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Interdisciplinary Journal on Human Development, Culture and Education
Revista Interdisciplinar de Desenvolvimento Humano, Cultura e Educação

ISSN: 1533-6476

Tikuna kids / 
Crianças Tikuna
Aldeia Filadelfia
Benjamin Constant, Amazonas, Brasil
photo © Marcelo Lima

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number / numero 4, Vol I, May / Maio 2003

Cultural Psychology in South Africa: A Position Paper

Carol A Macdonald
School of Education
University of the Witwatersrand
Johannesburg, South Africa


The most viable paradigm for conducting education-related research in
a developing country such as South Africa is that of
socio-historical-cultural psychology - where I take a position similar 
to that which Cole (1996) set out - more widely known under the rubric of
Cultural Psychology.

To date this paradigm has been able to clarify how unalike people act
differently in their own situated contexts.  The effects of mediated
learning in context, an important unit of analysis for the discipline, 
have been seen in literacy and learning contexts.

Although the paradigm is burgeoning, to date, we have a paucity of
accounts in the theory's classical mould of learning in formal 
contexts, a context that Vygotsky regarded as a rich laboratory, and this 
paper attempts to highlight some local thinking in this area. The main tenets 
of a socio-cultural historical approach are set out, followed by a 
description of mediation in different literacy contexts. I then go on to look at 
the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development on two accounts, the
nature of internalisation, social practices, motives, beliefs and 
goals, and indigenous pedagogy.

Key Terms:  Vygotsky, socio-cultural historical psychology, mediation,
literacy practices, the Zone of Proximal Development, internalisation, motives
beliefs and goals, social practices, indigenous pedagogy.

Cultural Psychology seems to have taken the imagination of people in
two different types of places.  The first is in developing contexts:
attending the centennial conference in Geneva in 1996, it seemed clear
that the Piagetian view still captured the imagination of the developed
world, while developing or marginalized countries were interested in 
the possibilities of a Vygotskian approach. In the psychological and
education literature though, the possibilities of a Vygotskian approach
for developing different understandings of education, for example in
minority and specialised education, is evident. In South Africa, the
Vygotskian view is favoured more in education-related psychology, and
so for example, the use of normative (IQ-type) tests is now forbidden 
in schools. One of the consequences of this focus is that some of the
interesting metatheoretical questions about the psychological paradigm
have received relatively little attention. The orientation of the 
School of Education where I work is towards metatheoretical questions, and
therefore I hope to show something in this paper of how theory informs
practice and how I try to make sense of practice with the tools of 
cultural psychology.

In the main sections of this paper, some the central tenets of
socio-cultural psychological theory are examined, to specific ends. The
notion of culture itself has to be properly considered in relation to 
the other components of the classical theory of Vygotsky.  The notion of 
mediation has very many interesting nuances; the notion of zone of proximal development, probably the best known of all the concepts, needs to be tightened up
(and loose usages seen for what they are); many interesting
pedagogical questions reside around the definitions mentioned. The
concept of internalisation needs constant re-examination; however, we
do need to allow it in if we are going to give an account of the 
motives, beliefs and goals operating in important social situations. Inert and
generative learning are examined, and example from indigenous
pedagogy provided.  We hope that the productivity of sociocultural
historical psychological theory will have been illustrated.

The main characteristics of a socio-cultural historical psychology

The main characteristics of a socio-cultural historical psychology
(following Cole 1996:104 and 108-110) to which I would subscribe
appears "conservative"; this is because I would want to push the
classical theory of Vygotsky (1962, 1978, 1987 et passim) as far as it
would go, without including concepts that might contradict with the
axioms of the original. It would include the following, which are
addressed in the body of the paper, although not all at equal length, 
nor in equal depth:

 1. The notion of a unit of analysis: while general
    psychology has the unit of analysis as the individual,
    socio-cultural historical (SHIC)  Psychology has the notion of
    mediated action in context. Mediated action becomes
    internalised into intrapsychological processes, where the social
    character of the former is transformed into a structure and
    function in the latter.

 2. Human mediation occurs through artefacts, which may be
    broadly differentiated into tools (material artefacts) and
    psychological tools, specifically related to higher psychological
    processes  such as language, voluntary attention, voluntary memory, 
    and  ultimately, consciousness.

 3. Following upon this, it assumes that individuals are active,
    they are agents in their own development, but do not act in
    settings entirely of their own choosing. This means that although
    the historical and social contexts are important they do not
    completely determine the nature of human action.

 4. In contrast to general psychology, socio-cultural historical
    psychology rejects unilateral cause-effect, stimulus-response,
    descriptive science in favour of a science that emphasises the
    emergent nature of mind in activity, and acknowledges a central
    role for interpretation in its explanatory framework. Insofar as
    cross-cultural psychology is a proper subset of general
    psychology, the problematic nature of the relations between these
    two specific domains of enquiry will hold true as well.

 5. It draws upon the methodologies from the humanities as well
    as from the social and biological sciences. In its original
    intention, it is fundamentally a social (critical) theory.

 6. It seeks to ground its analyses in practical, everyday life
    events. (To this extent, much of its application may be seen as
    outside the domain of formal education per se.) This affords the
    possibility of superseding the duality of materialism versus
    idealism: “it is in activity that people experience the
    ideal/material residue of the activity of prior generations” (Cole
    1996:110). However, there may be a necessary duality running
    through from the classical theory.

 7. It assumes that mind emerges in the joint mediated activity of
    people. Mind is in an important sense co-constructed.
    Nevertheless, the co-construction is generally presumed to
    move from the more able to the less able, in the classical
    definition of the Zone of Proximal Development.

 8. It insists on the centrality of the genetic method understood in
    broad terms to include historical, ontogenetic (developmental)
    and microgenetic levels of analysis. We may then understand
    enculturation as the entire pool of artefacts invented and
    reinvented by the social group in the course of its historical
    existence. Culture is “history in the present” (Cole 1996:110).

In this paper, all the above postulates are discussed in some way,
although they are not taken up in any linear order.
The notion of Cultural Psychology (CP) has to be explicated, for it is
commonly assumed in South Africa to refer to Cross-Cultural
Psychology, to which it stands in radical opposition.  Cross-cultural
Psychology compares the behaviour of individuals on specific tasks or
tests, and then generalises the findings to the culture, for example,
preferred learning styles. The tasks are inevitably tasks from
western-type situations ( although this is not always so). It therefore 
can be seen to have a western, individualistic, orientation.  It takes 
culture to be the “independent variable” - in other words, it means that your 
culture causes you to behave in certain ways - where the “dependent variable”
would be your score on a task, for example. As part of mainstream
psychology, quantitative methods of analysis may be applied to your
data.  In cross-cultural psychology, the individual person is treated 
as having a disembodied mind, for the purpose of cognitive functioning,
and regards emotions as aspects of mind, too. In theoretical terms, we
may say that the unit of analysis in cross-cultural psychology is
individual cognitive functioning.

Mainstream psychology does not attempt to account for culture per se,
restricting itself typically to individual performance.  The fact that
Cross-Cultural Psychology generally works within a quantitative
paradigm, and uses inferential (rather than descriptive) statistics is 
one of the strongest points of contrast between the two paradigms, and
fundamentally prevents them from coalescing. This said, it is clear 
that a qualitative approach to psychological research is gaining ground, 
with many writers also claiming to use ethnographic research (a
cross-disciplinary phenomenon). Less obvious to general psychology is
the dichotomy between the individual and social as units of analysis.
The traditionalist view of social psychology, dominant until the last 
three decades, was that social psychology is the study of individuals within
groups; the nature of the social was then not at issue. More recently,
with the rise of the star of cultural psychology, it is the nature of 
the social that has come into focus.

Taking the above description point by point, we might say briefly about
Cultural Psychology the following.  In Cultural Psychology, 
western-type individualistic psychology is not the departure point. 
Although the origins of CP are historically in German Psychology 
(with the project having been set by Wundt, the founder of modern 
psychology), the resurgence of interest over the past 25 years has 
been primarily due to the work of Vygotsky, and the developments 
of the neo-Vygotskians (e.g. Cole, Valsiner and Wertsch, for the present
purpose). The notion of culture is more generally identified with the
context, situation or activity, but certainly at the social rather than 
the individual level.  It may look at tasks indigenous to a situation, for
example, learning to weave as an apprentice to a master weaver, but
may be applied to very familiar educational tasks, such as learning to
read in a remedial, group context. Although this paradigm may work
with simple descriptive statistics, generally the approach is to work
qualitatively, and ethnographic methods and an interpretive approach
have been borrowed from anthropology, at least in the application of 
the concepts. 

The notion of unilateral causality is de-emphasized, and culture is 
seen for example, from the perspective of  “shared meanings”. The unit of
analysis is seen as mediated action in context and  action and 
situation are seen not to be separable, each contributing to the other.

Working with contexts rather than simple causality models

There are reasons to reject a positivist type causal explanation of
individual behaviour. Let us assume that the "phenotype" of individual behaviour 
is determined partly by structural constraints operating at that level, 
but determinism is partially offset by what has been traditionally descibed 
as the impetus of free will.

Let us give an example here: the fairly recent studies about how people 
can profoundly effect the course of various serious conditions or illnesses
by their attitudes-their will to live, their capacity to visualize themselves as fighting the illness.  The example of Christopher Reeves, “Superman”, is apposite here.  However, he must be also understood in a particularly supportive social context 
(his family), a culture which does not discard him as useless, and the historical-institutional fact of a highly developed medical science.

In the same way as we can explain somebody’s prognosis by reference
to the possibilities intrinsic to the situation (and the person's preferences), to a
more complex description.First we would have to look at the constraints 
and possibilities operating at all levels of context; then we have to allow that the
possibilities (and preferences) and constraints of one context with the
possibilities/preferences of another: and not necessarily only the adjacent context as
diagrammatically represented in Figure 1, although we should allow for a 
certain level of embeddedness (for example, the historical-institutional 
constraints of children at boarding school). We should also allow for multiple
constraints operating at a particular level of embeddedness.  So, for
example, we may attribute the resistance  (continuing occurrence in the
face of multiple pressures) of rote learning without meaning in African
formal classroom learning to, a lack of understanding of the nature of
generative learning, the high value traditionally laid on the 
remembering of orally-transmitted knowledge, the preserving of relations of 
authority, to a pre-eminent historical learning in context, the fossilization of
learning skills instilled in missionary education, classroom organisation
(furniture and layout), a lack of exposure to viable alternatives. 
These would seem to include all layers of context, and require the extra 
layer of history to be added.

So, a cultural psychology would need to wrestle with all these in a
description, remembering that our own constructions would be partly a
function of a meta-level construction of the subject and the object. 
As with post-modern anthropologists, we too, have to place to the fore, where
we are coming from, and how that shapes what we are interested in,
and how our descriptions might look.

 The notion of culture

The anthropologist Geertz (1973) sees culture as a “system of shared
meanings”.  Culture is seen by Valsiner (1995:7) as the “systemic
organisation of semiotic and historical psychological processes in 
their different manifestations”. Valsiner’s definition alerts to the 
importance of semiotic processes. Cole (1995:31), retaining
more concepts from traditional psychology, sees culture as the
specifically human medium with which the sources of development that
underpin traditional developmental theories (nature-nurture,
biology-environment, individual-society) interact to produce
development. More pointedly, Cole has also explained culture as being
history in the present.  Bearing in mind my own previous work (specifically in 
a South African  context), I would see culture as the specifically human 
medium in which the generative mechanisms of development contribute to the construction of shared meanings.

It is clear that cultural constraints exist in children’s futures; they 
are born into a culturally structured world.  The cultural constraints perceived 
to exist in adulthood are transformed backwards into palpable material
constraints at birth.  This process is called prolepsis (beautifully
elucidated in Cole 1996).  This is the representation of a future or 
past state being presently existing. Considering the range of cultural
constraints inherent in different situational contexts in South Africa, 
the notion of prolepsis cannot be lightly discounted.  But in opposition to 
the notion of constraints, lies the notion of possibilities; we might say 
that different situations open up particular possibilities for action, as 
well. (Furthermore, the ideas in any instance of prolepsis may be slightly
inaccurate, given the speed of change in the late 20th and early 21st
centuries) Looking at the constraints and possibilities inherent in
different situations then becomes a valid research enterprise. Cultural
Psychology may also be more broadly described in terms of an interest
in preferences and constraints.

Mediation: The Plumb Centre of the Theory

 An important aspect of Cultural Psychology is the historically 
important psychological observation that although individuals may act directly in
relation to the environment, the central fact of being human is that we
also have a reality which is mediated to us by other people, caregivers
in infancy, and “important others”, later.  Mediation is principally
employed to give meaning to actions.  Mediation is in essence
semiotic--that is, having to do with systems of signs and symbols, such
as language, which may be directly used, or indirectly in the form of
media such as books. Others help us to build up an interpretation of 
the world, and, in different contexts, different interpretations are built 
up. So, for example, the act of conception, the bearing and delivering of
children are not purely biological, but are also imbued with meaning.
The way we do things, though, is often transparent, and
taken-for-granted.  So, for example, we may take for granted that
mothers deliver their babies lying or sitting, and are therefore 
brought up short at the image of a mother bending over a suspended horizontal
pole and using that to bear down with. People in monocultural 
situations are more likely to take the way they do things for granted-cultural
diversity brings a realisation (but not necessarily a tolerance) that 
things may be done in different ways.

Historically, South Africa was notorious for reifying the difference
between cultures, and trying to prevent the inevitable process of
change. As a white South African, I have had direct experience with
speakers of other colonial languages (for example, Portuguese),
Afrikaners (who are historically of Dutch descent), people from England
and Scotland, people of ancient blood (San), people of Asian descent
(what was historically India), people of three different African
backgrounds (specifically, Basotho, Batswana and Venda) as well as
of different educational systems and policies, the sum total of which
should have sharpened one’s perceptions of differences as well as the
implications of these. 

It is in the nature of culture as a system that it will be characterised
both by conservatism as well as by change, in practices (Barratt, 1984). If
cultures were to change at the whim of the moment, much systemic and
personal meaning would be put at risk. The stable, systemic aspect
allows individuals to act in stable ways in going about their daily
business.  But both individuals and cultures are vulnerable to change; 
in any unique act, an individual may contribute her own new meaning
through idiosyncrasy and creativity, which is ever-present to persons.
Cultures may change, also through their own ways, and sometimes in
unpredictable directions.  Cultures may change (or possibly fossilise, 
a movement in itself) when they are under external duress or simply by
being lured. For example, when feeling the need to maintain an 
identity, or, when mediational means such as computers and television change
the way we organise our recreational and/or work time. I have also
(Macdonald 1999) analysed educational systems as particular
instances of cultural systems-subject to the same constraints and
possibilities as the latter.

When cultures are under tremendous pressure, when there is a swift
social transition such as rapid urbanisation, traditional ways of being
become diminished in value (grandfather isn’t even there to consult,
and even if he were, he might be baffled too). Both preferences and
constraints are put under threat.  With regard to the former, ends, 
goals, values, tastes, desires and ideals may disintegrate before new forms
emerge; with regard to the latter, means, information, resources, 
causal beliefs, abilities and dispositions are also vulnerable to 
disintegration before there is a reconstruction. In the South African situation for
example, because of the disintegrative effects of previous policies on
family life, it may be thought that women have had to take on an extra
heavy burden as the carriers of conservative cultural mores. In this 
way they are seen perhaps as “more reliable”, while men have been freed
into roles that do not readily reconcile with those of a father-and 
thereby perhaps being seen as “less reliable”. This continues despite the fact
that the possibilities for having a “family life” (in South Africa) in 
the fullest sense are now, once again, becoming more real.  The logic of
everyday life is completely altered, when you live in a place which you
do not own in any sense of the word, when you do work which is
available, rather than what one might have preferred, and where “home”
far away, and provides only a frail thread of meaning in the form of
funeral societies, which operate in suburbs, to bury people in the 
place they call “home”.  As if to confuse the cognoscenti, urban dwellers may
call their city home the place where they “live”, and their historical
homes, the place where they “stay”. The children who enter school from
squatter camps have little to bring with them, and the teachers may 
find their behaviour to be chaotic, though not necessarily destructive.

Mediation in Two Different Literacy Contexts

For Vygotsky, the central fact about human beings is that they
constantly mediate to each other. This is the central fact of human
existence, from the day of birth. So, for example, whether they make
eye contact with their infants is important, and whether they hold them
facing others or towards the mother is also important (Ratner 1991).
Holding babies outwards to face others then, is supposed to be the
norm in communal-oriented societies. 

In this section, I use principles of mediation as an organising
rubric to understand the nature of literacy practices in two different 
local communities. 

In Maintown teachers are well educated, even though they may not have 
a university education.  They are highly skilled in teaching the three Rs, 
use reading, and maths schemes with expertise, for example. The teachers 
are likely to speak English as a mother tongue (or the cognate language, Afrikaans). In Ntsha Tsela the teachers are very poorly educated at school level and badly trained at tertiary training colleges.  Given this, and the fact that they 
generally don’t teach in their mother tongue-the quality of their teaching and 
their professional judgment is badly affected (Macdonald, 1990a-e).
Children may be looked after at home by their grandmothers, who take
principal responsibility for their schooling, despite the fact that 
they may not be able to speak English-the preferred medium of instruction for
their grandchildren. Forty percent of people are still illiterate, and 
this means that caregivers do not really have access to reading materials in
the African languages. Parents and grandparents see their native
language as properly at place in the home.

The second aspect is the materiality of mediational means:  in
Maintown, the classrooms are well-appointed, and adequately supplied
with books, paper, writing materials, overhead projectors and the
school may even have a media centre.  In Ntsha Tsela, the classes are
very badly appointed.  There is very little careful stewardship of what
there is or was.  The classes overcrowded, even though there is a
legally binding teacher-student ratio, and desks and chairs broken.
Writing books are dog-eared and textbooks are tatty or non-existent.
The children may not even have pencils; the teachers are likely to keep
the  state supply of pencils under lock and key-curiously inaccessible 
to the children.  There is a regular scrum when a pencil sharpener
appears, and children tend to bite their pencils to share with friends,
and then to sharpen them with their teeth.

The multiple goals of action:  In Maintown many teachers teach in order
to supplement their family income, or perhaps as the source of a single
parent income. Mostly, teachers have chosen teaching as their
profession. They are nevertheless prone to professional
disenchantment as their colleagues are, worldwide. In Ntsha Tsela
teachers often have a second job, because they were badly paid in the
past. In the last 20 years, teachers’ pay across qualifications has 
been rationalised, but there is a large residue of teachers in the system 
who came in with very low qualifications.

Mediational means have developmental paths: Schools’ mediational
means have changed significantly over the last generation. In Maintown,
pen and ink have been replaced by ballpoint pens. Outdated readers
have been replaced by modern children’s storybooks. Schools all
aspire to have a computer laboratory; if not, there may be a
classroom-based computer. Children have wide access to computers
at home, and may be able to carry out sophisticated computer-based
research for school projects. In Ntsha Tsela, very little has changed 
in the mediational means-children may not have pencils, let alone pens.
Stationery may be supplied by the state, and the textbooks which arrive
at the school may not be the ones which the teachers ordered.
Generally, the availability of resources has improved but it is not
stewarded properly. Any half-decent materials are locked away from
the children and not used. The books the children carry around with
them are dog-eared and dirty: university students bring this habit of a
lack of respect for literacy materials, with them. Rural-based distance
in-service education teachers invariably write all their assignments in
blue-ballpoint pen, while their Maintown peer students may turn in
beautiful computer-generated pieces. The former students may not
have had any instructional history of writing developed expository 
text. Indeed, they may have to learn very quickly, when their (teacher) 
college qualifications allow them access to graduate routes at university.

There are constraints and affordances inherent in mediational means,
and actions associated with them:  very well appointed Maintown
schools provide many affordances. However, the lack of imagination of
many teachers acts as a constraint on the mediational means that are
available. On the other hand, imaginative teachers are extremely highly
sought-after. Teachers may be allowed some licence to innovate, so for
example, children might have the benefit of a trial multiple 
intelligences programme. Conversely, some teachers may regard innovations 
such as computer-assisted learning as constituting a constraint on
developing their creative thinking and writing.  In Ntsha Tsela, 
teachers may find that the innovative methods they learned in college are
frowned upon by older, harassed teachers, and the exigencies of the
situation my lead them to resort to what Hawes (1979) calls “survival
teaching”, where teachers end up teaching as they were taught.
Children may be regarded as skivvies and school time used for
children to clean classrooms, for example. The Ntsha Tsela home
environments provide virtually no affordances because there are few
literacy events which can be carried into the school situations.
Caregivers are likely to regard education as the sole responsibility of
the school, feeling disempowered by their own lack of formal education.
In this way, a lack of mediational means is a significant constraint. A
family may spend the evening pouring over a formal document such as
an application form (attested by Heath, and observed locally,
McNamara, 1998), or alternatively watch the television for three hours 
at a time, with infrequent individual verbal contributions sinking without
response into the family consciousness (McNamara, 1998).
Authoritarian filtering of downward information in Ntsha Tsela schools
means that classroom teachers may remain ignorant of new projects or
innovations (Macdonald 1990c).

Power and authority operate in very different ways in these two context
types. In Maintown situations, teachers are seen as the symbols of
authority in terms of their knowledge, and access to other forms of
knowledge.  Printed media and educational technology too, carry the
same authority. Traditionally, state educational structures have not 
been regarded with any respect, but as the long arm of the state.  The new
educational structures have not been seen to be worthy of respect.  In 
a very different way, the Ntsha Tsela teacher in herself is seen as the
base and font of all knowledge, more so than the printed media.
However, in secondary schools, textbooks carry more authority than the
teacher does.  In general, Ntsha Tshela teachers were seen as
products of an inferior state system, and then teachers turned against
the state in a new union. Their relationship with the new structures is
ambivalent, because posts are constantly at risk. The morale of
teachers in the townships is very low; teachers in the primary schools
resent teachers from secondary schools filling the promotion posts in
their schools while they (the secondary teachers) have no training or
experience at the primary school level. Since corporal punishment is
now outlawed, teachers have to resort to novel ideas for asserting 
their authority; covert practice is corporal punishment is rampant. In the
consultation leading up to the promulgation of The Schools Act, all
stakeholder groups were concerned about the abolition of corporal
punishment, since it is a common feature of South African life.


The Crocodile-Jaws Definition

There seem to be at least two generally circulating, accepted
definitions of the ZPD.  They each have implications, specific to them,
which may be drawn out, and are therefore worthwhile dealing with in
turn.  The first is the most familiar one (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86): “... 
the zone of proximal development ... is the distance between the actual
developmental level as determined by independent problem solving
and the level of potential development as determined through problem
solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable
The passage in question appeared in a stenogram of a lecture
delivered by Vygotsky shortly before his death and published
posthumously. Reading the quotation in the context provided for us by
Van der Veer and Valsiner (1994b), it is interesting that Vygotsky
spoke of the idea as if he were applying an already existing concept
and simply at that point inserting a clear definition of the term in 
the course of his lecture. The editors of Mind and Society inserted it 
directly into the text, and therefore gave it a status it did not originally 
The word “competent” is apparently more aptly translated as “intelligent”,
which throws us into a different discourse, to which I shall not refer
here. This first definition has more recently been referred to as
unassisted versus “peer-assisted” or “other-assisted” performance, and
included is also the idea of “intelligent imitation”. This last term 
refers to learners carrying out actions which they do not yet fully understand, 
with the implication that this action, in and of itself, aids the 
development of understanding. 

Taken at face value, Daniels (2001) points out that this whole notion 
is simplistic, and that it seems to imply a straightforward process: put
together, a child and a more able peer,  the latter will mediate the
former through a problem in some kind of natural or automatic way. The
situation is most unlikely to work out this way: for example, this
simplistic scenario does not take into account factors such as learner
resistance. In the case of learner resistance, then the learner is 
unlikely to move to her new “level of actual development” (the top part of the
zone of proximal development changes from the previous “potential
level” to the new “actual level”).  Wertsch’s (1998) ideas of “mastery” 
or “appropriation” are helpful here; mastery speaks to the ideas of
learning the skills, and it is certainly possible to master these in a 
most superficial way. The situation I have in mind is rote learning of
algorithms, which might easily be forgotten once a target test or
examination is over; more worrying is the apparent problem solving
ability which fails when students face a problem in a slightly 
unfamiliar format (Gardner 1991). The notion of mastery has to be explained in its
most challenging configuration: the ability to transfer problem-solving
skills to unfamiliar contexts. However, for the moment, we move on.
Learner resistance may possibly lead to mastery of a superficial kind,
but if the learner does not identify with the values of the teacher, 
then appropriation-making it one’s own, will not occur. Put another way, we
could say that the concept has not been internalised in all its 
Wertsch is keen to avoid any connotations of a different inner and 
outer aspect in using these two terms (but see the section below for a 
further discussion of internalisation).

Wertsch’s (1985) ideas of “situation definition” and  “intersubjectivity”
help us to nuance further this first definition. We need then to be 
able to explain what it means for the teacher and learner to have the same
situation definition.  Speculatively, the learner must have a clear 
idea of the task demands, including its goal and subgoals; some idea of the
tasks demands of the task, in terms of the skills, would also be
required.  To this I would add that the dyad must also share the same
motives, goals and values about the intrinsic worth of the task and
possibly, about its current relevance. Motivation to do the task (although global
motivation to even attempt some tasks may be necessary) is not sufficient on its 
own for the successful execution of the task.

Moving from the “spontaneous” to the “scientific”

There is another explanation of the ZPD which has pedagogical
implications, in a different direction. Kozulin (1990) prefers to talk 
of the ZPD as the ‘zoped’, and he is not concerned with the more able and
less able in a problem-solving dyad: i.e. the crocodile-jaw version, I 
like to say. As a complete contrast, we are now concerned with the
difference between spontaneous and scientific concepts, concepts
which have a very good Vygotskian source. Spontaneous concepts are
those which children, and by extension, adults, in an informal learning
situation, learn about things in the immediate environment in a
non-conscious way-hence their being spontaneous. We find them
difficult to inspect in a conscious, willed way, and each concept may 
be relatively free-floating in relation to our other spontaneous concepts.
These concepts are typical of childhood, and also of preliterate
children, and by implication, of non-literate people. The latter, 
though, may have highly developed systematic concepts of co-operation,
worldview and so on, which was not the subject of early research. To
get back to the classic focus: spontaneous concepts are to be
contrasted with scientific concepts, which are systematic, constructed
in a conscious way, and available to introspection and comparison.
Scientific concepts are typically constructed in a formal learning
situation, including subjects such as science, geography, history and
even literacy itself (Smyth, 2002).  For Kozulin then, the movement
between spontaneous and scientific concepts happens within the
zoped, and with the aid of the teacher. There is still the notion of 
the potential level being the level being reached; but this time, it is
characterised by the advent of a scientific concept.

If one is still hooked into the crocodile-jaw image, then the 
implication is that that scientific concept becomes the next actual level 
which must then paradoxically be, become, or be regarded as a 
spontaneous concept. This cannot be, and is probably not what is 
intended by Kozulin. His levels may well float very far apart indeed. 
However, it would be good to have some notion of developing scientific 
concepts: while they might repeatedly have to be rescued out of the jaws of
alternative conceptions during their development, teachers might be
grateful to be able to signal benchmarks of understanding.

Indigenous Pedagogy

In the larger community, knowledge (of the school type) is regarded as
a commodity; the more knowledge you have the more power you have.
There is an historically bound belief that academic learning is the
highest good; perfectly ordinary people would like their children to go 
to study at universities overseas.  So, the idea is for teachers to try to
teach as much knowledge as possible. But the question of the
language medium is pertinent here: for historical and practical 
reasons, teachers are expected to teach through the medium of English, pretty
much all the way through school. However, most children in the country
are very isolated from mother tongue speakers of English. By extension
then, knowledge is profoundly decontextualised-it is far from the
children’s experience, and expressed in a language, the immediate
connotations and wider resonances of which are hid from both teacher
and child; it may be said that it has no personal significance for the

This non-comprehending form of school learning is universally
denounced; and, it must be readily acknowledged, the radical form is
no longer practised at township schools, but that represents only about
5% of schools’ practice.

Under what conditions would teaching-learning patterns change?
For one thing, if the teacher is supposed to be the repository of all
knowledge, and the children do not have books of their own, this is
going to continue a measure of resistance.  In innovations, teachers 
are reluctant to be seen with their heads in a book; one way of obviating
this difficulty is to have the children’s book literally embedded in 
their Teacher’s Edition, and in it, handily, are answers to the questions 
which are posed for the children. Ask children to think about a process, or
speculate about possible answers means that the teachers have to
have possible answers provided for them: they are otherwise
completely unlikely to ask these questions themselves. Because, the
teacher must know what the children might say; because, for the
teacher not to know, represents an unbearable loss of face. The small
changes that are made possible here are made only in a very small
number of books. Books that are more traditional allow teachers to
make summaries of the information in the text, and to give the children
notes. When the children learn the notes, the destiny of these is to
become inert knowledge not really any better than the oral knowledge
described above. W(h)ither trunks and branches?

Generative knowledge, where aspects of what one know can be
combined in different permutations for different purposes, is regarded
as the most desirable alternative to inert knowledge.  The features of
this would seem to be having access to the internal structures of that
knowledge, and understanding the way in which it could be
differentiated or integrated with other knowledge, to the end of 
creating or constructing something new (whether that be a new concept or
application). This would seem to be what Vygotsky (1962/87) had in
mind when he referred to “scientific” concepts.  These would be taught
with a high degree of awareness; more recently termed metacognitive
awareness (knowledge of cognition), or perhaps an epistemic stance,
i.e. what do we know, how do we know it. However, it could be argued
that the notion “scientific concepts” does not necessarily constitute 
the full capacity for problem solving so sought after in today’s learners.


A necessary part of the theory

For Vygotsky, internalisation takes part with the confluence of the 
social and the natural, specifically, when in early development, speech and
practical action converge.  His very well known claim (1962/1987) is
that when speech-language become internalised, it is abbreviated: it
become abbreviated by the very process of internalisation. There is
however, always his balance between the natural (biological) and the
social during the process. Only at a certain level of internal development 
of the organism does it master cultural processes. After mastering 
the structure of an external method, he tries to construct the inner 
schemes by using signs and former knowledge. The child solves an inner
problem by means of exterior objects. The structure of an external
method combines processes of memorising mnemotechnically,
comparisons, and logical operations-and this is not an outward,
ready-made creation. This structure originates inwardly, so it cannot 
be forced from outside because it originates inwardly; however, it is
modelled by the influence of external problems and signs with which the
child operates. After the structure comes into being, the subject
changes internally, this being an example of the genetic relationship
between the structures of cultural reasoning and behaviour (Vygotsky 

Vygotsky’s (1962) early conceptions can show rather elegantly, how
cognitive development is intrinsic to the dynamic of society (Moll
1984).  In the first stage, the word must have an objective meaning
established in the course of cultural history. Then, the objective
connection between the words and what it refers to must be functionally
utilised by the adult in interaction with the child. Finally, the child
internalises the semantic aspect of the words (the child learns what it
means) (Vygotsky 1962 in Moll 1984:52).

Therefore, consciousness and self-awareness are seen as the end
result of activity, rather than just an extension of a natural process
originating in human biology. The direction is therefore from action to
thought. Higher mental functions are created through activity. (Kozulin
1990) Internalization and the use of signs alters our essential nature; in
accordance with maturation we construct forms, internalise connections
and act in a goal-directed manner. The process of internalization
involves changing the mode of operation of lower mental functions, for
example, memory. However, human social forms are more complex
and advanced; they undergo a transition from external forms when they
are mediated by the social and are only executed inside, to their
internalised form, when the aspect of activities are integrated inside our
psychological apparatus (Kozulin 1990).
The essentials of Vygotsky’s position could be summarised in the following way.  The specific mechanism is the mastery of external sign forms,
and the external reality is a social interactional one. The internal
plane of consciousness takes on a quasi-social nature, specifically
because of its origins (Wertsch, 1985).
We take the classic Vygotskian point that it is important to study the
interpsychological origins of egocentric speech, because its
self-regulative capacities; this would seem to be a key to studying the
role of  the transition from interpsychological to intrapsychological
functioning ( Wertsch, 1979).
A faithful neo-Vygotskian has taken his ideas along the same vector.
Gal’perin (in Arievitch and Van der Veer, 1995) contends that the
processes underlying the internalisation concept can be construed
without creating a false impression of dualism (see below). He
maintains that mental actions are key components are key components
of psychic functioning. Insofar as these actions are mental, South
African psychologists would see a consonance with Piaget, who is
careful to point out that actions on objects may be internal or 
external, the latter being most characteristic of sensorimotor functioning. For
Gal’perin, these actions are formed and are part of an external 
activity in accordance with relations of external objects in a realm of activity
(Arievitch and Van der Veer, 1995).
These activity relations determine properties and the objective content
of psychic actions, so psychic activity occurs with the individual, and so
internal processes accompany the external realisation of objective
content. Gal’perin’s concepts imply a transformation of certain forms of
external activity into other forms.  Compared to Wertsch’s (1998)
“appropriation” and “mastery”, internalisation refers to the formation of
human ability to operate with non-sensory properties of objects. So, the
social construction of the human mind is an important aspect of this
account. We take Gal’perin’s account to be the most orthodox
extension of Vygotsky’s thinking, but wonder at what his conception of
thought as abbreviated inner speech would be.

Extensions and contentions

Daniels (1993, 2001) makes what for South Africans (e.g. Miller 1984),
is a very important point. It is impossible to reduce an explanation of
social processes to principles that apply to individual psychological
phenomena, or, to explain them as direct, internalised copies of social
interactional processes. Rather, there are dialectical relations 
between the social and individual levels, which allow for different levels of
explanation, without the direct reduction of the one level to the 
other. So, by extension, the active social positioning of the child within a 
particular practice may be seen as part of the process of the construction 
of the context itself.

Moll (1994) points out that mediation has independent properties that
give form to the relationship between a child and a mediator; mediation
generates a set of developmental processes in the child’s mind, but
does not, of itself, produce or contain the underlying psychological
principles that make possible development.
It may be contended that Vygotsky stops short of a real explanation of
the process of internalization on an individual level. Lawrence and
Valsiner (1993) have attempted to do this. They see internalisation as
going through a process of transformation of semiotic material
imported (sic) from the social world into personally constructed
subjective experiences.  Crucially, the explicit analysis of 
internalisation as constructive transformation makes it possible to 
understand the uniqueness of personal subjective worlds and their social
intersubjective developmental roots. Certainly this accords with the
notion of constructivism, and the “models” which children build in 
their heads, and their teachers attempt to “remodel” in their attempts to
understand children’s thinking (Von Glasersfeld, 1987). In classic
Vygotskian terms, the “internal speech” certainly has novel
characteristics. As Lawrence and Valsiner (1993) further put it: these
new meanings are stable and a socially shared entity becomes the
basis for bi-directional person-society mutual transformation.  This
conceptualisation allows us to describe the non-determination of the
individual by the social and vice-versa, allowing too, for the 
possibility of novelty and change, rather than simply reflecting a 
transformation rather than a transmission view of speech and knowledge.

Perhaps because of the relative brevity of the classic Vygotskian view,
there have been criticisms of a possibility of a dualism intrinsic to it.
Perhaps (Arievitch and Van der Veer 1995), the internal and external
should be reconceptualised. One way round the difficulty is simply to
avoid these concepts altogether as Wertsch (1993) has done; he has
turned  to the concepts of mastery and appropriation instead-concepts
that we used in the section on mediation. The word “internalise” should
be replaced by “master” because it does not have connotations of
being both internal and external: “mastery” may be seen to involve the
psychological process in human action.  Another conception, by Dean
(1994), is that internalisation should incorporate an individual social
dynamic, a joint construction of mind, and a process of intellectual
development incorporating both instinctual and affective components
into its fabric.
Wertsch (1995) in commenting on the work of Arievitch and Van der
Veer (1995) and Gal’perin, points out that “mental actions” and
“mastery and appropriation” do not have to be interchanged.  He
contends that we do not know if mental processes are “inside” or
“outside” the individual; but it is very nearly impossible to use an
internal-external distinction. So, perhaps, instead of considering
internalisation in relation to a single general phenomenon, it may be
better to consider it in terms of a range of phenomena. Thus, we would
not have to choose between the notion of internalisation as forms of
action on the one hand, and as abbreviated inner speech on the other.
By extension, mastery and appropriation are not necessarily in
competition with these earlier two conceptions.

A further criticism of Vygotsky’s notion is that it is too concerned 
with the individual, at the expense of the idea of “participation” (Matusov,
1998). Vygotsky’s notion of internalisation suggests that higher-level of
psychological phenomena are a transformation of social activities,
functions and relations into individual ones.  Insofar as this is true,
Matusov (1998) sees this view are overemphasising solo activity and
individual skills at the expense of joint activity. This view seems to him
to be ethnocentric-it privileges the mastery of solo activity as the crux of
human development, neglecting a participation model, which may be
just as important. Participation might well be more important to
communally oriented communities who emphasise learning by
observation and imitation. “Participation” focuses on the togetherness
of the concepts of the social and the psychological, leading to a notion
of the transformation of participation: however, Vygotsky’s perception
of internal structures as deriving from social relations would seem to
mitigate this criticism. Matusov would prefer a “participation” rather 
than an “internalisation/zone of proximal development” orientation. It 
seems, from the modes of being described in the literature that both these
orientations would be accurate, depending on the type of learning being
described, and that perhaps we do not have to choose between them.
Certainly, in terms of formal learning, the notion of development of
individual agency, their social and cultural origins, and individual
learning using physical and semiotic tools seems to be apt.
Nevertheless, Matusov prefers the “participation” model, which he feels
represents the mutual constitution of the social and individual (the
cornerstone of cultural psychology). Notwithstanding this, Vygotsky’s
conception does not preclude this, and it may be a matter of admitting
the centrality of the notion of co-constitution, but focussing on the type 
of learning in question, and therefore not necessarily being criticised for
the moment under observation.  After all, even the more individualistic
orientation carries within it the notion of re-creation of ideas by the
individual.  One may further argue that even decontextualised thinking
actually has a context of thought, and that this thought-in-context has
therefore got a singularly social aspect as well, despite a common
sense view of it as individualistic thought.



We may say then that human actions and social practices become 
intelligible only be reference to the beliefs and desires of intentional agents. 
So, from the point of view of the researcher, in looking at actions and
practices we may be partly able to access these beliefs and desires, 
and if they are “experience-far” to the people being researched, then 
we might resort to “rational reconstruction”, saying, for example, 
“What would a person/people have had to be thinking about to have
had to act in that way?”

Social practices and individual agency

Remembering that these terms are analytically separable, we can and 
must ask about their relationship: how do they serve each other and 
make each other up? Other questions include: Why do individuals pass 
on their traditions?  What goals are accomplished by this? Why do
we care about upholding traditions? While asking these questions, 
we note that “passing on” and “upholding” are in empirical 
and theoretical  tension with “neglecting”, “flouting” and the dynamics 
of “change”.  The multiple relationships between the self, tradition, 
human agency and morality must be analysed in greater detail- but not here,
and not now.

The terms “possibilities” and “constraints” might be more happily be
replaced by “preferences” and “constraints”, but for a short moment, we
might look at moral ends as self-defining existential issues. Personal
boundaries are issues about what is me and not me; gender identity is
constituted by issues about what is female and male; co-substantiality has
to do with issues about what are my kind and not my kind; hierarchy has to
do with questions about why we share unequally in burdens and benefits of
life; and finally, community has to do with issues concerning what the
proper relationship is between what I want to do, and what the community
wants me to do.

In this modulation of theory, the unit of analysis of mediated action in
context is laid aside for the moment, while we look at a unit of analysis
which allows for more theoretical articulation of both internal and external
aspects of action.  Turning from Wertsch to Shweder, we say for now, 
that human action is a joint product of  “preferences” and “constraints” 
mediated by human agency (will) and logic of rational choice (means-and-ends,
uses-and-tools, motivation).  Preferences seem in some sense to be 
internal, including as they do, ends, goals, values, tastes, desires, and
ideals-although of course, these may well be socially shared or even
socially distributed. The constraints seem to be more objective (or
objectified), but may well also be individual and social-means, 
information, technology, resources, causal beliefs, abilities, and dispositions.

Preferences and constraints are both individual and social aspects, and
subjective and objective aspects to them (so the traditional antinomies of
which cultural psychology is sceptical of, are once again happily blurred.)
This account is potentially very fruitful, because as we begin to give an
account of aspects of preferences and constraints (and surely, how they
interact together) we get a more human-faced notion of culture than merely
possibilities and constraints. On the other hand, we are also enabled to
enter contextual issues into our description.  And these issues must stand in variable relation with each other, although speculation about these must 
be reserved on this occasion.

One example may serve to get us going: let us say that I value learning 
very highly, and that my ideal is to study at university; however, the lack
information at my disposal about what to study in order to qualify for 
a particular course is further vitiated by an overblown belief in my own
abilities. Viewed this way, academic support and academic
development can clearly be analysed within a theory of cultural
psychology.  At the same time, the importance of vocational guidance
within rural educational settings is also indicated.

But cultural psychological explanatory tools are not limited to this
situation: let us say that children are highly valued in my culture, but
virginity is no longer strictly enforced before sexual activity takes place.
I want to have children, but before I can give birth to one I contract
HIV/AIDS. My partner believes that intercourse with a virgin will cause him
to lose this sero-status, and he may go off to have such intercourse. I am
left with the baby and the diagnosis. His family, whom I meet later, blame
me for my partner’s death.
This latter example, especially, is very close to the hearts of many South
Africans. There is however, still an enormous amount of denial in the
community about what is now a pandemic. It has not fallen to my lot yet to
work with motive and beliefs of school-children in relation to sexual
practices. My ongoing concern is with the teaching-learning
experiences of rather young children.
At the beginning of the paper a promise was made about looking at the
interaction between theory and practice: my own orientation has been 
the need to find a framework for adequately capturing truly unique 
educational practices.  The productivity of sociocultural historical psychological
theory for doing this may have been illustrated.

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Carol Macdonald was born in South Africa in 1953.  She studied at the
University of the Witwatersrand (MA), the University of Reading (MA), 
and Edinburgh University (Ph D), during which time she was working on 
children's language and thinking. She moved from developmental psycholinguistics 
to a closer focus on socio-cultural historical psychology on her return from
Scotland in 1983.  She now works on language and culture-cognition 
issues in disadvantaged education. She is a Senior Lecturer in the School of
Education, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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