History Teaching and Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky believed that education was key to learning. Vygotsky was a Russian theorist who did not receive appreciation for his work until well after his death and near the end of the Cold War. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev had been signing agreements to reduce nuclear armaments and loosen restrictions on who could enter and leave the Soviet Union. Once more information was allowed to pass through the Soviet Union’s borders, Vygotsky’s ideas became read by the wider world public and received a considerable appreciation. As a theorist, Vygotsky wanted students to think for themselves, learn through problem solving, and have a more active voice in the classroom. These ideas are similar to John Dewey’s, but what separates Vygotsky is his description of cultural and environmental forces that affect learning.

“Just like physical tools a child develops cultural tools which represent how to communicate and how to make sense of the world” (49).

Lev Vygotsky

One such force is how students craft cultural tools to make sense of the world; I believe historical thinking is among these tools. Human beings study the past in order to make decisions in their everyday lives. This sentiment is represented in Carl Becker’s 1932 article “Everyman His Own Historian;” Becker describes how all people examine the past to inform their present actions.

A United States history course may ask students, what were the reasons early Americans excused slavery?

People even look at the deep past, or their unlived lives, in order to explain the meaning of events, movements, people, and modern issues. For example, someone can claim that institutional racism against African Americans continues in the United States because centuries of black slavery was entrenched in the economic, political, and social spheres of early America.

The last statement is an agreed upon explanation that historians have crafted after decades of examination and interpretation; there is a lot of evidence and rational to support it. What happens when the past is used to unjustly make sense of the world? For example, just today I heard a fourteen year old student explain how slaveholders were “evil”, because good people could never enslave others.

According to this student’s evaluation, slavery was caused by evil men, not complex structures that allowed to happen, and continue to affect our society today. Left unchallenged, this student has formed a cultural tool that incorrectly explains why bad things happen. Using this view, homelessness is due to laziness, the sick did not prepare well enough, and racism only comes in the form of evil individuals.

Understanding societal forces behind evil deeds can better help students understand that its everyone’s role in preventing tragedy. Otherwise there is little reason to care about all of those who are still enslaved today.

Lev Vygotsky

“The importance of not waiting to teach something until the child is deemed able to ‘absorb’ it (this can apply to the use of reading-schemes in primary schools just as much as to the development of scientific concepts s/ith older students)” (54).

Challenging students’ notions can be difficult, especially if the educator does not believe their charges can handle the abstract concept. Vygotsky’s idea of introducing students to complex concepts can help educators understand how to challenge students who form cultural tools of a poor design. The fourteen year old student I used as an example above had an incorrect notion of why slavey occurred in the United States.

Is this student, and the rest of their peers, ready to be confronted with a new perspective. Vygotsky would say yes, since students are able to be challenged with a concept or idea without fully knowing what it is. In fact, the Russian theorist would explain that students learning how to communicate with the idea, and sharing their perspectives with others, will be the way students master the concept.

This is not to say the students should be left on their own with the teacher just remaining on the side. It can be the teacher who delivers the initial opposition to an incorrect notion, and it is the teacher who should remain vigilant of what ideas are being expressed by students. It is from the collection of these ideas that future lessons can be crafted, all of which will be designed to further challenge students’ notion of history and form more cultural tools.

The work I wish to do with National History Day would be to examine how students form their tools, in other words historical thinking, but also how students choose which tools to apply to certain problems. I do not believe history is just one tool, but more of a garage that holds many different types of equipment that someone can use to manage problems.

 National History Day provides students with a wide range of historical and research problems, and gives a chance to influence the curriculum through their interest and choices. Through this interaction, a more accurate assessment can be done that will measure a student’s historical thinking ability and their college & career potential.

Lev Vygotsky

“The use of talk is increasingly being recognised in schools as a learning strategy to assist children to express their ideas and thoughts” (50).

A variety of assessment types should be used when measuring students’ ability to historically think. In the courses I teach, I mostly use writing to measure mastery over inquiry and skills; I want to better utilize the median of talking and oral expression. I rarely use oral expression from students as evidence of them mastering concepts, even though my students do speak in class, sharing their ideas with their peers. Some students struggle with writing, giving them the choice to verbally express their ideas will be a more democratic way of measuring their historical thinking ability.

“The application of Vygotsky’s theories has been taken up by Reggio Emilia pre-primary phase schools, which offers a project based curriculum where learning is centred on discussion and enquiry between children, teachers and parents” (56)

Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky’s connection to project based learning intrigues me, and I find the connection to community & family as an important concept. In order for projects to be a more fair, or democratic assessment, then families and the community should help shape the curriculum in which the projects stem from. When students complete National History Day projects, they present to the wider community and their family, but how much time was spent with these groups during the formative stages of the project? How could these conversations help students learn more about their identity, and how could they help create assessments that truly reflect what a student is capable of creating?

Reggio Emilia’s application of family and community connect to Bronfenbrenner’s thoughts on family. In most societies, the family remains as the most basic unit for a child’s development. Often times I feel as if schools, especially secondary, keep families as arms length. This space is not because of a distrust, but the ideas of keeping the school run efficiently.

But how efficient is an education when students are not combining their knowledge from home to their knowledge in school. Learning may have little importance if its not being connected to the personal, family, and community lives of students. I would be interested in studying how large-scale PBLs like National History Day could provide an opportunity for students, families, and educators to produce a more holistic education.

How much do we learn from our families? The argument could be made that education with the family has more impact and will last much longer than the education from school.

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