Lev Vygotsky, Science, and America

In the educational climate of America today, there seems to be a schism that gets wider with each passing day.  On one side, there are those that favor more and more skills-based education; they are concerned with making sure that children are able to participate in a rapidly globalizing society by the time they transition into the adult world.  While this educational push has myriad forms, it seems to manifest very heavily in STEM initiatives, the Montessori method, and the state-determined core curricula that have become so infamous among schools across our country.  On the other side, there are those that are focused on the mental well-being of students; they spend their days making sure children understand and are able to navigate the social ins-and-outs of a society that grows more complex everyday.  These social-emotional concerns are found throughout schools in the US in the form of anti-bullying initiatives, Whole Child Learning, Responsive Classroom, character education curricula, and educational philosophies like the Reggio-Emilia Approach.

It is my opinion that these two camps of educators have developed not because they see their emphasis to be superior or more relevant in the lives of children, but in fact the exact opposite.  Many teachers, especially those working in ECE, see themselves as only having time for one or the other.  Satisfactory skills-based education and social-emotional education are mutually exclusive in the minds of teachers because there are only so many hours in the day.  Especially for public school teachers, what and how they want to teach is almost entirely irrelevant; the stipulations of how they conduct their classrooms are determined by what will keep the school funded, namely high standardized testing scores and eventual matriculation into four-year colleges.

But this dichotomy of skill-based vs. character education is a false one.  Lev Vygotsky, one of the foundational thinkers behind Constructivism and the pioneer of Social Development Theory, explains that the acquisition of knowledge comes from the reconciliation of what he calls “spontaneous concepts” and “scientific concepts.”  In his seminal work Thought and Speech, he defines spontaneous concepts as the “folk-knowledge” that children acquire; they are comprised of the practical, experiential knowledge that children retain in order to help them navigate the world.  Scientific concepts are more cosmic and general; they are the grander themes that connect the dots and represent the larger laws that govern existence.

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Vygotsky explains that spontaneous concepts are learned by children from “the bottom-up” while scientific concepts are learned from “the top-down.”  In other words, children create practical knowledge for themselves through experimentation and exposure to certain circumstances, while they learn about the laws that govern the universe from interacting with what Vygotsky refers to as More Knowledgeable Others (essential a content-expert, often in the form of a teacher, another student, or an adult).

Thought and Speech isn’t written specifically for the consumption of ECEs, but his framing of these two types of concept development in children carries with it a powerful message: any school that emphasizes one over the other is doomed to undermine the learning of its student body.  Real conceptional understanding and retention of information happens when tangible life experiences and empirical cosmic themes coalesce.

We sometimes forget that spontaneous concepts form the foundation upon which scientific concepts are constructed.  STEM education incorporates scientific experimentation as one of its core methods of investigation, but in order for this mode of experimentation to be relevant and accessible, students must have a healthy understanding of failure and a developed sense of persistence.  In forming and testing hypotheses, an incorrect prediction cannot be internalized as an wound to one’s pride, but instead must be viewed as a data point just as valid as if the hypothesis proved correct.  In a certain sense, the scientific method and personal resilience are two sides of the same coin.

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To a certain degree, scientific understanding, no matter how empirical it may seem to use on the surface, ultimately boils down to just another form of interpersonal collaboration.  What we think of and present as “science” is actually consensus; it is the amalgamation of hundreds of thousands of knowledgeable individuals expressing their thoughts constructively, consulting with one another, negotiating their differences, and coming up with a solution that can be agreed upon by all invested parties.  While it occurs on a bigger scale and not always face-to-face, the formalization of scientific understanding looks and feels an awful lot of like the conflict mediation that happens on the playground every day.

Scientific concepts can also form a basis upon which powerful social-emotional lessons can be built.  Especially to younger students who err on the side of self-serving behaviors, the value of cooperation between humans can be ephemeral.  In bio-organics, however, these benefits are as plain as day.  The cooperation of billions of cells results in nothing less than our continued ability to live.  The symbiosis of the shark and the pilot fish result in longevity of life and an infinite source of food respectively.  On a bigger scale, volcanoes and oceans work together to create the very land we stand on.  For some students, the concrete, empirical examples of scientific concepts can be catalysts that help them make sense of interpersonal connection.  Cooperation and collaboration are not abstract human behaviors that teachers encourage because it makes the day run more smoothly.  They are undeniable forces that result in the creation and persistence of our entire existence.

Tell that to students next time they don’t feel like sharing.

In short, scientific concepts and relevant life experience cannot stand alone.  As Vygotsky would tell us, they are both tools that when used together, can create deep, powerful, and supremely relevant understanding for any age group.  At school, teachers should strive to provide experiences and environments that invite a union of both spontaneous and scientific concepts, and work to identify contexts in which one can support the other.  Children are not future cogs in the constantly churning machine that is the world economy, nor are they delicate snowflakes who should aspire to get along with others above all else.  They are a synthesis of sharp, competent researchers and empathetic, invested humans beings.  It is the job of schools and educators to strive to cultivate both halves in unison and ultimately guide children towards a future that is replete with deeply embedded, self-constructed knowledge.

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2 thoughts on “Lev Vygotsky, Science, and America

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    1. I think many are still true to that model. But like many other schools, they are subject to certain pressures that weren’t even on the radar of thinkers like Maria Montessori. I stand by the efficacy of the Montessori method wholeheartedly, but to many educators, the pace of the student is not a primary concern. The main focus is to get material covered and give children the “best possible start” in their transition to a new school.

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