Not just Piaget; not just Vygotsky, and certainly not Vygotsky as alternative to Piaget

Article (PDF Available)inLearning and Instruction 13(5):465-485 · October 2003with 3,153 Reads
DOI: 10.1016/S0959-4752(03)00092-6
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Abstract
There have been many interpretations published on the relative importance of the work of both Vygotsky and Piaget: often to the detriment of the latter. This article represents an attempt to discover the meaning and intention of the former by going back to the specifics of what he said and wrote. By reference to what they said of each other it is argued that by the early 30s they had reached almost identical positions regarding child development, and that the work of each is complementary to that of the other. The implications of this position for a theory of intervention for cognitive acceleration are then discussed.
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Learning and Instruction 13 (2003) 465–485
www.elsevier.com/locate/learninstruc
Not just Piaget; not just Vygotsky, and
certainly not Vygotsky as alternative to Piaget
Michael Shayer
King’s College, University of London, 16 Fen End, Over, Cambridge CB4 5NE, UK
Abstract
There have been many interpretations published on the relative importance of the work of
both Vygotsky and Piaget: often to the detriment of the latter. This article represents an attempt
to discover the meaning and intention of the former by going back to the specifics of what
he said and wrote. By reference to what they said of each other it is argued that by the early
30s they had reached almost identical positions regarding child development, and that the
work of each is complementary to that of the other. The implications of this position for a
theory of intervention for cognitive acceleration are then discussed.
2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
1. Introduction
As we know from investigations of the process of concept formation, a concept
is more than the sum of certain associative bonds formed by memory, more than
a mere mental habit; it is a complex and genuine act of thought that cannot be
taught by drilling, but can be accomplished only when the child’s mental develop-
ment has itself reached the requisite level. (1)
Throughout the history of the child’s development runs a ‘warfare’ between spon-
taneous and non-spontaneous, systematically learned, concepts. (cf. the Alternative
Conceptions movement). (2)
Tel.: +44-1954-231814.
E-mail address: m.shayer@ukonline.co.uk (M. Shayer).
0959-4752/03/$ - see front matter 2003 Elsevier Science Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/S0959-4752(03)00092-6
466 M. Shayer / Learning and Instruction 13 (2003) 465485
the development of nonspontaneous concepts must possess all the traits peculiar
to the childs thought at each developmental level because these concepts are not
simply acquired by rote but evolve with the aid of strenuous mental activity on
the part of the child himself. We believe that that the two processesthe develop-
ment of spontaneous and of nonspontaneous conceptsare related and constantly
inuence each other. (3)
recently psychologists have shown that a person can imitate only that which is
within her developmental level. (4)
Each school subject has its own specic relation to the course of child develop-
ment, a relation that varies as the child goes from one stage to another. (5)
Quotations from Piaget or from Western applied research from the 60s and 70s?
No, all from Vygotsky, round about 1930
1
. Having laid down his framework of
thinking at the pure and applied level of research Vygotsky then goes on to make
recommendations for education at the applicable level (Belbin, 1979).
Formerly, it was believed that, by using tests, we determine the mental develop-
ment level with which education should reckon and whose limits it should not
exceed It turned out that a teaching system based solely on concretenessone
that eliminated from teaching everything associated with abstract thinkingnot
only failed to help retarded children overcome their innate handicaps but also
reinforced their handicaps by accustoming children exclusively to concrete think-
ing and thus suppressing the rudiments of any abstract thought that such children
have. (MiS, p. 89) (6)
In thinking about the relation between spontaneous thinking, i.e. the kind of
thinking studied primarily by Piaget in the Genevan methodology, and nonspon-
taneous thinking, i.e. the explicit teaching of concepts and procedures characteristic
of normal school instruction, Vygotsky suggests there is a subtle relation between
the two:
Since instruction given in one area can transform and reorganise other areas of
childs thought, it may not only follow maturing or keep in step with it but also
precede it and further its progress. (T&L, p. 177) (7)
In saying that:
the development of scientic concepts runs ahead of the development of spon-
taneous concepts (T&L, p. 147) (8)
1
The rst three quotations are from Vygotsky (1986),Thought and Language (T&L) pp. 149, 155,
157. The next two are from Vygotsky (1978),Mind in Society (MiS) pp. 88 and 91.
467M. Shayer / Learning and Instruction 13 (2003) 465485
he is in no way saying that teachers may remain ignorant of childrens level of
mental development. Only three pages later he warns:
Practical experience also shows that direct teaching of concepts is impossible and
fruitless. A teacher who tries this usually accomplishes nothing but empty verbal-
ism, a parrotlike repetition of words by the child, simulating a knowledge of the
corresponding concepts but actually covering up a vacuum. (T&L, p. 150) (9)
His formulation of the learning paradox (Bereiter, 1985, pp. 201226) begins:
to introduce a new concept means just to start the process of its appropriation.
Deliberate introduction of new concepts does not precede spontaneous develop-
ment, but rather charts the new paths for it. (T&L, p. 152) (see quote 3 above) (10)
but
scientic concepts, like spontaneous concepts, just start their development,
rather than nish it, at a moment when a child learns the term or word meaning
denoting the new concept. (T&L, p. 159) (11)
Thus far one may doubt whether Vygotsky is describing schooling as he has seen
it, or as he thinks it should or could be. It quickly becomes clear that more, much
more is needed, if learning, in relation to mental development, is to be optimal.
Given the dual and reciprocal relation between cognitive development and conceptual
learning within school subjectsthat is, as the former develops it makes higher
levels of learning possible, but as children are challenged by new school learning
demands they may be stimulated to re-process the learning in their own spontaneous
manner of processing and hence receive a stimulus to further cognitive develop-
mentit follows that revolutionary teaching methods are needed. A rst step is sug-
gested: since
Scientic and spontaneous concepts reveal different attitudes toward the object
of study and different ways of its representation in the consciousness. (T&L, p.
161) (12)
it follows that:
The most promising approach to the problem [of reconciling laboratory studies
of cognition with school achievement measures, necessarily superficial] would
seem to be the study of scientic concepts, which are real concepts, yet are formed
under our eyes almost in the fashion of articial conceptsTo uncover the com-
plex relation between instruction and the development of scientic concepts is an
important practical task (T&L, pp. 161162) (13)
In parentheses, I would claim that this is exactly what we undertook, and for the
468 M. Shayer / Learning and Instruction 13 (2003) 465485
same reasons, for secondary school mathematics and science in the ve-year Con-
cepts in Secondary Mathematics & Science (CSMS) research Programme at Chelsea
College, London in the 70s (Shayer & Adey, 1981; Hart, 1981). I say this because
Vygotsky was never able to undertake this programme of research before his early
death in 1934. But he did work on the other major problem: Just how may schooling
be optimised so as to overcome the learning paradox? His answer was:
‘…the only good learningis that which is ahead of development. (MiS, p.
89) (14)
the only good kind of instruction is that which marches ahead of development
and leads it; it must be aimed not so much at the ripe as the ripening functions.
(T&L, p. 188) (15)
This presupposes reconciling all the statements cited above. On the one hand,
mere cognitive level matchingleaves the childrens mental development stagnant
(quote 6); on the other, empty verbalism may result if the concept is too far ahead
of the children. Moreover a whole programme of applied research is needed rst to
enable teachers, in each school subject, to know just how far ahead of development
the learning they choose for their students should be. I think I would add, too, that
we need to know a great deal more about differential cognitive development in the
child population than either Vygotsky or Piaget were aware of in the early 30s.
Perhaps the most important implication of the CSMS survey of 14,000 children
between the ages of 10 and 16 on Piagetian tests (Shayer, Ku
¨chemann, & Wylam,
1976; Shayer & Wylam, 1978) is that the range of mental development in any one
year group is far, far wider than anyone dreamed, as those teaching in Comprehensive
schools have learnt empirically the hard way. In Fig. 1 this is shown both in terms
of the CSMS survey and also in a recent whole population assessment of 14-year-olds
(KS3 Maths). Any Y7 class is likely to contain pupils ranging from early concrete to
mature formal in Piagetian terms.
Bearing in mind his creative contribution to special education in the USSR, I am
sure that this would have been taken very seriously by Vygotsky, had his research
revealed it.
But most important of all, without a theory of how spontaneous developmentis
related to the progressive inculcation of the child into the culture as embodied in
school learning, there is no way in which Vygotskysnew formulafor teaching
(his words) could be implemented: hence the notion of the Zone of Proximal Devel-
opment(ZPD).
2. The zone of proximal development
It is a strange fact that both Piaget and Vygotsky were introduced to research in
psychology by being asked, in their respective countries, to undertake the replication
of the new Binet test of intelligence in the 20s. It is also strange that a concept tied
469M. Shayer / Learning and Instruction 13 (2003) 465485
Fig. 1. 12-year gapshown in two independent sources of evidence.
specically to the testing of individual children should be treated, later, by some
authors (e.g. Lerman, 1996) as a theory of the social origin of childrens develop-
ment. The essence of the method is this. The child is rst given a standard intelli-
gence test, such as the Binet, and his mental age estimated from his score. The
psychologist then takes the child through some of the easier items on which he had
failed, giving various hints and/or discussing the problems with the child. With this
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