Scribner & Cole

Sylvia Scribner og Michael Coles feltstudier blandt Vai-folket i Liberia er på sin vis et opgør med Lurias resultater: Det er ikke dét at lære at læse og skrive, der giver en radikal forandring af menneskets kognitive apparat - det er derimod faktorer som urbanisering, en formaliseret skolegang, mm. der er afgørende herfor. De ydre omstændigheder ved skriftligheden er dog også af betydning for Lurias konklusioner, men senere udlægninger af Lurias undersøgelser har underspillet dette aspekt - og derfor er Scribner og Coles resultater så vigtige.


Five years of field work contributed to what has become known as "The Vai Project," a combination of surveys, ethnographies, interviews, and experiments conducted by Cole and Schribner in a small Liberian population. The goal of this project was to create a greater understanding of the psychology of literacy, that is, how different social situations affect, shape, or change human thought. This book is the story of their experiences and findings in the relation between cognition and culture.

The arguments that provide the foundation for their study are well-known: does literacy shape the human mind? And if so, does the "mastery of a written language affect[s] not only the content of thought but also the process of thinking--how we classify, reason, remember? According to this view, writing systems introduce such basic changes in the way individuals think that we are justified in speaking not only of literate and preliterate societies but of literate and preliterate people" (5).

Cole and Scribner were able to hone in on these questions by looking at the Vai population since Vai people have their own script. The script is taught at home, rather than school, allowing the researchers to separate school-based education from literacy. Although their language is widely used within the culture, the culture itself is a relatively small population within the country. This idea sparked questions about social and economic conditions that promote literacy activity. Why did they continue to learn the script and what benefit did it have for them or the rest of the country?

There are three educational system in the Vai culture:

  • Traditional socialization - the bush school, taught by men for boys, and by women for girls
  • English schooling - much like American schooling
  • Qur'anic schooling - conducted in Arabic

While a majority of the Vai population goes through some sort of schooling, the opportunities to use their literate skills are very limited. Although literacy activities as we may think of them are limited in the Vai culture, there are certain practices that occur quite frequently. In the letters the researchers collected they noticed that letter writing, for example, is a common form of communication that has taken on a distinct pattern. They can speculate, therefore, that the more a particular application is practiced, the greater the knowledge of that particular skill.

The majority of the book provides an extensive discussion of their goals, methods, collections of data, and studies of sounds, symbols, and memory. After examining the very specific data they collected over the years, Cole and Scribner were able conclude that there are definite cognitive skills associated with literacy, but not necessarily with classroom learning. And these cognitive skills are dictated by each culture and situation. Examining the Vai culture and their application of literacy in very specific applications gave the researchers the opportunity to examine the particular skills that are enhanced by this practice. Thus, the Vai project itself does not define guidelines or formulas for interpreting the relation between cognition and literacy, rather it will allow others to use the research to study other cultures, with another kind of literacy, and other literacy applications.


Sylvia Scribner & Michael Cole:
The Psychology of Literacy (1981)

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