Section 5

A Quarter Century of Building on the Lessons of the Past

A note about Section 5: The idea for a polyphonic autobiography grew out of a meeting of the American Educational Research Association that took place in 2010. Some of the participants were elderly when this project began, but in the ensuing years, everyone who was present for Chapter 1 is still present in life. Former and prior participants in LCHC have been more than generous with their time in contributing to this document as a whole.

The people who figure in Section 5 of our polyphonic autobiography are now encountering that ubiquitous phenomenon known as “mid-life bulge,” when there are aging parents and adolescent offspring to worry about, never mind the heavy demands of work life and career building. We will, as a consequence, seek to keep the narratives of the main lines of research as spare and accessible as possible by making maximum use of the Projects Page, where descriptions written by the various project participants at the time of the research will serve to minimize post-hoc, Whig interpretations of the events being described.

When Section 4 was completed, our narrative had carried us to the early 1990s. Section 5 presents a collage of projects that were prominent from that transitional time up to Mike Cole’s retirement in 2013. We make maximal use of video presentations of our work where possible both because they give a feel for the contents and strategies employed in an embodied way, and because they provide important information for interpreting the texts that accompany them.

International, National, and Local Contexts

Sea changes on the international and national scenes in the early 1990s affected not only the international and national circumstances of the Lab’s work, but also its local conditions at UCSD. The subsequent decades were accompanied by changes in the scope and specific content of the Lab’s work with respect to other groups at UCSD and its articulation with San Diego and the international scholarly community.

Internationally, the disintegration of the Soviet Union entirely changed the political context of our ongoing projects with Russian scholars. The Russian social sciences, along with the great majority of its academic enterprises, suffered severe social and economic collapse in the conversion of the USSR into contemporary Russia. Many of our former colleagues in Moscow experienced severe restrictions on their academic work, although the ideas of Vygotsky continued to be a source of great interest communication between former-Soviet scholars and the international community. Nationally, the continued fascination with new digital technologies has, if anything, accelerated along with the ascendancy of a variety of pedagogical views characterized as “sociocultural,” a process to which LCHC contributed and from which it benefitted (cf. Kids and Computers: A Positive Vision of the Future). Locally, LCHC became more connected to economically disadvantaged communities in San Diego.

The apparently boundless faith that rapidly evolving digital technologies would provide a solution to vexing problems of continuing, gapping educational inequalities provided us with many opportunities to continue our empirical and theoretical work. We took it as our task, as we had when this line of work began a decade earlier, to design activities that could combat the strong tendency of new technologies to exacerbate existing academic inequalities (Griffin & Cole, 1987). The problems remained discouragingly similar. How could we overturn the Mathew Principle: “Unto every one that hath shall be given”?

Locally, LCHC’s long-term promotion of undergraduate courses that linked students’ on-campus experiences with real world settings began to gain administrative traction. The result from the perspective of LCHC was the opportunity to go beyond the work on the Firth Dimension 5thD projects to experiment with emerging new forms of communicative media. The new projects provided many enriching opportunities for inter-institutional collaboration and the design of academically successful, engaging pedagogical environments, various of which have been institutionalized at UCSD.

The impetus toward design-based interventions that began with the early work on ecological validity, small group reading instruction, and the 5thD was heavily influenced by Yrjö Engeström’s appointment to the UCSD Communication Department faculty in 1989. From 1990-1995, he served as director of the Lab and was instrumental in converting the Lab’s Newsletter into a full-fledged Journal, Mind, Culture, and Activity.

During this same period, the 5thD project experienced a period of rapid growth, expanding not only locally, but also at the State, National, and International levels as well. Such expansion forced our attention to the different ways in which various implementers, beginning from their interpretation of the design principles worked out for the existing 5thDs, were re-designing (adapting/transforming) their implementations to suit their local circumstances in terms of the populations involved, the geo-cultural- social circumstances, and their ongoing local practices.

Simultaneously, scholarly interest in the theoretical framework we were seeking to develop (what came to be called “cultural-historical activity theory”) was increasing exponentially. At this juncture, the fact that LCHC straddled the Communication Department, the Psychology Department, and the Human Development Program at UCSD provided a myriad of opportunities to satisfy the interests of individual graduate students and visitors. LCHC remained a beehive of activity; so many projects were being implemented simultaneously that it was difficult to keep track of them!

The year 2005 represented an important turning point in the Laboratory’s work. Several important changes occurred simultaneously. Yrjö left UCSD for Finland, where he continued to build his center for developmental research, currently referred to as CRADLE. Simultaneously the last of the original 5thDs initiated by Mike Cole and his research team in 1987 ceased operations. By an odd coincidence, just at this time, the collectively authored book summarizing the first two decades of work on the 5thD was published.

The cessation of the local 5thD by no means ended the overall project. Many “next generation” adaptations of the 5thDs continued nationally and internationally. La Clase Mágica expanded locally, and a new line of work built on the 5thD flourished (see UCLinks). But without the driving necessity of implementation of the local 5thD, it became possible to consider new forms of activity – new ways to test out our increasingly explicit ideas about culture, development, and the organization of educational activity. This section will provide an overview of these many lines of activity.

Chapter 12: Evolution of the 5th Dimension traces the fate of the early 5thD project, an the expansion of the initial design into a diverse set of University-Community partnerships that included a consortium spanning the University of California’s many campuses as well as a network of national and international programs.

Chapter 13: Town and Country Learning Center: Connecting with the Community recounts the development of a new strategy for creating University-Community partnerships that eschews the implementation of a pre-designed set of activities. Instead, the community partners are engaged in a process of co-design that we refer to as “mutual appropriation.”

Chapter 14: Adult/Child Play: Emotion, Cognition, and Development in Playworlds focuses on the design and implementation of “playworlds,” a distinctive form of play in which adults enter into a fantasy world and pretend play as co-participants with young children. The resulting activities engender and make visible the intimate connections between pretend play, emotion, and cognition that have a powerful affect not only the children but also their adult playmates.

Chapter 15: Re-visiting Old Problems by a new Generation describes a series of projects led by LCHC graduate students that re-visit issues of long standing concern to the Lab. These include the process of culture formation, the use of video production as a means of engaging in community-based ethnographic research, the potential of online communities for promoting valued learning experiences, the relation of language and thought, and use of play-like activities as an educational tool, this time in a medical educational setting.

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