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Theories of Development - The Contextualist Worldview

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Although there are many differences between a mechanistic and an organismic worldview, they nevertheless share one important characteristic—they each view the process of development as universal. This emphasis on universality is one of the ways in which these two worldviews can be contrasted to the third, Contextualism. Contextualists do not believe that there are universal laws of development; rather, they argue that the forces that contribute to development are specific to historical time and social place.

Contextualists make their nonuniversal argument for two reasons: one empirical and one conceptual. From an empirical perspective, they argue that there is more than enough variability in the data comparing individuals and groups from different settings to raise serious questions about the assumption that human development reflects the same universal set of variables. From a conceptual perspective, contextualists argue that since it is impossible to ever have an objective (i.e., context-free) perspective on human development, then it is impossible to make judgments that are not culturally based.

Lev Vygotsky's (1896-1934) cultural-historical theory of human development is a good example of a theory rooted in a Contextualist Worldview since it places great emphasis on the role of culture in both defining and then transmitting the sign and symbol systems used in that culture. Sign and symbol systems are the ways cultures note and code information. They are reflected in the nature of the language, in ways for quantifying information, in the expression of the arts, and more generally in the ways people establish, maintain, and transmit social institutions and relationships across generations.

Vygotsky saw language as the defining characteristic of humans as a species, the one element that distinguishes humans from other species. Language allows for a shared communication, which in turn allows for collective effort or labor. This effort, in turn, sets the foundation for the progressive evolution of culture across generations. To Vygotsky, culture is a uniquely human phenomenon, allowing history to replace biology as the defining element in the lives of humans.

Of the various elements of Vygotsky's theory, the one that continues to receive the most attention, is his concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Vygotsky saw the ZPD as the mechanism through which a culture's sign and symbol systems were passed from generation to generation; not surprisingly, many educators see it as the key element in the educational process of children. The ZPD represents an interval between what a child (or adult) is able to do alone and what that person can do with the support of a more skilled person. For activity in the ZPD to be educationally meaningful, the teacher must have a clear sense of both what the child should learn and the child's current interests and abilities. In essence, intersubjectivity needs to be established between teacher and child so that the learner understands the goals of the teacher, and the teacher understands the child's present level. A failure to establish intersubjectivity indicates that the teacher will be ineffective in helping the child acquire new information because the strategies the teacher uses to help support the child's learning will be ineffective or inappropriate.

In addition to highlighting the educational process, the ZPD also highlights another important element of Vygotsky's theory, namely, the notion that the intermental always precedes the intramental. By this Vygotsky meant that all knowledge is first acquired as social knowledge and only later is it internalized and comprehended by the child. It is because all knowledge is first transmitted as social knowledge that the cultural-historical context of a particular culture is so important in understanding and defining an individual's development.

People sometimes tend to think of theories as abstract and not useful, as something only academics argue or care about. Actually nothing could be further from the truth. Theory is the foundation upon which all everyday ideas about human behavior and development are based. In the words of psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947), "there is nothing so useful as a good theory."


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Dale E. Goldhaber

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