Psychological tools are those symbolic artifacts — signs, symbols, texts, formulae, graphic -symbolic devices — that help individuals master their own “natural” psychological functions of perception, memory, attention, and so on. Kozulin (2001 p. 1)
David; I’ll start with some examples of these Mediation Tools:
A child asks for a lost toy and the parent responds by asking where the child last had the toy. Not remembering the parent continues by asking for various places the child has been recently until the child remembers where he/she last had the toy. Someday the child will learn to repeat this process on their own, which is a conceptual tool I frequently use to find my car keys. (Mastering memory)
Fast forward to my earlier experiences in special education dominatied by behavioral practices and the preponderance of highly restricted environments for students (and adults). I agreed with many of the critiques, like the problems of defining difference as deviance. I wanted to challenge many related practices, but it was very difficult to organize my thoughts coherently and in a way that was also grounded scientifically, not just politically. Enter my discovery of Samuel Messick and his validity framework designed to organize empirical evidence and theoretical rationales along with value implications and the consequences of practices involving measurement. It was a tool to think scientifically while affirming the relevance of many political challenges. (Here we see texts and graphic assisting memory, attention, perception and association of subconcepts in a much more complex fashion.)
The first process is a general and common cultural skill (or process tool). If we lived in a nomadic culture or one where most people lived in one room houses it might not be a common skill. The second is an example of an organizational tool that depends on disciplinary knowledge and background to make sense fully. We can generate an explanation for how knowledge was obtained, but understanding at depth requires disciplinary knowledge. Schools mostly focus on the later types of knowledge. The Kozulin article talks about immigrants from different cultures, especially immigrants from preliterate cultures who can’t really understand many classroom activities. They lack the background literacy tools that often go unrecognized when we casually observe classrooms.
I don’t look at these tools as having child vs adult versions even though children may use them differently. A child may recognize that a special education practice doesn’t achieve a good result and there is something wrong even though they may not be able to articulate Messick framework fully and provide a scientific explanation. Children are capable of mathematical thinking or scientific thinking even though they don’t use the tool in the same way or with the same complexity as they will when they are adults.
On the Problems You Point Out
Most times instead of an incorrect usage of a tool I would think there is a need for a different tool that is more self evident, though I could be wrong about that. But there are times when a tool could be criticised in its use. In example take experimental power in statistics. Some texts encourage the memorization of formulas but I think it also important to understand the conceptual basis of the formula as a conceptual tool. The formula is a tool but being able to calculate power in statistical results is not the same as understanding the conceptual underpinnings. Many statistical texts seem to give more credance to lists of formulae than helping students associate how formula and concepts are united. I think this is a misuse of the tool and here’s a personal example.
When planning my dissertation I determined what an acceptable effect size would be and estimated a reasonable level of expected variability. I then realized that I needed more participants in order to reduce the confidence intervals in my data and have a reasonable chance of achieving adequate power. I could have planned for an even large sample size making a positive finding (a<.05) more likely even if there was a smaller effect size, but then I would have to ask myself if such a correlation would be sufficient to be meaningful. It’s not uncommon to achiving significance without real meaning. (I was primarily studying a short assessment instrument with an established criterion instrument.) Understanding how to calculate the power formula was less important than understanding the statistical thinking that underly my methodology. What I needed instead of a formula was a host of statistical conceptual tools.
How do we correct such misuse. I think by rational discussion. In effect, isn’t Dewey’s entire program about improving the tools available to students and a related critique of standardization education is that it depends too much on unsupported memory and word association. (A remenant of behaviorism) . I think Dewey has the more profound vision of schooling but Vygotsky has the nuts and bolts, so to speak.
Kozulin (2001) does points to a weakness in much of the thinking around Vygotsky. Most thought has been oriented toward the transmission and accomodation of cultural tools and not enough put toward prospective education. In effect, how do we teach for problems that are years or decades away? He points out that Neo-Piagetians tend to study the effects of collaborative learning on individual achievement, while neo-Vygotskians (and Deweyians) focus more on tools that allow and extend collectively distributed methods of action. When I struggle with a new problem my first instinct is to research how others have approached something similar and begin a simotaneous process of authoring. I also use platforms like medium that allow for more voices in this inquiry-based system. Literally a creative writing process that brings many voices together. Authoring involves knowledge, but also questions and answering. Isn’t that the basis for Dewey’s inquiry based learning and really where Vygotsky’s perspective needs Dewey’s perspective?
But by reversing the question and the answer as inquiry does, something that started as a liability — the radical differences among students and their dispositions — becomes an advantage. When the idea is to question, diversity is a good thing. (Thomas and Brown, 2011)