[xmca] The Strange Situation

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Fri Aug 15 2008 - 19:47:42 PDT

Last night on a loooooong airplane flight I re-read "Thinking and Speech" (instead of re-watching, say, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"). For some reason (maybe just jet lag) Chapter Five began to strike me as very STRANGE, like the "strange situation" they used to use in studies on child development (which I actually participated in when I was very little).
On pp. 89 and 90, LSV has argued that Piaget's "clinical method" produces results that will not generalize. Even Piaget's own observations on egocentric speech yield quite different results when we observe children in Germany, as opposed to Geneva. More: If you ask a child why the sun does not fall out of the sky you will get a very different (and more syncretic) answer than if you ask the child why she fell and flubbed a point during a volleyball game. 
This application of cultural variation to instruction is at the very heart of the concept of the ZPD, of course. The same child who gives a syncretic answer in the former instance and a coherent answer in the latter MAY be able to synthesize the two if we ask a question like "Why doesn't a bicycle fall over when you are going and why does it fall over when you stop?"
Then Chapter Five takes a single very limited experiment (Ach's blocks, as modified in Sakharov) and turns it into a very detailed (TOO detailed) description of concept formation. This is how I understand it:
1 Syncretic Order (meaning, no order other than the child's subjective experience)
1.1 Unorganized heaps (I think of this as ordering according to the "This one and then that one" principle)
1.2 Spatially or temporally organized heaps (I think of this as the "these over here and those over there" principle)
1.3 Representatives of heaps (I think of this as the "This is one of these" principle)
2 Complexive (meaning, empirically rather than logically ordered)
2.1 Associative (I think of this as the basic insight underlying protypicality; it's obviously linked to but distinct from 1.3 because on the one hand it does involve "this is one of these" and on the other it adds a kind of "because..." reason, e.g. "This belongs here because it looks the same".)
2.2 Complexive collection (This is a pluralization of the 2.1, the child can now think "These are some of this group because they look the same (e.g. they are all red)")
2.3 Chained complex (This is a metaphorical extension of 2.2: one damn thing now leads to another that lies beyond the collection, but there is no systematic principle for extending the collection in any particular direction. A yellow triangle can lead to a yellow circle and on to a red half-circle)
2.4 Unbounded complex (Now the child has a general tendency for extending the complexive collection, but this tendency is undefined and vague and not reliable. For example, a trapezoid and a triangle both look kinda fat down here and thin up there)
2.5 Pseudoconcept (The child has a clear verbal reason for extending the complexive collection from one block to another but this reason is empirical rather than logical. So a red triangle and a blue triangle are both called triangle, and you can put them side by side and see that they are the same.)
3. Concepts (experientially but also logically ordered)
3.1 Spontaneous concepts (These are based on repeated everyday experiences generalized by means of everyday language. For example, the spontaneous concept of Saturday, which is related to the concept of week and to the concept of day first and foremost by the child's experience and not by logic)
3.2 Scientific concepts (also, foreign language word meanings). These are based on definitions and therefore have an explicit logical hierarchy, both paradigmatic: "Saturday is the seventh day of the week" and syntagmatic: "When it is Saturday in Seoul it is still only Friday in San Diego."
(I apologize for my glosses; I know that some people can only understand things if they VISUALIZE, but I only ever understand if I VERBALIZE, and sometimes, even usually, I verbalize things in a way that doesn't really reflect children's thought processes very well.)
It's exquisite, not least because each stage represents a resolution of problems that inhere in the previous stage. It's a sublime exposition of the kind of HEGELIAN method that Vygotsky later used to such effect in his unfinished work on child development in Volume Five.
BUT...these are stages of Sakharov's experiment. How do we know that these really are stages of concept formation? (A lot of Mike's work in Africa rather suggests the contrary, when you really look at it!)
I know that Bakhurst talks about how Vygotsky believed in the power of abstraction and in the power of the experiment to rise to the generalizeable concrete. BUT...it seems to me that Vygotsky himself is sometimes not very comfortable with this leap from experiment to quasi-stage theory:
p. 143: "It is only in the experiment that we free the child from the directing influence of the words of adult language with their developed and stabler meanings. It is only here that we allow the child to develop word meanings and create complexive generalizations in accordance with his own free judgment.It allows us to discover how the child's own activity is manifested in learning adult language. The experiment indicates what the child's language would be like and the nature of the generalizations that would direct his thinking if its development were not directed by an adult language that effectively predetermines the range of concrete objects to which a given word meaning can be extended."
But it IS directed by adult language! How similar all this sounds to Piaget's own defense of his clinical method in "Language and Thought of the Child", a defense that LSV rips apart in Chapter Six.
So LSV continues:
"One could argue that our use of phrases such as "would be like" and "would direct" (i.e. our use of the subjunctive mood) in this context provides the basis for an argument against rather than for the use of the experiment since the child is not in fact free to develop the meanings he receives from adult speech."
Yes, one certainly could, and in fact LSV does precisely this on pp. 174-175!
But HERE LSV continues:
"We would respond to this argument by noting that the experiment teaches more than what would happen if the child were free form the directing influence of adult speech, more than what would happen if he developed his generalizations freely and independently."
Well, it teaches a lot LESS than that if we accept that in real life children NEVER develop generalizations "freely" and "independently".
LSV continues:
"The experiment unovers the real activity of the child in forming generalizations, activity that is generally masked from casual observation. The influence of speech of those around the child does not obliterate this activity. It merely conceals it, causing it to take an extremely complex form."
This sounds a terrible fudge to me. More, it suggests that the influence of speech "conceals", "does not obliterate", "complicates" the child's thought without actually engaging, interacting, and fusing with it. I can't imagine children learning foreign language words in this way. 
Isn't it the case that most concepts form under conditions that are VERY different from Sakharov's experiment? And isn't it the case that these differences will be just as pertinent to the process and to the products of concept formation as the differences between, say, Geneva and Germany, or between the sun falling out of the sky and a child stumbling in a soccer game? 
Luria describes the Sakharov experiments on pp. 50-51 of "Making of Mind" like this:
"The individual studies that we carried out at this time, of which I have mentioned a few, must be considered banal (!) in and of themselves. Today we would consider them nothing more than student projects. And this is exactly what they were. Nevertheless, the general conception that organized those pilot studies laid the methodological foundation for Vygotsky's general theory and provided a set of experimental techniques which I was to use throughout the remainder of my career."
Obviously, if Sakharov's study is REALLY a description of concept formation IN GENERAL, then there is nothing banal about it at all. And on p. 134-135, that's more or less exactly what LSV claims: "This general stage in the formation of concepts in the child can be broken down into three phases that we were able to study in some detail."
That's a risky claim. But Luria's claim about our methodological foundations seems more risky still. As Bronfenbrenner would say, isn't it the case that Sakharov's experiment only shows us "the science of the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults for the briefest possible periods of time" (Ecology of Human Development, p. 19).
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education
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Received on Fri Aug 15 19:50 PDT 2008

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