Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian Psychologist whose observations provide the foundation for the Pea-Perkins concept of distributed intelligence, which if you have been following the blog, helps us to understand how cognitive functioning and cognitive burden is "off-loaded" as artefact, invested in individual creative tools, and made available to new generations of artists and craftsmen. While cognitive psychologists mainly dwell on the use of discursive narrative as the building block for understanding reality, I think you will see that manipulation of tools and materials are the building blocks of language and creativity.
The key premise of Vygotskian psychology is often referred to as cultural mediation. The specific knowledge gained by children through these interactions also represented the shared knowledge of a culture. This process is known as internalization.[3]

Internalization can be understood in one respect as “knowing how”. For example, riding a bicycle or pouring a cup of milk are tools of the society and initially outside and beyond the child. The mastery of these skills occurs through the activity of the child within society. A further aspect of internalization is appropriation in which the child takes a tool and makes it his own, perhaps using it in a way unique to himself. Internalizing the use of a pencil allows the child to use it very much for his own ends rather than draw exactly what others in society have drawn previously.[3]

Guided participation, which takes place when creative thinkers interact with a knowledgeable person, is practiced around the world. Cultures may differ, though, in the goals of development. For example, Mayan mothers in Guatemala help their daughters learn to weave through guided participation.[3]
You will probably note the this form of guided participation is what happens daily in the Clear Spring School woodshop, or whenever adults introduce children to participation in crafts.

Vygotsky's work is also fundamental to an understanding of the purpose of play in child development.
Through play the child develops abstract meaning separate from the objects in the world, which is a critical feature in the development of higher mental functions.[4]

The famous example Vygotsky gives is of a child who wants to ride a horse but cannot. If the child were under three, he would perhaps cry and be angry, but around the age of three the child's relationship with the world changes: "Henceforth play is such that the explanation for it must always be that it is the imaginary, illusory realization of unrealizable desires. Imagination is a new formation that is not present in the consciousness of the very raw young child, is totally absent in animals, and represents a specifically human form of conscious activity. Like all functions of consciousness, it originally arises from action." (Vygotsky, 1978)

The child wishes to ride a horse but cannot, so he picks up a stick and stands astride of it, thus pretending he is riding a horse. The stick is a pivot. "Action according to rules begins to be determined by ideas, not by objects.... It is terribly difficult for a child to sever thought (the meaning of a word) from object. Play is a transitional stage in this direction. At that critical moment when a stick – i.e., an object – becomes a pivot for severing the meaning of horse from a real horse, one of the basic psychological structures determining the child’s relationship to reality is radically altered".

As children get older, their reliance on pivots such as sticks, dolls and other toys diminishes. They have internalized these pivots as imagination and abstract concepts through which they can understand the world. "The old adage that children’s play is imagination in action can be reversed: we can say that imagination in adolescents and schoolchildren is play without action" (Vygotsky, 1978).
All the preceding is from the wikipedia article on Vygotsky. I am trying to come to a point of clarity in my understanding from which the narrative function of crafts can be explained to those who believe that narrative is only a function of language use. When we understand the narrative function of art and crafts we begin to grasp the essential role that they play in human culture... And perhaps we'll be able to explain their value in language that even a scholar might understand.

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