How the voice of Vygotsky can still be heard

VYGOTSKY AND PEDAGOGY. By Harry Daniels. Routledge Falmer. pound;18.99.

PSYCHOLOGICAL TOOLS: a sociocultural approach to education. By Alex Kozulin. Harvard University Press. pound;12.50.

One of the most surprising influences on how we now think about the process of teaching, learning and intellectual development is the incomplete work of a Russian psychologist who wrote only in his native language and died, before he reached 40, in 1933.

These two books describe, and help explain, the impact of Lev Vygotsky on contemporary educational research and practice. Both do so by first locating the emergence of his ideas in the heady intellectual days of post-revolutionary Russia - a time when psychologists, poets, sociologists, political philosophers and teachers were inspired to share their ideas by a kind of Marxism which is hard to relate to the stifling dogma of the Stalinist era that followed (and which banned Vygotsky's publications).

A Renaissance-style figure who made an impact in the theatrical arts and sciences, Vygotsky was a man of his time. One of the strengths of Harry Daniels's book is the way that the voices of Vygotsky, and others who have been associated with the rediscovery of his work in the last part of the 20th century, are allowed to speak for themselves through carefully chosen quotations from their writing. So we hear the echo of Vygotsky's experiences, as well as his theoretical ideas on cognitive development, in the words of Jerome Bruner, quoted by Daniels: "When we enter human life, it is as if we walk on stage into a play whose enactment is in progress - a play whose somewhat open plot determines what parts we may play and toward what denouements we may be heading."

Daniels moves from Vygotsky's contributions to discuss the educational implications and impact of the still-expanding field of sociocultural research which has been built from the resources of his incomplete endeavours. He suggests that this approach provides a unique opportunity for us to develop an understanding of education as a dialogic, interpersonal process which is rooted in the cultural, institutional structure of a society. If you have been intrigued by the emergence of a sociocultural approach to education, but do not feel that you understand where it all came from, this is the recommended text.

Although it has the same foundations, Alex Kozulin's book is a more personal account of a sociocultural approach to educational research and practice. Drawing on his experience in the education of immigrants to Israel, Kozulin explains how the ideas of Vygotsky and Feuerstein led him to believe that school experience must aim to give children mastery of language and other symbolic tools. He explains how this requires the "mediating" influence of a teacher, and in doing so criticises both progressive "discovery" approaches to education and the "IQ" conception of human intelligence based on genetic inheritance (his critique of the latter being too brief to carry weight). The most original aspect of the book is his argument that literature offers a unique resource for both educational practice and the psychology of education. Like Vygotsky, Kozulin is arguing for psychology to become as closely related to the humanities as to the sciences.

Both Kozulin's and Daniels's books provide good reasons for expecting Vygotsky's ideas to continue to have a significant impact on education in the coming years.

Neil Mercer is professor of language and communications at the Open University

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