Saturday, December 6, 2014

Thinking, language and memory

I've had several conversations with my students in the past few weeks about how Vygotskiian theory informs our understanding of learning. But social constructivist theory, particularly Vygotsky's socio-cultural focus, extends greatly beyond the concept of ZPD - the zone of proximal development - that most people are familar with. While ZPD is an important explanation of how we learn, we limit our understanding if we focus exclusively on this aspect of the theory. Vygotsky also believed that language development was important for higher order thinking.
Recently, while exploring learning and memory with my students, I gave one of my groups the task to think about their earliest memories. The students came up with recollections of their memories in early childhood, usually from when they were two or three years old. This would have been around the time when they were developing language, extending their lexicons. Many of the memories my students reported were not particularly happy - feelings of nausea, getting lost, being scared. Others told of their interaction with various objects and how it made them feel. In short, many of the first memories they reported had emotions attached.

My own earliest recollection was a conversation I had with my grandmother about naming my small army of teddy bears when I was about 3 years old. I had given them all the same name, and remember being quite upset when she told me they each had to have different names. I believe I recalled it because I was able to articulate it and I speculate that perhaps children do not recall events before a certain age because they have insufficient language to describe them. When children interact with tools and objects, how much can they remember of these events, if they have not developed their language sufficiently to describe and therefore consolidate these memories? It seems to me that to express our emotions or relate what has happened to us, we need language. It also seems clear that recalling memories involves thinking. But how much do our memories depend on the development of language?

Vygotsky held some strong opinions about this question and proposed strong connections between language and intelligence. He bemoaned the problems that have arisen when speech and thought have been studied as though they had no influence on each other. The two, he believed, have a 'dialectical unity' and are the 'very essence of complex human behaviour.' In his seminal book Mind and Society, he argues that the development of speech has great importance to thinking when there is interaction with objects and tools. When children discover the relationship between signs and their meaning, something significant happens - higher order processes occur. Whether memory begins to crystallise as language develops is open to debate.

It led me to wondering if this could be applied in education? Teachers need to consider reinforcing memory and recall by encouraging students to develop richer language around their learning. They might use a mix of symbolic multimedia content that incorporates text, images and speech to create and represent ideas and concepts, to promote reflection. This is one reason why I believe blogging is such an important tool to support thinking and learning. Blogging and other creative forms of writing have a rich language capability that can support better memory and recall, particularly if the technology is used as a mind tool to extend language. I welcome any comments on these ideas.

Reference
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind and Society: The Development of Higher Psychological Processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp 23-24.

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