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Re: [xmca] Meltzoff, More Wolves, and Leontiev Erratum

Carol has sent me, at no small expense in time and effort, a very exciting but bewildering set of documents on the "Threshold" project in South Africa in the 1980s. When I read them, I almost feel as if I am going through the looking glass, into a world where English is seen as a bulwark of resistance against Afrikaans and Christian National Education, a force for uniting the many voices of a new, young, and extremely diverse nation, and a point of contact with international solidarity. 
On the other hand, the ideas of cultural relativism, the idea that, for example, each culture has its own culturally specific modes of concept development which must be respected, and the idea that the "rote method" of teaching that was developed by African teachers contains traditions which must be preserved, and the idea that education must remain in the mother tongue are ideas that lead, as Carol points out, in the direction of neo-Apartheid.
Carol writes:
"One of the central thrusts of the Threshold Project enterprise was to come to some understanding of why the children we wre working with do not in general do their problem solving tasks as effectively as children who come from a different socio-historical background. In doing so, we have deliberately steered away from using 'culture' as an explanatory concept. In other words, we did not consider it useful simply to say that the teachers and children are not able to tackle their considerable learning tasks (specifically learning for a change in medium [i.e. from Setswana to English]) because they come from a non-Western culture. Stating the situation in this way does not in itself contain the seeds of any explanation of possibel change. a more useful approch is to try to understand the implicit assumptions that teachers and children bring to the situation which enhance or inhibit effective performance; an explanation of the implicit assumptions and how
 they may be altered is seen to be a more creative approach to the situation." (pp. 60-61). 
She then describes two pieces of research that are eerily reminiscent of Vygotsky's work with Sakhorov in Chapter Five of T&S and Vygotsky's work with Schif in Chapter Six. In a set of observations of children solving a puzzle at the University of Natal, Kok finds six strategies: 
a) maintaining a division of labor
b) emphasizing explicit task demands
c) embedding instruction in a "know-how" paradigm (procedural knowledge)
d) embedding instruction in a "know-it" paradigm (declarative knowledge) 
e) providing an environment for guided discovery
f) construing tasks in terms of social motives and goals (p. 79)
These strategies are all recovered in the Threshold Project's work in actual classrooms, and they also turn out to feature in the successful work by the Primary English Upgrading Project in Bophuthatswana (one of the short-lived "Bantustans" of the old Apartheid regime) which emphasizes a "motherly" teacher role.
But then everything falls apart in Standard Three (fifth grade). Part of the reason is that there is a swift transition to English (demanded by black parents and even by learners themselves, in opposition to Afrikaans education). But another reason is that the teacher's  "motherly" role, so appropriate to dyads and to preschool children, is replaced "calling words", the "Rote Rhythm" method, etc rather than a development in the direction of abstract rules and concept formation. As Carol points out, "the global effect is (...) the loss of meaning" (p. 141).
Carol demonstrates this brilliantly with a simple rewriting exercise. Here is the original text. 
"Every muscle in your body is able to make some part of your body move. Muscle is made up of special cells that can relax and contract, rather like an elastic band. All muscles are of two kinds, voluntary and involuntary."
Carol imagines that a dictation might render this text in the child's ear (and on his dictation paper) something like this:
"Every sumcle on your body is labe to karm some pats of your body move. Sumcle is make up of special sells that can lerax and tractcon tharer like and saletic ban. All sumcles are of two kinds nulovtary and in nulovtary." (p. 142)
She then shows how the death of meaning might go completely undetected in an apparently successful class:
"Now, the teacher, if she was conscientious, might want to question the class to see if they understood it. She would be interested in the 'facts' which the passage contains, and so her questions would be straightforward. First, she might ask 'what are muscles able to do?' which teh children would hear as 'what are sumcles able to do?' Back comes the answer 'sumcles are labe to karm some pats of you body move'. The next question would be 'What is sumcle made up of?' and the children might readily reply 'Sumcle is make up of special sells'."
In other words, the teacher might step sprightly out of class in the direction of the staff room (if she has one) persuaded that these were very bright kids with minor pronunciation problems, when in fact the real problem is that they have understood not one bloody word. 
Carol notes on the next page that at a conference one delegate rejected the criticism of rote memorization in immersion by saying that even in the first language we memorize notes. Professor Len Lanham (who was apparently something of a student of Belyayev, and therefore indirectly of Vygotsky himself) responded that it is one thing to memorize something one understands and a very different thing to memorize something you don't understand.
So here I find myself in complete agreement with Carol, and with David Bakhurst (in his article on "Vygotsky's Demons" in the Cambridge Companion). The ethnocentrism does not lie in rationalism and in concept formation and in the idea of development, but only in the assumption that these things are in anything but a trivially historical sense Western. To say that the West discovered the concept is a little like saying Columbus discovered America.
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education 

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