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Socialist Review, October 1994

John Parrington


Early learning


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Vygotsky’s Collected Works Vol. II
by L.S.Vygotsky
Plenum Publications £42.50

Progressive teachers have long argued against the segregation of children with physical and mental disabilities in so called ‘special schools’. Now the Tories say they want to do away with such schools and reintegrate special needs children into the mainstream. Lack of resources, however, means that in practice special needs children will be left in a much worse position than previously.

The resistance to such proposals will centre on the fight for resources but socialists can also point to our own alternative vision of special education, and can learn a lot from what went on in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

One of the most important figures in these developments was the revolutionary psychologist Lev Vygotsky, the founder of the Centre for the Study of Handicapped Children, which remains the leading institute in Russia dealing with learning difficulties. The latest volume in Vygotsky’s collected works brings together his writings in this area.

Vygotsky’s approach to learning disability was radically different from that of his contemporaries. Vygotsky argued that children learn best through shared social activities and when education is geared towards the child’s everyday experiences. Such an approach is especially important for children with learning difficulties. An apparent lack of motivation and intellect in some children may conceal an inability to connect the abstract content of school lessons with their own experiences. Another theme in Vygotsky’s writings is the vast potential which exists in every child. He was fond of quoting the example of Helen Keller who, although born a blind deaf mute, nevertheless became a famous philosopher and scholar.

This book covers three areas. Firstly, there are those children who have been labelled ‘learning disabled’ but whose difficulties stem from a deprived social environment. This was particularly important in 1920’s Russia as civil war and famine had left as many as seven million homeless, orphaned, abandoned and neglected children, many of whom were severely disturbed in their mental development. In extremely forward thinking for the time Vygotsky argued that addressing social problems was central to solving children’s learning difficulties.

Secondly, there are those children whose learning difficulties are an indirect consequence of a disorder such as deafness or blindness. According to Vygotsky, despite the undoubted physical origin of these conditions, it is nevertheless their effect upon the child’s integration into society which is most important. He campaigned for entry of disabled children into mainstream education and for their participation in the Komsomol youth movement, but was quite clear that such integration should not come at the expense of extra resources for special education.

A central feature of Vygotsky’s work is the idea that human consciousness has been transformed throughout history by cultural innovations such as reading and writing. He believed that society has a duty to develop and propagate the sort of innovations that would allow disabled children to benefit from the wealth of human culture. In Vygotsky’s time there was only Braille and various forms of sign language but computers now have revolutionary potential as a powerful interface between severely disabled children and the outside world.

That Vygotsky started from the potential of disabled children rather than from their disability is shown most clearly in his work with children with severe mental retardation, the third area covered in this book. Such children are often ‘written off’ as being incapable of complex reasoning and thus are given only the simplest of learning tasks. Yet in Vygotsky’s opinion, such an approach only reinforced their handicaps. Instead, if children lack well elaborated forms of abstract thought, the school should make every effort to push them in that direction.

Vygotsky found that such children best acquired the motivation to take on abstract learning tasks in what he called a cooperative learning strategy. This was designed as a division of work in which the children would work on a number of different tasks in a group with a shared motive for the entire activity. He found that this provided not only the opportunity but also the need for cooperation and joint activity by giving the children tasks that were beyond the developmental level of some, if not all, of them.

Vygotsky’s work can only be understood within the context of the great ‘educational experiment’ which took place in Russia in the 1920s. Stalin put an end to this exciting period of creativity and experimentation. In 1931 special schooling was absorbed into the mainstream education system at the same time as extra resources for special needs children were cut. Yet Vygotsky’s writings remain as a legacy for the future and as a reminder that only in a society based on the principle ‘each according to their needs’ will every child be able to reach their rightful potential.

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