Part one: Link
Here in North America and Western Europe, we have been wholly seduced by Jean Piaget’s understanding of persons. Piaget saw children as little scientists, investigating their worlds as solitary researchers, gradually building up adequate models of how the world works. One of Piaget’s insights is that children develop their little models according to a timetable that is more or less the same for every child. Thus the role of adults is to help children work through the standard development schedule.
Piaget’s insights are extraordinarily useful in classroom settings (although it should be noted that classrooms have been set up according to Piaget’s notions, so there may be something of a tautology here). But in Eastern Europe, Lev Vygotsky came up with another possible insight into how children learn and “develop.”
Living in Russia in the early 20th C., Vygotsky was deeply affected by ideas of collective human endeavor. The West reviled Karl Marx and glorified the extreme individualism of free market capitalism; Eastern Europe and Russia reviled capitalism and glorified collectivism. Unlike Piaget, who was from Western Europe and saw human beings as disparate individuals, Vygotsky saw human beings as part of a collective.
Needless to say, Vygotsky’s research was utterly rejected by the West until the fall of Marxism in Eastern Europe. This was unfortunate, because while much of Vygotsky’s research is now outdated, he did discover one very important thing:– children can perform above their expected level of competence in certain social settings.
In my own work as a religious educator, I have found both Piaget and Vygotsky help me to understand how children learn to be religious. Children do change and develop in certain fairly predictable patterns as they grow older, just as Piaget’s model predicts. At the same time, when you put together a group of children of mixed ages, the younger children can perform above their developmental stage, due to the influence of the older children. The same is true for children who are in a multi-generational setting, such as in all-ages worship services (for example, school age children in certain unprogrammed Quaker meetings can and will sit in silence for the first twenty minutes of meeting for worship).
In the past twenty years, some psychologists in the West have gone beyond Vygotsky’s work, and developed a theory of “distributed cognition.” In this theory, cognition or thinking is distributed through out socially-created objects and institutions. A concrete example of a distributed cognition is an axe:– when you pick up an axe, you are holding the accumulated cognitive insights into how to cut down trees, accumulated by generations of human beings. Yes, someone has to teach you how to use that axe, but there’s a sense in which the axe also teaches you; there’s a sense in which as you learn to use the axe, you gain access to the accumulated wisdom of generations of thinkers.
I still use Piaget’s insights into human beings. But when it comes to teaching kids how to be religion, I also use the insights of distributed cognition. Like an axe, a congregation represents the accumulated wisdom of a certain religious tradition. This is another way of getting at what religious educator Maria Harris said:– curriculum isn’t just what’s written in the text books in the Sunday school, the whole congregation is the curriculum.