The recent furore over GCSE grades has once again thrown into sharp relief the clash between two philosophies of education that underpins most controversies in the sector, explains Sean Ledwith

“A human being is not at all a skin sack filled with reflexes, and the brain is not a hotel for a series of conditioned reflexes accidentally stopping in.” – Lev Vygotsky

“Twice as many students believed Nelson commanded British forces at Waterloo as [correctly] named Wellington.” – Michael Gove

Gove’s shameless attempt to downgrade GCSE English results is only the latest in a sequence of Coalition policies designed to facilitate a return to the pro-business and elitist agenda that dominated educational thinking in Britain up to the conclusion of war in 1945 and then resurfaced in the 1980s with the Thatcher government and its successors.

This view perceives the role of the sector as providing an efficient means of perpetuating a ruling class primarily through the naked snobbery of private education but also through the narrowing of the provision in the state sector. The outcry Gove’s chicanery has provoked can be seen to illustrate an alternative vision which sees comprehensive education as one of the outstanding achievements of postwar social democracy – which for all its imperfections needs to be defended against a rapacious neoliberal ideology.

One way for socialists to articulate and defend the latter view is to be familiar with the  theories of the great Russian educationalist and psychologist Lev Vygotsky, whose pioneering work in the years after the October Revolution provides a powerful justification for the progressive methodology of many teachers at all levels of the state sector today. Vygotsky‘s perspective can also be used to reinforce the anger thousands of students and parents feel towards the attacks being spearheaded by Michael Gove.

Vygotsky was born in present-day Belarus in 1896 and as a Jew in the tsarist empire was lucky to get a place at Moscow State University. He graduated in 1917, the year of the October Revolution, and greeted the liberating consequences of the upheaval as an unprecedented opportunity to develop a Marxist approach to psychology, and later to educational theory.

Throughout the 1920s he combined work in the nascent Soviet education system as both an educator among the illiterate masses that had been ignored under the tsarist empire, and as a theoretician of developmental psychology in laboratory conditions. This duality of theory and practice enabled Vygotsky to be among the pioneers of a Marxist psychology that emphasised the dialectical relationship between the individual and society.

Psychology to that point had examined mental states and processes as peculiar to the individual. However, the revolution in 1917 had shown a dramatic shift in the way people thought as individuals and as social classes. Vygotsky was fascinated by the dynamic relationship between internalised mental processes, and changes in the way workers had come to understand the world as a collective. Vygotsky’s greatness lies in the fact that he could see that the revolution had merely shown something dramatically that had been true all along – that we think fundamentally as part of a collective.

In a long-distance debate with the French educationalist Piaget, Vygotsky stressed the centrality of social and historical mediation in the development of a child’s thinking. Arising from this, he formulated a pedagogical framework  that highlighted the importance of collaborative  and contextualised  classroom practice.

Vygotsky’s research was ended by his early death from tuberculosis in 1934 but his theories arrived in the West through English translations in the 1960s and connected to the revolutionary impulses of that decade. They entered the mainstream of educational theory in the last quarter of the twentieth century as a new generation of progressive  teachers entered the profession in Britain and other capitalist societies determined to use schools and colleges as platforms of  social liberation  for working class children hitherto regarded as factory fodder.

Vygotsky’s most famous contribution to educational practice is his explanation of the zone of proximal development or ZPD. This has become a well known component of teacher training in Britain but is usually drained of the political dimension that is vital for a full understanding of its ramifications. The zone is the gap between what a child can learn unaided and what she can learn with the assistance of another or others. Crucially this means that children learn best as part of a collective, rather than through being individually attentive, able or gifted.

Unlike the model that Michael Gove prefers of education aimed at a class of atomised individuals who each get on with their work and are monitored by individual testing, Vygotsky shows how children learn best when they are both learning and teaching. Inherent in all human relationships is the idea of explaining to others in order to reinforce or restructure what we think as individuals. As Vygotsky puts it ‘social relations or relations among people genetically underlie all higher functions and their relationships’.

The utilitarian model (focus on the production of cogs for the machine) of education espoused by Gove is fundamentally based on the scenario of shutting a child in an exam hall for a few hours at the end of a two year course and seeing how many `facts` she can retrieve. A Vygotskyan approach in contrast looks favourably on the coursework model that became part of British schooling in the comprehensive era.

The great strength of this approach is that teacher and student can develop a dialogue over an extended period of time and the work of the latter can be shaped and improved without the pressure of a ticking exam clock. Gove’s hostility to the coursework model is essentially based on an elitist resentment  that working class achievement has been enhanced by it. It is also crucial to understand that ZPD is not based on the assumption that the teacher is always the Knowledgeable Other (Vygotsky uses this term in preference to teacher ) – in the classroom relationship. Vygotsky stresses that children can often learn effectively from each other. Furthermore, they can frequently add a dimension of understanding to a topic that the teacher is lacking. This is especially true in the current climate of cuts in which students are at the sharp end of austerity policy.

The second key element of Vygotskyan education that is relevant today is the social and cultural context of learning. The interface between what a child is studying and the environment around them is another factor ignored by the snapshot assessment espoused by Gove and the Neo-liberals. The context of the Russian Revolution provided the impetus for a massive breakthrough for education in the widest sense. Of course, Vygotsky’s own theories were developed in this very context too.

Vygotsky outlined a materialist view of language as an evolutionary tool developed by human beings as a means of understanding the world around them and then communicating that understanding to others. Language therefore comes to a child from the ‘outside to the inside.’ Language, he writes, ‘is the organising consciousness of the whole culture.’ Concepts, theories and vocabulary cannot be comprehended without a context that is meaningful for the child. In revolutions language and meaning changes dramatically. Saluting an officer by soldiers before the revolution was an act of respect, whereas during the revolution saluting became a manifestation of servility.

If we compare this to Michael Gove’s posturing about the importance of grammar in British schooling we get a sense of the narrowness he is leading our children to. He wants all primary children to be forced to learn a list of spellings devoid of context or relevance, and to be able to recite them as facts – reminiscent of Thomas Gradgrind in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times. Applying the Vygotskyan methodology implies that a full understanding of the Nazi regime in a history lesson also involves an awareness of the threat of the EDL today; a geography lesson on globalisation would look at its liberating possibilities as witnessed in the Arab Spring; a media lesson on news coverage would examine the murky labyrinth of the BSkyB bid.

Many teachers will be familiar with Vygotsky, possibly without realising it. The technique of scaffolding a written task to enable all children to  produce a substantive piece of work is a tried and tested classroom device based on ZPD. The contrast with Gove’s regressive desire to kick away the scaffold of quality state education for working class children could not be more telling. We clearly need to reclaim education from the clutches of the business vultures. Vygotsky helps to focus us on education that is liberating and empowering and must play a central part in shaping the better world we all crave.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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