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How my father proved Vygotsky's theory right

The Russian psychologist linked secure upbringing to intellectual development. Gina Owens gives praise where it is due

A roll-call of characters came to mind when I began musing about my own education. I fully intended to decide the individual who had inspired me to teach.

The first me was an eccentric infant headteacher, Miss Davies, wearing her mackintosh and beret, marching us merrily through the woodland and lanes around our school on our weekly nature walks. We invariably ended these in her council house garden, drinking milk or lemonade. She loved the wild flowers in the hedgerows and, seemingly without effort, educated our unruly minds in the need for attention to detail in the natural landscape.

Another larger than life character, known to us as Bob Roberts, came to mind: we loved his mischievous sense of humour. We were his Year 7 babies in the local grammar school and he would tease us with promises of toy time on Fridays if we worked hard. Rubbing his hands together, he would declare loudly: "Now kiddies, it's time for culture corner." Then the language would come to life for us in stories of the court of the Sun King, Louis XIV of France, or the streets of 1950s Paris.

Sadly, today Bob Roberts might be thought inappropriate for his slightly sarcastic use of humour, and how on earth would the eccentric Miss Davies have even got us out of the school door? A sole adult and without any thought of the risks lurking in the hedgerows.

Clearly, there was no one individual, no one role model. There were, however, many who had inspired me to enjoy learning. And to teach well, we must first be inspired to learn. We must want to ask questions and to find out some answers. We must want to look for detail and to muse around the topic. So there is most definitely one person who initiated my love of learning and who continues to inspire: my father.

He left school in the 1920s at the age of 14. Needing to earn a living, he became a skilled mechanic and electrical engineer who could build engines, clocks and watches. He quoted Omar Khayyam, whistled along to Mario Lanza and Pavarotti, and would even try to engage the local blackbirds in a whistling conversation. He enjoyed football and gymnastics but loved cricket and could strike a ball well. He gazed at the moon and planets through a small telescope and on clear evenings would engage any available family and friends in spotting constellations.

As a father, his desire to relate to his baby, his attention, his cooing and face-pulling, gesturing and tickling, pointing and talking, lullabies and nursery rhymes provided more than loving care.

In the early 1900s, Lev Vygotsky, the great Russian psychologist, revolutionised our understanding of children's intellectual development. He outlined how gestures such as pointing develop meaning for the very young child in the "interpersonal" processes of communication with others. "Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first on the social level, and later, on the individual level"*. Indeed, all "higher functions", including concept development, "originate as actual relations between people".

The psychologist Peter Hobson develops this: "The rich and pleasurable forms of mutually sensitive interpersonal engagements" that are the social life of infants form the very basis for the ability to think. ** So for babies, interpersonal social engagements with adults are essential to intellectual development. The responses to another, the engagements with another "wrest the infant from a kind of self-centredness and liberate the very processes of thought", said Hobson. The baby's relationship with key adults is the beginning of the ability to engage with the social and cultural world.

Later, when my father lulled me to sleep with the rhymes of Winken, Blinken and Nod, he was provoking in me a response to language and to the tones of the human voice. When I was eight, he sat me in a big chair and opened the enormous Readers Digest Atlas to a deep black page which showed the galaxy.

There, in one corner, was a tiny arrow pointing to a minute speck, our star, our sun, way out on the edge. Another page showed countless silver galaxies spinning across the darkness. One of them, just one, was our galaxy. I was bowled over by the challenge of grasping such realities.

What characterises pleasurable learning in my childhood is the humanity of the participants, the responsiveness and engagement of the characters I described to the ideas and questions of children. This positive relationship with learning was the crucial element. A culture of learning and enjoying learning was established, and what inspired me to teach primary-age children was the pleasurable experience of learning that these people and in particular my father shared with me.

* "Internalisation of Higher Psychological Functions" (Mind in Society, Harvard University Press,1978)

** The Cradle of Thought (Macmillan, 2004)

Gina Owens is senior lecturer in primary mathematics at Bath Spa University College

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