Vygotsky And Vegetables

The cloudscape of a place remains the same even after many years. I woke up in the morning, saw the sky and the clouds from the window of my hotel and knew exactly that I was in Hosur. The sky cannot be like that anywhere else, even after 13 years.

I had gone to the TVS Academy, Hosur, to participate in a workshop arranged for teachers on Vygotsky, the expert visiting the school was Dr Baljit Kaur. Baljit is a Senior Lecturer, College of Education, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

I have been saddled to publications work and have had a marathon session putting together the journal for teachers and popping out inhouse publication to our schools and it seemed a good idea to look at Vygotsky when my Director suggested I participate in the program. I had taught language, poetry writing and art criticism of sorts to middle graders those donkey years ago in the TVS Academy, Hosur. In addition, I have been interacting with Baljit and reading many of her research papers that she kept sending to us. It seemed only appropriate to consider seriously a break from my work in Chennai.

There is no more of the teacher in me, but there is a lot of poet and writer in me. I have been thinking of teaching poetry writing in our school in Thiruvannamalai. I had let go various opportunities to conduct poetry workshops for teachers in Hosur and Tumkur due to personal reasons. Also I am not good at teaching how to teach children write poetry. I reckon I can write poetry with children and share a bunch of good poems with them.

I wanted to start off the process by connecting with the schools and classroom, and the first step was to participate in a workshop meant for practioners. I stepped into the room where I knew quite a few, they are all passionate teachers. We had gone prepared with some readings – one written by Baljit on experimental schools in New Zealand, a paper on Maori theory of learning and human development written by a Maori – Arapera Royal Tangaere, an article written again by Arapera on schooling experience for the Maoris in mainstream schools in New Zealand, and Vygotsky’s essay ‘Interaction Between Learning and Development’.

All of us had poured through the readings and we were an informed bunch when it came to Piaget, Carl Rogers, Freire. Vygotsky was new to us, but our practice of facilitating learning and scaffolding seems close to the zone of proximal development that Vygotsky talks of in the essay. Therefore, when we started the program it appeared as if we would be in a comfort zone, just note taking and probably racking our brains to evolve practices to be followed in the classroom that brings to the fore Vygotsky.

In the essay ‘Interaction Between Learning and Development’ Vygotsky posits the three theories of learning and development – one holds that development/maturation is prerequisite for learning; another, holds that development and learning are simultaneous; and the third, that holds that maturation makes possible a specific process of learning where the learning process stimulates and pushes forward the maturation process. Vygotsky rejects all the three theories and questions the patterns that learning and development is forced into.

Vygotsky refutes the Piagean notion of developmental appropriateness for learning to take place; he writes that learning for a child begins at the inter-psychic exchanges between the child and the people around her. He speaks of tools – cultural, material and social, that mediate learning and intellectual activity. He holds that learning presupposes specific social and cultural nature wherein learning happens out of interactions, dialogues, synthesis and cannot be quantified into developmental stages but shifts the zone of actual development and the zone of proximal development for every child independently. This is in fact an inside out notion of Piaget for whom learning takes place in the mind of an individual out of his own volition when he constructs knowledge by acting on his reflexes or environment, depending on what developmental state he is in; for Vygotsky learning takes place simply out there. That is, the inter- psychic precedes intra-psychic.

The basic understanding that I have put forth has come across through various readings. That is the easiest part but appears like an intellectual pole vaulting that only some are capable of. This assumption of certain participants was shattered in the two-day program when it seemed that being Vygotskyean is simple. Baljit made it happen unwittingly in the way the program progressed, in the way she interacted with the group during the two days where she as well as all of us were constantly nudged to the zone of proximal development as individuals, teachers.

We examined our beliefs and assumptions as teachers and educators. We belong to a progressive school oriented towards learning taking place in a meaningful context. The learning is self-directed, child- centred, experiential and context-specific, the teacher is not an authoritarian figure but a facilitator who offers necessary scaffolding for learning to take place. As passionate teachers and educators we use a liberal mix of Carl Rogers, Friere, J. Krishnamurthy and Mahatma Gandhi in forming our vision, in our practices we follow Piaget, Carl Rogers, Howard Gardener and the like, but only after subjecting these to questioning and understanding their appropriateness in our context. We critically reflect on our beliefs and practices , examine the underpinnings of what has influenced us to constantly assess and review our practice, our understandings on learning, teaching and the purpose of education itself.

Our understanding of Vygotsky made us examine our practices in the classroom and our role as teachers-learners. We first looked at what happens in our classrooms. For instance, the curriculum especially of Math and Science for early and middle graders, amongst other things, is also Piagean where we provide the right environment that is developmentally appropriate for the child to actively construct knowledge. In every grade, there are learners with different abilities and intensive help is given to children with lower abilities; a class is normally divided into ability groupings and the teacher and the student for all purposes function with a tacit knowledge of these groupings. Here we have to pause and question this practice of streaming students based on their abilities. This practice draws from our understanding of how learning takes place, which might itself be flawed.

Dividing a group of children into multiple groups based on their abilities goes against the Vygotskyean understanding of learning. Learning takes place according to Vygotsky in a heterogeneous group born out of the exchanges between the students and the teachers who are at different zones of actual development. The classroom that Vygotsky has in mind is similar to the heterogeneous group that we as individuals formed for Baljit’s Program.

Let us look at the group itself; it was motley of people with different abilities and experiences. One participant was a new entrant into the teaching community, she had worked in a multinational company and is taking up teaching for the first time and was looking at culture as a static category that one embraces out of one’s own will. There was an embittered senior teacher who lamented the lack of values among the young brood of teachers in her school. There was an extremely passionate teacher of social science who is starting to believe that species like him are becoming extinct. There were the Principals of our two schools who juggle administration and academics; there were quite a few who practise Piaget without relating to the theoretical makeup. And, there was me quite determined to carry organic vegetables, especially mocch
ai, back home!

Each one of us carried a different understanding to the program and broadly to teaching itself due to our backgrounds, beliefs and assumptions. The exchange that happened between us opened vents in each one of us; the actual development that varied for each one of us shifted and accommodated newer layers of meaning and understanding of life, relationships, learning and teaching. Our classroom should be able to do that as well.

I am ready to engage in poetry workshops, poetry writing in a classroom is an egalitarian activity, there are free borrowings from one and all. I never feared veering from that in spirit at all. Baljit’s program will be of great help in a realm that is very valuable to me – in understanding the problems that my son probably faces in his school.

My son goes to one of those famous schools in the city that gets its fame from the results it produces. The school is a large set up, the ratio of students to teachers is 1: 40, and there are several sections in each class. The school provides a non-threatening atmosphere for the children and expose them to a variety of things; there is no pressure on academics alone per se in the early grades. In early grades, if not a very happy place, the school is certainly not a bad place to be in. There is dance, music, Veda classes, and arts and crafts. The school follows its own methodology of teaching and assessment, which I as a parent, feel is flawed in many ways. The teaching systems and processes have large gaps; the administration is not in cognizance of what happens in every classroom. So it is the question of quality vs. quantity, there is a fare of good, not so good, indifferent and plainly bad teachers. While teaching the content area the learning is not experiential, so the child is not often able to make meaning. The concepts, especially in subjects like Math, Physics and Chemistry are taught to a large group, sometimes in great haste, with very little reinforcement. Important concepts that are taught in this manner, over the years, remain abstract and unclear for the child, s/he is not able to apply these concepts in real life situations, which is what is required of him by the Board of Exams. For this reason, my husband and I do a parallel schooling at home, i.e., we teach extensively subjects like science and math.

My son is in grade 9, there is a pressure on him from the school and home, as well as societal pressure to perform. I have been providing support to him academically, many a time impatiently if my son took a little longer or did not evidence interest. Now I know how learning can take place in a more forbearing, tolerant and liberal manner through exchanges that can enrich both of us. I believe that learning happens in several ways, and that there is no singular definition of success. I know now that teaching- learning is all about helping children follow their dreams.

Learning for me as a child took place close to the kitchen; in my maternal grandmother’s house in a space called mitham ( a quadrangle space inside the house, that opened to the sky). Here my grandmother and aunts with all the children warmed ourselves on the mid- day sun, picking stones out of grains, shelling peas, double beans and mocchais. No adul-talk took place because children were always around, the exchange between adults took cognizance of the children of different age groups. There was a rich transference of knowledge, information, belief systems, the transference was both ways, or as many ways as the number of individuals involved in the exchange. We spoke of escalating price of vegetables, the worms eating the gooseberry tree in the backyard, health benefits of consuming unpolished rice, the mantras that my great grandmother used to alleviate the effects of scorpion bite. The exchange always reflected our socio-politico-cultural values, in many ways it examined and questioned them.

Now in my house the kitchen and dining area serves the function that mitham served in my grandmother’s house. This area is at the centre of our house, spatially and functionally. It is the place where we read our newspaper, drink coffee, cut vegetables and just hang around chatting up with the members of the family, the cook, the domestic help, and the gardener. My son gravitates to this space and the subtlest of lessons of life he has learnt here. Peas and mocchais are strong cultural tools, according to me. I want to see a personal relevance in everything I do. I want to bring Vygotsky to the mitham of my home, so I bought a kilo of mochai in Hosur and lugged it home to Chennai to introduce Vygotsky to everyone at home.