RE: [xmca] The Strange Situation

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at>
Date: Mon Oct 20 2008 - 15:44:07 PDT

On Saturday I went to the "dol chapki" ceremony for the little boy of one of my grad students. On the child's first birthday, the proud parents throw a big party and then seat the child in front of a divination tray, on which they put various auspicious and meaning-laden artefacts (usually thread, for long life, a pencil, to become a great scholar, a wad of banknotes, whose meaning is obvious, a plastic stethoscope, etc.). The child then reaches for the objects. As soon as the child picks one up, the child's fate is sealed.
With so much at stake, the parents frequently try to rig the outcome. I remember one of my grad students holding her daughter in her arms and pointing her relentlessly in the direction of the pencil. The pencil, although outsized and strategically placed, was a dull grey, and my student's husband had placed a brightly colored toy golf club on the far end of the tray, which attracted Yumin's eyes like a magnet. Finally, my grad student, cradling Yumin tightly with one hand, reached out and grabbed the pencil for her and placed it in her reluctant hands. Now THAT'S moving meaning to the fore; I bet I'll be seeing Yumin in our grad school before I retire.
On Saturday, though, little Kyuseong couldn't stay awake. When his mother finally managed to wake him up, he was very taken with a bright yellow baseball, and picked it up right away. When his mother gave a gasp of annoyance, he turned to her and dropped it in her appalled hands. As I went out, she expressed some disappointment at the outcome of the ceremony, and I told her that the ball really represented the earth. Today I got a copious thank you note from her, likening my rather lame metaphor to the gold ring that guests are required to bring to the ceremony.
I guess that was my point, Paula. Yes, you DID answer almost all of my questions in your previous very generous e-mails. But when you describe the many potential solutions intrinsic to the block problem you only highlight my central problem: adults have already assigned the meanings; they have selected and predetermined the "correct" solution. That solution is already present in the blocks, waiting to be discovered. So there IS adult intervention at every point. It even takes the canonical form of adult intervention; not direct teaching, but the one-sided "interpretation" of meaning coded in artefacts (usually tendentiously aimed at social reproduction rather than innovation).
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

--- On Mon, 10/20/08, Paula Towsey <> wrote:

From: Paula Towsey <>
Subject: RE: [xmca] The Strange Situation
To: "'eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity'" <>,
Date: Monday, October 20, 2008, 4:47 AM

David and Steve

I think that I've answered some of the issues raised by both of you here in
previous postings, albeit in a different framework. Could I suggest that
you put your questions here alongside my responses dated 10-07 and 09-24 (my
response to you and the study group, David - and please look the other way
when you read what my pc did to "a la"), because these fairly
postings of mine deal with a whole host of issues arising out of this very
strange (and wonderful) situation. I've also attached a document that has
the transcripts from the DVD.

In this email I will answer David's last question first. And then, later
this afternoon, I'll write some notes on each of the stages in response to
Steve's posting.

Because I break the question into two parts, in answer to your last
question, David, I would say yes and no.

Part One - Yes, too many
Yes, the whole procedure is a problem of very many variables. Now that
you've seen the video, the blocks are familiar to you (if they weren't
before), and you 'know' what the solution is. You've had it the
easy way
and it is possible that you don't appreciate how fortunate you are because
many adults are easily lead astray by these variables and possibilities
(just ask Carol Mac how she responded to the blocks, and then, too, was Alex
Kozulin's story at ISCAR about how he recently took his set of blocks off
a conference and one of the delegates volunteered to engage with the blocks
and showed such lovely chains and associations and solutions involving
combinations of characteristics). I really do believe it is a necessary
part of these blocks to appreciate how marvellous the deceptively simple
solution is - and perhaps a way to get around your 'knowing' the
solution is
to get a set of the blocks and a group of volunteering colleagues and then
see for yourself how articulate, scientific thinking adults function amid
the myriad of confusing possibilities. What do you think?

Part Two - No, not too few
No, because in answer to 'holding onto two ideas at the same time',
have to be one or two before there can be too many. And the ability to
coordinate abstraction and generalisation in hierarchical prominence, and to
do this consistently, is an acquired taste, like spinach and scientific
thinking and being logically consistent and using a system systematically.
As I said in my response to Eric (10-07), an adult would never (in my
experience with the blocks) do what the S810M did - adults might form
chains, they might come up with the most elaborate diffuse complexes, they
might get lost in the myriad of possibilities, but they give an indication
that they 'know' they're not being consistent or logical or
Whereas, when you listen to S8's explanations, it's apparent that he
aware of his inconsistencies - read the transcripts on pages 4 and 5 while
you listen again (Steve, I'm having your copy made this afternoon).
Conscious awareness and mastery, David? Just by the way, in Meshcheryakov's
2007 paper, this 4th law was apparently mistranslated and reads as "the
of realization and acquisition": even though it's a mistranslation, I
it's a graphic depiction which resonates well with me. (Meshcheryakov, B.
(2007). Terminology in L. S. Vygotsky's Writings. In H. Daniels, M. Cole,
J. Wertsch, (Eds). The Cambridge Companion to Vygotsky. (pp. 155-177).
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.)

I have to sign off for now, but do have a look at your questions side by
side with a reading of the two postings from me - 09-24 and 10-07?

I think watching the DVD over dinner is an inspiring activity - how


-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of Steve Gabosch
Sent: 20 October 2008 11:54 AM
To:; eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: Re: [xmca] The Strange Situation


Your discussion of heaping, then looking at measuring, measuring by
comparing, and then chaining is very helpful. It is what the boy in
Paula's film indeed seems to be doing. Are there other little steps?
Perhaps this kind of sequence is already articulated by Paula, or in
Vygotsky or Sakharov, and it just hasn't sunk in for me yet. Anyway,
would you please, if you can - or Paula, same question to you, if you
like - write up little "explanations" as you see them of the
categories Vygotsky introduces - syncretic thoughts (that is heaping,
right?), the 4 or 5 complexes (chaining, etc.), the pseudoconcept, the
potential concept, the everyday concept, and the scientific concept?
(Did I forget any?) The role of heaping, measurement, comparison and
other techniques in forming the chaining complex seems like a very
helpful way to get a better understanding of the similarities and
differences between all these kinds of thinking. I would love more
along these lines.


- Steve

On Oct 19, 2008, at 4:16 PM, David Kellogg wrote:

> Dear Paula:
> I got it! We watched your DVD over dinner and discussed it at some
> length (although we're not up to Chapter Five of Thinking and Speech
> in our translation). It's a very clear presentation of Sakharov's

> work, and made it thoroughly comprehensible, for which copious
> thanks from afar.
> Here's what still bugs me. LSV says the experiment is a
> hypothetical: the purpose is to tell us how children would reason in
> the absence of adult intervention. So presumably kids would begin by
> heaping, and then look at measuring, and measure by comparing, and
> then start chaining. That's what they would do WITHOUT adult
> intervention.
> But of course there IS adult intervention, and in fact the
> intervention takes the shape that MOST adult intervention does: in
> the design of artefacts for the child's use rather than in direct
> instruction in how to use them. What Vygotsky's experiment really
> shows us is that this form of intervention is logically primary:
> designed artefacts are quite useful in solving the problem without
> direct instruction, but direct instruction would be utterly useless
> without the designed artefacts.
> Vico points out (somewhere!) that we find it easier to understand
> our social environment than our natural one because it's
> recognizeably made of the same stuff that we're made of. (The
> natural environment is too, but it's pretty hard to see that.) This
> is, certainly, an important part of learning to understand a foreign
> language; it's why the idea that people can somehow learn languages
> through "input" only hasn't worked, and why the truth seems
to be
> much closer to what Cazden's argued: performance comes to us before
> competence does, and we understand input by making output, and we
> learn to understand the potential through the real.
> The child tackles the problem with that general strategy in mind; I
> can understand what I make. And sure enough as long as the kid is
> making stuff with the blocks, he's understands what's going on
> well. The only problem comes when he has to master what the adult
> has made out of them.
> But this too happens through what LSV would call "imitation":
> invoking triangles, circles, colors, etc.. This is what LSV calls
> "imitation in the broad sense", which (LSV reminds us) includes
> child at home solving a homework problem that he has received in
> school, without the teacher standing over his or her shoulder. This
> is STILL imitation.
> At one point you say that the child cannot hold two different
> features of the blocks in his mind at the same time. But the child
> has the concept of circles and triangles, which he uses to name and
> indicate the objects to great effect. The child also knows the
> names, which are (to him) as yet only another feature. And colors.
> And positions. Isn't it really a problem of TOO MANY features and
> not TOO FEW?
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
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