Vygotsky’s account of child development

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This chapter, firstly, presents a brief background to a cultural-historical approach to human development. Secondly, some of the key tenets of a cultural-historical theory as conceptualized by Lev Vygotsky are discussed, followed by a brief presentation of a traditional African ontological perspective to child development, as advocated by Bame Nsamenang. It is beyond the scope of this study to give an expansive explanation of the two scholars’ seminal work, Only a selection of their theories’ concepts are briefly presented in this chapter, as they act as tools for explaining child development and, it is argued, form the baseline for Mariane Hedegaard’s cultural-historical theory. Thirdly, this chapter discusses a cultural-historical perspective as proposed by Hedegaard (2009). Lastly, it presents an illustrative argument that Hedergaard’s cultural-historical approach can provide a meaningful framework for exploring sport talent development within the field of sport psychology.


The beginnings of a cultural-historical approach are associated with the Soviet psychologist, Lev S. Vygotsky, whose approach to human learning and development (Vygotsky, 1978, 1987) was, over time, systematised into a new theoretical framework that focused on explaining how children learn, grow up and develop in particular social, cultural, and historical settings (Kontopodis & Newnham, 2011). A cultural-historical approach is essentially based on the concept that human activities take place in a cultural context, mediated by language and other symbol systems, and is best understood when investigated in their historical development (John-Streiner & Mahn, 1996). As Vygotsky (1997) explained “In the process of historical development, social man changes the methods and devices of his behavior, transforms natural instincts and functions, and develops and creates a new forms of behavior – specifically cultural” (p.18).
Its task is to explicate relationships between human action, on one hand, and the cultural, institutional and historical contexts in which action occurs on the other. The emphasis is on the interdependence of the individual and the cultural factors in the construction of knowledge by integrating history and culture as part of the whole process of childhood development (Ridgway, 2010). It thus criticises the hegemonic Western psychology for defining the person as an independent and autonomous individual whilst ignoring the ways in which cultural context and social practices permeate and constitute the individual psyche (Ryba et al., 2013). Advocates of this approach argue that the dominant child development theories developed by and for Western and most European heritage countries implicitly assume that the conditions of children represent, or at least approximate, the optimal environment for individual development in humans, in terms of parental commitment, health care, nutrition, living space, domestic facilities, physical protection, emotional warmth, cognitive stimulation, communicative responsiveness, and social stability (Pence & Marfo, 2008).
Lee and Johnson (2007) refer to Piaget, psychoanalysis, and learning theory as some of the grand theoretical systems that have dominated the field and, as a result, developmental psychologists and other scholars of child development have not been attentive to the centrality of culture in children’s development (Ogbu, 1993; Vygotsky, 1998; Rogoff, 2003; Hedegaard, 2005; Fleer 2006; Nsamenang, 1992). Within these grand theories, child development is described as occurring in linear and universal stages and is considered lawful and, with minor adjustments, the same for everyone across time and place. Also, development is perceived as an individualistic process that occurs through children’s direct encounters with the world rather than as mediated through vicarious encounters with it in interacting and negotiating with others (Lee & Johnson, 2007; Nsamenang, 2000).
Another reason for a call to challenge the dominant theories is that, where they are left unchallenged, the educational systems, including the policy, research, and curriculum implementation literature and approaches used in the educational and training settings, end up being constructed on the basis of these theories and values about children and childhood (Nsamenang & Dawes, 1998; Rogoff, Paradise, Arauz, Correa-Chaves & Angelillo, 2003; Nsamenang, 2008; Fleer (2009). Subsequently, what becomes valued within the profession of childhood development is essentially a view of child development that is embedded within Western and European institutionalised thinking of childhood development and education (Nsamenang, 2008; Fleer & Hedegaard, 2010). That the selection of materials, instruction practices, concepts of learning and development, and the beliefs that underpin centre-based environments remain largely uncontested, is problematic as many of the communities which have since appropriated Western education and developmental strategies are culturally and linguistically diverse (Fleer, 2009; Nsamenang & Dawes, 1998).
Scholars such as Nsamenang and Dawes (1998) and Fleer (2009) have argued that examining some of these taken-for-granted practices, views and concepts of learning and development that are perpetuated by the dominant theories requires a broad cultural-historical analysis, hence embarking on extensive research exploring the cultural-historical construction of childhood and child education within a social context. Their research has informed recommendations that the legacy of the dominant cultural belief and assumption about how children develop in all contemporary societies is in need of constant review. Such a review may also help to make visible some of the Western institutional theories and practices that may no longer be relevant to the diverse communities they are serving.


Vygotsky (1998) contended that the dominant perspectives on child development emphasise a linear path, with deviations from the normal path considered diseases of development. In this manner, child development is a naturally evolving process producing particular behaviours, and, when such behaviours are not forthcoming, concern is expressed about the individual in question. Vygotsky argued for a different perspective of child development and proposed a dialectical process in which a transition from one developmental stage to another is accomplished not as an “evolving process” but as a “revolutionary process”. He argued that “a dialectical approach to development invites [us] to be continually projecting learning [and development] beyond the child’s current capacities, but will do so in ways which connect with the child’s growing sense of themselves within their communities/institutions” (Fleer & Hedegaard, 2010, p.150), thus emphasising the point that one needs to study context when making judgments about children’s development processes and planning for learning.
According to Vygotsky (1998), the development process is localized and specific to the community in which the child is living, learning and developing. Vygotsky talked about development as being a process of the “unity of material and mental aspects, a unity of the social and the personal” (p.190). He regarded this unity as being “localized and experienced in the everyday life conditions of children as they take part in day to day activities at home, in preschool, and in their community” (Fleer, 2015, p.22), hence the content of development is localised and specific to the community in which the child is living, learning and developing.
Vygotsky’s theory of child development conceptualises the process of development as “not just an ‘adding on to what is there’ but rather a qualitative change in the child” (Fleer, 2015, p.33). Rather than conceptualising child development from an evolutionary or maturational perspective, where the child proceeds along a particular pre-determined path benchmarked by age, Vygotsky’s perspective is that development is a qualitative transformation from one form to another which can be understood through the metaphor of a caterpillar’s transformation into a chrysalis and butterfly (Bozhovich, 2009).
Vygotsky (1978) argued that to study history is not to study the past, but to study something historically is to study it in motion. He proposed that:
To study something historically means to study it in the process of change; that is the dialectical method’s basic demand. To encompass in research the process of a given thing’s development in all its phases and changes – from birth to death
– fundamentally means to discover its nature, its essence, for it is only in movement that a body shows what it is. Thus the historical study of behaviour is not an auxiliary aspect of theoretical study, but rather forms its very base (pp.64-65).
As Ridgway (2010) explained, when practices arise in relation to historical needs, their role in childhood development may be better understood if a dialectical methods approach is used to make visible complementarity, contradictions, continuities, discontinuities and reciprocity of different practices over time. In cultural-historical theory, to study the historical dimensions implies a need to study practices dialectically, in motion, in iterations and in transformations. When these are understood as driving forces for development, temporal practices and activities expressed in them can be used methodologically to examine how child development may have proceeded over time within particular cultural communities. In other words, the conceptual tools provided by cultural-historical theory can be used as a methodology for understanding development over time within communities and institutions, including the family.

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The social situation of development and the concept of crisis

Vygotsky (1998) defined the concept of the child’s social situation as the system of dialectical experiential and motivational relations between a child of a given age and the social conditions for his or her activity. Bozhovich (2009) gave an expanded definition when he wrote that the social situation of development denotes:
…the special combination of internal developmental processes and external conditions that are typical of each developmental stage and that condition both the dynamic of mental development for the duration of the corresponding developmental period and the new qualitatively distinct psychological formations that emerge toward its end (p.66).
In other words, what changes is not the child nor environment, but rather the child’s relationship to the environment. Vygotsky made an attempt at characterising the qualitative nature of the structure of children’s psychological features at different ages, even though his untimely death did not permit him to complete a psychological characterisation of developmental stages based on his theory of child development. He suggested that the child’s relationship to social or environmental reality is related to specific age periods (Kravtsova, 2006) and that during the transition from one age to another, not only do separate mental functions grow and qualitatively change, but also children’s relationships to one another and structure change.

Chapter One: Introduction
1.1 Background to the study
1.2 Theoretical framework
1.3 Rationale for the study
1.4 The aims of the study
1.5 Methodological approach to the present research
1.6 Definitions of terms
1.7 Outline of thesis
Chapter Two: The Ecological approach
2.1 Introduction
2.2 The ecological approach to human development
2.3 Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological approach to human development
2.4 Operationalizing of the bioecological approach
2.5 Krebs’ bioecological model of development of sport talent
2.6 Henriksen’s holistic ecological approach
2.7 Summary
Chapter Three: A cultural-historical approach
3.1 Introduction
3.2 A cultural-historical approach to human development
3.3 Vygotsky’s account of child development
3.4 Nsamenang and a traditional African ontological perspective
3.5 Critiquing Vygotsky’s and Nsamenang’s approaches to child development
3.6 Hedegaard’s cultural-historical approach
3.7 Cultural-historical approach in sport psychology and football talent development
3.8 Summary
Chapter Four: Literature review
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Locating the term “development” with regards to talent
4.3 Conceptions of “talent”
4.4 Talent development models
4.5 The elements of a successful talent development process
4.6 Talent development in football
4.7 Summary
Chapter Five: Methodology
5.1 Introduction
5.2 Research design
5.3 Participants
5.4 Instruments
5.4.1 The interviews
5.4.2 Observation
5.5 Pilot study
5.6 Data collection procedure
5.7 Data analysis
5.8 Enhancing research quality
5.9 Ethical considerations
5.10 Summary
Chapter Six: Results
6.1 Introduction
6.2 The club academy environment as a social situation of talent development
6.3 The components and structure of the club environment
6.4 Summary
Chapter Seven: Discussion
7.1 Introduction
7.2 Contextual factors influencing the environment success
7.3 Ecological conditions associated with becoming a professional footballer
7.4 The conceptual framework of factors associate with successful football talent development
7.5 Summary
Chapter Eight: Conclusion
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Conclusions
8.3 Limitations
8.4 Implications
8.5 Recommandations
Towards a conceptual framework for understanding the ecological factors associated with talent development among football players in South Africa

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