RE: [xmca] The Strange Situation

From: Paula Towsey <paulat who-is-at>
Date: Sat Aug 16 2008 - 08:18:54 PDT

Dear David

At this very minute I'm working on putting the finishing touches to a script
for a DVD I'm having made for ISCAR and - it features the middle mode of
thinking from the middle category in preconceptual reasoning from Chapter 5
of T&L: the chain as an example par excellance of thinking in complexes.
The DVD's a microgenetic analysis of an eight-year-old and it brings
Vygotsky's writing to life.

The first thing I'll be doing once my DVD deadline's been met is to read
your very comprehensive summary - and talk at more length with you about
this (most) fascinating instrument of Sakharov and Vygotsky.

Till then

Paula T

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of David Kellogg
Sent: 16 August 2008 04:48 AM
To: xmca
Subject: [xmca] The Strange Situation

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
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
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"
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
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
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
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
(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. 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.
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
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
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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