Psychological Tools: A Sociocultural Approach to Education
reviewed by Guiseppe Mantovani - 2001
Title: Psychological Tools: A Sociocultural Approach to Education
Author(s): Alex Kozulin
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674721411 , Pages: 192 , Year: 1998
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In this engaging and highly readable work, the author refers to both the Vygostkian concept of "psychological tools" and the "mediated learning" approach of Reuven Feuerstein, an Israeli psychologist, to explain his working strategy as Research Director at the International Center for the Enhancement of Learning Potential (ICELP) in Jerusalem. ICELP organizes educational programs for recent Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, whose traditional learning styles, mainly oral and imitative, do not match the requirements of the Western-style classrooms that they are expected to attend in Israel.
The theoretical core of the book is the distinction (or opposition) between "natural" and "cultural" psychological functions. We feel that this distinction, although founded on aspects of the Vygotskian legacy, may be misleading because it ignores the fact that both current cognitive science (Clancey, Greeno, Hutchins, Suchman) and educational research (Cole, Lave, Rogoff, Wenger) see all human experience as culturally mediated, so that there is no place for "natural", pre-cultural human experience.
Section one, The Concept of Psychological Activity, provides an accurate presentation of Vygotsky’s approach to the development of higher mental functions. In this process, the role of psychological tools is central; they are "a bridge between individual acts of cognition and the symbolic sociocultural prerequisites of these acts" (p. 1). Vygotsky’s position on "psychological tools" as instruments for cultural mediation depends on his concept of activity as an explanatory principle. His ideas on both psychological tools and human activity were altered by his dissident "Kharkovian" disciples (Leontiev, Zinchenko) and "rediscovered" in the Soviet Union during the late –50s and later by European and American cultural psychologists such as Cole, Wertsch, and Rogoff.
Section two, Piaget, Vygotsky, and the Cognitive Revolution, discusses the differences between the Piagetian and Vygotskian approaches to education. Emphasis is given to the role of teachers who can guide children to use psychological tools to enrich their knowledge. The important Vygotskian distinction between "spontaneous" and "scientific" concepts is used to construct school as the place in which "the deliberate ‘denaturalization’ of the students’ position" occurs: "from a ‘natural’ position as a son or daughter, or playmate, the child exits to the rather artificial position of a student" (p. 46).
Section three, The Mediated Learning Experience and Psychological Tools, insists on the contrast between "natural", direct experience and the "artificial", mediated experience made possible by the peculiar environment of school. The author refers to Feuerstein’s ideas about the "radical dichotomy between direct and indirect learning" (p. 59) to highlight the role of both adults (especially teachers) and competent peers in structuring mediated learning situations. The Mediated Learning Experience (MLE), the synthesis of Feuerstein’s experience with culturally different groups and culturally deprived individuals, is presented as both a stimulating psychological approach to education and as a set of useful tools aiming at increasing the child’s cognitive modificability.
Section four, Cognitive Education, presents Feuerstein’s Instrumental Enrichment (IE) program, a set of cognitive interventions designed to stimulate the development of higher cognitive capabilities. Examples of exercises inspired by IE on topics such as categorization, use of matrices, understanding of diagrams, and orientation in space, are presented.
Section five, Cognitive Skills in Immigrant and Ethnic Minority Students, examines the factors which can hinder the cognitive progress of immigrants or minority students. Three perspectives on cross-cultural differences in education are considered: psychometric (Herrnstein and Murray), sociocultural (Vygotsky, Luria, Cole), and mediated learning (Feuerstein). A combination of the latter, psychological tools and mediated learning, is considered better suited to the special difficulties encountered by such people as the recent Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. These people were quite competent in cognitive tasks supported by their traditional oral culture, but proved to be dramatically inadequate when abilities such as reading, writing, and formal problem solving were required.
Section six, Literature as a Psychological Tool, considers narrative texts, e.g. novels, as particularly powerful psychological tools. Referring to Bakhtin’s theory of "authoring", Olson’s notion of autonomous text, and Bruner’s reflections on the relevance of literary models for the construction of the self, Kazulin presents literature as a "supertool", an instrument endowed with exceptional potential for enhancing human cognitive capabilities.
Section seven, The Challenges of Prospective Education, contrasts the aim of traditional education, preserving the cultural heritage received by previous generations, with the aim of modern education, stimulating productive rather than reproductive knowledge in students.
While the function of mediation exerted by culture is recognized throughout the book, the work does not clarify the fact that all human experience is culturally mediated. This weakens the strength of the author’s cultural position and introduces a set of unnecessary contrasts: between "natural" (perception, memory, attention) and "cultural" psychological functions, between "spontaneous" and "scientific" concepts (This opposition, although present in Vygostky’s work, is not supported by recent developments in cognitive science,) between children’s "direct" experience and the "mediated" learning stimulated by adults as cultural mediators. School is not conceived of as a home of communities of practices of which the child is a competent member, but remains a place in which formal cognitive abilities can be learned by individuals working in relative isolation.