Piotr Galperin: Psychologist in Vygotsky’s Footsteps

Published in: "Culture & Psychology". (1998).Vol. 4, # 4, pp. 501-506.


Jacques Haenen. (1996) Piotr Galperin. Psychologist in Vygotsky Footsteps. Nova Science Publishers, Inc. Commack NY. ISBN1-56072-199-5

Reviewed by Boris Gindis, Ph.D. Touro College, New York.

The famous "troika" (threesome of horses) of Russian psychology - L.Vygotsky, A. Leontiev, and A. Luria - made their glamorous ride into the annals of world psychology. In the light of their glory, who is this lonely horseback rider - Peter Ya. Galperin?

In the West, P. Galperin is known, if at all, as an educational psychologist who transformed Vygotsky’s sociohistorical approach into a technology of instruction (I. Arievich & R. van der Veer, 1995). True, but not fair, says a psychologist from the Netherlands, Jacques Haenen, the author of the book under review. P. Galperin was not just a "technologist", he contributed to the further theoretical and experimental development of the Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) and this theory could not be fully understood without his contribution. In the history of science the biographical method has proved its effectiveness supporting why J. Haenen has chosen this particular angle of investigation of the CHAT, namely, through the life and ideas of one of its most productive and original developers.

The book consists of three parts. In Part One, Galperin’s life and scientific career was reconstructed within the cultural-historical context of the development of Soviet psychology from the very beginning (early 20s) to the end of the 80s, only a few years before the total downfall of the communist ideology, (the cradle and grave of Marxist psychology). Part Two is devoted to a detailed and systematic analysis of P. Galperin’s theoretical and experimental works, while Part Three consists of a critique of Galperin’s paradigms by his colleagues. In light of this critique, J. Haenen touched upon the merits of Galperin’s discoveries and ended with the conclusion of its seminal meaning to the theory and practice of modern psychology. The book includes a foreword, written by J. Wertsch, comprehensive references and name/subject index, summary for each chapter and introduction to each of the three parts. In my view, this book has at least three perspectives: cultural-historical, theoretical, and practical.

From the history of science perspective, Part One contains many invaluable facts and observations. As a historian of science and culture, Haenen uses traditional (e.g. discourse analyses, witnesses’ accounts, etc.) and non-traditional (e.g. personal interviews and observations) methods in collecting data. The volume of data amassed, the thoroughness of the analysis, and attention to details is truly amazing! P. Galperin died in 1988 and was, in fact, the last well-known psychologist who actually worked with L. Vygotsky and had prolonged personal contacts with him. Galperin’s memories of Vygotsky (pp. 26 - 29) provide us a glimpse of a great man in the perception of his peer and colleague. These memories add some colors to the still vague and in a way mysterious portrait of the great scientist. L. Vygotsky, who due to his tragic early death has an aura of a "saint" in modern psychology, so it was a real shock to read Galperin’s description of Vygotsky recorded by Haenen. In this memoir, Vygotsky emerged as a person on the edge of pathology with an extraordinary giftedness in the verbal aspect of cognitive functioning and a disability in others, with a kind of emotional detachment from others, "an observer of life from the side" (p. 29).

Calperin was one of the lucky few who was active and prominent and, nevertheless, survived the turbulent history of Soviet psychology. In this historical context Haenen explained Galperin’s obsession with the "subject matter" for psychology. Indeed, his life-long search for the foundation of psychology can be understood only from the history of Soviet psychology in which there has always been a strong movement to replace psychology with other sciences (e.g. physiology) or make it a part of a more "general" science (e.g. pedology). Indeed, in the world science history there has been no analogy of such a cruel "pogrom" and prolonged torture as Soviet psychology experienced between 1936 and 1956. P. Galperin, in his own way skillfully using Marxist phraseology, vigorously defended the independence of his science in his relentless attempts to define the subject matter and the specific (not reducible) methods of psychology.

The subtitle of the book is "Psychologist in Vygotsky’s Footsteps" This statement is not without controversy and should be explained. The CHAT is often considered a monolith with Vygotsky’s writing as the basis and Leontiev’s and Luria’s works as a kind of continuation and further development. There is another point of view, however, according to which Leontiev’s activity theory represents a deviation rather than continuation of Vygotsky’s approach. (see, for this matter: A. Kozulin, 1995). It was my understanding that Haenen, through the analysis of Galperin’s writings, stands in firm opposition to the latter view. He points out that Galperin’s research projects were deeply rooted in basic Vygotskian concepts and it was not a matter of "difference", but rather a further development when Galperin elaborated on these concepts. Take, for example the notion of "mediation". For Vygotsky the mediation of children's psychological processes occurs in the course of their direct communication/interaction with adults who teach them signs and concepts, whereas for Galperin (and Leontiev for this matter) such mediation takes place in the course of organization by adults of children's activity in the process of which children acquire new methods of dealing with social/scientific signs and notions.

As Haenen suggested, Galperin considered Leontiev’s concept of activity as too broad. Galperin followed Leontiev in that activity is the subject matter of psychology, but he insisted on not every activity but only the one he (following Pavlov’s term) called "orienting activity". Haenen summarized Galperin’s approach to the subject matter of psychology in one phrase: "Psychology is concerned with mental (ideal) orienting activity which has its origin in material (practical) activity and can be conceived as the final product in the process of internalization" (p. 112). The Vygotskian origin and nature of this approach is strikingly apparent, is not it? In his rationale of "the systematic formation of mental actions and concepts," Galperin gave a detailed presentation of an efficient way to form orienting activity in pupils. It was not only a sophisticated educational technology (with no apparent correlate in the West, to the best of my knowledge) but also a special kind of theory. It is a well known fact that theories or research methods can rarely be introduced directly into practice. In order to connect "high level theory" (in this case - CHAT) with social practice (e.g. education) there is a compelling need for an "intermediate level theory" that could "bridge’ the high level theory with practice. Galperin’s paradigm of "systematic formation of mental actions and concepts" was, in fact, this kind of a theory, probably the first one in the history of CHAT. He was among those few who elaborated Vygotsky’s innovative ideas to the level of concrete educational procedures. In turn, this practical application contributes to the further development of the theory. It is interesting to note that Galperin himself considered his procedure of "systematic formation of mental actions and concepts" as the "royal road" to the investigation and understanding of the origin and content of mental functioning, not as an "intermediate" theory.

In Haenen’s book, the reader will find the most detailed, comprehensive, and critical analysis of Galperin's theory ever found in the English language. In Chapter 9 of this book (pp. 131-145), the author has masterfully summarized Galperin’s paradigm of "systematic formation of mental actions" as follows. After a learning task is presented by a teacher and preliminary familiarity takes place (step 1), a learner receives SCOBA which stands for the "scheme of a complete orienting basis of the action" (step 2). The SCOBA represents the detailed information of how to perform a certain action and is presented to the students in the form of models and prescriptions written on a card. The SCOBA is a practical example of a Vygotskian psychological tool given to the child by an adult at an external level. This "psychological tool" should be appropriated and internalized by the students, that is, should be transformed into "the orienting basis of the action" (OBA): a mental scheme which will guide the students' performance of this action. With the aid of this SCOBA, the learner makes himself/herself familiar with the material(ized) action in the course of practical manipulation of tangible objects or their representations (step 3). The students starts to perform these actions at the material (or materialized) level (for example, using fingers when counting), In the next stage (step 4), the action is separated from the material objects and transferred to the stage of overt speech. At the next step (5) the learner is encourage to whisper or to speak to himself. The final stage (6) is the one on the mental level: the SCOBA is thus transformed into the OBA, that is, the mental, internalized psychological tool which will mediate the student’ s performance. The teacher directs and monitors the student’s performance, transferring him or her from one level of performance up to the next one.

The theory of the systematic formation of mental actions and concepts by Galperin has been used by his followers as the basis for the development of a large number of instructional programs. These programs have been designed and implemented for more than 30 years for teaching students of different ages (from 5-year-old children through college students) a range of subjects, including elementary mathematics, geometry, physics, chemistry, biology, language, and so on. Long-term observations have indicated that both the course of instruction and its outcome are improved considerably under these programs. The process of learning becomes interesting for students, the formation of knowledge proceeds effectively, the time spent on instruction shortens considerably in comparison with the traditional system of instruction. One of the most prominent features of knowledge acquired in the course of the systematic formation of mental actions and concepts is the high level of transfer which proves that such a formation facilitates cognitive development of students (for more on this matter see Y. Karpov and J. Bransford, 1995).

The format of Haenen's book allows only one comprehensive example of the practical application of Galperin’s approach - in the teaching of handwriting skills (chapter 10, pp. 146-162). Although the book did not make it possible to present a detailed description of other instructional programs and to discuss all their advantages, the author gives us an extensive picture of the criticism Galperin’s program has endured. As was seen in the other parts of the book, the critique is presented within the cultural/historic context of Soviet psychology at the time. What is even more important, Haenen has drawn our attention to some general features of Galperin’s approach which have heuristic value to contemporary educational psychology worldwide. Indeed, Galperin’s research program on the systematic formation of mental actions and concepts may be considered a powerful teaching strategy in which the intended mental action and concepts are gradually shaped according to the stepwise deliberated procedure. The strength of Galperin’s paradigm is in his conceptualization of the complex process of internalization (in Vygotskian view) by means of the four components: the learning motive, the orienting basis, the parameters of the action, and, the crown jewel, the stepwise procedure. For more information, including a translation of Galperin’s four original articles, see Haenen, 1992.

For those of us who are interested in the origin, current status, and the further development of CHAT, Haenen’s book is a very stimulating and challenging attempt of the re-construction of CHAT as we know it. For practicing educational psychologists, it is the best source of information on the very efficient approach to instruction that has been developed by Piotr Galperin. For graduate students this volume is an invaluable source of information on CHAT and the history of Russian psychology not otherwise available in the English language. Indeed, a long overdue survey and critical analysis of the life and work of P. Galperin has finally arrived in the form of J. Haenen’s book. I wholeheartedly second J. Wertsch’s assessment of the volume as an "authoritative, insightful, and comprehensive…" (p. Xll) account of Galperin’s ideas.