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Friday, April 29, 2011

Star Trek and Vygotsky

I wrote this essay for my Educational Psychology class. We were assigned to take a movie about teachers and "reflect" on how one of the educational theories we were learning about had been applied within the context of the movie. Not being a big fan of movies about teachers, I asked if I could use an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation instead.


Star Trek and Vygotsky: How Vygotsky's theories, when taken too far, can result in poor education as illustrated in an episode of Star Trek the Next Generation

by Grant S. Robertson

The various theories of educational psychology are most often brought to mind in a classroom setting. This may be the college classroom in education departments all over the world, where they are first learned, or in our children’s classrooms where teachers put those theories to work. However, examples of these theories often show up where they are not usually expected. The reader may be familiar with the many books and movies – usually based on the books – depicting real and fictional teachers succeeding in “bringing the tough cases around” or “breaking through” to troubled kids in underprivileged schools. This theme is so common that it has become almost formulaic. Things always seem to work so perfectly and in such short order that the cynical among us may be excused for believing them to be fantasy. So, what might happen if we accept the fact that film and television really are just fantasy and examine instances where education is exhibited in these realms? How might it reflect education as it exists in the real world?

Science fiction has a long tradition of exploring human nature and society in “what-if” situations and offers many fantasy realms from which to choose. Some are quite imaginative, though without much internal cohesion. Others have a long tradition of maintaining internal consistency and relevance to the real world. One such science-fiction realm is the world of Star Trek. Many are only familiar with the original series launched in the 1960s. However there were many spin-offs from that first series. Their large fan base keeps them consistent and in touch with today’s reality. The first spin-off, called “Star Trek, The Next Generation” includes a character named “Data” who is actually an android but who is written to explore many aspects of human nature.

In one episode, Commander Data crash lands on a “primitive” planet whose inhabitants have reached the technological level of Earth’s dark ages with many myths and misconceptions about science and the world around them. The crash damages the android so that he develops “amnesia” which allows him to function but cannot remember any of his past or any of the scientific or technological facts he has been programmed to know. However, he still has an intuitive sense for how things work. Data is befriended by a community and begins to live among them. One day he chances to observe a lesson being taught by the local school-teacher. In it she explains the ancient notion that all matter is composed of just four “elements:” earth, water, fire, and air. In the lesson she demonstrates how by adding fire to a stick, she can release the air (smoke) that is in the stick and leave only the earth (ashes) behind, thus proving that the stick is composed of earth and air. Naturally, we know this to be utter hogwash, and Commander Data was a bit perplexed though he didn’t know why. He just “knew” that this explanation was too simplistic.

When Data questioned the teacher about her lesson, she replied that that was the way things worked and she knew this because it had been handed down by learned individuals before her. This is a perfect example of Lev Vygotsky’s theory of culture-based learning run amuck. Vygotsky claimed that all learning came from an individual’s culture. That we can – or should – only learn what is taught to us by our elders or those in authority. (Considering that Vygotsky came from Soviet Russia, this author tends to think that he meant the latter.) Those who know their history should know that the above example is not just science-fiction fantasy. The “four elements” “theory” of matter was pervasive for hundreds of years, believed for no other reason than that it was taught by those in authority. Naturally, we like to believe that only the people in the dark-ages would be gullible enough to fall for something so silly. But we see many common myths promulgated by our education system even today. “Abraham Lincoln never told a lie.” “George Washington inexplicably chopped down a cherry tree and then confessed” (but only when asked - in typical politician fashion). “The definition of ‘theory’ is something that hasn’t been proven.”

This last is particularly important because it seems to come up again and again, but only seems to be selectively applied to one aspect of modern science by people who seem hell-bent, as it were, to destroy the very foundations of science itself. The definition of “theory” is clearly stated in many science textbooks. It is an explanation for a collection of scientific principles that is widely supported by facts and a preponderance of physical evidence. No one claims that the “Theory of Gravity” isn’t proven. Even Vygotsky gets to claim his notion that all learning should come from culture and “the authorities” is a “theory” and no one doubts him. But challenge something that is widely believed – and believed merely because it is promulgated by some who claim to be in authority – and suddenly the accepted definitions don’t apply. Suddenly something that is supported by more evidence than almost any other scientific theory is claimed to not be proven because it is a “theory” and something with no evidence to support it whatsoever should be taught merely because charlatans masquerading as authorities have attached the six letters “T H E O R Y” after its name.

Yes, “Creationism” is the “Four Elements Theory” of the twenty first century. The “Four Horses” of the demise of scientific thought all rolled into one, to stretch a metaphor.  It’s proponents want to set American Education back to a time before there even was an America. A time when “the way things are” is determined by how much authority is claimed by those promulgating the “theory.” Yes, culture can, does, and should play a part in what and how we teach our children. But Vygotsky got it dead wrong when he claimed that culture should be have the lead role, reciting a running monologue and shutting out all the other actors in the guild. Culture should play a part but a small, bit part that says its lines and gets off of the stage. Real research and real evidence must play the lead roles in what and how we teach our children. From science, to history, to gym class. We must be sure that how and what we are teaching is based on evidence, not tradition. Science, not authority. If we can’t give at least this to our children then we might as well just give up and accept the same culture that lead Vygotsky to create his “theory” in the first place.


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Star Trek and Vygotsky by Grant Sheridan Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
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