Cultural-historical methodology of the study of human development in transitions

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Abstract

Many methodological ideas of Vygotsky’s cultural-historical psychology still are hypothetical and require further elaboration and empirical evidence. Such theoretical concepts as social situation of development, crisis and latent period, neoformation, psychological age, the zone of proximal development etc. are involved in transitions. But the mechanism of transition still needs specifying. In our intervention study we have focused on the transition from play to learning activity. We introduce the concept of transitory activity system, which is specified in our study as a hybrid activity of play and learning. We have named this hybrid activity «narrative learning» following the ideas of Donald and Bruner. The second level of research is comprised from a series of playworld projects in vertically integrated multiage classrooms (4 – 8 years olds). Adult interventions consist of inviting children to imaginative environment, presenting role characters and their relations, introducing challenging problems, organizing children’s dialogues and providing opportunities for child-initiated play.

General Information

Keywords: cultural-historical methodology; genetic experiment; developmental transition; transitory activity system; neoformation; narrative learning; narrative intervention

Journal rubric: Theory and Methodology

Article type: scientific article

For citation: Hakkarainen P. Cultural-historical methodology of the study of human development in transitions. Kul'turno-istoricheskaya psikhologiya = Cultural-Historical Psychology, 2010. Vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 75–82.

Full text

 

Introduction

Cultural-historical psychology (Vygotsky-Luria- Leontiev) has inspired researcher in the west to elaborate a multidisciplinary approach called CHAT (Cultural-historical activity theory) or DWR (Developmental work research). Representatives of the modern western approach assign themselves «the third generation» and direct descendants of the founders. Cultural-historical psychology today tries to sketch what actually was the methodological revolution of «non-classic psychology». Methodological approach to human development is a joint challenge of psychological and multidisciplinary research on human development. Historical-philosophical analysis of the roots of activity concept shows that a deeper historical understanding of methodological ideas is necessary [1].

The necessity to develop a non-classic approach to human sciences different from natural sciences has been recognized long ago. In his essay on man Cassirer [4] claims referring to Greek classic philosophy that we cannot study human nature with the same methods as the nature of physical objects. Objects can be described using objective attributes, but human beings can be described and defined only in terms of their consciousness. Thus traditional methods of research cannot be used. The psychology of the beginning of 20th century tried to solve the problem by attempting to develop «objective methods» of studying consciousness. It is possible to understand another person in immediate interaction face to face. Human nature can be grasped in dialogue or by using dialectical thinking. Continuous cooperation between human subjects may lead to the truth because truth is the product of social actions. In living interaction a person recreates and defines himself as a personality.

In psychology and multi-disciplinary study of activity it is easy to adhere to any research tradition just by declaring certain methodological approach. But in fact concrete research methods do not always correspond declarations. In other words methods are in contradiction with the (only declared) methodology. Classical natural scientific approach has certain a priori assumptions, which are used in «non-classic» psychology or multidisciplinary activity research without noticing the contradiction with the methodological frame. The first assumption is that the object of the study exists independently of the researcher, is empirically given, possess immanent properties that can be experimentally revealed and the study does not change the object. The second is that an explanatory principle is adopted before the experiment and the experimental method exists in a ready-made form before the research begins. The third assumption is that the researcher is a detached observer [25].

Alternative methodological approaches like formative (projecting) method or developmental work research emphasize research as intervention. Formative experiments aim at anticipated results or products. Three types of analyses (present activity, dynamics of historical changes and «history of theories») result in «developmental hypothesis» of the present activity system in developmental work research. The researcher introduces and elaborates in his interventions new tools or other elements of activity in cooperation with «the agents». Activity as the unit of development produces new culture [15]. Formative psychological experiments produce new higher mental functions. In both approaches the researcher is an active transformer of the subjects or activities pursuing his goals in cooperation with the subjects. A critical question often is «you can form it, but should you?» [25].

The concept of development has an essential role in the elaboration of an appropriate research methodology. Problems of Vygotsky's non — classic psychology lack the appropriate counter part (research methods should be appropriate to research problems). Experimental- genetic method is just a general proposal and not a concrete research method. There are some hints how to continue the elaboration of Vygotsky's methodological proposal. The unit of development has been an obstacle in all attempts to elaborate an appropriate methodological approach. In developmental work research the proposed unit is an activity system (or network of systems). But the apparent clarity hides complicated problems (e.g. the relation between individual and collective subjects, development of consciousness etc.) [26].

Vygotsky's unit of cultural development was «greater we» and El'konin's «child in society». These units are selected taking into consideration the development of consciousness and self. An example of «greater we» is a mother-child dyad, which both participants are developing. El'konin refers to other possible concrete units of cultural development in childhood. For example children's pretend role-play expands possible mutual relations and the amount of role positions of a child. Kravtsova [25] emphasizes duality of positions in play having in mind real life position and role position of play.

Genetic experiment in non-classic psychology has a different background compared to classic experimental or modern descriptive method. Experiment is not a proof of facts, but rather creative and dialogic search for developmental alternatives. Development represents significant self-development challenges for the researchers (teachers) because they are active participants of the unit of development. Self-development is based on the change of consciousness and reflection of the human unit of development. Joint developmental challenge (if the researcher/ teacher accepts it) changes the goal setting of research because the results cannot be completely predefined and unexpected changes are possible. Goal setting may be limited to pitting ideal and real form against each other in the construction of activity environments.

Developmental transitions

El'konin [11] elaborated his stage model of human individual development using the concept of activity as the criterion. Thus each stage can be characterized by leading activity, which is intimately related to developmental neoformations. Transition from one stage to the next one is a real theoretical challenge in this model because participation in a new activity presupposes the change of needs and motivation. El'konin solved the challenge by dividing each stage into two functionally different periods: tools elaboration and motivational periods. But there are little concrete research on the problem how transition from one activity to another proceeds and how education can support transitions.

We can suppose that El'konin's stage model was an attempt to integrate Vygotsky's theoretical ideas about human development and Leontiev's [27] activity concept. Slobodcikov and Tsukerman [29] radically changed the stage model and rejected activity concept as the criterion of stages. They proposed five stages in individual development: 1. Animation, 2. Self-discovery, 3. Personalization, 4. Individuation, and 5. Universalization. Each stage is divided into two periods: interactive development and individual development. At the beginning of each stage a birth crisis is faced followed by acceptance phase. The period of individual development is as well divided into two phases: developmental crises and mastery phase. This model covers individual life from birth to old age and stages are quite long including two crisis phases each (birth of a new stage and developmental phase).

The new model takes another perspective compared to El'konin's model. The character and the content of the crisis phases are different. In the new model the first crisis of each stage is the crisis of a new community and social interaction in this community and the second crisis is more or less individual development crisis (crisis of self-development). This idea is in accordance with the general genetic law of development by Vygotsky. The content of crises is described as tension between different positions (individual vs. community/social environment). This may help to look for the roots of transitions, but research methods and educational approaches (interventions) have to be elaborated.

Transitory activity system

Stage models of human development characterize the general picture of transition: the change of activity type or social community, which are connected with crises. Continuity is stressed between stages, but there are few attempts to describe how previous stages prepare transition to the next ones. Vygotsky proposed the concept of neoformation, but he describes it in general terms. Davydov [5] analyzed in his book the importance of advanced role-play as a precondition of learning activity and presented a hypothesis how the need for theoretical understanding might appear in play activity. According to Davydov the child is able to act skillfully in imagined situations replacing real actions with symbolic ones, but sense making is restricted to the use of imagination. Play is lacking realistic content and mastery of daily life. Advanced mastery of imagination and symbolic function create the need for realistic mastery of the environment.

An unsolved problem of theoretical models is what really happens when the previous activity does not make sense any more and the new activity has not replaced the old one? Perhaps hybrid activities are needed at transitions having a mixture of elements of old and new activity systems? Leontiev [8] hinted at this when writing about first-graders having still play motives of school going (they are playing school). The term of «hybrid activity» has been spread last years to other contexts meaning a mixture of different activities and operators. E. g. Yamazumi [38] describes his «New School» activity network as «a hybrid after-school learning activity for children».

«Transitory activity system» may be a better concept for referring to transitions between stages of human development. It might be clearer to call horizontal development across existing activity systems «hybrid activity» [16] and vertical development across stages «transitory activity systems». The function of «a transitory activity system» is to support the move from one leading activity to another and overcome psychological crisis. «Transitory activity system» can be used as a tool of educational intervention in which new types of «perezhivanie», positions and motives can be «tested». We have elaborated and tested in school practice «tran- sitory activity system» between play and school learning[*] in vertically integrated multi-age classrooms. We have called this «narrative learning» referring to psychological mechanism of learning rather than narratives as objects of learning. This mechanism is described in detail in Bruner's [4] analysis of modalities of learning.

«Narrative learning» as «transitory activity system» is composed of «playworlds» and realistic problems embedded in the story frames. Children are invited to imaginary situations of playworlds, but they meet problems, which cannot be solved by using narrative logic [17]. In play and stories a miracle happens and a complicated problem is solved without any information how the solution actually took place. In our learning environments children's help is asked because the story cannot go on before a realistic solution of the problem is found. Different types of problems from moral dilemmas to traditional learning tasks are intertwined with the storylines [20; 21].

Narrative learning as developmental intervention at transition

The unit of development is a serious challenge of cultural-historical psychology and education. As we know Vygotsky elaborated his approach to the problem of the unit of development starting from psychological functions and ending to personality. His main interest was human cultural development, but there were three stages in his research focus: 1) development of higher mental functions, 2) development of psychological systems, and 3) development of personality and sense-making structure as the core of consciousness [23].

The evolution of Vygotsky's methodological thinking was not always supported by appropriate research methods and evidence. For example «the method of double stimulation» corresponds with the first stage of his methodological development. Experimental situation of double stimulation still corresponds classical science. El'konin and Zinchenko [9] made an attempt to describe «non-classical» experimental situation aiming at cultural development of the child. They understand experimental situation as interaction between representatives of different «cultures», in which the drama between ideal and real forms can take place.

They argue that culture is not a «motor» or determinant of development, but rather an inviting power, which a subject may take or ignore. If he accepts the invitation «an event of development» may happen and in this case the subject adopts cultural ideal form of acting, which becomes the subject's real form of acting. In turn this real form is able to create new ideal forms. When a subject masters cultural mediators (also sense) his real form becomes ideal and cultural. These researchers call joint action or joint creativity «mediat- ing actions», which are always accompanied by passion.

There are several methodological principles, which can be used as the guidelines for constructing methods and practices corresponding Vygotsky's lastly elaborated units of development. «Double-stimulation» situations are limited to problem solving tasks[†], which do not correspond the child's «social situation of development» («greater we») or El'konin's «child in society» as holistic methodological principles. In our interventions instead of giving children problem solving tasks directly and providing neutral objects to be incorporated into the task a long-lasting playworld is created, which incorporates different types of realistic problem situations intertwined with the storylines.

The role of the adult is principally different in play­world interventions compared to classic experiments. We accept the conclusion presented by van der Veer and Valsiner «Hence the experimental setting becomes a context of investigation where the experimenter can manipulate its structure in order to trigger (but not 'produce') the subject's construction of new psychological phenom- ena» [30, p. 399]. Zinchenko formulates the same idea more metaphorically by stating that the child and the teacher should stand in the united front against the world and knowledge. «The teacher carrying out his role as a mediator in the true and noble sense of the term does not just teach, but rather reflects together with the pupil, in other words educates and develops» [37, p. 288].

Playworld [30] as the form of narrative learning (learning integrating affect and intellect in Vygotsky's methodology) and concrete tools of intervention is derived from two sources: imaginary situations as the basic element of play and aesthetic reaction as a tool of sense making. Adult participation as co-players and co­constructors of imaginary situations radically changes the approach to play guidance and eliminates adults' authority position. In a playworld the adult cannot decide if play events are correct or not, but he or she can propose next moves from his or her role position. Experimental setting and reflective interaction described above is possible in playworlds.

Narrative learning in playworld observes the mutuality and rules if play. Adults have to obey them and construct their playworld interventions following these principles. Experimenter's role here is flexible and requires creativity. We have described the principles in social pretend play as follows: «No single child can determine the flow of play alone. No child knows what happens next and at any point a wide range of new moves can be picked up. A participant cannot know how the others will interpret his turn and each turn gains its final meaning in others' reactions. A large number of next actions are possible and each one can result in going in a radically different direction. Ambiguities between potential meanings are not solved until the subsequent turn happens. In this sense play is a primary example of nonlinear process [20].

Psychological tools[‡] of developmental transition

Cultural-historical psychology has emphasized the specific nature of human development as self-development. Education, teaching and adult interventions are not the cause of development, but the developing subject (individual or collective) actively constructs its development. In Vygotsky's conceptual repertoire psychological tools were the tools of self-development. Using these tools a subject can change its consciousness and personality. In our empirical work we have asked what psychological tools are needed for overcoming the crisis period, which Vygotsky called «the crisis of the seventh year» and what kind of educational interventions support the construction of these tools.

We have described the main three domains of the crisis in the curriculum guidelines document of developmental preschool education in vertically integrated groups (4—8 years) as follows [19]:

1.    Development of volition

— Independent relation to phenomena irrespective of outside pressure

— Reflection on sense and meaning between willing and doing

— Selective revelation or hiding of own ideas (disappearance of immediacy of a small child)

2.     Change of generalization

— Prolepsis in different situations

— Making choices based on internal position and carrying out internal actions

— Differentiating between internal and external worlds

3.     Development of emotions and feelings

— Identification of oneself as the source of feelings

— Contradiction between intentions and deeds

— Emotional imagination and anticipation

How psychological tools are connected with these domains of crisis manifestations. Representatives of cultural-historical psychology have elaborated answers to this question, but in one domain each. El'konin family has emphasized sense-making orientation of play and ideal form of volition in heroes of tales and child play [8—12; 7; 13; 14]. Willingness and wish of helping others is a prominent attribute of characters of classical tales and stories. El'konin-Davydov system of developmental education is oriented to the formation of theoretical generalizations and thinking starting from the first grade [5, 6]. In this approach scientific explanation and prognosis is the appropriate form of prolepsis. Learning of emotional imagination and anticipation was one of the ideas in Zaporozhets' research program [36]. The real challenge is how domains can be combined and psychological «super» tools developed for overcoming the crisis as a whole.

Starting from the psychological content of the crisis of development («the crisis of the seventh year») we defined six most important goals of child development to be aimed at in education striving to support transition from play to school learning. These goals are [19]:

1.    Ability of discerning and crossing the boundary between real and imagined.

2.    Taking responsibility for one's own and joint activity.

3.    Awakening children's need and motivation for changing himself.

4.    Forming a personal relation to phenomena and other persons.

5.    Reflection and sense making as the core of learning.

6.    Understanding the role of flexibility and multiple points of view in learning.

We suppose that imaginary situations combined with realistic problems can serve as a psychological «super» tool of self-development of all participants. Learning environments are constructed using different narrative forms such as play-worlds, adventures, play­based instruction and problem solving. These environments are appropriate for four-year-olds as well as eight­year-old children, but the same environment mounts different challenges for different ages (e. g., reading and writing for a school child and drawing for a small one). Joint activities of the whole multi-age group are organized 70—80 % of the time and the rest of time is differentiated between the age groups.

In the construction of play-worlds we have used the play pedagogy Gunilla Lindqvist [30] has developed in her work. In this approach a literary text (story, folk tale, or poem) is transformed into an imaginary play theme and environment with adults' active participation. The theme should be challenging and deal with essential problems of human life, the tale or story may be written for the adults as well as for children. They can create the dynamics of play world and provoke children to continue the theme in their free play and enrich them. A second approach is a play-based curriculum, which combines stories or adventures with subject matter related problem solving (e. g. mother tongue or math).

The theoretical elaboration of developmental curriculum resulted in the following didactic principles of constructing transitory activity systems:

1.    Children are invited to enter jointly created imaginary situations based on tales, stories and children's fiction (ideal cultural forms) which serve as the basis of adult-child joint playworlds and child initiated pretend play.

2.    Themes are carefully selected to reflect basic human values and dichotomies as well as coincide with educational needs of the classroom and individual children.

3.    The theme is brought alive with adults' participation and emotional involvement (in roles, dramatizations, story telling etc.). Sense and significance of events and relations between characters has to be emphasized and made as clear as possible (without directly telling everything!).

4.    Dramatic collisions of tales and stories raise children's questions and are starting points of joint reflection (Why Kai became mean after getting a piece of mirror in his eye? [Snow Queen]). Changing or adding dramatic events from other stories causes more collisions and helps in inventing dilemmas, which have to be solved realistically before the story can continue (Shipwreck stopped captain Hook's voyage and children are asked to help him building (planning) a new ship).

5.    Creating environments and reserving time for child-initiated play is essential in the development of children's reflection on playworld events. Observation of child-initiated play reflecting playworld events offers valuable hints about new turns or further elaboration of joint playworld themes.

It is possible to claim that our playworld as transitory activity consisting of narrative learning is equivalent with Vygotsky's genetic experiment. An essential difference is the construction of new psychological tools instead of introducing auxiliary neutral objects to be used in problem solving. Also imaginary situations can be understood as cultural «super tools» of child development. There are other essential differences between Vygotsky's classic genetic experiment and transitory playworlds. Classic experiment consisted of one problem solving session, but playworlds often last several months. The experimenter is also a partial subject of development (adult-child joint fiction). The social situation is different — in the classic experiment the experimenter introduces the problem and regulates the progress of the experiment, but in playworlds adults are co-players of a group of children supporting children's creativity.

Types of psychological tools in playworlds

Playworld as such can be comprehended as psychological «super tool». Development «in terms of drama» can take place in playworlds. Basic human values and dual oppositions (good — bad, fair — unfair, pretty — ugly etc.) collide in playworld story lines and force each participant to reflect own relation toward opposite value positions. Such cultural tensions in playworlds forms a substratum for making sense of life phenomena. At the same time each child is forced to form a personal relation towards values. An example can be our play­world where children found a trunk, opened it and saw that the content was divided into two parts: a container with a text «seed of wisdom» and an open box full of sweets and diamonds (glass imitation). Children's collective, unanimous decision was that they take the container and do not touch the sweets. Only later some boys regretted «why did we not take some sweets».

Story structure of playworld organizes children's thinking and reflection. Memory processes transform our observations into story form and we remember «sto- ries», not separate perceptions (perceptions would not make sense without this elaboration). Leontiev [29] offers an example of this. We see «a watch» and not separate hands, crystal and bezel. These conceptual wholes (like «a watch») are combined into story form by our memory. An excellent example in our opinion is students' failure to evoke children's dialogue after dramatized playworld episodes of «The snow queen». Their careful plan and «didactic» questions did not lead to children's verbal reflection, but the story form of child- initiated play was a genuine reflection of the episodes.

In all playworlds some kind of psychological tools was used in transitions from classroom to imaginary playworld. In classic tales and stories such symbolic divider of different worlds is the door. Inside the home a friendly atmosphere predominates, but outside the hero meets different challenges and hostile powers. In «Narnia — playworld» a cardboard box fixed to the doorframe marked the boundary between the classroom and playworld. The psychological function of these world-dividing tools was observed in the following episode. The playworld episode was organized in wintertime in the nearby forest (like in the original story). The children were ready to go out, but suddenly a boy realized «if we go out now we are not in «Narnia»». Children turned back from the entrance door went through the «Narnia cupboard» and then through the door to the forest to be in «Narnia».

The transition from the classroom to the playworld was much more complicated in the «Rumpeltiltskin — playworld» The playworld was based loosely on the folk tale, Rumpelstiltskin by the Brothers Grimm. A dramatic turn occurred when the king's herald waited for the children at the beginning of a playworld session. He started to read a letter from the king, but the words of the message were backwards. Working together, the children discovered that someone had put a spell on the king's court, turning all 365 rooms upside down and causing everyone in the kingdom to talk backwards. The king asked if the children could visit the court in disguise and help solve a task in each room in order to restore the court to its normal order. The children decided to enter the kingdom walking backwards, turn their jackets inside out with the buttons on their backs and talk backwards. At this point, the classroom became the Kingdom of Surmundia, where both children and adults entered by walking backwards. The operations were carried out in the opposite order when returning back from «Surmundia» [20].

The transition rituals change children's mode of psychological activity and its logic. In the classroom adults are authorities and decide what children have to do. But in the playworld adults are co-players and have to obey narrative logic. The difference between the logic of each environment was evident during the visits to the «upside-down» «Surmundia». Children found out realistic problems for restoring the rooms in «Surmundia», but did not stay there and solve the problems. They returned back to the classroom for solving the problems using transition rituals and crossed the boundary back to «Surmundia» with their solutions in order to restore the rooms of the court. These psychological tools open a whole world with specific rules for children.

Some psychological tools have a more explicit self­regulation function. Vygotsky [31; 32; 34] supposed that rules are an essential element of pretend play and regulate role behavior. An adopted role can radically change a child's play activity and have long-term effects on self­development. Psychological tools took concrete forms in some episodes of our «Rumpeltiltskin — playworld». The king asked in his letter the children if they could help free the maidens and knights, who had been arrested and locked in a dark basement. The children had to be careful because Rumpelstiltskin might be watching. Before stepping into the dark castle basement (the school basement), the children decided to prepare shields to protect themselves against spells and evil powers[§].

The children worked in groups to prepare their shields, cutting a piece of cardboard and attaching a handle to it. Then they decided to add colors and a personal spell written inside the shield to give them extra protection against Rumpelstiltskin's spells. Several girls agreed that the heart is the strongest symbol against evil powers, so they made red and white heart-shaped shields. Some girls made two human figures representing good. The boys' favorite symbols were a red triangle and the Finnish flag. They believed that the color on the shield would send a very effective symbolic message against evil powers («Rumpeltiltskin is allergic to red»). After the adventure in the basement, many children took their shields with them everywhere. The teacher reported that, unlike some of the other props in the classroom, all shields were still intact even a year after the playworld ended.

Discussion

The study of human development was the prime emphasis in Vygotsky's non-classic cultural-historical psychology and pedology. But his methodological principles and theoretical concepts were not shaped into research methods very often. For example the demand that human development should be analyzed into units (not elements) was concretized in «genetic experiment» on micro-level analysis (a neutral object as a new tool of problem solving). His more advanced and broader units of development (personality, consciousness) lack elaboration of corresponding research methods.

In cultural-historical approach there are two prominent stage models of individual development. El'konin uses the change of the activity type as the criterion of the stage and Slobodcikov and Zuckerman model focus on individual developmental trajectory. Sub-stages and their contradictions are different in both models. A joint problem of these models is transitions between stages. How transitions take place and how they can be supported?

The proposed transitory activity system is studied in vertically integrated (multi-age) classrooms of 4— 8 years old children. Traditionally these pupils would work in three separated segments of our educational system: day care (4—5 years), kindergarten (6—7 years) and elementary school (1.—2. Grades). Joint activities of all children take place daily before noon and individualized study after noon. Development oriented new curriculum guidelines guide the educational work. Overcoming «the crisis of the seventh year» and development of learning potential are the general goals of the educational work.

Transitory activity system in the study is based on adults and children's joint fiction «playworlds» and «narrative learning», which combines realistic problem solving with the narrative playworld frame. We suppose that transitory activity system creates a specific «social situation of development», which promotes children's elaboration of psychological tools. Intertwining realistic problem solving with fictive frame changes the traditional problem-solving situation at school. Children are «inside» the problem situation and emotionally involved [19].

[*] It is not possible to talk about «learning activity» in the Finnish educational system in the same sense as El'konin-Davydov system uses the concept. Learning activity is not developed, but rather «school-going activity» [15].

[†] The same limitations can be identified in the elaboration of the concept of the zone of proximal development in school context. A more detailed analysis is given in [28].

[‡] In the west the term "tools of mind" [1] has replaced Vygotsky's original term.

[§] Vygotsky described psychological tools as mediating human social processes and thinking, not only to change the outside world, but also to «direct their own (or another) mind and behavior». «Language; various systems for counting; mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol systems; works of art; writing; schemes, diagrams, maps, mechanical drawings; all sorts of conventional signs, etc.» [33, p. 137] are used as psychological tools.

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Information About the Authors

Pentti Hakkarainen, PhD, Editor-in-chief of Journal of Russian and East European Psychology, professor emeritus, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland, ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-6725-1822, e-mail: phakkar@gmail.com

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