Monday, March 01, 2010

Response to Scribner & Cole

Sylvia Scribner and Michael Cole. The Psychology of Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981. Rpt. 1999.

Even Levi-Strauss, a well-known critic of the notion of historical progress, acknowledges that the invention of writing made it possible to accumulate the knowledge of each generation as “working capital” for the next. (p.4) I think the most important part of written literacy is the fact that it allows for the accumulation of knowledge, which can be passed on to other people in a different place or time. Yes, I acknowledge that oral stories can do this also, however, not as efficiently nor as accurately for large amounts of information. We are able to read Plato's Republic, not because people have continued to recited it, but because it was written down. We have Beowulf because it was committed to writing. What we know about the Egyptians comes primarily from their hieroglyphics. If all that stood from that time period were the Pyramids, which don't have interior writing, we would have no idea about their understanding of the afterworld and daily activities. The Egyptian writing has lasted for thousands of years and allows us to know what they knew. Without writing, their ruins would be just a bunch of clay bricks and mortar.

As literacy shapes culture, the argument goes, so it shapes human minds. (p. 4-5). Donald (1997) in the Precis of Origins of the Modern Mind, argues that the major cognitive transformations which allowed for new ways of remembering, retrieving and ultimately, defining human culture, was based on the ability to form language and then writing. What makes humans unique from animals is the ability to represent ideas through symbols or other representations. These symbols can be creatively designed, voluntarily retrieved and, taught. In addition, the human ability to speak allows for faster and more efficient transference of information, but isn't the only form of communication available. This allowed for things like tool making and expression of the past to be taught, which included the need to remember. However, this, in turn, created more complexity in social life, as longer memory was needed to coordinate daily and communal life. Therefore external memory forms were needed, such as graphic representations and text. This then forced the human brain to develop more abstract ways of thinking, remembering, and recalling information. In a way, it seems to be a chicken and egg argument – does the tool allow for new ways of thinking, or does new ways of thinking develop new tools. I think it is a little of both. One must have the ability/language to think in a certain way, but technology allows leaps of thinking.

Scribner and Cole's Study - The original intent of the study was to try to extricate literacy from schooling, as most previous studies confounded the two concepts. Therefore, the researchers had to find a culture in which literacy was not a school-based skill. In the Vai society, English was a school-based literacy, Arabic was a religious based literacy, and Vai was a society based literacy – each taught in very different ways, for different purposes. Being literate in any one of the three scripts allowed the person to move in different social circles, occupations, and cultural dimensions and helped define personal identity. Literacy co-occurred with out significant evens and experiences, which reflected the changes in social structure and economic changes that happened. However, not being literate in any of the scripts did not prevent people from reading and writing as there were literate people who would do the reading and writing for them, which was common and acceptable. The researchers' original question was: Does literacy induce cognitive change? However, as they were in the field, they realized that literacy was not a specific practice, but multiple practices in different contexts. To be able to measure differences or change in cognition, they had to tailor their tests to the context. 
Overall, I was amazed at the tremendous amount of people, time, money and organization that had to go into this study. In comparison, I'm looking at going into one school and one classroom for my research, and finding it overwhelming. Not only did they have to travel thousands of miles, to study a culture which spoke different languages, they had to hire and train field researchers fluent in multiple languages and develop new methods and tests. All experimental paradigms in common were invented in laboratories of experimental and developments psychologist for quite another purpose then the study of cultural differences in thinking. (p. 113). This, I think, was a major breakthrough in research design – taking the cognitive research “to the streets”, rather than in a lab. Just like so much of the NCLB research, as scientifically based, has very little resemblance to real classrooms, early cognitive research didn't look like real life. Plus, in designing tests for cognition, the researchers found major cultural differences in how to approach ideas and tasks. 
I found it quite humorous to read that the Vai language did not have a word for “word”. Before the field researchers could work with participants, they had to figure out a way to translate the idea of “word” into a concept that the Vai people would understand. So, does literacy change they way people think? Somewhat – as the words available defines how and what a person can think about. When I lived in Lithuania, my local friends would choose to swear in Russian over Lithuanian, because the cursing was stronger and felt better. One of my favorite phrases in Portuguese is “estupidamente gelada” , which directly translated is “stupidly cold”, but the reality of it is different in Brazil because of the style of beer and way of serving it. I have not had a stupidly cold beer here in the US.

However, the other thing I found interesting was the fact that literacy (or lack of) did not determine meta-linguistic knowledge of the Vai language. Vai written script was often discussed for correctness by both writers and non-writers. In just imaging this, I see significant differences between the Vai culture of the time and current US culture. As an English teacher, I'm always confronted with people who are embarrassed or apologize for their English, “Oh, I'll have to be be careful talking with you.” I have found that the average American person doesn't want to discuss language and often feel that they don't have enough knowledge to be able to discuss it. Even my mother, who was a secretary for 30 years and dealt with language everyday, still feels like she doesn't have a formal grasp of the English language. 
In the end, to be able to find any cognitive consequences of literacy, the researchers had to tie their tests to the actual practices of the community. In a way, I feel that is a little bit like cheating – at least in conjunction with the original question. If literacy is really suppose to affect cognition, then it should be obvious in everyday life. But, if the test has to be tailored to match the use of literacy in the culture, is it really a valid tie between literacy and cognition, or is it cultural use/expectation and cognition?

The next interesting question the researchers started looking at what whether or not knowing a specific writing influence the way on speaks. They found that yes, it does, but only showed up when the specific type and context was part of the experimental design. Which, mildly shows, that literacy affects individual mental performance of a task.

The whole ritual of letter writing within the Vai culture was interesting to me also. As an elementary student, I clearly remember the lessons of letter writing – business verses friendly – and having to send letters off. Like the Vai, there were clear structures within these formats that made the letter good or bad. However, a major difference was that the Vai generally only wrote to people they knew, whereas I learned to write complaint letters to companies and people I never met. At that time, it was a very exciting to get letters back. However, with the immediacy of Facebook and email, this is no longer a unique event. However, both the Vai and my own experiences shows that writing requires more of a cognitive load, as the sender and reader do not occupy the same physical space, so there is no interactivity and the writer must anticipate the reader's need for understanding. Before literacy, a messenger would be sent with a specific message, but he could also fill in the blanks if the receiver had questions. I think this would be a cognitive shift between orality and literacy. Which led to another finding for the researchers – that those with literacy were more likely to orient new players to the physicality of an unknown board game than those without written literacy. Vai letter writing seemed to influence the way a person organized and conveyed information orally.

In the end, the researchers came to a description of a “practices account of literacy” (p. 235) – practice, meaning a recurrent, goal directed sequence of activities using a tool, knowledge and skill. And, to understand the consequences of literacy, one must understand the specific characteristics of a specific practices and how that practice fits into the whole culture. Although this seems a bit common sense to me, I can see how ground breaking it was at a time that literacy was still very much a moral issue. Plus, the researchers found that there were not deep psychological differences between literate and non-literate Vai people. This would shatter the idea that literacy makes for a more civilized or moral person. In fact, the researchers observed that living in an urban setting had more of an effect on how a person thought than having literacy. This would seem to make sense to me. Just like there is a push now for college students to spend some time overseas, personal experience in different settings has more of an influence that just reading about something. (Yes, I know that reading opens new worlds, but living in new worlds forces people to confront new ideas and beliefs more so than reading does.)

In class, we had a short discussion about literacy and culture. As a middle/high school teacher of humanities, culture is a common topic. Within that context, language is a part of culture, along with food, dress, habits, etc. As the researchers said, “We have seen that Vai culture is in Vai literacy practices; in the writing system, the means used to transmit it, the functions it serves and contexts of use, and the ideologies which confer significance on these functions.” (p. 259) So, culture is in literacy, but literacy is not the only aspect of culture.

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