Educational Psychology. Lev Vygotsky 1926

Chapter 17. The Problem of Giftedness

Individual Goals of Education Personality and Education

Constant reminders of the social character of the educational process should by no means be taken as denoting the abolition of personality in the school or as mandating a spirit of indifference toward it. Ultimately, education always has to do with the individual personalities of students, and the social environment is composed, or more properly, is realized in the ranks of separate individuals.

It goes without saying that the role and guiding importance of the student’s personality in the educational process in no way recalls that “pedagogical singsong” in which individualistic education sometimes reduces the process that exists wholly between teacher and student. Where the student’s personality formerly amounted to the focus of the educational world, now it has acquired a new sense and a new meaning.

The subject of personality may refer to several separate topics in public education simultaneously. First are all those individual differences which are inherent to each student. In view of the natural generality of the structure of the human body and of human behavior, every human constitution is distinguished by special, unique, and isolated properties and qualities which belong to this one individual alone, and, essentially, constitute a variation of the average type of “man in general.” The latter has to be looked upon as only a convenient methodological technique, as an abstraction, and nothing else.

Man in general, like his separate parts and aspects, say, the human skeleton, human psychology, and so on, exists only in an abstract sense; in fact, in genuine reality there exists only this or that person, the skeleton and the psychology of this or that person. And it goes without saying that concern for these concrete features of each individual person has to become obligatory for the educator and the psychologist.

The construction of education is never undertaken in a void, education never undertakes to forge entirely novel reactions, it never makes the first thrust. On the contrary, it always issues out of already prepared and given patterns of behavior, and only intends to alter these patterns, always seeks to replace them, and not to create something entirely novel. In this sense, every form of education constitutes a re-education of what has already been realized. Every form of education, therefore, has as its first requirement the demand for entirely exact knowledge of hereditary forms of behavior. It is upon this foundation that the personal realm of experience must be constructed. And it is precisely here that knowledge of individual differences manifests itself with especial force.

This is particularly striking whenever we are dealing with very clear-cut and very explicit deviations of personality from the general average type. Just think of a child who is blind, or one who is deaf mute, or one who has some congenital organic defect of the central nervous system, say, suffers from mental retardation. It should be clear to the reader that every form of teaching and upbringing, though it must also not run counter to the fundamental laws of pedagogics, must nevertheless be guided in one particular direction or another, and possess some one particular meaning with regard to these children. In blind children, for example, conditional reflexes evolve that are just as accurate as in sighted children, it’s just that they involve the sense of touch, and not vision, and accordingly, the blind person reads with his fingers from embossed type, i.e., he touches and feels letters, rather than perceiving them with his eyes. Thus, the whole process of reading and the events associated with it assume an entirely special character and slant.

For the deaf-mute child and children who are mentally retarded, all processes of training and adaptation to the workaday world likewise involve explicit differences which the educator cannot but take into account. Deaf children, for example, usually do not learn to speak from birth, since they do not hear the words spoken by other people, nor do they hear the very sounds they themselves make. To help them interact with each other and with normal children and also to accustom them to human speech, it is necessary to focus their attention on those movements of the lips which we make every time by pronouncing a particular word, and to teach them to connect each of these movements with a particular mode of inscription of the word and with a particular referent. Then we have to teach them to read off human speech with their eyes, from the lips of other people, just as we might read off a passage of text from a sheet of paper. To train a deaf child how to speak, it is necessary to give him the opportunity to perceive his own motor speech reactions and to control these reactions. Since this usually cannot be done by means of the ear, in this case hearing has to be replaced by kinesthetic and tactile stimulation. By placing the student’s hand on his throat, we thereby teach him to sense those movements he performs in the course of speaking and which, once they have been reflected back to the speaker himself, help him develop the capacity for deliberate speech. In those of us who are not mute, speech develops by means of the ears, by virtue of the fact that we have uttered.

In the education of children who are mentally retarded, we must likewise resort to psychological techniques in order to reinforce and settle in the child the same conditional reactions as when we are educating other children, and it is often necessary to employ the most primitive instincts and needs in such a child in order to teach him normal forms of behavior. For example, in order to teach certain mentally retarded children how to wash up or get dressed, we have to relate these acts with that of food, since it is only under the pressure of the very powerful stimulation of hunger that such a child is capable of overcoming a state of immobility and forcing himself to engage in some activity.

Thus all those techniques that might merit the severest censure were they to be employed with children who do not suffer from any disabilities turnout to e the only reasonable ones, and necessary, when it is a matter of educating children who are mentally retarded and who suffer from other disabilities.

Similarly, if we think of some other extreme example, say children who are specially gifted, here we come up against the need to alter certain general techniques and principles of education just for their sake. Once again, this becomes is easiest to see and is most pronounced in certain special forms of giftedness, for example, in children who have a special gift for music or art, or dance, where only early special education beginning at a very tender age can ensure the normal development of the capacities with which the child is endowed.

It is for this reason that the education of abnormal children, whether those who are impaired in some way or those are gifted, has long been thought of as seemingly outside the field of pedagogics, as constituting a realm which the general laws of education do not reach. We have to say that that such a view is profoundly mistaken, and that there is no justification for thinking of the field as falling outside pedagogics, and indeed such a view was arrived at only by error, out of a natural misunderstanding of phenomena which had not been subjected to investigated. The general laws of pedagogics can become scientific laws only when they remain applicable to every sphere of education equally. The laws of pressure and of gravity are entirely the same whether we are laying rails in a mountain tunnel or in marshland. The physics is absolutely the same in both places, though the practical labor connected with the laying of track will always assume an entirely different form at one site as opposed to another. The fact that the labor involved at one site as opposed to the other assumes, of necessity, distinctive forms scarcely means that there exist separate laws at each site, but only points to the fact that the same laws may be expressed differently and may possess different quantitative meanings.

Thus, when they are children both the genius and person who is mentally retarded constitute just as much a subject of education as does every other child, and the general laws of pedagogics hold just as well for them as for all children of the same age. Only by proceeding on the basis of these general pedagogical laws are we able to discover correct ways of realizing the process of individualization which has to be imparted to the process of educating every child.

Likewise is it false to think that the problem of individualization arises only in relation to that which goes beyond the average. On the contrary, in every individual child we confront certain forms of individualization, of course not so sharply pronounced and not so sharply expressed as in blindness, genius, deaf-muteness, or mental retardation. But a phenomenon does not cease being itself if its quantitative expression is diminished. The demand for individualization of educational methodology, therefore, also amounts to a general demand imosedon pedagogics and extends to absolutely every child.

Hence, the educator confronts two problems, first, the individualized study of all the particular traits of each individual student, and, second, the individualized accommodation of all of educational methodology and all the effects of the social environment to every student. To force everybody into the same mold represents the greatest of all the delusions of pedagogics. The fundamental prerequisite of pedagogics inevitably demands an element of individualization, that is, conscious and rigorous determination of the individualized goals of education for each particular student.

Modern psychology is increasingly beginning to be imbued with this idea of the specificity of the individualized goals of education, and is thus inclined to review the traditional concept of giftedness, as abstract and general capacity, or in any case to introduce major correctives into this concept. Cyril Burt, for example, replaces the concept of mental giftedness by that of academic readiness, and in just this way imparts to the entire subject a vocational bias. The child is then viewed in terms of the extent to which he is in compliance with all those practical goals which the school places before him, in absolutely the same way that vocational psychology studies the worker in terms of the extent to which he is in compliance with the demands of a particular occupation. In place of abstract capacities, this point of view suggests concrete and practical investigations and testing of genuine skills, whether in writing, in arithmetic, or in reading.

Yet another major corrective is to replace the concept of general and abstract giftedness with that of special and concrete giftedness. This corrective justifies itself with equal clarity in the case of the disabled child and in the case of the gifted writer. Every form of giftedness is unfailingly a special form of giftedness toward some one thing. Tolstoy, for example, would be first in any list if it was giftedness in writing which was under study, though he would occupy a very modest position, perhaps one of the last spots, if it was musical abilities, suitability for engineering activity, or mathematical talent which was being investigated. Chekhov was a very average physician and a great writer. Instances in which semi-retarded people may be blessed with such phenomenal memory as to make them seem like geniuses are not at all that uncommon. All these examples only go to show that there does not exist any kind of “giftedness in general,” rather that there exist special predispositions to certain types of activity.