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[xmca] concepts

My apologies on two fronts: first for coming so late to this discussion, and
second for the length of this post. I was at AERA when the discussion began
and have been scrambling to catch up since returning home.


Below I'm pasting in something from a book I'm close to finishing, A
Vygotskian Framework for Literacy Research (Boston: Sense). I've been
working on concept development for about a decade, mostly with regard to how
people learn to teach (e.g., Smagorinsky et al., The Twisting Path of
Concept Development in Learning to Teach, Teachers College Record, 2003).
The following excerpt is from a chapter from the forthcoming book that
focuses on the culture of school as a setting for learning literacy


I'm sure that the opening sections in particular will not be much of a
revelation, given that the topic has been worked over pretty thoroughly in
the last 10 days or so on xmca. I do think that the last one-third or so of
this excerpt enters newer territory and might be of interest to some out
there. FYI most of what follows was written a couple of months ago, before
the topic entered the xmca discussion. Comments welcome. p


            Vygotsky, with his background and orientation as a teacher, saw
school as the primary site for formal literacy instruction. Before outlining
central considerations in his view of the role of school in learning, I will
reemphasize that some of his distinctions have been questioned as
researchers continue to explore, test, and refine his ideas. Scriber and
Cole's (1981) and Heath's (1983) pioneering work established that literacy
learning may take place anywhere that people use reading and writing as a
medium of exchange and communication, and their insights have spawned a
generation of research into literacy development in work settings, community
practices, families, and other settings outside formal schooling (see
Beaufort, 2006; Christenbury et al., 2009; Cushman, Barbier, Mazak, &
Petrone, 2006).

            Attention to such diverse settings, although less of a concern
of Vygotsky's for much of his career, has brought into focus a major point
of his theory of concept development. Vygotsky distinguished between what
have been translated as scientific or academic concepts and spontaneous
concepts. A scientific concept is not necessarily about science. Rather, in
Vygotsky's parlance it refers to concepts that are learned in a formal
setting, particularly school. Such learning, as he observed it in the Soviet
schools of his time, involved what Wertsch (1985) has called the
decontextualization of mediational means. This phrase refers to the manner
in which a concept is detached from its original context of learning and
applied to new situations where it is appropriate. 

Wertsch's (1985) term decontextualization has more recently become viewed as
inconsistent with notions of situated learning, which postulate that nothing
occurs outside a context, making decontextualization impossible. Rather, in
schooling as Vygotsky knew it, a concept is not tied to the setting in which
it was originally learned. Instead, it is subjected to an analysis that
extracts generalizable features that make it amenable to application in
solving new problems in new contexts that share general properties. This
abstractability often serves as the instructional focus, with the concept
presented initially and illustrations of various applications provided

            For example, in grammar instruction, students might be presented
with the concept of the compound sentence, and then be required to identify
whether a list of sentences may be classified as compound or not. In this
approach, the abstraction of the compound sentence is primary, and efforts
to identify it in new contexts-sentences that include them or not-follow
from learning the rule. This approach stands in contrasts to having students
begin by writing ideas in which they have a vested interest and then
returning to see if compound sentences are present in their writing, the
degree to which compound sentences might improve their ability to
communicate their ideas with given readerships, and other more inductive
ways to attending to the grammatical concept of the compound sentence and
its role in expression and communication.

            Spontaneous concepts in contrast are not learned with the
benefit of formal abstraction guided by a teacher. Rather, they are learned
in situated, everyday practice, with the result that whatever concepts the
learner derives are applicable primarily in similar contexts. As I reviewed
in Chapter 3, Luria's (1978) research in Soviet Central Asia interpreted
villagers' difficulty with abstractions as a sign of cultural and cognitive
backwardness because their knowledge came entirely from everyday experience.
Given their isolation from other tribal groups, they had little need for
abstraction to new settings in their pre-Soviet life; and given their lack
of formal education and accompanying formal literacy instruction, they were
not exposed to the rule-governed and abstractable forms of reasoning that
Vygotsky considered available through instruction in academic concepts. 

Although he treats spontaneous and scientific concepts as, in one sense,
different, Vygotsky (1987) stresses the need for integration in order to
ensure powerful learning experiences. He argues that in formal academic
settings, instruction in principles alone will not result in the development
of a concept. Rather, knowledge of abstracted governing rules must come in
conjunction with empirical demonstration, observation, or activity. Vygotsky
maintains that

direct instruction in concepts is impossible. It is pedagogically fruitless.
The teacher who attempts to use this approach achieves nothing but a
mindless learning of words, an empty verbalism that simulates or imitates
the presence of concepts in the child. Under these conditions, the child
learns not the concept but the word, and this word is taken over by the
child through memory rather than thought. Such knowledge turns out to be
inadequate in any meaningful application. This mode of instruction is the
basic defect of the purely scholastic verbal modes of teaching which have
been universally condemned. It substitutes the learning of dead and empty
verbal schemes for the mastery of living knowledge. (p. 170)

Vygotsky (1987) insists that principles cannot be divorced from application.
His formulation requires the learner to establish a mindful relation between
abstracted knowledge and experience in the world: "Conscious instruction of
the pupil in new concepts (i.e., in new forms of the word) is not only
possible but may actually be the source for a higher form of development of
the child's own concepts, particularly those that have developed in the
child prior to conscious instruction" (p. 172; emphasis in original). He
argues that this interplay between formal knowledge of principles and
knowledge gained through everyday activity enables people to think about
problems beyond their range of experience. He maintains that the "process of
concept formation requires . . . acts of thought which are associated with
free movement in the concept system, with the generalization of previously
developed generalizations, and with a more conscious and voluntary mode of
operating on these existing concepts" (p. 181). 

The development of a scientific concept thus relies on formal
instruction-usually in an academic setting but available through communities
of faith, apprenticeship relationships, organized activities, and other
explicit and systematic instructional settings-and on the learner's
conscious awareness and volition. It further relies on interplay between the
learner's conceptual fields, with a dialectical relation developing between
scientific and spontaneous concepts, those that involve "situationally
meaningful, concrete applications, that is, in the sphere of experience and
the empirical. . . . Scientific concepts restructure and raise spontaneous
concepts to a higher level" (p. 220). The formal principles of the
scientific concept create cultural schemata that enable a greater
understanding of worldly experience and ability to act in relation to the
world in confident, principled ways. 

            Vygotsky's primary interest in literacy-related development thus
concerned school learning as informed by and anchored in real-world
experience. His emphasis suggests the need to examine school as a particular
kind of culture that fosters the development of scientific concepts. As many
have argued, however, the current U. S. obsession with standardized testing
has virtually eliminated attention to concept-driven thinking and action
from classrooms, imposing instead imperatives to demand rote and literal
performances from students. Vygotsky's focus on concept development as a
school-based activity thus needs to take into account the fact that the
Soviet schools of his era, at least as he envisioned them, had a different
focus than do 21st century U. S. schools. Undoubtedly, a critic could
further maintain that the concepts expected in Soviet schools were
necessarily part of the state's fundamental task of imposing its ideology on
its citizens (Wertsch, 1999), with punishment for deviation being exile to
the Gulag, or worse. Loewen (1996) argues that the grand narratives of U.S.
history textbooks establish their own ideology and sense of national
identity, equally flawed yet with the less draconian consequence of school
failure for those who contest or repudiate them.

One aspect of concept development that tends to be overlooked is that
concepts enhance people's ability to anticipate how future action will
unfold. A generalization that is structured with formal, abstractable
principles and grounded in extensive worldly experience enables, to a
reasonable degree, one to infer what will happen next, given sufficient
information about the present and how it has come into being. This postulate
holds for both the natural and social worlds. If I have a concept for how a
particular plant will grow, for example, I can use that understanding to
situate the plant in appropriate soil, light, and water conditions in order
for it to thrive. If I misunderstand a plant's needs and instead apply a
generic and ill-advised principle, such as that plants require abundant
water, then I might water a plant to death, as is common among novice
gardeners who do not understand the fact that many plants have evolved to
survive in arid conditions and so drown under excessive watering. Even with
relevant conceptual knowledge, I might install plants that die from other
causes. But if I know a plant's constitution and habits and thus can
reasonably anticipate its needs and foresee how my program of care will
produce particular results, I can increase its chances of survival.

The actions of people are more difficult to anticipate because they have
volition. Nonetheless, a conception of particular culturally-mediated social
action can enable greater anticipation of how human events will turn out
than will the lack thereof. I have come to understand this likelihood
through my studies of beginning teachers (e.g., Smagorinsky, Wilson, &
Moore, 2011). Those with limited conceptions of teaching and learning tend
to engage in trial-and-error instruction, retaining those practices that
turn out to be effective but having little foresight regarding which will
work. Those who can articulate the purposes behind their decisions based on
a synthesis of formal and practical knowledge have had better success
planning instruction that leads to their intended goals.

Many school reforms that lack a conception grounded in both abstract
principles and empirical understanding make unwarranted assumptions about
how teachers and students act, a major problem when policymakers such as U.
S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or major educational underwriters such
as Bill Gates have never taught at the classroom level. They assume, for
instance, that by imposing a standardized testing system on children that is
designed to weed out bad teachers whose students produce low test scores,
they won't (1) drive out the best teachers who find the test-oriented
setting of school to be tedious and unstimulating, or (2) mismeasure
students' capabilities by confining high-stakes assessment to
single-application test performances, or (3) penalize or advantage teachers
for the economic conditions in which their students live, or (4) mistakenly
assume that a single test item (or the aggregate of test items) is
isomorphic across all children, or (5) fail in any number of other ways to
assess students and teachers in sensitive and appropriate ways. Having a
strong, reality-based conception of social processes, then, can heighten the
possibility that a plan will work as anticipated and reduce the likelihood
that it will fall apart because it rests on a spurious foundation,
particularly when billions of dollars are invested in them and millions of
people are affected in negative and pernicious ways.

In the sense that concepts contribute to one's ability to anticipate how the
future will unfold, they can help lead to feelings of order and security,
and thus happiness, a term I use in the manner of Csikszentmihalyi and
Larson (1984), who view happiness as a state of deep-seated contentedness
and satisfaction with one's place in the world, rather than as a superficial
condition of pleasure. The more formally grounded (i.e., scientific or
academic) and abstractable a conception is to new settings and situations,
the fewer disruptive surprises one will encounter and the more one will
experience stability when engaging with the world. This is not to say that
surprises and detours are necessarily unhappy occasions, for they often lead
to happy outcomes, as I illustrate in Chapter 7 with student writer Doug,
who deliberately creates unanticipated moments in his writing in order to
build excitement in his own composing process. Rather, it is to say that a
concept enables an orderly engagement with life such that unanticipated
events are less likely to cause unwanted disruptions and decisions that
produce negative outcomes.

Concepts are fundamentally cultural as part of the frameworks for thinking
that people appropriate through their social experiences, suggesting that
bringing them to bear when crossing cultural borders requires modification
of their principles. This modification contributes to one's development of a
more complex understanding and development toward a modified life trajectory
capable of adaptation to new problems. A 1960s U.S. protester relocated to
Brezhnev's Soviet Union would find a need to reconstruct his or her
conception of appropriate public dissent, or be sent to Siberia for
re-education. Part of one's ability to modify a concept would thus involve a
readiness to adjust to future changes presented by environments. A flexible
understanding of concepts as always being in development and under
adaptation thus contributes to one's own evolving developmental trajectory.
As the example of the protester suggests, this trajectory is always socially
mediated, with one set of constraints and affordances available in one
culture not necessarily providing developmental channels in another.

As these examples suggest, concepts do not simply comprise empty theories,
as Vygotsky's (1987) attention to the need for the interplay of spontaneous
and scientific conceptual fields would indicate. Rather, concepts must have
experientially- or empirically-grounded utility to guide worldly action and
engagement. Concepts thus provide the means through which action takes on
function, form, meaning, and purpose. This action may be social, as in
having a robust understanding of the conventions of the genres through which
one hopes to communicate, or in relation to the natural world, as in
understanding meteorological conditions and how they suggest what awaits one
in engaging with the geological world.


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