Wednesday, 9 April 2008

The Soviet connection...

There is more than one 'psychology'

Yesterday, in reporting on the recent ‘news’ of the relationship between speech and human mental development, as manifest in motor tasks and ‘behaviour’, I had to admit as follows:

Unfortunately, like many others I cannot readily access complete journal articles in subscription publications, so I have to appreciate their content only second-hand.

Before breakfast this morning a well-wisher had emailed me a copy of the academic article in question.

Its introduction includes three paragraphs that help me understand what has happened at the academic level (the ‘newsworthiness’ of this finding is another question).

This thread of research began with the early work of Vygotsky (1930–1935/1987) and Luria (1959, 1961) on young children’s verbal control of motor behavior. Luria conducted a series of experiments involving a bulb-squeezing task in which children between the ages of 1.5 and 5.5 were asked to squeeze a rubber ball some number of times based on either the experimenter’s verbal commands or instructions for the child to say certain things while squeezing. These studies found that young children (3–5.5 years old) were able to successfully complete the task when the number of squeezes matched the number of syllables/words in the verbalization but were unable to succeed when there was inequality between the number of squeezes and syllables (e.g., a child asked to say “Squeeze two times,” would squeeze three times – once for every word – instead of twice). With increasing age, verbal instructions from either the experimenter or from the self gained in their regulatory effect on children’s motor behavior (Luria, 1959, 1961; Wozniak, 1972).

Other researchers using similar tasks to examine speech–action coordination in young children replicated Luria’s findings (Birch, 1966; Lovaas, 1961, 1964; Meichenbaum & Goodman, 1969a, 1969b). Birch (1966), for example, instructed children to “press” (say and do) when they saw a green light and to “don’t press” (say and do) when they saw a red light. Results from this study revealed that all of the 5.5–6.5-year-old children were able to successfully complete this task, while 75% of 4.5–5.5-year-old children were successful, and only 37.5% of 3.5–4.5-year-old children were successful. Meichenbaum and Goodman (1969b) extended this work by exploring differences between instructing kindergarten and first grade children to use overt (i.e., aloud to self) or covert (i.e., quiet with lip movements) speech to exercise verbal control over motor responses in a peg-tapping task. First graders’ benefited more from the covert speech condition than did kindergarteners. These findings support the notion that as children develop, the motoric component of speech becomes less influential in controlling the child’s motor behavior while the semantic content of the child’s speech becomes more influential. Additionally, these studies point out that the shift from the motoric to the semantic aspects of the speech being functional occurs at about the same time as Vygotsky’s hypothesized internalization of private speech from other to self, from overt to covert (Vygotsky, 1934/1987).

Wozniak (1975) and others (Balamore & Wozniak, 1984; Goodman, 1981; Tinsley & Waters, 1982), using a task that involves children tapping sequences of colored pegs with a toy hammer while listening to and/or producing various verbal instructions during or before tapping, showed that when children’s vocalizations accompany the action of tapping, performance is enhanced, however, when verbal self-instructions are given before the hammering starts the speech is not as helpful in guiding behavior. Three- and 4-year-old children also performed better on the task when they used self-vocalizations compared to when they did not. Research by Mischel and Patterson (1976; Patterson & Mischel, 1975, 1976) examining preschool children’s instructed use of self-verbalizations while trying to resist the temptation to play with attractive but prohibited toys similarly found that children are able to resist or delay longer when they used the verbal strategies they were instructed to use, compared to control children who were either instructed to use irrelevant verbalizations or given no instructions. Also noted in these studies was that children delayed longer when they were given specific things to say to themselves and when they were given cues as to when to speak, compared to children given less specific instructions.

This is a reasonable summary of a thread of investigation within experimental psychology in the United States that took some findings reported from the then Soviet Union and elaborated upon them. This thread, which I have even heard called a paradigm, was usually known in English under the rubric of the ‘verbal regulation of behavior’ (in fact a significant mistranslation indicative of wider conceptual differences between the two psychologies), This line of investigation derived from laboratory work of A. R. Luriya when he was at the Institute of Defectology and was very much defined by his political situation at the time. When this mitigated somewhat, he soon moved on. In the West the thread did not prove particularly fruitful and eventually petered out. The so-called ‘neo-Vygotskians’ never connected to it.

The enormous psycho-pedagogical tradition of which the work of Luriya and Vygotskii were important parts were not taken up in the West outside a very narrow group. It was when examining Soviet defectological approaches and achievements that I myself toyed with ‘verbal regulation’ – at which time my then student Ann Mintram (now retired in New Zeeland} said something like ’Have you heard of Conductive Education? It looks just like what you were talking about?' But that’s another story.

More interesting are the references to Donald Meichenbaum, in the text quoted above. Meichembaum, ‘one of the ten most influential psychologists of the [last] century’, combined what he read of Luriya’s experiments with what he already had, behaviorism, took this out of the psychological laboratory into the real world and, ecce, something quite new – ‘cognitive behavior modification’ that has had made and continues to make no small contribution to human welfare. That’s a different story too (or is it – hark back to two days ago and the item on this site ‘Freudian slip’).

Meanwhile back in the lab, the thread remained a matter of minutiae. It was intersting to see Winsler and his colleagues resurrecting this line in the West, though it is hard to see what all the fuss is about. They do seem interested, though, its potential to improve the educational process, so the best of luck to them in that. Meanwhile of course, pedagogic and psychological traditions persist in the former Soviet lands, despite everything, and most people who read Conductive Education World are exceptionally aware of the power of the word out in the real world.
This site has spent some time on the Liberal-German-Jewish contribution to the development of Conductive Education. There are two others and yesterday' posting is timely reminder that one of these, let us call it for the moment the Soviet psycho-pedagogic, has rather tended to slip from view...


Sutton, A. (2008) Freudian slip, Conductive Education World, 6 April

Sutton, A.(2008) Wheels are round, Conductive Education World, 8 April

Winsler, A., Manfra, L., Diaz, R. M. (2007) ’Should I let them talk?’ Private speech and task performance among preschool children with and without behavior problems, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, vol. 22, no 2, pp. 215-231 pages 215-231

A note on spellings

‘Behaviour’… I suppose that I have to write ‘behavior’ here, the computer certainly wants me to, as this thread of research in the West has been largely American.

Лурия, Выготский: I write ‘Luriya’ and ‘Vygotskii’, rather than ‘Luria’ and ‘Vygotsky’, because, due to my particular personal background I always have. I shall get round to explaining some further such distinctions when I am over my present glut of work, possibly in the summer (I wish!).

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