Saturday, January 5, 2008

Sociocultural Influences in Child Development

According to Vygotsky’s (see picture, right) general genetic law of cultural development, any function of a child’s cultural development appears on a social plane while simultaneously appearing on a psychological plane. That is, it first appears between people on an interpsychological level. Further, Vygotsky believed that any attempt to understand cognitive development must be focused not on individuals as they execute some context-dependent process, but rather on individuals as they participate in culturally valued activities.

In 1977, Apple first made the personal computer available to the public, and IBM followed with their version of the personal computer in 1981. As the popularity of the home computer grew in the 1980s and into the 1990s, it quickly assumed a place of importance in family life as a tool of intellectual adaptation. It has therefore, dramatically changed the cognitive processes of children living today compared to children living prior to the age of personal computers.

According to Vygotsky, many of the critical discoveries that children make occur within the model of collaborative dialogue between a skilled tutor and a novice pupil. In certain situations, a well-designed computer program can act as the skilled tutor. One example of this is an imaginary computer game designed to teach number counting skills. A child with minimal counting skills can seemingly interact with the on-screen “tutor” and after repeated practice with the game, learn to count. In a similar way, well-structured television programming can offer similar tutoring in other cognitive processes. A segment of a TV show such as Blue’s Clues can aid children in developing their working memory. For example, the main character of the TV show could ask the child audience for help in remembering a short sequence of events as he records them in his notebook, or in remembering the physical layout of furniture in a room. A particularly well-written computer program or television script could even engage in scaffolding procedures with the child. However, there are clear limitations to the use of these tools.

Unlike a mother or father (or other human partner), a television show or personal computer cannot “read” the child with extreme accuracy and sensitivity, or provide appropriate feedback. If a child becomes distracted, a parent can refocus the child, prompt him or her for the right response, or begin a new game or conversation. However, if a child becomes unengaged with the TV or computer, the program is not dynamic enough to adjust itself in real time to the actions and needs of the child. There is danger in busy parents assuming that children can get all the instruction they need from these devices, and not providing the children with enough dynamic social interaction.

A final note on this topic involves the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis. The WSH states that there is a systematic relationship between language and cognition, where the nature of a particular language influences in the habitual thought processes of its speakers. For example, the Eskimo culture has numerous words for different types of snow, while regular English only has one. This concept can be extended to technological innovation. Children who grow up using personal computers speak the “language” of computing, and therefore cognitively understand the world differently. Further research is needed, but it may be that children are better able to synthesize information, organize and categorize larger amounts of sensory input more efficiently, and have the ability to access disparate information more quickly, because of their experience with the multi-window format of nearly all commonly-used computer operating systems. Children may indeed understand the world as distributed on a set of “windows”, much like on their computer screens.

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