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Re: [xmca] Kindergarten Cram: When is play?

Associational chains, whether they occur to us naturally or are just a mode of linking meanings that gets out of control as the text-scales get longer, sure can take us on a Grand Tour! from no time for play in early childhood schooling, to the excesses and illusions of testing, to demanding essay tasks in (Confucian) testing vs. deskilling ones in NCLB (the routinization of the 5-paragraph "essay"), to how to think about writing and written language as higher- order, developmentally late processes in relation to inner and outer speech, materiality, contextualization, etc.


I'm not sure how to organize my reactions, so I won't particularly try. Here they are. Organize them yourself!

Convergent evolution in examinations. The same surface phenomena can evolve historically as they can biologically in quite different lineages for quite different reasons. Confucian examinations and modern essay testing look a bit alike at some level of abstraction, but I think that in terms of their historical specificity and functions, they are really quite different. So I think David is probably right that the Confucian meritocratic system does not have much to do with modern school testing, though it may envelope the latter in a certain cultural web of supportive feelings about importance, honour, upward mobility, etc.

But what's so great, or hard about writing, anyway? that we should consider it the most reliable index of knowledge and understanding, or even of the habitus by which one succeeds in academia or elsewhere in the wider "Knowledge Society"?

David adduces and modifies a bit, LSV's original arguments about written language. I think LSV got a lot of this right, but not all of it. Written language is really different from spoken, does require a higher level (i.e. a successor level building on the first) of "abstract" functioning -- though what "abstract" really means here, as Mike points out in his questions, and David tries to explicate and complicate, is problematic. LSV is trying in part to articulate relationships among 3 modes of language: written, spoken, and 'inner speech'. The kinds of "abstraction" that distinguish W from S, and S from IS, however are not quite the same, and we can emphasize their similarities or their differences. I think this leads to a large space of possible and actual confusion.

What LSV is most wrong about, IMHO, is in accepting the universally accepted view of his times that written language is a more highly developed or more completely expressive (i.e. explicitizing) variety than spoken. With tape recorders we have learned differently. Spoken language, in situ, with interlocutors, is vastly more complex and richer in meaning possibilities and actualities, than written language. Written language is a specialized form, limited in what it can say and do by the conventions it requires in order to overcome everything that is normally missing from the full, natural communication system of spoken language (which is not just language, an artificial unit of analysis -- it is the unified system of speech, gesture, posture, and many aspects of action generally).

Written language has been overvalued for many reasons, mostly ideological. Its association with Sacred Texts, first and foremost (Torah, Gospels, Quran, Vedas, Confucian classics, etc.). Later in the European tradition with not just the Second Canon (Aristotle, etc.) but with the Protestant emphasis on individual reading and interpretation of the Bible (degenerating into fundamentalist literalism, alas), and descending from that (as David Olson notes) a close association between written text and hermeneutic reasoning, which more or less becomes scientific reasoning eventually. Most of the arguments that mastering written language grounds our higher reasoning skills go wrong by not seeing that it is really the juxtaposition of written vs. spoken language that leads to the insights about language and reasoning that they attribute to written mastery alone. (And inner speech probably plays some key role in all that, too, as LSV seems to be struggling to to find a way to piece all this together.)

So to come back to education and testing, the gold standard of assessment of how well someone understands something is not how beautiful an essay they can write about it, but how well they do in an extended conversational oral examination in some concrete setting with the relevant situation or stuff at hand.


Jay Lemke
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

On May 8, 2009, at 11:50 AM, David Kellogg wrote:


Yes. One fact I forgot to cite is that the closer the kids get to the college entrance exam, the less impressive their performances get on those international student evaluations that PISA and Stevenson were so impressed by.

What's true of the kids is truer of their schools. We have the very best elementary school on earth (in my humble opinion) and every single elementary school teacher has liftime tenure, and is part of a career structure that professors in the USA would envy (low tuition in school, three months paid vacation a year, time off for further education, etc.) Until the last few years, our elementary schools were virtually test free.

Middle school teachers are treated much less well, and high school teachers downright shabbily, and of course the testing system, for all the excitement generated (airplanes grounded, traffic rerouted, police and even troops mobilized to get the nation's kids to the testing centres on time) at bottom enforces mediocrity, which is the baseline of our disgraceful university system.

It's for PRECISELY this reason that I don't believe it has anything to do with traditional Confucian testing. The Confucian tests were based on essay writing, and required analysis and synthesis of ancient texts and their creative interpretation and presentation. The current exams are multiple choice, "skills-based" and psychometric tests that Binet and Simon would easily recognize and of which Thorndike would heartily approve. Items are statistically independent (so much so that several attempts to factor-analyze the test have turned up absolutely nothing)

This kind of statistical independence is exactly what Vygotsky denies in Chapter Six, Section Four, (p. 267 of the Meccaci translation, pp. 207-208 in Minick):

"The research has shown that the different materials of school learning enter into reciprocal interactions during the course of the development of the child. This development appears in a mode which is more unified than that which we might suppose on the basis of the experiments of Thorndike according to which development acquires an atomistic character. The experiments of Thorndike have shown that the development of any partial knowledge or capacity consists of the formation of an independent chain of associations, which cannot in any way aid the appearance of another associative chain. All development would be independent, isolated and autonomous and would be realized equally on the basis of associative links."

Instead, in the quotes I talked about last time, Vygotsky argues for "abstraction" that is brought about through the realization of both LINKS and DIVERGENCES between mathematical thinking (- x - = +) and written speech ("It's NOT worth nothing"). I think Vygotsky uses the word “abstract” in two linked but nevertheless distinguishable senses, one having to do with capacity and the other having to do with actual performance.

On the one hand, “abstract” refers to DECONTEXUALIZEABLE knowledge, e.g. written language as opposed to spoken language. This is abstract because it is IDEAL; when we write, we take away the SENSUOUS, material form of words, we take away the SENSES we create because we are talking to a real, immediate person, and we take away the SENSIBLE purposes of language use because there is no question to which we are replying, no command which we obey, no request we must respond to, etc.

On the other, “abstract” refers to RECONTEXTUALIZEABLE knowledge, e.g. actual writing as opposed to actual speech. This is abstract because it is VOLITIONAL, it does not depend on response to an immediate environment. But it DOES depend on choice, selection, and free will constrained by the writer’s purposes. When we actually write we choose particular sequences of letters to form words, and it is possible to think of idiosyncratic spellings like “doe a dear” which give us access to our volitional memory and focus our volitional attention.

When we actually write we select sequences of words to form sentences; at the level of grammar innovation becomes not simply an option but a virtual necessity, because unlike spelling there is no ready reserve of preset sentences which will tell us exactly what to say in every situation. Finally, when we actually write we are free to create our own EXCHANGES and not simply our own sentences, creating the need for language use as well as fulfilling it; If at the level of lexicogrammar, written language tends “znachenie”, at the level of the text, it tends towads “smysl”.

The distinction seems important to me, because Bakhtin (and even Volosinov) does not really recognize that the latter form of abstract thinking, which allows the individual to realize free choice, rests on the former, which makes thinking available in a new context precisely by tearing it from an old one. It seems to me, though, that this kind of abstraction is actually what we see in the old kind of Confucian testing.

David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education

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