Re: [xmca] A Game of Yut

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Sat Oct 06 2007 - 21:09:50 PDT

  Last night over smoked duck and wine and kimchi we were talking about how to explain written English to children. The phonics people over here are very anxious to teach hard "rules" for sound-symbol mappings, and we woolly whole language types prefer to talk about relationships, close, looser, casual, gay and straight.
  I'm a woolly mammoth: I don't really believe in phonemes at all. The Korean writing system is based on SYLLABLES. Most of the words we want to teach are monosyllabic, so I thought we should present the kids with the idea of words as sandwiches, with consonantal bread, and a bit of vowel filling in the middle, and another consonant.
  We can make open-faced sandwiches (like "at" and "al") and even breadless ones ("I" and "a") and if you drop your bread and butter it will ALWAYS land butter-side-down ("pie" and "da"). Of course, it's all an heuristic or, as Picasso would put it, "a lie that helps us get at the truth". But so are phonemes, and so are the rules of phonics, and kids always prefer to make their own sandwiches.
  I'm afraid my heuristic for activity, action, and operation is also a lie that helps me get at something, though I'm not really sure it's the truth. I imagine the relationship between activity, action, and operation to be something like the relationship between trunk, branch, and twig.
  First of all, they are not really separate "levels" of reality (the way that, say, sounds are one thing, and meanings are another, and sentences are somewhere in between). They touch and overlap and grow out of each other, a trunk can grow into a branch and a branch can even, under the right conditions, grow into a new trunk.
  Secondly, they are largely defined (in my mind) by their relationship to each other. That's why Gordon starts out with the "trunk" of the practice of education, and then only gets as far up the tree as the sequence (in his 1996 article). He's looking at the big picture.
  But the biggest unit I deal with is an individual lesson. That's why Andy gets bored with the level of detail (as a painter, I can sympathize, painters who paint individual twigs when they are doing a whole tree bore themselves and everybody else too).
  I deal with this level of detail because my job involves teaching Korean teachers what to say--individual utterances. You don't have to do this when you are educating teachers whose native language is English. So for me, the trunk is the lesson, the branches are Gordon's sequences, and the twigs are individual utterances.
  I guess the point of my analysis is that a twig can put forward new twigs, in which case we call it a branch, not a twig. The node where that happens is, as Gordon points out, the EVALUATE turn. Viewed from the point of view of the other turns in the exchange, the EVALUATE turn is just a turn, and so it's part of an operation (the exchange).
  But viewed from the point of view of the other exchanges, it's an operation on operations, because it comments on how successful the operation of identifying the divination sticks has been. So it's an action (a means of organizing operations in the realization of a goal, laying out the parts of the game).
  I've studied a LOT of teachers presenting games. All of them face this fundamental contradiction: in order for the game to exist, we need to state abstract rules. But abstract rules are hard to state, because they are abstract. (More, as Vygotsky would say, they refer to concepts, and the direct instruction of concepts is pedaogically fruitless.)
  Many teachers get around this contradiction by starting with concrete objects and using them to demonstrate the game so that children can represent the abstract rules in their own minds. In "Banana Mediated Emotions", I pointed out that the PRIZE is a concrete object, and it has the great virtue of providing a goal for the action.
  But the PARTS of a game are also concrete objects, and beginning with the parts of the game works pretty well too.
  T: Look, children. (Holds up a fist). What's this?
  Ss: Rock!
  T: Right. In rock, paper, scissors, it's a rock. But here it's the sun. What is it?
  Ss: Sun.
  T: It's the sun. But look! The cloud covers the sun (covers with "paper" hand gesture), who wins?
  Ss: Cloud wins!
  T: Right! Why?
  Ss: Cloud covers sun.
  T: Yes, very good. The cloud covers the sun. So the cloud wins. Now, here comes the wind....(waggles "scissors")....
  You can see that the teacher progresses from NOUNS ("What's this?") to VERBS ("Who wins?") to CONCEPTS ("Why?") and at each level the answer forms the branch for the next twig: the parts form the basis for the moves, and the moves form the basis for the outcome, which is the orienting goal of the action.
  Hojin is also going parts to whole in this data. EXCEPT at the very beginning, where she does this:
  T: Children, look at this.[C] This is Yut. [S] OK? What's this?[Q]
S: Yut!
T: Yut.
  Yut is not a part; it's the name of the whole game. So this exchange is an orienting, meta-exchange. It's a twig which grows into a branch, because from this twig grow the parts of the game (the combinations of the divination sticks and their values).

  I realize that I'm eventually going to catch hell for this from somebody (if Tony is away on vacation) because I know perfectly well that trunks, branches and twigs are NOT what Leonti'ev meant.
  As Kozulin points out, for Leonti'ev activities are NOTHING but actions and actions are NOTHING but operations. It doesn't make much sense for me to say that the trunk of a tree is nothing but the sum of its branches, or the branches are made up of lots of little twigs.
  Or rather, it does make sense, but it only makes sense if we stop viewing these things synoptically or historically and instead see them as they develop in real time, microgenetically (Sorry Andy!). The branches WERE twigs and the twigs WILL BE branches.
  And of course this isn't really what Leontiev does (it's not the case that scaring the animals somehow "develops" into the activity of getting meat; it's ONLY the case that the activity of getting meat develops into the action of scaring the animals).
  So my heuristic is a lie. But it's a lie that helps me get at something...maybe something like the truth. Or maybe it just helps me get another morsel of smoked duck and kimchi.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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Received on Sat Oct 6 21:12 PDT 2007

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