“The relation of thought to word is not a thing but a process, a continual movement back and forth from thought to word and from word to thought. In that process, the relation of thought to word undergoes changes that themselves may be regarded as development in the functional sense. Thought is not merely expressed in words; it comes into existence through them. Every thought tends to connect something with something else, to establish a relation between things. Every thought moves, grows and develops, fulfills a function, solves a problem. This flow of thought occurs as an inner movement through a series of planes. An analysis of the interaction of thought and word must begin with an investigation of the different phases and planes a thought traverses before it is embodied in words.”
— Lev Vygotsky
Key Terms: Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD)
Much of Lev Vygotsky’s renowned work, Thought and Language, is devoted to discussions of developmental psychology. In keeping with this, he makes the case that thought and language are not independent, as was once believed. Instead, Vygotsky posits that thought develops through speech (both internal/private speech and external speech) and that children’s thinking is shaped by the way they communicate and interact linguistically with those around them.
“This brings us to another indisputable fact of great importance: Thought development is determined by language, i.e., by the linguistic tools of thought and by the sociocultural experience of the child. Essentially, the development of inner speech depends on outside factors; the development of logic in the child, as Piaget ’ s studies have shown, is a direct function of his socialized speech. The child ’ s intellectual growth is contingent on his mastering the social means of thought, that is, language.”
— Lev Vygotsky (Thought and Language 180)
In the end, Vygotsky’s model suggests both social communication–external speech–and thought, which has been shaped by language use into “inner speech.” This becomes most useful when one considers his connection of inner speech to composition: “Inner speech is condensed, abbreviated speech. Written speech is deployed to its fullest extent, more complete than oral speech. Inner speech is almost entirely predicative because the situation, the subject of thought, is always known to the thinker. Written speech, on the contrary, must explain the situation fully in order to be intelligible” (Vygotsky 273). Of course, also quite relevant to my work (and, really, that of any educator) is Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
The ZPD is defined, most simply, as the range of capacity that a student (in Vygotsky’s model, a child, but the concept has been widely applied beyond that) of any discipline has in which they can benefit from being assisted in their learning. That is, the ZPD measures how much a teacher can help a student learn, beyond what the student would learn unaided. Within the concept of the ZPD, students come not as blank slates but as entities with pre-existing experiences and knowledge, unique to each of them, yet their development still occurs within whatever degree is possible for them from that background. From a lesson-planning perspective, an approach that falls “beneath” a student’s ZPD would not be challenging and thus likely boring, while an approach that asked a student to reach “beyond” the capacity of their ZPD would be too difficult, thus likely to only frustrate the student.
From here, I will apply the text to my questions; the connections are not always obvious, but I believe the text is highly compatible with (and even formative to) many of my ideas.
“Writing is also speech without an interlocutor, addressed to an absent or an imaginary person or to no one in particular — a situation new and strange to the child. Written speech is monologous; it is a conversation with a blank sheet of paper. Thus, writing requires a double abstraction: abstraction from the sound of speech and abstraction from the interlocutor. But just as learning algebraic formulas does not repeat the process of acquiring arithmetic skills, the development of writing does not repeat the development of oral speech.”
— Lev Vygotsky (Thought and Language 272)
Questions and Answers
1. Considering Adichie’s description of being unable to perceive herself as included in a particular community until she had seen herself welcome there, how can we use Johnson’s pleasure-oriented “renegade rhetoric” to create a more inclusive academic community that encourages students to be active, engaged participants rather than feel academics are a toil inflicted upon them?
The only real connection I can perceive immediately here is to consider the concept of the ZPD as not only applying to learning but to identity and inclusion. What are the “event horizons” of the student’s ability to feel included in the Academy, rather than left independent, and of that limit beyond which asking a student to participate in academic pursuits goes beyond what she or he is willing or able to contribute at any given time?
2. In the text, identify a specific community that is discussed. What role does inclusion in and engagement with that community play in forming an identity (both as an individual and as part of said community) that serves to facilitate the goals of liberation and critical consciousness as put forth by Paulo Freire and bell hooks?
I do not see an immediate connection, here, but certainly it is not difficult to extrapolate the notion that the scaffolding surrounding a student’s development must be carefully managed with this concern in mind. If the goal is to liberate rather than to indoctrinate the student, then as we seek to facilitate their education we, as educators, must take care with what we impress upon them.
3. How can seeking to orient toward pleasure and satisfaction as pedagogical modes be designed to specifically address the concepts of varied learning styles, multiple intelligences, and the highly varied backgrounds (personal, cultural, academic) of students?
Much of the work is devoted to the idea that each student comes from a background of complex experiences and knowledges that are unique. While Vygotsky might have reduced this concept to “mental age,” the ZPD is easily adapted to other purposes. As I’ve noted above, there might be a “zone of proximal inclusion and participation.” Thus, if each mode of intelligence is simply treated as a particular ZPD, then perhaps students could be addressed in terms of what developmental help teachers can offer–instead of, as Mike Rose would caution against, categorizing or limiting them.
4. What can we learn about learning, both as students and teachers, by studying the ostensibly enjoyment-oriented concept and practice of “play”? What connects pleasure and play–enjoyment and engagement–to learning, cognition, and individual development?
I noted a connection to a much newer treatise on learning–Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design–in that Vygotsky’s concept of “heaping” or lumping together ideas (as a simple basis for the beginning of concept formation) quite resembles Koster’s discussion of “chunking,” which is the basis for forming connections and patterns in the human mind. I found it quite interesting–not only that after almost a century such ideas are so similar but also to think that Vygotsky, in his own way, might have been an early contributor to some of the knowledge that goes into video game design. (As, I am certain, would dobutless hold true for many other, even older thinkers–but this is one connection that leapt readily to mind for me.) For that matter, even Vygotsky’s description of concept formation sounds, to my ear at least, quite a lot like the way one develops an understanding of new challenges along the path of playing an innovative game: “Concept formation is the result of such a complex activity, in which all basic intellectual functions take part. […] Words and other signs are those means that direct our mental operations, control their course, and channel them toward the solution of the problem confronting us” (Vygotsky 194).
5. In considering the concept of “inclusion,” how can a focus on student pleasure and engagement in academic pursuits serve to address fundamental questions of complex exclusion and divided identities? Consider this discussion in terms of a borderland, such as discussed by Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera. Students’ language is a kind of homeland for them, a place they have long occupied; what divisions and exclusions are we asking them to navigate (within and without) by asking them to learn to write and use language “correctly” without including their own pre-existing language—their own territory, as it were—into the process?
As Vygotsky writes, “The child does not choose the meaning of his words. He is not free to form complexes at will. The meaning of the words are given to him in his conversations with adults. The child receives all the elements of his complexes in a ready-made form, from the speech of others. A set of things covered by one general name also comes pregrouped” (Vygotsky 211). It is acknowledged that children–and students–enter into the world (whichever world they might be) without having designed it; the expectations placed upon them are external. This may be yet another ZPD of sorts: Perhaps it is a “zone of proximal identity and expression.” If we envision this as a spectrum, then at the “low” end we fail to offer students anything, as they remain entirely within their own cultural, linguistic, and educational background. At the “upper” extremity, we would be asking students to disassociate themselves too much, to come too close to “assimilation” instead of “development.” Between the two, perhaps that space may be the “borderland,” itself–and perhaps this borderland may, in fact, be a solution instead of a problem. If we can meet students at this border and work along with them to push past it, then perhaps it is they who can assimilate what we have to offer–rather than the other way around.
“The main question about the process of concept formation — or about any goal-directed activity — is the question of the means by which the operation is accomplished. Work, for instance, is not sufficiently explained by saying that it is prompted by human needs. We must consider as well the use of tools, the mobilization of the appropriate means without which work could not be performed. To explain the higher forms of human behavior, we must uncover the means by which man learns to organize and direct his behavior.”
— Lev Vygotsky (Thought and Language 189)
Vygotsky, Lev. Thought and Language. 1934. Trans. Eugenia Hanfmann, Gertrude Vakar, and Alex Kozulin. London: MIT Press, 2012. Kindle edition.