Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Reading :: Self-Regulation and Autonomy

Self-Regulation and Autonomy: Social and Developmental Dimensions of Human Conduct
Edited by Brian W. Sokol, Frederick M.E. Grouzet, and Ulrich Müller

Although I'm calling this a "book review," I'm really just going to discuss one chapter: Challis J.E. Kinnucan and Janet E. Kubli's "Understanding Explanatory Talk through Vygotsky's Theory of Self-Regulation."

In this chapter, the authors are specifically interested in explanatory talk and "explanatory competence": "Indeed, it has been said that individuals' everyday cognitive functioning might be impossible without explanations," the authors add, citing Keil & Wilson (1998) (p.231). The authors "consider explanatory talk as one aspect of children's developing capacities for self-regulation" (p.231) and "ground our discussion of self-regulation and explanatory skills in a sociocultural perspective" (pp.231-232).

As readers of this blog know, self-regulation—typically termed "self-mastery"—is a major theme in Vygotsky's works, and self-talk is for Vygotsky a critical pathway for achieving it. The authors draw from sociocultural researchers such as Diaz & colleagues and Daniels, Cole & Wertsch to ground their discussion of "the development of self-regulation as an outcome of both social and individual processes" (p.232).

Self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions. The authors first discuss self-regulatory processes as higher mental functions (here, we'll call them HMFs), drawing on Mind in Society (which itself incorporates a part from Vygotsky's History of the Development of Higher Mental Functions) as well as commentary by Meshcheryakov to define HMFs as
guid[ing] and controll[ing] both thought and action and distanc[ing] humans from the control of environmental stimuli. Ultimately, the operation of higher mental processes yielded self-regulated action and adaptation. In Vygotsky's theory, the key process that produces higher mental functioning, or regulatory skill, is internalization. Internalization is both a developmental outcome and the primary mechanism by which interpersonal activity (e.g., dialogue, shared practices and strategies) is transformed into inner, self-regulating thought processes. (p.233)
HMFs contrast with lower mental functions (LMFs), which have developed "along a strong biologically based trajectory and included what cognitive scientists today classify as basic sensory, perceptual, attentional, and memory processes" (p.233). The HMFs, according to Vygotsky, were uniquely human. "Among higher mental processes, Vygotsky included voluntary attention and sustained concentration, concept formation, planning, and problem solving. In Ferryhough's (2010) view, components of executive function and forms of regulatory behavior are contemporary examples of what Vygotsky categorized as higher mental processes" (p.233).

(Note that Vygotsky's work on HMFs, described here, was subsumed by his later work on psychological systems — see chapter 6 in the linked review. Here, Vygotsky argued that the mental functions remain more or less the same, but their relationships change. That is, things that were counted as HMFs are actually effects of relationships or "constellations" of lower mental functions. I see an analogy to how neuropsychologists now regard executive functions as constructs for describing emerging relationships among neurological functions.) 

The authors add that "among Vygotsky's most powerful insights as that sociocultural processes forged new intermental or interfunctional links among higher mental functions" (p.234).

Mediation of self-regulated thinking and behavior. The authors then turn to the question of mediation, drawing on Wertsch (p.235). They add that "Kozulin (2002) warned that the full range of mediational social interactions is still not fully grasped," in part because of "its necessarily context-specific nature" (p.236). Kozulin proposed "distinguishing between type of social mediation and the particular mediating techniques used by adults with children" (pp.236-237): types include scaffolding, approval, and encouragement, while techniques include localized implementation of each type (p.237).

The authors note that for Vygotsky, "self-regulative uses of external speech were ... the earliest manifestations of inner speech" (p.239), and cite Diaz in asserting that "private speech gradually 'takes on a planning and guiding function'" (p.239).

Developing explanatory competence. The authors then review the contemporary research on explanatory competence "with the aim of illustrating Vygotsky's ideas about the gradual shift from externally to internally mediated forms of self-regulated thought" (p.240).

As mentioned at the beginning of this review, I actually only read this one chapter in depth, so I can't review this book as a whole. But this chapter was really useful for me in thinking through how Vygotsky's contributions have been, and can be, taken up. Specifically, it allowed me to better consider how Vygotsky's "self-mastery" relates to contemporary considerations of self-regulation and to the construct of executive functions. And, more broadly, it allowed me once again to consider how Vygotsky's assertions interacted with his political milieu and ideology: self-mastery was, after all, a huge theme for Engelsian dialectics and a hallmark of humanity. In contemporary neuropsychology, self-regulation is understood as important but, I think, not absolutely central.

In any case, if you are interested in how Vygotsky's work can be taken up in contemporary neuropsychological discourse about self-regulation, check out this chapter.

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