RE: [xmca] double-stimulation method

From: Paula Towsey <paulat who-is-at>
Date: Tue Oct 07 2008 - 07:30:37 PDT

Dear Eric

You make a great deal of sense, and your concise reply is a beautiful

In this email, I will try to respond in kind to your points, one by one.

1. Structured and flexible
The blocks method is both of these - structured in terms of the double
stimulation of blocks and words; and flexible in terms of how subjects
choose to go about solving the problem - or, at least, how they engage with
the activity. The interaction by the subject between these two elements is
revealing - of how they relate to clues and how they overcome the
non-essential but confusing traits - in short, how they make use of the
stimulus means to solve the problem: it is also revealing of what they bring
to the party and the 'thinking out aloud' side of things (the 'talking as
you go') makes what is happening inside their heads explicit too.

2. The level of assistance depends on the subject
This is also central, and relates to a component that Mike alluded to in one
of his postings (and which I mention near the end of my 09/24/08 posting):
the behaviour of the researcher/experimenter. In all of my approach to this
research, what I did and do try to do in taking a closer look at the various
events that unfolded during sessions is to place the researcher to the side
and to look more closely at the subject, the blocks, and subjects' reactions
to the clues of the words. I do this because:
a) the researcher doesn't provide the subject with contextual clues for the
meaning of the words (although what helps is a sense of humour, an
encouraging smile, and reassurance, ie, that this method isn't about getting
things wrong or right, but about finding things out and that it is fun(!));
b) I followed Hanfmann & Kasanin's 1942 guide closely in terms of how the
information presented to subjects is to be revealed - a gradual unfolding of
what to look for which I think you might want to have a look at in the
appendix to their 1942 monograph; and
c) the method of double stimulation depends here on the stimulus object and
the stimulus means, and, therefore, the researcher's function is to
facilitate - not to stimulate or to give the game away.
However, I took it as vital that the researcher has to provide the type of
psychological setting that puts subjects of whatever age and temperament at
ease and comfortable with these puzzling, confounding little blocks (one of
my pilot study subjects remarked in Gollum's voice: "Nasty Blocks!", ie,
"Nasty Hobbit!").
Then, too, there are as many idiosyncratic responses to this procedure as
there are people who engage with it, and the behaviour of the researcher is
crucial in terms of appreciating this - coupled with understanding when
things are developmentally possible, over and above the possible, downright
frustrating, personally challenging, or hugely rewarding when the simplicity
of the double dichotomy comes to light.

3. Developmental levels - and then some
Yes, this method looks at developmental levels in terms of what subjects are
doing as they move the blocks, and what their explanations are for these
moves. Once again, much is revealed in the relationship between what is
said (or not) and the moves made (whether they are post hoc explanations of
random movements - as per many of the five-year-olds - or descriptions that
match the subject's movements closely - as in the DVD - where I seriously
began to wonder if he had read the theory just before coming in through the
This method is developmental in that each of the complexes Vygotsky
describes in succession are more complex (ie, involving more developed
levels of reasoning), and my study, as you know, found a developmental trend
linking the thinking strategies used and the age of the subject. However,
what the method also does is look at kinds of thinking strategies that
people of all ages use when they solve problems or are faced with new things
- eg, my pseudoconceptual putting together of what constitutes "flying great
circles" or what second-language users do when entering the realm of the new
language (and culture). So, although the five complexes are developmental,
they are also "methodological devices" (I'm not doing justice to Kozulin's
1990 point here) which people return to and continue to use throughout their
lives. I also mentioned, though, in my 09/24/08 posting to David K that a
big difference between a child's complexive approach and an adult's is that
adults are likely to be a great deal more consistent because they are
usually better at abstracting and generalising, and because they have a
'system' of sorts to compare their actions against (language or
classifications or mathematics). These observations lead to the next point:

4. providing a snapshot of a 'complex'
Yes, they - the blocks - do. What is sometimes a bit difficult for me to
impart to colleagues who haven't worked with the blocks is that reading
about them, and then conducting an exercise with them, are very (very)
different experiences. I suspect this to be true of most research
instruments - the thing about the blocks, though, is that the solution is
deceptively simple - especially when you have found out what it is by
reading about it. In fact, this element - trying to keep the actual
solution a secret - got me into trouble in one of my first submissions to a
major publication - precisely because I was hoping there would be some
readers out there who wouldn't want to be told the whodunit - but would
prefer to work it out for themselves.
But, to return to the 'snapshot', as you can see from my comments in point
number three, a snapshot of complexes is gained - sometimes there are
combinations of them and what makes lots of the analysis really challenging
is working out what is developmental, what is complexive in adults, and what
is idiosyncratic in everyone. Does this make sense, Eric?

And then to point number 5 - leading to concepts
Yes - see my comments in posting 08/22/08 about Wertsch referring to
Vygotsky as an "ambivalent rationalist". I am not sure if descriptions like
"scientific concepts" or "rationalist conceptualisations" or "true concepts"
are really helpful or whether they muddy the waters, but what I think is
important is that the type of concept that this method engenders is
abstract(ed) and logical rather than concrete and factual; it can only be
achieved when generalisations and abstractions work together in harmony and
don't lose sight of one another; when these activities take place
consistently; and when the subject takes into account the implications of
their moves in relation to the totality. And last but not least - the
'system' - as I noted in a paper (that I think is going to be published but
I'll let you know), I wrote:

"What is also possible about this process is that the objects of the
activity together with the signs as means of directing the activity could
result in a successful resolution of the problem without the presence of a
researcher but, as my 2007 research strongly suggested (no doubt as its
authors intended), only when the subject is capable of truly abstract
conceptual thought. Axiomatic to a successful, truly conceptual solution to
the problem of the blocks is what Vygotsky referred to as the presence or
"absence of a system" ([italics in original], 1986, p. 205). Although
Vygotsky makes this point in reference to scientific concepts where such
presence is the "cardinal psychological difference distinguishing
spontaneous from scientific concepts" (1986, p.205), in my cross-sectional
study, the responses from the 60 subjects made this cardinal distinction
repeatedly clear." (In press, I think.)

Eric, I just love (apologies - am most intrigued by) your linking back the
flexible and the structure of the blocks method to Vygotsky's framework.
You can rest assured I will be asking you for permission for a pers. comm.
very soon! And then, 'the word' is the unit of analysis, yes, but not
without its accompanying activity - the who, how, when, and why of the
activity, according to the researcher on the one hand, and to the subject on
the other. This, I believe, is what Valsiner refers to when he analyses
what is happening as follows:

"The second kind of Stimulus-Means (StM-2) are semiotically encoded
personal-cultural experiences that an individual subject carries with them
into any new experimental situation. The personal understanding of the
given situation, its role in social life (as well as for the subject him- or
herself) is constructed instantly by the person, when entering into the
field. It is based on all previously lived-through experiences.
        The interpretation activity of the subject is not controllable by
the experimenter, and it cannot be eliminated." (Valsiner, 2000, p. 78
(Culture and Human Development).)

The tension between the tool-making activity of StM-1 (making a cognitive
tool of the means and the objects of the activity in order to solve it) and
StM-2 is, for me, what provides a focal point for viewing development in
younger subjects, and a focal point for viewing the end-point of

Eric, thank you very much for giving me this opportunity to respond to you
about these (brilliant) blocks.


-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of
Sent: 06 October 2008 04:14 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: RE: [xmca] double-stimulation method


This is going to come in bits and pieces because time just does not allow
me to place all of my thoughts in one posting. Initially my thoughts are
regarding why I am so drawn to the blocks method. 1. it is structured and
it is flexible. 2. the level of assistance provided is minimal and
dependant upon the subject's responses. 3. it looks at the developmental
level of the subject. 4. it provides a snapshot of a 'complex'. 5. the idea
of complexes leads to conceptual thinking. Vygotsky provided the framework
for discussing human development in both a structured and flexible way.
The word is the unit of analysis for lsv because of how in the blocks
experiment the facilitator knows the word meaning and guides the subject
towards the word meaning. Once again, word meaning has structure but it
can be flexible. Does this make any sense?


                      "Paula Towsey"

                      <paulat@johnwtow To: "'eXtended Mind,
Culture, Activity'" <>
            > cc:

                      Sent by: Subject: RE: [xmca]
double-stimulation method


                      10/04/2008 04:56


                      Please respond

                      to "eXtended

                      Mind, Culture,


Hello there, Eric - I'm so pleased the DVD arrived safely and wasn't nicked
before it got to you. Thanks for your email - and enjoy your viewing!
ps - I can send you a transcript too, if you like...

-----Original Message-----
From: [] On
Behalf Of
Sent: 03 October 2008 06:28 PM
To: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
Subject: [xmca] double-stimulation method

Hello Paula:

This message was meant to be sent to your e-mail but I have misplaced that.
Thank you for your gracious gift. I have made it through the first 15
minutes and am amazed by your study. I plan on giving it a thorough
viewing this weekend and expect to post on it in the next week. Job duties
have greatly hampered my participation in anything beyond the nuts and
bolts of teaching/counseling/facilitating/mediating/assessing/etc.

best regards,

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Received on Tue Oct 7 07:35 PDT 2008

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