Desktop version

Home arrow Education

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Inner contradictions as transitional sources

Alexander Mcshchcryakov, who advanced theoretical research on the education of deaf-blind children and experimental intervention research in their development during the Soviet Union era, also took up the idea that the inner contradiction of existing dominant activities is a dynamic source of the transition to new activities. Based on activity' theory, he conducted practical interventionist research on concrete human development. Before we examine how Mcshchcryakov perceives this role as a driving force of inner contradiction in generating new activities, I would first like to, as a premise of this, consider the features of this understanding of the education and development of deaf-blind children based on Mcshchcryakov’s framework of activity theory.

Mcshchcryakov (1979, pp. 30-31) begins at the starting point of the construction of a theory for the education of the deaf and blind, in particular, with the confrontation between the prevalent idealistic view that education of deaf-blind children is to involve “the ‘awakening’ of a child’s mind,” and his own theoretical position. This idealistic notion is theoretically inconsistent, and it deems a human being “as a being that feels, perceives, memorises, etc., but not one that acts” (pp. 30-31). Meshcheryakov approaches the issues of education and development of deaf-blind children from an activity-theoretical framework that turns this idealistic notion on its head. In other words, he accepts the idea that human beings are first and foremost actors, which is why they feel, perceive, and discover, making this his theoretical starting point for the education of the deaf-blind. This view of human beings is based on Marx’s (1867/1990) perception of human labor embodied in use value as follows:

He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature. He sets in motion the natural forces which belong to his own body, his arms, legs, head, and hands, in order to appropriate the materials of nature in a form adapted to his own needs. Through this movement, he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way, he simultaneously changes his own nature.

(p. 283)

In this way, Meshcheryakov makes the concept of sensuous and object-oriented human activity a key concept in the education of deaf-blind children. This would result in education for deaf-blind children based on the idea that human beings form their own mind as a part of the process involved in participating in object-oriented sensuous activities and meaningful communication with others.

From this activity-theory standpoint, Meshcheryakov is critical of idealistic or traditional empirical psychology’s perceptions of the mental development of deaf-blind children. Such views contend that education is only possible for deaf-blind children who arc prodigies with outstanding abilities, implying that the prejudice that deaf-blind children cannot be educated has not been overcome. According to Meshcheryakov (1979, p. 41), a typical example of such a perception is the story of Helen Keller, the most famous example of the successful education and mental development of a deaf-blind child. In other words, the success of Helen Keller is attributable to an “awakening of the soul” that called her “inborn but hitherto dormant consciousness” (p. 42) to life.

The split-second act of instant revelation that Helen Keller suddenly experienced is described in the last scene of The Miracle Worker, which serves as the climax of the work by American playtvright William Gibson (1956). After Keller had touched water flowing from the water pump, her teacher Annie Sullivan spelled “W, a, t, e, r” on the palm of her hand, and thus, miraculously, Helen suddenly understood the secret of words. This “fact” that Sullivan also speaks of, the “miracle” that awakens the human soul, has traditionally been considered important in understanding Helen’s mental

Activity theory as a new framework for educational research 43 development. Helen Keller (1902/1947) herself describes the moment in her autobiography:

Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. ... That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!

(p. 23)

However, carefully examining Sullivan’s notes regarding Helen Keller’s education and everyday life, Meshcheryakov (1979) asserts: “[I]n actual fact Helen Keller’s mental development was of a different kind. Sudden awakening was merely a tribute to ideas widely popular among psychologists and educationists of that time” (p. 43). What exactly then was this “different kind” of mental development? Meshcheryakov reveals that this was based on rich, sensuous, object-oriented activities in which Helen had previously engaged to learn about the outside world.

In this way, the deaf-blind girl became acquainted with a large number of household objects, learnt the use of each object she could understand and learnt to operate a large number of such objects correctly. Helen’s first gestures of communication developed in these concrete, one might almost say business-like contacts with the people around her.

(p. 58)

However, those surrounding her paid no heed to the gestures of the deaf-blind child. In other words, no one interpreted these gestures as manifestations of a need and desire for contact with other human beings. Nobody, that is, except a black girl named Martha Washington. Only three years older than Helen, Martha was the daughter of the Keller family’s cook.

Gestures were indispensable in communication between Helen and Martha. The life of those children unheeded by adults was diverse and complex. It was a mixture of play and work.... The two small girls spent busy days together in the kitchen, the yard, the stables, the cowshed and the barns. Martha taught the deaf-blind girl to help her in her work.

(Meshcheryakov, 1979, pp. 58-59)

Meshcheryakov (1979) believes that human interaction between Helen and Martha through these object-oriented sensuous activities of play and work was undoubtedly the source of Helen’s subsequent mental development and progressive language acquisition. Meshcheryakov considers these the favorable circumstances that Helen had taken by the time her teacher Annie Sullivan came.

It was at this time that her teacher Anne Sullivan arrived. By the time her teacher appeared on the scene, Helen could find her way about in the house easily, also in the orchard, vegetable garden and the whole of the immediate vicinity of the house. She was familiar with many household objects, kitchen utensils and garden implements, she knew what many of the objects around her were used for and was able to use them properly. She used a well-developed language of gestures which she made wide and systematic use of when communicating with her young friend and also on occasions with adults in the household. All this means that circumstances were favourable for the promotion of Helen Keller’s development and accounts to a large extent for the success achieved in teaching this pupil. Indeed, there are definite grounds for maintaining that Helen Keller’s first teacher was the little black girl Martha Washington. It was she who first began to break down the wall isolating the little deaf-blind girl, and it was thanks to her contact with Martha that Helen started evolving her language of gestures. It should be pointed out that neither Anne Sullivan, nor those specialists who later attempted to analyse Helen’s instruction from the psychological angle, attached any particular, let alone decisive importance to this period of Helen’s life.

(p. 60)

Sullivan thus began teaching Keller using the dactylic alphabet. However, this new activity was not generated from scratch without preceding activities. Helen had a clearly established conception of the objects in her immediate environment and had already mastered gestures to convey many of those objects. Accordingly, verbalizing such shapes and gestures formed through the preceding activities led to a need to generate the next new activities. In her autobiography, Helen Keller ( 1902/1947) tells of her own needs following the “miracle” at the well-house as follows: “I left the well-house eager to learn” (p. 24).

Thus, Meshcheryakov (1979) analyzes the “miracle” of Helen Keller’s education and remarkable development based on activity theory, seeking the source of and driving force behind the generation of new activities by human beings, as opposed to shrouding it in a veil of mystery. Based on this analysis, he highlights contradictions between preceding and new activities for deaf-blind children’s education and development, as well as between motives of both activities, clarifying the fundamental significance of the contradictions between the old and the new and solutions to them.

What Meshcheryakov ( 1979, p. 295) emphasizes above all is what he refers to as the formation of independent human activity by deaf-blind children themselves, in this case, “self-care” (i.e., eating, dressing, washing, and taking care as they move about) during the early stages of their education. The starting point is the deaf-blind child’s body’s physical need for itself. As we saw in Chapter 1, the world into which humans arc born and live is at its very foundation a humanized environment, what KitarO Nishida (1938/2012, p.

144) refers to as “the world of historical actuality.” In this world of historical actuality, human beings do not satisfy physical needs directly as animals do, but rather by mediating things socially and historically made by human beings as instruments. Human beings through activities consisting of specific actions, operations, and methods create the things used as mediating instruments. As a result, among such things, the form of activity that uses it as an instrument is expressed, embodied, and objectified. As Meshcheryakov (1979) mentions, the human mind is formed as a result of the relationship between the needs of the subject and the things as objects that satisfy those needs.

These first elements of human mental processes take shape because the child’s needs are satisfied with human objects ... and through human methods.... An event of vital importance in the child’s life takes place: his physical needs become human needs since they are satisfied with the help of human objects and through human methods.

(p. 292)

Leont’ev (1981) brilliantly describes the relationship between the subject and the environment, in which they mutually form each other through human activity and mutually penetrate and where the human mind is formed, as follows:

In the course of his ontogenetic development, man enters into special, specific relations with the world of objects and phenomena around him that have been created by preceding generations. ...

The real world closest to man that most of all determines his life is the world transformed or created by human activity. This world is not, however, presented directly to the individual as a world of social objects, of objects that embody human abilities moulded during the development of socio-historical practice....

Even the most elementary tools, implements, or objects of everyday use that a child first encounters, must be actively discovered by it in their specific quality. In other words, a child must perform practical or cognitive activity in relation to them such as would be adequate (though not, of course, identical) to the human activity embodied in them.

(p. 294)

In the process of fulfilling their needs, the child encounters the object (purpose) as the direction of practical or cognitive activity, as described by Leont’ev, which is adequate for human activity embodied in things, transforming their needs into motives of such activity. At the same time, this transforms actions into activities. There is, of course, a contradiction between the two, that is, between the old activity that cannot meet the child’s needs and a new activity emerging by expanding actions that can satisfy needs. For example, the physical need for food and drink is not directly fulfilled by the act of eating with a spoon and drinking from a cup, but rather by the embodiment of a new expanded form of human activity'.

By carrying out practical or cognitive activities corresponding to such human activities, that is, the learning of human activities, the child as a subject can consequently appropriate human abilities embodied in objects (things) that have been molded during the development of socio-historical practice, resulting in forming a human mind. Put another way, the child learns the objective properties of the things and instruments mediating the activity and develops human abilities by mastering them. Here, the objective properties of the things and instruments are the mode or manner in which they are used to satisfy a need. Specific modes of such actions are socio-his-torically expressed and embodied in the things and instruments that human beings use as mediating means for their activities. This corresponds to Ilyenkov’s (1977) concept of “the ideal,” as discussed in Chapter 1, Section 3. “The ideal” is a form of human activity that is represented, expressed, and embodied in things and instruments. It is exactly none other than the objective properties or social significance inherent in things and instruments. Instruments with such objective properties as the ideal are of course not limited to physical things, such as spoons, clothes, house, and the like; they may include mediating artifacts for satisfying all of one’s needs, such as timetables, rules, and customs in socio-historically evolving activities by human beings.

The learning and mastery of these new activities by children are driven by the contradictions between the child’s newly emerging needs and non-corresponding activities. These contradictions can be summarized as below. Each newly expanded need arises as a part of an activity. However, an activity that produces the new need is itself established based on a previous need. Such a relationship, as Mcshchcryakov (1979) says, causes the following contradictions.

Each activity emerges (or rather is accepted and assimilated by the child) only if there is present a need which corresponds to it, while the need develops in the course of the corresponding activity. The contradiction between the need and the means of its satisfaction, i.e., the activity, during the first stage of the emergence of a new type of activity, lies in the fact that the need is insufficiently satisfied by the as yet imperfect methods of action. This contradiction is the motive force for perfecting modes of action. As these arc perfected, they, in their turn, outgrow the need which brought them about. The need becomes too cramped for them. Thus a new contradiction emerges, between the developed modes of action and the need that lags behind. This contradiction furthers the development or modification of existing needs and generates new needs, which, in their turn, would require new modes of action.


This view captures the contradiction that arises at two points, moving the child to learn and master the new activities, as follows:

  • (1) A new need vs. old activities that do not correspond to it
  • (2) A new activity vs. old needs that do not correspond to it

In this way, the learning and mastery of new activities are driven by contradictions—such as from needs to activities and vice-versa—and are developed as a solution process. This process can be seen as follows: “This contradiction can never be completely resolved, and at the same time it is being constantly resolved in part in the vital process of the emergence of new human forms of activity and the development of human needs” (Mcshcheryakov, 1979, p. 298).

For example, in the education of deaf-blind children, the physical need to protect the body from cold undoubtedly encourages children to learn to put clothes on. However, once a child has mastered this skill, a specific mode of such action becomes an independent need, and then, as children learn about different types of clothing, they develop their own desire to wear clothing correctly and in a smart manner. Mcshcheryakov (1979) argues that this “process of the development of needs and the emergence of new forms of activity is infinite both in the historical perspective and with regard to individual development” (p. 298). The dialectical process involving contradictions between these needs and activities, as well as their solutions, is the process by which human beings create history through real life and practice, as described by Marx and Friedrich Engels (1976): ”[T]he satisfaction of the first need, the action of satisfying and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired, leads to new needs; and this creation of new needs is the first historical act” (p. 42).

The process by which the contradiction between needs and activities is resolved in the education of deaf-blind children is possible, as Mcshcheryakov (1979, p. 296) says, in the form of “joint object action shared between the adult and child.” However, in these “shared actions involving objects” (p. 307), when Leont’ev’s (1981, pp. 402-403) “only understandable motives” are forcibly introduced from the outside in the form of instructional guidance, as Engestrom (1987/2015, p. 146) pointed out, the appearance of inner contradiction and the process of its solution for a dynamic transition to independent and creative human activities may be effectively hidden and perhaps also prevented by the exchange-value aspect of motives for going to school, such as “to get a good mark.”

Thus, without the sequence of universalist learning transplanted by the instructional guidance of the wise people of the culture, what is the learning process involved in the subject’s expansive transition from the inner contradictions of existing dominant activities to new activities? The following explanation by Ilyenkov (1982) of such a breakthrough in contradictions is crucial.

In reality it always happens that a phenomenon which later becomes universal originally emerges as an individual, particular, specific phenomenon, as an exception from the rule. It cannot actually emerge in any other way. Otherwise, history would have a rather mysterious form.

Thus, any new improvement of labour, every new mode of man’s action in production, before becoming generally accepted and recognised, first emerge as a certain deviation from previously accepted and codified norms. Having emerged as an individual exception from the rule in the labour of one or several men, the new form is then taken over by others, becoming in time a new universal norm. If the new norm did not originally appear in this exact manner, it would never become a really universal form, but would exist merely in fantasy, in wishful thinking.


Thus, when new qualitative stages and forms of activity emerge as a result of breaking through the inner contradictions of the preceding stage or form, the following two processes of transition and transformation take place dialectically and are inseparably linked.

  • (1) Transitioning and transforming from one or several people’s deviations and exceptions to universal norms, that is, transitioning and transforming from the individual and specific to the universal; and
  • (2) Transitioning and transforming from individual actions to collective activities, and from isolated individual subjects to collective subjects.

Here, Ilyenkov dynamically captures a real movement in which people subjectively make history. The starting point when making such a history is the specific, individual act of breaking away from the binding rules, restrictive boundaries, binding relationships, etc., of established dominant activities. In common with this kind of act of breaking away, Albert Camus (1951/2013) considers “a movement of rebellion” as the breakthrough in the transition from the individual and specific to the universal in a book-length essay The Rebel-.

In absurdist experience suffering is individual. But from the moment that a movement of rebellion begins, suffering is seen as a collective experience—as the experience of everyone. Therefore the first step for a mind overwhelmed by the strangeness of things is to realize that this feeling of strangeness is shared with all men and that the entire human race suffers from the division between itself and the rest of the world. The unhappiness experienced by a single man becomes collective unhappiness. In our daily trials, rebellion plays the same role as does the ‘cog-ito' in the category of thought: it is the first clue. But this clue lures the individual from his solitude. Rebellion is the common ground on which every man bases his first values. I rebel—therefore we exist.

This is the act of both breaking away from solitude and based on the common ground of such rebellion, moving into solidarity. As Ilyenkov (1982, pp. 83-84) claims, after the specific, individual act of breaking away from “previously accepted and codified norms,” the collective act of moving into “a new universal norm” gradually emerges.

This dialectical movement beginning in individual actions and developing into novel collective activity is what Engcstrom (1987/2015) calls “expansion.” The expansive learning theory that he proposed constructs “a category that can mediate between learning and expansion, seeking to find the mechanism of transition from learning to expansion” (p. 18). In the next chapter, I will examine in detail the problems in expansive learning theory, its foundation, the characteristics of the theory, and its feasibility in educational research.


1 The final chapter of Vygotsky’s Thinking and Speech, “Thought and Word” (Chapter 7), was “[d]ictated in the final months of his life” (Van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991, p. 360) before his early death by tuberculosis at the age of thirty-seven.

3 Collaborative intervention in expansive learning

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics