3.3.6 The Social and Cultural Bases of Cognition

3.3.6 The Social and Cultural Bases of Cognition

Piaget's focus on the child's self-constructed structures of knowledge, from egocentrism to abstraction ignores a central truth, which is explored in the theory of the Russian, L. S. Vygotsky (1896–1934), variously called the dialectical, socio-genetic, or cultural-historical school ofthought. Vygot-sky also criticized the empiricist school and accepted the active role of the child in cognitive development, but children are not the only active players in the drama. In his view, children are social beings from birth, born into a culture with caretakers, peers, teachers, and social structures that actively help a child's growth and hinder his or her movement into culturally prohibited patterns of behavior. Their actions do not form an environmental layer on top of biological development, nor are they stored in the child; they come to constitute thought itself over time. Language and culture are tools of thought, allowing a child to learn, memorize, and reason in different and better ways than he could without them. There are several basic tenets of socio-genetic psychology:

  1. Thought begins as social interaction and is then internalized (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). For example, at the beginning of life, a parent must remind her child of virtually everything. Complex sequences of activity are kept in the parent's head, doled out step-by-step to the child. Simultaneously, the parent is teaching the child cultural practices such as putting the book bag by the door so that it will be remembered or, later, keeping a written list. Over time, as the child becomes responsible for larger chunks of activity, the parent might hear the child actually talking herself through the sequence aloud in private speech. The ultimate goal is for the child to use completely internalized, silent inner speech.
  2. Children are capable of more advanced behavior with help than they are alone. More advanced peers or adults stand one step ahead of a child and act as a scaffold for more advanced behavior, by sequencing, breaking into smaller steps, reminding, demonstrating, physically guiding the hands, circumscribing, explaining, and prohibiting. At any given time, the number of tasks that a child can accomplish with help is far greater than those she can accomplish alone. Intelligence, then, is partly social.
  3. Language and culture are tools for thought. Children who can talk to themselves are capable of more complex activity than those who cannot. They can rehearse steps of a process or lists of items, state hypotheses to themselves and test them. Those who can write can revise to find out better what they want to say.
  4. Culture and history are in every task, even internal cognitive ones. For example, mathematics does have an inner coherent structure, but it also has a social context. People who farm rice are expert in calculation and pricing of those quantities, but not in abstract calculation, although they can easily be taught. Eight-year-old candy sellers in Brazil are error free in complex calculations about candy that older children in formal schools cannot comprehend, but they have trouble carrying their one's (Nunes, Schliemann, & Carraher, 1993).

Thus, teachers in this school of thought promote inter-nalization of higher cognitive processes not merely by lecturing, but by encouraging problem solving through external dialogue among peers of mixed levels of accomplishment in small groups. They model higher-level internalized thought (e.g. summarizing, predicting, questioning) negotiate meaning, referee disputes, keep children on track and generally serve as a guide through the culture of classroom learning, as attached to the larger cultures. Through reciprocal teaching, teachers gradually recede, handing over their tasks to students who take turns acting the role of teacher. Children who can teach have quite sophisticated metacognition: They can consider their audience, break down explanations into steps, ensure that students communicate effectively to one another, and form questions (or else be reminded by their friends that they are unclear). These methods have been used to promote reading comprehension (Palincsar & Brown, 1984; Tharp & Gallimore, 1991), math problem solving (Taylor & Cox, 1997), and science (Hoadley & Linn, 2000).