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Young Minds in Social WorldsReview - Young Minds in Social Worlds
Experience, Meaning, and Memory
by Katherine Nelson
Harvard University Press, 2007
Review by G.C. Gupta, Ph. D.
Mar 4th 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 10)

Developmental psychologist Katherine Nelson is a spokesman of Vygotskian approach, also known as social constructivism. She explains her strategy by presenting a brief critique on the various viewpoints available in trying to understand the psychology of children. According to her, 'Old Metaphors' such as Piaget's 'epistemic child' viewed cognitive development as a product of individual mind, achieved through observation and experimentation.  According to Nelson, Alison Gopnik, a theory theorist, commits a fallacy that attributes one's own thought processes to others.

Nelson goes on to reject even a modern metaphor of computational theories of mind, that mind operates like a computer. According to her cognition does not process abstract information, but it interprets experience and shares culture with others. She goes to the extent of criticizing Steven Pinker and Elizabeth Spelke for under-emphasizing the role of social and cultural influences in cognitive development. Nelson is not only a dedicated Vygotskian but also a subscriber to developmental systems theory, regarding cognitive development as a complex and dynamic process in which a cognitive structure gradually emerges.

The book has 9 chapters and a Preface followed by Notes, References, and Acknowledgements. The first chapter explicates Nelson's thesis on what she means by 'Modern Metaphors of the Developing Child' by breaking up the  chapter coverage into sections such as, 'Old Metaphors', 'Revisionist Metaphors: The competent Infant and Beyond', 'The Child Theorist', The Experiential Child', 'Becoming a Different Kind', and 'Developmental Change as Movement in New Levels.' 

Chapter 2 is entitled as 'Perspectives on Meaning.' Addressed are summaries of the old cognitive-science models of the mind of the infant and young child-called as the old formulations encompassing 'pragmatic theories in psychology and philosophy' (p.56).  The author presents a summary of her own orientation as well.

Chapters 3 through 8 address specific aspects of the development course of infancy and early childhood.'  In Chapter 3, the author explicates the meaning of the experience for understanding 'infant development and the contemporary research in infant cognition, with emphasis on the constraints of biology, the necessity of social care, and the cultural interpretations of the infant world and experience' (p.26).

The next chapter, entitled "Toddling toward Childhood," focuses on 'the transition from infancy to early childhood involving critical developments,' overall concern being to examine how children manage in a world of "hidden meanings" (p.27).

Chapters 5 and 6 trace the developments in language, tracing the course from 'pragmatic communicative language to representational and cognitive functions of language, with the child's experiential meaning first leading and then conforming as language comes to restructure the child's cognitive repertoire' (p.27).

Chapter 7, entitled 'Finding Oneself in Time,' describes the emergence of narrative to the emergence of autobiographical memory through collaborative reconstruction of shared experience. The concern highlighted is that the practices of narrativizing memory enable the understanding of self-continuity-past, present, and future -- and the identification of knowledge source, including self-experience as a distinct from the experience of others' (p.27).

'Entering a Community of Minds' is the title theme of the next chapter. It has two aspects. In the first, the author asserts in re-emphasizing that young children have "Private Minds," each child a mind of its own that gradually opens up to the awareness of others' meanings colored by social and cultural features, communicated symbolically, thus bringing about a symbiosis of brain and mind-sharing culture. The process of 'Entering a Community of Minds' thus gets initiated. In the second aspect, the concern expressed is about the nature of contemporary cognitive development- 'how conceptual knowledge is organized and reorganized in the child's knowledge schemas' (p.28). Entering a community of minds entails a ' pragmatic process of collaborative construction, a necessary process involving representational language and cultural knowledge structures' (p.28). According to the author, 'community of minds holds the key to "mind- sharing" of cultural knowledge (P.28).

'The Study of Developing Minds', the last chapter, is the study of continuities that emerge, merging 'one period of development into the next, as well as the new levels of consciousness and meaning that emerge overtime (p.239).'  A reference to the titles of sub-themes in this chapter, for instance, ' The Architecture of Development', 'Externalization', 'Language of Thought', 'Memory Partition', 'Collaborative Construction' provides a refreshing theorization endeavor.

However, as against the backdrop provided by both the classical and the contemporary point of views on development what else has been said by the author in the presented perspective. Except for a coloring to turn it into a pragmatic and balanced point of view, nothing else has been added. What remains to be added?  Only another volume on development to be published in the future will tell.

© 2008 G.C. Gupta

Dr. G.C. Gupta, Visiting faculty member to the Centre for Behaviour and Cognitive Science, Allahabad University, Allahabad, formerly Professor of Psychology, University of Delhi, Delhi, India


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