DISABLED CHILD IN THE SOCIOCULTURAL MILIEU: VYGOTSKY'S QUEST
Published in: "School Psychology International", (1995). Volume 16, #2, pp. 155-166.
ABSTRACT: L. Vygotsky formulated a theoretical framework for the most comprehensive, inclusive, and humane practice of special education. This article started with a brief historical review of Paedology and Defectology. These two sciences existed in post-revolutionary Russia and were relevant to contemporary school psychology and special education. Vygotsky had developed many of his major concepts within Paedology and Defectology. Vygotsky considers handicap as a sociocultural developmental phenomenon where compensation comes from socialization and cultural enlightenment. He showed that a defect varies psychologically in different cultural and social environments. He introduced concepts of "primary defects" (organic impairment) and "secondary defects," (distortions of higher psychological functions due to social factors). In his search for alternatives to the standardized tests applied to handicapped students, he introduced the notion of the "Zone of Proximal Development". In the area of educating and upbringing of handicapped children, his innovative idea was that the most efficient compensation for the loss or weakness of natural functions can be achieved through the development of the higher psychological functions. In Vygotsky's view, the main objective of special education should be the creation of a "positive differential approach" that can fully develop a handicapped child's higher psychological functions and overall personality. His idea that a disabled child's development is determined by the social implications of his/her organic impairment creates a new perspective for socialization/acculturation and cognitive development of children with special needs.
INTRODUCTION: Lev S. Vygotsky formulated a unique theoretical framework for the most comprehensive, inclusive, and humane practice of special education known in the 20th century. By no means did he leave a completed system, ready for application and free from contradictions or "blind spots". It is an "approach" rather than a "paradigm"; a blueprint for further elaboration. The timeliness and fruitfulness of Vygotsky's theoretical concepts in the domain of special education have been substantiated by empirical data accumulated within the half century since his death, particularly in Russia, Israel, and the USA.
Unfortunately, Vygotsky's works in special education and school psychology are relatively unknown outside his native Russia. Only recently, with the publication of the second volume of his Collected Works "The Fundamentals of Defectology " (Vygotsky, 1993), have his major writings in this area become available to English language readers. "Defectology" and "Paedology" are the terms reflecting two domains of Vygotsky's research and practice relevant to contemporary special education and school psychology. Both terms sound awkward and have no real parallel in the English language. It seems appropriate for this memorial issue to make a brief clarification regarding these terms and their historical background.
VYGOTSKY'S ROLE IN "PAEDOLOGY" AND "DEFECTOLOGY": The term "Paedology" (literally, the "study of a child") roughly encompasses the domain of school psychology. Paedology was an attempt to construct an integrative science of the child as a unique entity based on the methods and data accumulated in European psychology, pediatrics, sociology, and pedagogy at the beginning of the century (for a comprehensive historical account, see Chapter 12 in Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991). Paedologists were pioneers in many theoretical and applied studies such as intelligence testing and the objective measurements of adaptive behavior. They considered the main goal of their activity to be the promotion of differential education and the exploration of individual differences in children (Baranov, 1990). One of the prominent features of Paedology was a tendency to use quantitative methods in identifying individual differences in children (Petrovsky, 1984). In post-revolutionary Russia, many schools in large cities had an official position of a paedologist who tested students, consulted with parents and teachers, and transmitted paedological knowledge (Baranov, 1990). There is a strong similarity between paedological theories, practices, organizational structure and those of school psychology in contemporary Russia (Gindis, 1991).
L. Vygotsky was one of the leaders and ideologists of this new science. Vygotsky's understanding of the goal of the science of child development clearly expressed in his monograph "Foundation of Paedology" was close to the declared goals of Paedology: "...to create a unified science of child development in the social context..., ... where the social environment is the decisive force of child development" (Basov, 1931, p. 7, cit. in Baranov, 1990) It was argued by some researchers (Petrovsky, 1984; Yaroshevsky, 1993) that L. Vygotsky's paedological writings were "different" from the mainstream of the discipline because of his disagreement with the existing practice of Paedology. It might be just the opposite: Vygotsky represented the mainstream and from this position he criticized some deviations and extremes, like abuse of intelligence testing and reckless labeling of children.
"Paedology" as a science and a profession had a tragic fate in the Soviet Union. It was outlawed by State decree in 1936, just two years after Vygotsky's death. There are different explanations of why Stalin chose paedology as a target for his purges (Kozulin, 1984; Valsiner, 1988; Baranov, 1990). An unbiased history of Paedology in the Soviet Union has yet to be written. It is interesting though, that absent the cursing rhetoric of Soviet documents of that time, one may find the accusations against Paedology to be surprisingly similar to what contemporary special education in the USA is accused of by the general public and media, namely: doubtful means of psychological testing resulting in inflated numbers of children in need of special education. That is exactly what happened in Soviet Russia at the beginning of the 30s: remedial special schools were packed with students labeled "mentally deficient" or "learning defective" while most of them were pedagogically neglected and/or disobedient or came from impoverished peasant households. Or, what was often the case, children just could not, for whatever reason, pass paedological tests (among them - Stalin's son Vasily, as was recently discovered, see Yaroshevsky, 1993, p 270). By 1936, the paedologists had shifted about 8 to 10 percent of all school-aged children into special schools (data provided by McCagg, 1989, p. 61). Accused of no less than "paedological pervasion" [sic!- B.G.] many leading psychologists (paedologists) lost their positions and some of them ended up in labor camps. Psychoeducational assessment was prohibited and psychology in school was completely extinguished as a profession (to be reborn in the Soviet Union only in the early 80s, see Gindis, 1991). It was noted (Valsiner, 1988) that "Paedology" was closely connected chronologically with Vygotsky: it came into existence as a separate discipline in the early 1920, when Vygotsky first appeared in psychology; it reached its peak a decade later concurrent with Vygotsky's climax of influence, and it was forcibly ceased shortly after his death. I have to add that their links continued even after their deaths: Vygotsky's endeavors in the field and the terminology he used contributed to the banning of his name and his works by the Soviet authority for about 20 years.
The word "Defectology" (literally: "study of defect") meant the study of the handicapped and methods of their evaluation, education, and upbringing. To be precise, this term covered the following disabilities: the hard of hearing and deaf; the visually impaired and blind; children with mental retardation; and speech/language impaired children. As one can see, "Defectology" offered services to roughly the same population as special education in the USA, minus two large groups of handicapped students: the emotionally disturbed and the learning disabled. Children with severe health problems (e.g. cerebral palsy) or psychiatric disorders were under the auspices of the medical profession: the Soviet Ministry of Health used to have its own network of special school-sanatoriums designed for curative education. Children with organically intact brain and sensory systems traditionally belonged to general education in spite of the wide range of educational problems they presented. (For more details, see Gindis, 1986, 1988). "Learning disability", as it is understood in the contemporary USA, was unknown in the Russia of the 1920s and 1930s. That is why any attempt to "explain" "Defectology" as a combination of "learning disability and abnormal psychology", as was done by the publisher of the second volume of Vygotsky's "Collected Works" (Vygotsky, 1993) is somewhat misleading (Gindis, 1995, in press).
Lev Vygotsky was not a "founder" of defectology, as was claimed by some zealous Vygotskians (see "Introduction" to volume 5, Vygotsky, 1983). "Defectology" had existed in Russia since the beginning of the century as a well established practice (for this matter, see an excellent review by McCogg, 1989). Vygotsky's contribution, however, totally restructured the field: he elevated "Defectology" to the status of a science with a coherent theory, body of scientific data, relevant methods, organizational institutions, and a cohort of enthusiastic researchers and practitioners. It was the area where Vygotsky revealed himself as a skillful organizer and manager of scientific establishments and projects. He founded a laboratory in Moscow that later was upgraded to a Research Institute of Defectology, which still exists under the name of the Scientific-Research Institute of Corrective Pedagogy. It was the place where Vygotsky's ideas and his disciples literally survived Stalin's purges of the late '30s (Kozulin, 1984).
Defectology was the main empirical domain from which Vygotsky obtained data to support his theoretical conceptions. He was conscious of the "artificiality" of the data obtained in psychological experiments. For him, defectology was a huge natural laboratory where general psychological laws were discovered on the basis of various anomalies. It was a reciprocal process: new theoretical discoveries shed light on defectological theories and practice. Indeed, many of the major concepts of his cultural/historical theory were conceived, formulated and elaborated upon within the defectological and paedological theoretical framework and terminology (Kozulin, 1990, Yaroshevsky, 1993).
DYNAMIC NATURE AND SOCIAL SUBSTANCE OF HANDICAP: The uniqueness of Vygotsky's approach lies in his understanding of handicap not as a "biological impairment having psychological consequences", but as a sociocultural developmental phenomenon where compensation comes from socialization and cultural enlightening. Based on anthropological and historical studies and on reports authored by individuals with impaired organs, he argued that a defect is not subjectively perceived as an "abnormality" until it is brought into the social context. The human brain, eye, ear, or limb are not just physical organs: impairment of any of these organs "leads to a restructuring of social relationships and to a displacement of all the systems of behavior" (Vygotsky, Vol. 5, p. 63). Moreover, a defect varies psychologically in different cultural and social environments: "The blindness of an American farmer's daughter, of a Ukrainian landowner's son, of a German duchess, of a Russian peasant, of a Swedish proletarian - these are all psychologically entirely different facts" (Vygotsky, Vol 5, p. 70). From the survival point of view, blindness, in the world of nature, is a more severe impairment than deafness. In the social world, however, deafness is a more severe handicap because it prevents mastering of speech, blocks verbal communication and bars entry to the world of culture, and therefore, "....disrupts a person's social connections in a more substantial way than blindness" (Vygotsky, Vol. 5, p. 77). In the context of mental retardation, Vygotsky objected to the terms "developmental disability" or "developmental delays". He wrote: "A child whose development is impeded by a (mental) handicap is not simply a child less developed than his peers; rather, he has developed differently." (Vygotsky, Vol. 5, p. 96). Vygotsky pointed out that from the social perspective the primary problem of a handicapped condition is not the sensory or neurological impairment itself but its social implications: "Any physical handicap - be it blindness or deafness - not only alters the child's relationship with the world, but above all affects his interaction with people. Any organic defect is revealed as a social abnormality in behavior. It goes without question that blindness and deafness per se are biological factors. However, the teacher must deal not so much with these biological factors by themselves, as much as with their social consequences. When we have before us a blind boy as the object of education, then it is necessary to deal not so much with blindness by itself, as with those conflicts which arise for a blind child upon entering life" (Vygotsky, 1983, Vol. 5, p. 102).
Vygotsky laid down the foundation of understanding handicap as a developmental process, not as a static condition. Human development (normal and abnormal alike), he argued, is not a straight path of quantitative accumulations or maturation, but a series of qualitative, dialectic transformations, a complex process of integration and disintegration, gaining and losing. Development is the result of social learning through the internalization of culture and social relationships. The essence and uniqueness of human behavior and development resides in its mediation by material tools and social signs/language.
In the context of development, Vygotsky distinguished two classes of psychological functions: "lower" (natural) and "higher" (cultural). The first class comprises elementary perception, memory, attention, dynamic characteristics of the nervous system, in short, all that creates a biological predisposition of the child's development. The second class includes abstract reasoning, logical memory, language, selective attention, planning/decision making, etc. These are specifically human functions that are not given by nature but appear gradually in the course of transformation of the lower functions, which are structured and transformed according to specifically human social goals and patterns of conduct. The transformation is made through the so-called "psychological tools" (examples of psychological tools provided by Vygotsky include: gestures and sign systems; language, methods of counting, writing, mnemonic techniques, works of visual art, diagrams, maps, etc.) and "mediated activity", (led by an adult or more competent peer). Both means are to be found outside the individual in socially meaningful activity (for a more in-depth discussion and elaboration, see: Wertsch, 1985; Kozulin, 1990; Newman & Holzman, 1993).
One extension of this line of reasoning was his concept of "primary defects", "secondary defects," and their interactions. A primary defect is an organic impairment due to both endogenous and exogenous biological causes. A secondary defect refers to distortions of higher psychological functions due to social factors. As Vygotsky wrote, organic impairment prevents handicapped children from the mastering of some or most social skills and acquiring knowledge at a proper rate and in an acceptable form. Progressive divergence in social and natural development leads to social deprivation as a society's response to a child's organic impairment. This, in turn, adversely affects the whole developmental process and leads to the emergence of delays and deficiencies. From this perspective, many symptoms of handicapping conditions (such as behavioral infantilism or primitivism of emotional reactions in mentally retarded children) are considered to be secondary defects, acquired in the process of social interaction. It is the child's social milieu (not the organic impairment per se) that modifies a course of development and leads to defective development.
"DYNAMIC ASSESSMENT" VERSUS "ARITHMETIC OF HANDICAP": Vygotsky's opposition to the concept of IQ/Mental Age and quantitative diagnostic procedures was based on his understanding of handicap as a process, not a static condition, and on his understanding of development as a dialectical process of mastering cultural means. In the case of mental retardation, for example, impaired functioning can be due to "primitivism" as the result of cultural underdevelopment and can be the result of the organic impairment. Vygotsky considered mental tests insufficient to make this differentiation because they measure natural and higher processes together, inappropriately equalizing them. As a result, standardized tests led to what he sarcastically called an "arithmetical concept of handicap" because of its view of a handicapped child as a sum of negative characteristics.
The developmental ("dynamic" in modern terminology, see Minick, 1987) assessment, Vygotsky insisted, should concentrate on mental processing and certain qualitative indicators, such as cognitive strategies employed by the child; the type and character of mistakes; the ability to benefit from the help provided by the examiner; the child's emotional reactions to success and failure. Distinguishing between what a child has already attained (actual level of development) and his potential ability to learn (as determined through the process of problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers), was a base in his search for alternatives to the standardized tests applied to handicapped students. The difference between these two levels of performance Vygotsky called the "Zone of Proximal Development" (ZPD). In terms of individual differences, the depth of the ZPD varies, reflecting a child's learning potential. From this perspective, it offers a qualitative distinction between mentally retarded and the educationally neglected, or bilingual students from impoverished families. Those children might appear similarly backward in their functioning according to the results of standardized psychological testing (because the IQ tests report the current sample of behavior), but they do indeed differ dramatically in their ability to benefit from an adult's help, as Vygotsky and his followers showed (Rubinshtein, 1979; Vlasova, 1984; Lebedinsky, 1985; Lubovsky, 1990)
In the West the notion of ZPD is, perhaps, the best known and experimentally scrutinized concept in the whole of Vygotsky's legacy. (For an elaborative review, see: Rogoff & Wertsch, 1984; Brown & Campione, 1987; Newman & Holzman, 1993; Valsiner & Van der Veer, 1993). In an early version of ZPD-type assessment (in Russia: Ivanova, 1976; Rubinstein, 1979; in the USA: Brown & Campione, 1987), a task is initially presented to a child in the same manner as in the standardized tests. If the child is unable to cope with a problem, then the examiner gradually introduces prompts (clues to the correct answer or procedure) which may assist in finding the solution. The examiner is to evaluate how much information is needed for a child to solve a problem. Clues provided are predetermined, given in a structured manner and contingent upon the child's performance. Once a solution is reached, a different version of the task is presented in order to determine whether the child is able to transfer the learned methods to the new problem-solving situation. It is important to stress that the solution of a problem, once internalized, becomes an integral part of the child's own reasoning.
Needless to say, questions do arise (on the both sides of the Atlantic Ocean) about the validity and effectiveness of this method applied to the handicapped, whose unaided performance could be extremely limited. When learning is blocked during mediated assessment, how should this be interpreted? Has the student reached his potential and cannot go further? It may be the case. But, it may be the evaluator who has reached his potential in mediating the assessment (G. Cole, 1987, p. 171-172). The real advantages of this concept and its practical application within the American system of special education still remain to be seen based on further verification of its merits and limits (Gindis, 1992).
EDUCATION LEADS THE DEVELOPMENT: In the area of educating and the upbringing of handicapped children, an innovative idea of Lev Vygotsky was that the most efficient compensation for the loss or weakness of natural functions can be achieved through the development of the higher psychological functions. In other words, while what may be impaired are the natural processes (visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive) the objects of rehabilitation are the cultural processes of abstract reasoning, logical memory, voluntary attention, etc. Vygotsky pointed to the limitations of traditional sensory-motor training saying that pure biological compensation (e.g. superior hearing in the blind) has been the exception rather than the rule, while the domain of higher psychological activities has no limits; "Training sharpness of hearing in a blind person has natural limitations; compensation through the mightiness of the mind (imagination, reasoning, memorization, etc.) has virtually no limits" (Vygotsky, Vol. 5, p. 212).
The main goal of special education, therefore, is not only to compensate for primary defects through facilitation and strengthening of intact psychological functions but, mainly, to prevent, correct, and rehabilitate secondary defects by psychological and pedagogical means. In the essay "Defect and Compensation" Vygotsky wrote about the "two-sided nature" of a handicap: an underdevelopment or absence of the functions related to an organic defect and forming an adaptive-compensatory mechanism. The effectiveness of this mechanism depends not only on the severity of the "primary" defect, but on the adequacy and timeliness of the methods of correction used in educating the child. The focus of the compensation should be the intensity of cultural enlightenment, strength of the higher psychological functions, quantity and quality of communication with adults, and social relationship with a "collective" (an organized group of peers). Vygotsky believed that a physical/mental impairment could be overcome by creating alternative but equivalent roads for cultural development. Common laws of development (for handicapped children and their non-handicapped peers) include interiorization of the external cultural activities into internal processes via "psychological tools" and "mediated learning" provided by adults. The concept of the internalization of psychological tools as the main mechanism of development has a special importance for rehabilitation in the field of special education. Different "tools" (e.g. various means of communication) may convey essentially the same educational information, the same meaning, that is, a message may be received through the Braille lexicon or through lip-reading. "Different symbolic systems correspond to one and the same content of education... Meaning is more important than the sign. Let us change signs but retain meaning."(Vygotsky, Vol. 5, p 54). Vygotsky pointed out that our civilization has already developed different means (e.g. Braille reading, sign language, lip-reading, finger-spelling, etc.) to accommodate a handicapped child's unique way of acculturation though acquiring different symbolic systems. We should continue developing special "psychological tools" to address special needs, concluded Vygotsky. This appeal was made well before the era of sophisticated electronic gadgets and computers.
CONCLUSION: In Vygotsky's view, the main objective in the field of special education was the creation of what he called a "positive differential approach". Those school psychologists who are firmly committed to the idea of "normalization through mainstreaming of all handicapped children" (Stainback et.al., 1989) will be challenged by Vygotsky's vision of this issue. Vygotsky was convinced that only a truly differentiated learning environment can fully develop a handicapped child's higher psychological functions and overall personality. Special education should not be just a dwindled version of a regular education, but a specially designed setting where the entire staff is able to exclusively serve the individual needs of the handicapped child. It should be a special system that employs its specific methods because handicapped students require modified and alternative educational methods. Vygotsky never wrote or implied that handicapped children should attend the same school as their non-handicapped peers; he insisted on creating a learning environment which would supply disabled students with alternative means of communication and development, and on using those "psychological tools" that are most appropriate to compensate for their particular disability. Handicapped students need specially trained teachers, a differentiated curriculum, special technological auxiliary means, and simply more time to learn. How realistically could those demands be met in a regular classroom situation?
The search for the positive capacities of handicapped children (that is, an identification of a handicapped child from the point of strength, not a disability) was the "trademark" of Vygotsky's approach. He suggested, for example, the identification of levels of overall independence rather than levels of feeblemindedness in children with mental retardation (Vygotsky, vol. 5, 1983, in his "Introduction" to K. Gracheva's book on education of severely mentally retarded children published in 1932). This approach, 60 years later, was employed by the American Association on Mental Retardation in the 9th edition of "Mental Retardation: Definition, Classification, and System of Support", a new manual published in 1992 (AAMR, 1992). It is only one of many instances in which Vygotsky became more modern with the passage of time. He discussed problems that had not even been posed by others during his lifetime, but are very much at the forefront today, such as "social prejudice against the handicapped" (Rossi, 1994). His appeal to consider psychological assessment and methods of training/teaching as a social/cultural process is finding its way to thousands of professionals throughout the world. His idea that a disabled child's development is determined by the social implication of his organic impairment creates a new perspective for socialization/acculturation and cognitive development of children with special needs. Indeed, Vygotsky's legacy sets a course to follow for school psychology at the turn of the 21st century.