[xmca] More Strange Situations

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Wed Aug 27 2008 - 15:30:53 PDT

Dear Paula:
I'm reading your "Magic Lantern" paper with great interest. It occurs to me that your work is itself a demonstration of what I'm worrying about, though! Your far greater understanding of Chapter Five of Thinking and Speech stems from your practical experience of reproducing and varying the actual experiment. This suggests to me that there are serious limitations on the claims of generalizability being made.
I said earlier that I thought LSV's ideas about complexive thinking were themselves an example of a complex, because the ways of thinking described (e.g. "chain" and "diffuse") do not seem to have any internal connection and only seem to be grouped by their contrast with concepts on the one hand and heaps on the other.
Volosinov is also a critic of Vygotsky's ideas on complexive thinking (not in their "Thinking and Speech" form but in the form that he appropriated them from N. Ya Marr). Volosinov was particularly hard on the claim that "primitive" man had no concepts, and he was (as far as I know) the first to make the argument that Mike calls "cultural relativism", that is, concepts need to be judged within the cultural horizons in which they operate.
On p. 17 you note that Sakharov's idea of presenting the blocks as "toys from some imaginary country" is probably a bad one. I always wondered what he meant by that; what sort of game or role play or childrens activity would require blocks that would be named according to their diameter and their height? I can't think of one, other than the sorting task itself, which is hardly a game. 
In foreign language teaching (more, in most teaching) we DO teach rather artificial concepts, concepts that would be made up of two different concepts in another language (for example, there is no distinction between a watch and a clock in Korean, and on the other hand in English we use the same word "octopus" to refer to an eight legged animal that lives in mud and a much larger sea dwelling animal, two very different species).
But the way we teach these has little in common with the trial and error method we see in Chapter Five! What usually happens is that the concepts are defined and explained using rather more abstract concepts. Similarly, outside the experiment, the concepts diameter on the one hand and height on the other would be explained to the child, and a mental matrix would be made explicit in one form or another:
                       + height            -height-
+diameter        LAG                 BIK
-diameter         MUR                 CEV
This mental matrix is an idealized form of the correct solution, and it is THIS that the child would internalize and then imitate. But we can see that the process of arriving at this mental model of the correct solution takes a completely different path from the one described in Sakharov's experiment; it involves pre-existing concepts which are culturally transmitted, not as procedures, but as concepts.
Of course, LSV knows this. I think he's trying to get around the old Kant problem; the problem of explaining where conceptual categories come from. But I prefer the solution he presents in Chapter Six, where he quite explicitly argues that the same concept can have two quite different geneses, with NEITHER one being a priori in any way. For one thing, Chapter Six discusses a context that is the canonical, dedicated one evolved by the culture for the transmission of concepts, namely schooling, rather than one that is developed for a (pretty non-transferable) study in trial and error thinking.
This is not to say that the VOLITIONAL zone of proximal development (that is, the deliberately constructed environment of learning) is always and everywhere better than the nonvolitional one that evolves on playgrounds. On the contrary. Given its historical recency, this is rather unlikely to be the case! From the point of view of language teaching in particular (because the whole point of language is the integration of NONstudy human activities) the whole idea of herding single age cohorts into a classroom and telling them to shut up is one of these newfangled ideas that doesn't work. Remember language labs?
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education
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Received on Wed Aug 27 15:32 PDT 2008

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