Reclaiming Learning – a return to Vygotsky

We are confronted by and complicit in war, misery, poverty and that acute and chronic crisis, climate change. The complex inter relationship of these chronic crises is a material basis for the acute crisis that could lead to species extinction. In this paper I will argue that the process of learning, modified, manipulated and caricatured in the dominant and related paradigms of neo liberalism and neo conservatism (Wrigley 2007), can be reclaimed as that process through which we can draw together critical resources for a practical struggle that seeks both “survival” (John-Steiner & Souberman, 1978:133) and ultimately that flourishing and love that has no purpose or point beyond a reciprocally created self development (See Eagleton 2007). The notion of reciprocal self development can be reduced to the obvious, I develop because as you develop you provide space, time and support for my development and vice versa, and there is nothing wrong with that. However for me the notion contains that process through which we develop critical resources to both understand our world and change it, they are shared resources that through personal appropriation can make you and me socialists.

A useful discussion at this point would be how we work out the relative importance of these resources, as Brecht said, “Learn the ABC, its not enough but learnt it”. It may well be however that the skills Brecht refers to can only be of use when we both individually and collectively recognise that they help us to construct in words the kind of living together that leaps of the page and into our practices, but first the practice and then the words. Historically we have tens of thousands of years through which our practices developed, many are inscribed into our actions today, how do we develop those historical and cultural traces in our practices that celebrate the actions we call just, fair and kind in daily life? How can we create practical conditions in which people have the space to stop doing as they are told because they have begun to see that the taken for granted, the common sense, literally ‘the way we do things round here’ is not the way we want them to be. In this sense the major critical resource created by reciprocal self development could be an incredulity toward those narratives ( no apologies to Lyotard!) that dress as human practice, added value, quality, fit for purpose and at that barbaric end of capital’s march across our planet, that appalling concept collateral damage. When we become simply incredulous that any one could propose that we manage the change in global temperature  rather than stopping that rise, we have started that process of development that potentially impels us to gather greater and more resources to defeat such proposals. At such times we may even decide we need both the practice of direct action and the lexicon of science. This is reclaiming learning at the very centre of self development.

The reclaiming of learning begins with a return to Vygotsky (1978, 1986) and I would argue at this point a useful point of departure for the rescuing of the revolutionary content of Vygotsky’s work, material for further work. Indeed the contribution to learning set out below offers up a series of points of departure for discussions about how we can transcend our current condition and contest that the latter is the end game of a deep and pervasive pathology. The central discussion is to what extent can an examination of the process of learning raise our understanding of human nature so that we can practically use that understanding to transcend our current human condition, the point is that human nature in its fully rounded multi dimensional sense creates the conditions for the emergence of the human condition and therefore is engaged dialectically with the genesis and continued historical and cultural development of the condition, the former is our first base for transcending a condition that Suzuki has called a “blind date with disaster” ( News paper interview Suzuki 2008).

Vygotsky  proposed that the development of a fully rounded human psychology has a multi dimensional genesis that develops from and emerges in a series of domains that have historical, social and cultural characteristics. These characteristics work as dimensions that shape human life and in turn take on a shape from the practice that constitutes life, in this sense life and human practice are constantly mediated, as Brecht observed “everything changes, you can make a fresh start with your final breath.”  It could be argued that my position is little more than a restatement of Activity theory, “both dialogism and activity theory move from the social to the individual in their analyses. The object of analysis is neither texts nor minds nor conceptual schemes per se but what is in between-the social intercourse.” (Russell 1997:509) However in pursuing the notion of humanity as self development I want to develop a point of departure from systems, methods and theories that apply our understanding to the subject, understanding, and rather  attempt to get inside understanding, it is an attempt to negate those social vectors that introduce modified and manipulated notions and concepts of humanity, that transform the latter into a historically and culturally located human condition through tendentious claims that it was ever thus. Points of departure will be a recurring motif in my essay as will the theme of beginning, precisely because one of our most basic and rich conceptual frameworks for understanding is our grasp of movement in time and space and our desire to control that motion, even as we feel that it controls us – “time, you old gypsy man, will you not stay?” The first beginning takes up Vygotsky’s conceptual framework for human development, our development as a species on the basis of four inter related genetic domains, the phylo genetic, socio-cultural and historical domain, the onto genetic and micro genetic domain (Wertsch 1985).

Essentially the individual carries a location as an individual within a family or small social group, neighbours, friends and so on, however this personal history is located in the social space that the group inhabits, this is a complex arena in which many different individual histories meet both as products of relationships generated in small groups and in unique relationships with others from other groups. This ‘dance to the music of time’ (Powell 1997) takes place in the context of the multi layered development of the species across human history, it is here in this continually developing social space that cause and effect in the emergence and development of our identity struggle both against and with each other. This is not an emergent plea for relativism, rather it is an assertion that the complexity of social life, our understanding of who and what we are become active dimensions in the genesis of human beings – a real struggle to be takes place on a daily basis and in turn goes some way to explaining the remarkable resilience of the human being even in conditions that leave biological life flickering at its end.

It is almost as though the individual is subject to and active in many beginnings, the maturation process of each beginning may well take place in the continuing history of the species as a whole, in particular cultural, national or socio economic formations but both the beginning and the process of maturation also find their place in the development of the individual across her or his own life span. In this bold sense, I would argue that each individual carries the whole of human history in their physical frame, repeats, develops and changes that history in the relationships each individual enters into socially. So every particular action, practice and thought contains that universal material that provides the shape and depth of our common humanity – the point is we make that humanity, its metamorphosis into the human condition cannot be traced in linear fashion back to some original sin or set of actions. The human condition is the visible manifestation of that continuing struggle between the dimensions of life that we call the social, cultural, psychological and indeed biologically genetic. Precisely because learning actively engages with all these dimensions, and because we have a social field of practice where we engage in learning on a fairly formal basis I feel it is a good place to begin an investigation of who we are and crucially use that ability to explore ourselves to provide the ontological basis for a challenge to notions that this is as good as it gets, and that only the management of our condition needs to be attended to. In this sense I’m not concerned with constructing a learning theory or with making claims for particular theories of learning because my claims about learning rest on the multi dimensional form and content of learning. The struggle between form and content is illustrative of my approach. Take the example of that learning which takes place in a particular kind of schooled environment in which particular kinds of knowledge are culturally transmitted in classrooms of people whose sole commonality is their age. What interests me is that the dominance of that dimension and the dominance of disciplinary models for the transmission of knowledge – the classroom and the teacher – work together to marginalise, push away, other dimensions and act to manipulate an individuals perception of their ability to understand the world. Learning theories (Wood, 2005) can help us to construct models for educational practice that can go some way to ameliorating this situation but this particular use of theory often sterilises the theory, reducing it to the status of an educational tool. This is what happened to Vygotsky, whose desire to both understand mind and change minds so that the socialist construction of society could form a new material basis for communism was effectively excised with the first publication of Thought and Language in 1962 and the promotion of an image of Vygotsky “as a sort of early neobehaviorist of cognitive development” ( see John-Steiner & Cole’s report of this image, 1978: ix ).

In this sense I reject the notion that learning is a managed social skill or set of skills that can be theorised, rather I say it is the practical manifestation of the workings of those complex and contradictory dimensions that make us human.

The process of learning unfortunately is often characterised in very simple terms, there are those who would claim that our learning is much like the working of software in a computer and that we are hard wired inside our brains to particular kinds of learning and ways of living. The notion that mind is just the result of electrical connections that take place in the grey matter in our heads is also very strong, I think Tallis (Guardian interview June 2008) is right when he says that such people are neurotheologists. The brain has a pretty fundamental role to play, is indeed a strong force in the shaping of the interplay between the dimensions of learning that actually characterise, and in their turn shape the process, as it unfolds in our practices (Damasio 1999). However this social unfolding of the process, its actual working, in turn has some fundamental effect on the development of our cognitive process, indeed on the growth of the brain (Johnson 2001). Again as Tallis says in the same article “the brain is a necessary condition for consciousness but it is not a sufficient one. Selves also require bodies, material environments and human communities.”

The process we call mind emerges from this movement of forces, a movement that can be pictured as a complex interplay of dimensions. Dimensions that both give form to learning and are also contained in the process of learning as it unfolds, locating us in the world driving forward our development as embodied situated individuals (Shotter 2005). The claim here is that there is no separate mind, spirit or soul guiding or informing our understanding of the world and our place within it but nor are we just grey matter.

The question is how do we get into the nature of mind (Vygotsky 1978)? Vygotsky sets out the path clearly through the investigation of the process of learning. This investigation is a process in itself and it might just get us closer to that understanding that answers those questions at the heart of a philosophical enquiry into being.

“Where do we come from, what are we, where are we going?” Gaugin.

We live in, as Marx’s memorable critique of religion ( Marx/works/1843) had it, “a heartless world and….soulless conditions”, the question remains how in these spiritless times as Cyril Smith (1998) put it “can six billion human beings live on this small planet without destroying each other” and it might be added ‘completely’ despite, through climate change, the most appalling oppression and exploitation and war, their best attempts to do so.

So what model of learning will enable me to move on and make the claim that inside the process of learning we can truly seek out what it is to be human and use this humanity to confront in the most practical of ways the human condition and in this profound confrontation use that humanity to transcend that condition that could ultimately destroy the species.

This confrontation, humanity against the human condition, is framed on two sides by death, individual death and potential species death. These dimensions are forces that drive us forward and there strength is pretty undeniable, but dare I say it there is another dimension, weak, frail (a century of the most awe inspiring savagery illustrates this contention) but constantly grounding us – social life. Its time span for some of us is brutally short and for others interminably long, this grounded truth is were we begin.

At this point siren calls from two perspectives can distract the wanderer, one is the collapse into a post modern relativism that actually denies that there are absolute truths. Eagleton’s (2004: 13) definition of the post modern is useful here,

“By ‘post modern’, I mean, roughly speaking, the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. postmodernism is sceptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity.”

It is at this point that I’m always tempted to say that death is a pretty bloody final truth, so let’s work back from that into life and the possible truths we might find tangled up in the dimensions of learning, development and being. The other call, not so far removed from post modern relativism, is from those who suggest that the whole project has an absurdity that cannot be worked with or against and that basically death awaits us amidst the nihilism of life. These views of the human condition and the collapsing of the latter into our humanity do little more than let the oppressor and exploiter get on with their mutually interdependent work.

Of  course these philosophical meanderings (all of them from the top of page 1) maybe regarded as having little to do with learning and a lot to do with prolixity and tendentious. Instrumental rationalism (Lave and Wenger in Daniels, 2005)) underpins the notion that learning is that process through which we gather knowledge about our world through the acquisition of two kinds of knowledge, knowledge of the parts of the world and knowledge of how those parts fit together. The world as a jigsaw problem enables the thinker, learner, person to detach their species responsibility for the problems of the world and to get on with the entirely practical (read non or anti philosophical) task of sorting out the problem, welcome giant sunshields! Down with plastic bags!

Of course it is entirely legitimate to say that learning about ourselves and our world has to start somewhere. Learning about climate change, learning how the economy works, prosaically in the practice of every day life learning how to drive a car or manage your money – the latter practices restricted to the worried wealthy of the north. For an estimated one billion people, learning about every day practice is curved very sharply from birth in the slums of the “megacities” in the south (Davis, 2007:5). The point is every one has to start somewhere with something and this too is my point of departure.


Categories: Research Profiles

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