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RE: [xmca] About periods in Vygotsky's thought
To tell you the truth, I was a little leary about posting the article, both because it's really a language teaching sort of thing and also because the editor of the journal is mad enough at me already. But as you can see, I had NOTHING to do with it!
We're busy translating Chapter Six of "Thinking and Speech" and we keep noticing little problems with ALL the English translations, even Minick's (which is, as my review says, the best of a bad lot).
Minick, for example, gives us a rather bizarre image on p. 171, of a man trying to build a flower from petals which are still in the bud because he wants to see it bloom. This is NOT what Vygotsky said:
Here's Vygotsky according to Francoise Seve's French translation, which I retranslate into English: "In this way Tostoy understands that there is, besides the scholastic way, a thousand other ways in which to teach the child new concepts. He only rejects one: that of mechanically unfolding, directly and brutally, the petals of the concept. This is indisputably right. All of our theoretical and practical experience confirms it. But Tolstoy lends too much importance to spontaneity, to chance, to the work of representation and confused sensation, to the internal aspect, closed in upon itself, of concept formation, all the while underestimating the possibility of having a direct influence on this process and tearing apart learning and development."
Minick does note, correctly, that Kozulin's update of Hanfmann and Vakar is an "interpretative translation". If anything, that's being a little overgenerous. I think that one of the reasons why there has been some resistance to the idea that Vygotsky fundamentally reformulated his views at several times in his career is that his work has been retrospectively edited to smooth out some of the clearer examples of contradiction.
Here's the Kozulin version: "Leaving aside what is wrong in Tolstoy's position, we would like to subscribe to his idea, which is correct, that the path from the first encounter with a new concept to the point where the concept and the corresponding word are fully appropriated by the child is long and complex. Our experimental study proved that it is not only possible to teach children to use concepts but that such 'interference' may influence favorably the development of concepts that have been formed by the student himself. But the same study shows that to introduce a new concept means just to start the process of its appropriation. Deliberate introduction of new concepts does not preclude spontaneous development but rather charts the new path for it."
But here's the real thing, in Luciano Meccaci's Italian translation, retranslated by me (it's LONG but that's part of the point!):
Meccaci: "That which interests us is not the second erroneous aspect of Tolstoyan thinking and its elaboration, but the grain of truth in his position, which leads to the conclusion of the impossibility of tearing out the new concept from its petals, analogous to the impossibility of teaching the child to walk according to the laws of equilibrium. That which interests us is the completely true idea that the road which goes from the first encounter with the new concept to the moment when the concept becomes the property of the child is a complex internal psychic process which implies in itself the progressive comprehension of the new word beginning with a confused representation, its use on the part of the child and only in the end does it result in real assimilation. At bottom we tried to express the same idea when we said that the moment in which the child learns for the first time the meaning of a word which is new to him the process of concept
development has not finished, but only just begun. With regard to the first aspect of the present research, which in practice has as a task the experimental verification of the truthfulness and fruitfulness of the working hypothesis developed in the present chapter, we will show not only the thousands of other roads of which Tolstoy speaks but also the deliberate instruction to the student of new concepts and new word forms is not only possible but can result in a higher development of the concepts the child has, already formed, and that it is possible to work directly on concepts in the process of school learning. This work, moreover, as our research will show, does not constitute the end but only the initiation of the development of the scientific concepts and not only does not exclude the proper process of his development but gives it a new direct and establishes between the process of learning and the process of development a relationship which is
quite new and favorable from the point of view of the ultimate goals of schooling."
Obviously, Kozulin is cutting corners here; maybe MIT Press told him to save paper and tell LSV to shut up. And after all, on the face of it, LSV DIRECTLY contradicts his earlier assertion, which was that the scientific concept cannot be directly taught. Kozulin would like to eliminate this contradiction. So he does.
Of course, taking the "shortest possible distance" in this way is okay for some purposes. After all, when we read the passage carefully, we see that there is actually no contradiction, but rather three subtle distinctions.
First of all, there is the distinction between DELIBERATELY, that is volitionally, teaching concepts and DIRECTLY teaching them. Deliberate teaching is, as Vygotsky pointed out, implicitly allowed by Tolstoy, who accepts that teachers need to create discourse situations in which new concepts and new words will be used. But Vygotsky goes farther, because he strongly believes that what nature does man can also learn how to do. Since nature has created a non-volitional form of development, it must be possible for man to build a deliberate and volitional one.
Secondly, there is the distinction between TEACHING concepts directly, according to the principle of following the shortest distance between two points, and WORKING directly on the concepts. If I follow the shortest distance between two points, I simply substitute the product for the process; the finished concept is substituted for the developing one, and even the need for the concept is replaced by the concept in its ready made form. Vygotsky suggests that this is very different from creating the need for a concept (through discourse) and then working directly on the child’s developing concept.
Finally, there is a distinction between the INITIAL moment of concept development, that is, the linking of a meaning to a new word and the deployment of the word for active use and the FINAL form of concept development, which is the “assimilation”, that is, the internalization, of the concept itself. It is interesting that here Vygotsky goes rather FURTHER than Tolstoy; Tolstoy identifies the final moment with the active use of the word, but for Vygotsky this is still extramental. What Vygotsky seeks is not the use of a word in discourse, or even the use of the word in practical action, but rather thinking in concepts—which can involve NOT using the word at all.
But again, we're missing a lot of the scenery when we cut corners. There's a nice discussion in next month's MCA on the topic of DEVELOPMENT. Sunwon Hwang's article, which I would qualify as anti-developmental, suggests that from the initial moment of communication, all the contradictions and heterogeneities and negations (for reasons I don't understand he prefers to use the word "problematizations") are already present, already inherent. I think that some people would see Vygotsky's work as "developing" in exactly the same way. Sometimes I think it's really better to go the long way around.
Seoul National University of Education
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