduce variability, the teacher-student interactions are scripted and compliance rigidly enforced, this enforcement on behalf of the experiment, obviously changes the task and may even make teachers less effective by reducing their ability to make appropriate adjustments for individual students. 

When complex educational programs are implemented on a scale large enough to show an effect, the effort of maintaining tight control over the implementation has the danger of introducing ecological invalidity. This is a rudimentary example, but my goal is to show how a view that I grew to understand through a long association with LCHC still drives the design of field experiments in schools.


 Olga A. Vásquez

(back to slides)

In the spirit of the notion of play and education.


I am going to read you a story of the Fifth Dimension and how La Clase Mágica came to be. Once upon a time, a long time ago, I think it was I joined LCHC as a post-doctoral fellow in 1989 with the idea of exploring the cognitive aspect of oral based literate activities I had found in a small Mexican immigrant community near Stanford University where I was doing my dissertation work.  However, no sooner had I submitted the final draft of my dissertation, than I followed Michael Cole down a “rabbit hole into a fantasy world populated by peculiar and anthropomorphic creatures” with magical powers and promises of optimal feats of intellectual prowess.  The most alluring aspect of this magical world called, the Fifth Dimension, was its protean nature that blended in to its surrounding context at the same time it retained its basic ambitions to theoretically and in practice organize conditions for participants to see beyond themselves to a possible future.  The immediate question that came to mind for me was, “How could we shape this world of possibilities for under-served Latino youth?” and, “What would this tell us about how best to enhance their academic success?” Unlike Alice, I did not leave this Wonderland of possibilities but continued on for 21 years in ever ending “a progressive refinement” (Collins, 19xx) that tested and studied , La Clase Mágica one of the many progeny that have grown out of the initial model.

                At the time of my arrival in the summer of 1989, the Fifth Dimension was already at the toddler stage but with broad international reach; the Wizard had already become the object of serious theorizing (xx, 19xx); and, the university-community partnership model was established as its foundational structure.  Cole’s notion of “culture as a garden” (Cole, 19xx), was also being tested in after school settings where the researchers, in particular Agiliki Nicolopoulou, were documenting the experiment that tweaked “garden conditions” to optimally grow intellectually savvy participants who were masters of their own progression.  The emergent “ideoculture” (Fine, 19xx) growing out these engineered conditions had proven antithetical to school and to other formal settings such as the library (Cole & Nicolopoulou, 19xx), confirming the notion that freedom to play and collaboration was conducive to learning.  Then LCHC collaborators turned to the next logical question:  “What are the ideal institutional conditions that support such growing environments and what does it take to sustain it?”  Enter the “Mellon Patch,” or better known as the Distributive Literacy Consortium funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation.  With this flow of funding came a whole host of distributive members of the lab and those who physically came to UCSD like Margaret Gallego, Tony Scott, and Juanita Cole, all working on theorizing, studying, and implementing aspects of the Fifth Dimension model.  The two Mellon cycles of funding focused on the viability of diverse conditions to grow and sustain “innovative learning environments.”  Across an expansive patch that stretched from sea to shining sea and into Australia, three evaluation programs searched for various truths in Wonderland:  the Cognitive Evaluation Team-went searching for “butterflies” moments of growth, that were so illusive to the research lens, the Language and Culture Team sought to document the dimensions of culture and language that shaped learning and development in Spanish-English environments and the Quantitative Evaluation team endeavored to show that participation engendered a type of knowledge and skill that was transferable to school.  At the end of the Mellon Project, we learned a lot about sustainability as projects folded and others prospered.  And, not surprisingly, we learned that that the smile of Cheshire Cat was all that was sometimes all that was left of the general principles as it adapted to the local conditions and some times it retained these principles to the core in spite of the shape, color and sound of the Fifth Dimension.  We also learned that the professional stability of the principal investigator and the institutional support of both the community and university were key ingredients to the sustainability of the program.  Thus, in 1996, at the end of the funding cycle, 4 out of 6 members of the Distributive Literacy Consortium remained: Club Proteo in Santa Barbara, The Fifth Dimension in North Carolina, The Fifth Dimension in Whittier and La Clase Mágica, the last two retaining the closest resemblance to the original model for the past 20 years.

                In the remaining time, I would like to focus on La Clase Mágica, what I like to call an innovation of the Fifth Dimension experiment.  Like the child who is genetically and socially connected to the parent but has her own talents and visions for itself in the world, La Clase Mágica refocused the theoretical and research lens of the Fifth Dimension toward new objectives and new contexts.  It retained the focus on learning and development and much of its theoretical and organization structure but interwove the sociocultural influences introduced by the participants—ethnicity, biculturalism, bilingualism, inter-generational resources and citizenship status were integrated into the very fabric of its raison d’źtre.  Contexts relevant to human development (xx) also became a central focus of the project as it explored possibilities for implementation across 7 communities distributed throughout San Diego County.  Throughout the last 21 years, La Clase Mágica has focused on providing language minority youth with the social and intellectual tools to succeed in school and dominant society at the same time that it has attempted to articulate how the collaboration between the university and community institutions create a new form of social policy for supplying the educational pipeline with a steady flow of eligible individuals prepared to enter and succeed in higher education a strategy conceptualized by Moll, Anderson, and Diaz before I came on the scene.  And, so on and on go el cuento of the Fifth Dimension for there is no ending to this story.



Katherine Brown

(back to slides)

                One of the questions we asked people participating in this event was  What did you come to the lab to work on?” In my case, I was a junior in college when I started in with these folks, so I was learning how to be a college student, learning an interdisciplinary approach to the study of human communication, and looking for practical applications of what I was learning in school in the late 1980’s.

 I later returned to UCSD as a graduate student in the 1990s to continue exploring   the combination of ideas and methods I had learned about at UCSD that were not widely available elsewhere at the time.

                I met Yrjö Engeström as an undergrad, and encountered the study of Organizational Communication via the lens of some very early developmental studies of work, and the text “Learning by Expanding.“ This text laid out fundamentals of Engestrom’s application of cultural historical  activity theory.  I took courses with Engeström, while an undergrad and later worked with him and others interested in DWR as a graduate student. I recall reading studies of work and was excited to learn that scholars actually studied skill and that the skills of working class people were considered worthy of study by scholars.     Anyway, the presence and absence of work was a big deal in my home. I was thrilled to read Engeström and Engeström’s study of the work of cleaners, and later Sylvia Scribner’s study of work in a dairy. This led me to a rich interdisciplinary bounty that may be found in the sociology of work, and  in organizational communication.  I enjoyed reading about everyday cognition, expert-novice interaction, apprenticeship, and exploring ethnomethodology  through  the work of Barbara Rogoff, Ed Hutchins, Bud Mehan,  Harold Garfinkel and so forth.  I remember hearing or reading the notion from Yrjö that if you looked at “historically prior forms” of work activity and looked for recurring forms of trouble in the system, you could get yourself or other workers involved in trying to “master the future” by understanding what kinds of things typically go wrong and why, and where things might be headed.   This seemed a very appealing alternative to the sense of anxiety and fear which many working people faced in an era of recession, downsizing, automation, etc. of things “happening to” the worker.  I liked the possibilities

of introducing tools and methods, in the case of activity system modeling, which elicited through observation and interview  or participant observation the workers’ perspective on  constructing models of activity. So I was one of several undergruate and graduate students doing field based research on the organization of and changes in several forms of work.  One study was about collective memory and technological change in a urology clinic, another couple of studies were about the organization of courtroom interaction, and the function of sidebar conferences between judges and attorneys in keeping the proceedings going, and how traffic court worked. Professor Engeström of course went on to establish his Center for Developmental Studies of work in Finland.   I learned from him to pay attention to the connection between the surface tensions or disturbances in organizational communication and deeper structural issues that reflected ongoing historical processes in forms of work.  I later explored these issues around technological change in specific higher educational activity settings, including a visual arts program. 

What is important in each of these cases is that they demonstrate how changes in various kinds of mediating artifacts, (instruments, tools, ideal or material) highlight other often competing forces pushing for stability or change in activity systems in organizations.


                So I was not a Fifth Dimension person initially, but qualitative studies of learning and development were linked by a rich body of work that said look at the cultural historical patterns and look at the social context of tool use.  I learned secondarily about the Fifth Dimension, and its predecessors and about other international collaborations linked to the lab. Like many young women of the 1980’s I did not yet have much direct experience with computer technology. LCHC was a hive of activity in the 1980’s dedicated toward demystification of and helping people get access to computers. Like many associated with the lab, I was drawn to the place because people there were working on the challenges and issues I saw all around me. — broadening access to higher education and to the “skills of the future”;  trying  to understand everyday interactions around this rapidly changing technology; and looking at technology use in a  context of  broader cultural and historical dimensions of tool use.                When I was nearing the end of my doctoral program and contemplating next steps, Mike asked me if I wanted to work with him to keep track of the process just getting underway as the Fifth Dimension network was expanding to a broader group of sites nationally and internationally.  That phase of the work  introduced me to Ray McDermott and Luis Moll among others.  So we studied and wrote about the work of researchers and implementers disseminating and trying to figure out sustainability  of variations on the Fifth Dimension model in a variety of different configurations and settings. Our data corpus included messages sent via a listserv linking the sites and researchers with each other.  During this period, UCLinks was started, and Fifth Dimension sites were soon expanding through the UC system, finding  partners or continuing working with existing partners in Sweden, Mexico, and Russia and elsewhere.

                The interdisciplinary climate of the lab, welcoming Communication, Human Development, Education, Psychology, Cognitive Science, Physics, Computer Science, Anthropology, Linguistics, Philosophy-- LCHC drew scholars interested in bridging, spanning expanding.  It was normative to meet people who travelled halfway around the world to advance  theories and methods required to work on the problems at hand, sharing  insights and perspective offering  ideas  which were unknown or even unwelcome in more conventional  settings.

I was encouraged by the promises of new technology and was interested in how older and newer technologies exist side by side, but I was also very interested in how people who were connected to the lab via a network of projects but who were in very diverse settings interacted and kept things going.  This is a good time to acknowledge the visible and invisible labor of many undergraduate site coordinators, grad assistants, undergraduate wizard assistants, and Communication Department and LCHC staff members Bruce Jones Karen Fiegener  Peggy Bengel and Brenda Macevicz  who provided important vital continuity, structure, support, warmth, dedication to many a student and visiting scholar along the way.

And finally, what I went on to do: I joined the tenure track faculty of a Communication Department where I teach courses on Organizational Communication, Communication and Collaboration, Research Methods, Media Technology and several other subjects.   When I joined my campus, it was in the midst of a building and growing boom, plus, it’s the CSU, so we do a lot of teaching, and service as well as research.   I also feel fortunate that because outstanding professors taught me in my own Communication department at UCSD who did not sacrifice undergraduate teaching excellence to other aims—they found innovative ways to interweave teaching and research. I was well prepared for my undergraduate teaching load and was up for the challenge of developing curriculum because I had been socialized into the practice of building and innovating.

While maintaining my collaborative work with the LCHC, I met a colleague who was a Linguist at CSU San Marcos. She and I ended up publishing  together using ideas from CHAT to discuss the growth of a project she has with a team of Linguists and a group of Mayan Women.   I was socialized to be an interdisciplinary person and so this was  an extension of interdisciplinary joint authoring  about an emerging collaborative effort.

What I took with me from the lab is an affinity for diversity-- multigenerational, multiplatform, multidisciplinary, multilingual, multicultural and collaborative work.

I have not been in a position to create my own version of LCHC at my own university, but I practice what I learned in the way I design courses and assignments, the way I interact with colleagues, and in my efforts promote effective collaborative and interdisciplinary and inclusive work.




Robert Lecusay

(back to slides)

My motivations for pursuing doctoral studies at LCHC connect to questions that lab members studied at different periods in the lab’s history. One the one hand, my experiences conducting cross-cultural neuropsychological research had led me to question some of the most basic assumptions that cognitive psychology made about the relationship between culture and mind. On the other hand, my identity as a Spanish/English bilingual together with a two-year stint as a high school English teacher in Japan led me to develop and interest in the relationship between language and thought. And so I came to LCHC with the intention of doing work in the same vein as that done by Luis Moll and Olga Vasquez.

                My priority, however, when I arrived in the lab in the fall of 2004 was to quickly to be socialized into its culture of research and teaching. Lucky for me Beth Ferholt, a doctoral student in the lab, was looking for a collaborator to help her with her dissertation fieldwork. She approached me with a proposition I couldn’t refuse: Would I like to dress up in costume, make props and engage in pretend play with a bunch of K-1 kids every Friday for the rest of the academic year? Absolutely.

I was now part of a family that included Beth, Sonja Baumer, an LCHC post-doc, and Lars Rossen, a visiting Danish psychology student, and the students and teacher of a K-1 public school classroom. We implemented the first U.S. version of a form of play pedagogy that was being practiced by sociocultural scholars and educators in Japan, Finland, Sweden, and Yugoslavia. This playworld pedagogy is based on the work of Swedish educational researcher Gunilla Lindqvist and Finish scholar Pentti Hakkarainen, both of whom draw on Vygotsky’s theories of development and play to create innovate learning environments. A central goal of this work is to engage adults and children in joint pretense as a means of promoting the emotional, cognitive, and social development of both children and adults. Using a familiar work of children’s literature as their template, the children and adults build props and costumes which they then use to jointly enact the fantasy world of the book. This fantasy world functions as a medium for collectively working through any number and kind of problems. These can range from basic curricular problems to difficult emotional and moral questions embedded in the narrative of the template story. It was this latter route that we explored as we worked through and worked out our own version of C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

A key idea that guided our documentation and analyses of this yearlong ethnography was the concept of perezhivanie. Roughly translated from the Russian as, “lived through experience” the concept refers to emotional engagement between people in which one or more persons experience a reflective empathy with the other that can have significant developmental consequences. Beth examined this idea in her dissertation drawing on it and theories of aesthetics and play to argue for a multi-method, multi-perspectival approach for studying emotion and cognition as inseparable, mutually constitutive processes. I came away from this experience with an appreciation for the important role of intersubjectivity in human development. This interest led me to questions about how people consciously draw on their sense of the experience of others during teaching/learning interactions. What, I thought, is this mysterious, in-the-moment process of reading and responding to the other in ways that allow for effective instruction? The opportunity for me to explore this question came in the spring of 2007 when a number of us at LCHC took up a project to co-develop an after-school activity with members of the San Diego African-American and Latino community.

While this project drew on many of the theoretical and pedagogical principles that members of lab had elaborated as guides for designing educational activities, it represented a new direction in the lab’s history of creating settings. Unlike the Fifth Dimension model in which scholars from the university provide the community partners with a pre-specified set of artifacts and practices for instantiating these principles, in this new project we collaborated from the start with our community partners to create artifacts and practices that we jointly agreed would be of benefit to the local youth. Interestingly, while this was a quote/unquote “new” approach it was not new in the sense that the motivation behind this move came from an idea that Dennis, Mike and Peg Griffin elaborated in their research in The Construction Zone: the concept of mutual appropriation. Mutual appropriation refers to the bidirectional quality of personal transformation in a zone of proximal development, a reminder that the mutual adjustments that teacher and learner make to one another can themselves impact the learning and development of both teacher and learner.

In The Construction Zone mutual appropriation was applied to conceptualizing interpersonal interactions. In our work developing this new after-school activity we applied the idea to the interactions between the partner institutions that were co-creating this activity. The focus then was on how both university and community partners introduced, appropriated and transformed one another’s new initiatives in the process of their ongoing joint activity. We viewed this as a healthy dialogic process, one necessary for reciprocity, in which both sides of the interaction strive to achieve common goal, while focusing on their individual activities which may or may not mesh perfectly with those of the other participants.  So far this process has not only created an activity system in which the local youth and UCSD undergraduates engage in playful, collaborative problem solving, it has also planted the seed for a number of my colleague’s research projects including the multilevel cognitive ethnographies of conceptual change in informal science activities that Ivan Rosero and I are conducting for our dissertations, Camille Campion’s study of the narrative construction of individual and group identities in a neighborhood safety group that services the community of the after-school center, Rachel Cody’s ethnography in the after-school center of teenager’s participation in massively multiplayer on-line role playing games, and Tamara Powell’s multi-site study of health literacy in the local community.

Selected References (Contact presenters for additional references)

Selected References (Contact presenters for additional references)
Anderson, A.B., & Stokes, S.J. (1984). Social and institutional influences on the development and practice of literacy. In H. Goelman, A. Oberg, & F. Smith (Eds.), Awakening to Literacy, 24-37. Exeter, NH: Heinemann.
Anderson, A. Teale, W. Estrada, E. (1980) Low income children’s preschool literacy experiences.  Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. 2:59-65.

Baumer S, Ferholt B, Lecusay R. (2005). Promoting narrative competence
through adult–child joint pretense: Lessons from the Scandinavian
educational practice of playworld. Cognitive Development 20: 576–590.

Brown, K. (2006) “Lessons Learned” in  The fifth dimension: An afterschool program built on diversity. Michael Cole and the Distributed Literacy Consortium
(NY:  Russell Sage Foundation).

Brown, K., Brenner, B., Duran, R., McNamee, G., Woodbridge, S. (2006) “Portraits of After School Systems in Flux” in The fifth dimension: An afterschool program built on diversity. Michael Cole and the Distributed Literacy Consortium
 (NY: Russell Sage Foundation).

Cole, M., Gay, J., & Glick, J. (1968).  A cross‑cultural investigation of information processing. International Journal of Psychology, 3, 93‑102.

Cole, M. Hood, L. McDermott, R. (1979) Ecological Invalidity as an axiom of experimental cognitive psychology. NY: Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition Rockefeller University

Cole, M, Hood, L., & McDermott, R. (1979) Ecological Niche Picking: Ecological Invalidity as an Axiom of Experimental Cognitive Psychology.  New York: Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, The Rockefeller University.

Coleman, J.S. (1975) "Racial Segregation in the Schools: New Research with New Policy Implications," Phi Delta Kappan, October, 1975, pp. 75-78.

Come, B. & Fredericks, A.D. (1995). Family literacy in urban schools: Meeting the needs of at-risk children. The Reading Teacher, 48, 566-70.

Diaz, S., Moll, L., & Mehan, H. (1986). Sociocultural resources in instruction: A context-specific approach. In C. E. Cortes & California Office of Bilingual Education (Ed.), Beyond language: Social and cultural factors in schooling language minority students (pp. 299-343). Los Angeles: California State University, Evaluation, Dissemination, and Assessment Center. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 304 241)
Diaz, E., Moll, L., & Mehan, H. (1986). Bilingual communication skills in classroom context processing. Washington, DC: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education.

Downing-Wilson, D., Lecusay, R., Cole, M. (in press) Design
Experimentation and Mutual Appropriation: Two Strategies for
University/Community Collaborations. Theory & Psychology.

Engeström,, Y.  and Engeström,.R.  (1986). 'Developmental work research: The approach and an application in cleaning work'. Nordisk Pedagogik, 2-15.

Engeström,Y. (1987) Learning by Expanding: An Activity theoretical approach to developmentalresearch. Helsinki: Orienta Konsultit

Engeström, Y., Brown, K., Engeström, R., Koistinen, K.   (1990). "Organizational forgetting: An activity theoretical perspective" in D.  Middleton and D. Edwards (Eds.).(1990) Collective Remembering.  London: Sage. 

Engeström, Y., Brown, K., Christopher, C., Gregory, J. (1997) Coordination, Cooperation and Communication in  Courts: Expansive transitions in legal work.  Published in  The Quarterly Newsletter of the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition  13:4; then re-published as book chapter Chapter 28 in  M. Cole, Y.

Engeström and O. Vasquez, Eds. (1997) Mind, Culture and Activity: Seminal Papers from the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. NY: Cambridge University Press.

Ferholt B, Lecusay R. (2010). Adult and child development in the zoneof proximal development: Socratic dialogue in a playworld. Mind,Culture and Activity, 17(1): 59-83.

Gay, J., Cole, M. (1967).  The new mathematics and an old culture. New York:  Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Jensen, A. (1969) How Much Can We Boost IQ and scholastic Achievement? Harvard Education Review. 39:1. 

Mehan, H. (1979) Learning Lessons. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Moynihan, P. (1965) The Negro Family. U.S. Department of Labor Office of Public Policy Planning and Research.  Washington, D.C.

Moll, L. C., & Diaz, E. (1987). Change as the goal of educational research. Anthropology and Educational Quarterly, 18,

Moll, Diaz, (1987) Change as the Goal of Education Research. Anthrpology and Education Quarterly.18 300-311.
Anderson, Teale, Estrada, (1980)

Newman, D., Griffin, P., & Cole, M., (1989).  The construction zone: Working for cognitive change in school.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press.

Newman, D., Riel, M., & Martin, L. (1982).  Cultural practices and Piaget's theory:  The impact of a cross-cultural research program.  In. D. Kuhn & J. Meacham (Eds.), On the development of developmental psychology.  Basel:  Karger.

Nicolopoulou, A. & Cole, M. (1993). The generation and transmission of shared knowledge in the culture of collaborative learning: The Fifth Dimension, its play world, and its institutional contexts. In E. A. Forman, N. Minick, & C. A. Stone (Eds.), Contexts for Learning: Sociocultural Dynamics in Children's Development (pp. 283-314). New York: Oxford University Press.

Passow, A.H., Goldberg, M., Tannenbaum, A. (1967) Education of the Disadvantaged Teachers College Record Volume 69 Number 1,  pp. 195-195 John Wiley, New York

Tobach, E. et al eds. (1997) Mind and Social Practice: Selected Writings of Sylvia Scribner. Learning in Doing Series.  UK and NY: Cambridge University Press.

Vąsquez, O. (2003) La Clase Magica: Imagining optimal possibilities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

References to work on ecological validity initiated at the Laboratory in the late 1970s.

Cole, M., Hood, L., & McDermott, R. (1978a). Concepts of ecological validity. Quarterly Newsletter of the Institute of Comparative Human Development, 2 (2), 33-35.

Cole, M., Hood, L., & McDermott, R. (1978b). Ecological Niche-Picking: Ecological Invalidity as an Axiom of Contemporary Experimental Cognitive Psychology. Working Paper, no. 14. Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. The Rockefeller University.

Cole, M., & Traupmann, K. (1982). Learning from a learning disabled child. Minnesota Symposium on Child Psychology, 14.

Holzman, L., & Newman, F. (1993). Lev Vygotsky: Revolutionary scientist. Routledge.

Hood, L., McDermott, R., & Cole, M. (1979.) Let's try to make it a good day." Discourse Processes, 3, 155-168.

Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. (1978). Cognition as a residual category in anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 7, 51-69.

Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. (1979). What’s cultural about cross-cultural psychology? Annual Review of Psychology, 30, 145-172.

McDermott, R.P. (1993). The acquisition of a child by a Learning Disability. In S. Chaiklin & J. Lave (Eds.), Understanding practice (pp. 269-305). Cambridge University Press. [includes a summary of Cole, Hood, & McDermott, 1978b]

McDermott, R., Gospodinoff, K., & Aron, J. (1978). Criteria for an ethnographically adequate description of concerted activities and their contexts. Semiotica, 24, 245-275.

McDermott, R., & Hood, L. (1982). Institutionalized psychology and the ethnography of schooling. In P. Gilmore & A. Gatthorn (Eds.), Children in and out of school (pp. 232-249). Center for Applied Linguistics.

Orasanu, J., McDermott, R., Boykin, A.W., & the Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition. (1977). A critique of test standardization. Social Policy, 8, 61-67.