Thursday, November 13, 2014

Vygotsky and Parenting: Being your child's first and most important teacher

You know you are a nerd when you get really excited just reading your notes on a theorist.  I am a total nerd and Vygotsky is a super cool theorist! Vygotsky put forth a socio-cultural view of development.  He pointed out that in order to understand the child, you have to understand the context in which she develops.  Rather than give you his bio (which is also hugely interesting), I am going to describe a few key ideas of his.  I will take them out of the education setting in which they are usually discussed and apply them to the home.  His concepts of scaffolding and intersubjectivity are especially applicable to everyday parenting.

Vygotsky argued that in order to understand the child, you have to understand the context in which she develops.

In the classroom of life, every person you meet is a teacher,  
but the parent is the child's first and most important teacher.

The environment which is most conducive to learning, is that where learning and instruction lead actual development.  He wrote "the only good learning is that which is in advance of development" (Vygotsky, 1978, p.9).  Therefore,  to promote development, the challenges for the child should be right above his level - not directly at (or below) his ability.  Stagnation occurs developmentally when children are not challenged.  This is the basis for not grouping kids by age and ability, but rather having more skilled learners available to help less skilled learners with tasks.

In larger families, we see this play out daily as older kids help 'teach' the younger ones to do everything from climbing rocks to formulating an argument.  JR is especially good at helping 'teach' the girls how to do his chores!  They love helping him take out the recycling because they are doing "the tough stuff".   He loves that he has one less trip to make.  The girls alone would not be able to complete the multi-steps required to take it all out - unlock the doors, open the big recycling can lid etc.  But under his 'guidance', they can learn to do it.   You can also see this at play it in multi-level play, as the older kids direct the younger ones, or the younger ones toddle behind trying to keep up with the big kids.  It is so healthy and so natural, and it is in these very moments that Vygotsky says we see actual development.

In order to best support their child's development in an area, parents (or older kids) should provide the appropriate scaffolding.  Parents provide the setting and the information that will help the child learn on his own.  Take cleaning up their room.  A child alone, may just glaze over looking at the mess.  But a parent can direct the child "pick up all the books first, then the clothes, then the toys last".  The instruction is the scaffolding the child needs to complete the task.  Another term for this is guided participation.  What children can do on their own, is less important that what they can do with a little guidance, because it is in the DOING that development occurs.   Eventually they are able to internalize the scaffolding and do the task without the guidance of the parent.

Guided participation works best when the parent (or more skilled partner)  knows how to read the cues given by the child, and bring them around to a shared goal.  Intersubjectivity is a super cool term.  It is the "shared understanding, based on a common focus of attention and a common goal, between a child and a more competent person" (Miller, 1993, p.32).  I bet my homeschooling readers are probably nodding their heads right about now!  One of the wonderful things about homeschooling is that the 'teacher'  and the child have so much common understanding before any official 'lessons' begin.  In relationships where there is strong intersubjectivity, learning happens most easily and most naturally.

For optimal learning/development to occur, 
a child and the parent or more skilled partner need 
to have a joint understanding & 
a mutual desire to reach the goal.   

If the child doesn't understand what you are asking, or if he is unmotivated to learn, you are going to have a harder time.  For example, if two kids are building with blocks, and the older ones wants to build a tower while the younger one wants to build a road - this is not a good set up for 'learning'. It is of course fine for just playing (assuming there are enough blocks!).  If they share the goal of building the tower, then the younger one will be motivated to pay attention and learn from (and with) the older child.

Vygotsky's concepts apply to both our interactions, and to our conversations with our children.  Reciprocal teaching is a concept based on Vygotsky's ideas.  RT is the process of clarifying, questioning, summarizing, and predicting.  Good parents do this naturally with children of all ages, but particularly with 2-3 year olds during their language explosion.  The child's mind is so excited to talk, but finding the words can be a challenge.  Clarifying what the child says, asking them to expand of their thoughts, summarizing their ideas, and then helping them predict is a great way to build both their verbal skills and their overall cognitive functioning.  This process applies to conversations with kids of all ages.  It also is a great way to model a more socratic type of dialogue within our home.

It can be easy to feel wary about the do's and don't do's so I want to end with a quote from St Teresa of Avila.

If you want to make progress on the Path 
and ascend to the places you have longed for, 
the important thing is not to think much, 
as so to do whatever best awakens you to love.  

Vygotsky's main principle is that learning is a social event.  As such, as families we should be thoughtful about our actions -  but if love is at the heart of what we do, then we are on the right track.     Giving your children direction and letting them grow with guidance is a great principle. Taking the time to get to know your child and share in his or her goals is another great parenting tip.  Lastly, modeling good conversation practices where you help the child to expand on their thoughts and idea shows that you love them and value what they think.  May all our interactions today awaken both us and our children to love!

Thanks for stopping by!

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