Short history of Cultural historical theory in the Netherlands
In the Dutch community of educational researchers Vygotskian Cultural Historical Theory is already an acknowledged and significant theoretical perspective since the publication of “Soviet Psychologen aan het woord” (Soviet psychologists speaking”) in 1972. This book was published by Carel van Parreren and Jacques Carpay (then working at the University of Utrecht) as an introduction of cultural historical theory in the Netherlands. The book was mainly based on the works of Gal’perin, Davydov and their colleagues. The focus of the book was primarily on learning in primary school. Van Parreren and Carpay were the first generation of Cutural-historical scholars in the Netherlands.
During the 1950s Carel van Parreren had developed a theory of learning based on the idea that learning is basically a process of qualitative change of the structure of actions. Following the work of Kurt Lewin, van Parreren interpreted human action as a type of human behaviour that depended on both intentions and situation (“field”). In this work van Parreren integrated much of the Gestalt psychologists ideas, like Wolfgang Köhler’s criticism against machine like interpretations of human behaviour, and the importance of perceptions and affect for the understanding of human learning and development.
In the late 1960s van Parreren encountered the work of the Russian psychologist Gal’perin who also had developed an action -based theory of learning. Moreover, Gal’perin had specified the parameters that were essential in the qualitative change of actions. This idea fitted very well in van Parreren's theory of learning. With the help of Jacques Carpay (who had studied psychology and Russian) they could study and translate the work of Gal’perin and other Russian researchers and describe these in the book ‘Soviet psychologen aan het woord’ (1972). This book contained an extensive explanation of Gal’perin's theory and some of the follow-up work by Gal’perin's pupils, especially V.V. Davydov. Through the study of these works Van Parreren more and more focused on the works of Vygotskij himself. Van Parreren integrated Vygotskij’s ideas in his own theoretical perspective and developed an educational concept on the basis of these ideas. The concept was called “Ontwikkelend Onderwijs” (in English: Developmental Education) which described a developmental perspective on the identity development of pupils. This concept started out from the idea that learning is always based on actions accomplished by pupils with the help of teachers or more knowledgeable peers. The way pupils act and can benefit from the help of others changes with development. Van Parreren described this theory in one of his latest books ‘Ontwikkelend Onderwijs’ (1989).
When Van Parreren started studying and promoting Vygotskij’s cultural-historical theory (CHT), there were not many translations of Vygotskij’s works available in English. There was the 1962 (selectively translated) version of Vygotskij’s work on the relations between speech and thinking (Language and thought). For the study of the ideas of Vygotskij this book had only a limited value, as many crucial parts were not translated. By that time there were a few other works like Simon & Simon (Educational Psychology in the USSR, 1963) and Cole and Maltzman (A handbook of contemporary Soviet Psychology, 1969). Dutch cultural historical psychologists could also benefit much from the East-German translations of the works of Vygotskij, Leon’tev, Luria, Davydov, Mentschinskaja etc. In the former DDR this work was highly valued and much of this work was translated from Russian into German. In Western Germany, however, the study of cultural historical psychology by that time (the 1980s- 90s) was suspect for political reasons, so the approach could not develop freely and prosperously expand in Western Germany. Hence, the Netherlands (since the seventies) remained an island in Western Europe where Cultural-historical theory could develop freely, and could be implemented in Dutch primary schools. Despite these favourite conditions, cultural historical theory and research never was a mainstream approach in Dutch psychology, the community of cultural historical psychologists was relatively small and remained just a counterparadigm for a long time. Much of the CHT-research by that time was strongly theoretical, only a small number of empirical research projects were carried out. Many Dutch cognitive psychologists neglected the cultural-historical theoretical studies and returned to the empirical work and cognitive psychology that was much more data-driven.
During the seventies van Parreren and Carpay did train students and influence other researchers. They generated a second generation (René van der Veer, Jacques Haenen, Jo Nelissen, Dolly van Eerde, Bert van Oers, Wim Wardekker, and others). In their elaboration of the cultural-historical theory, the works of Vygotskij had a more prominent place (whereas van Parreren used to start from Gal’perins work). In this period a stronger link was made with the Activity theory of Leont'ev, leading to the Cultural-historical Activity Theory (CHAT).
In the mean time several concurrent developments took place: in Utrecht there was also a group of critical psychologists who primarily focused on the work of Klaus Holzkamp and his co-workers. These critical psychologists studied learning and development from a Marxist point of view and took a strong interest in the relationships between social forces and cultural development. These psychologists acknowledged that their points of view were on many points consistent with the cultural historical approach of Vygotskij. Their approach to educational, societal and developmental problems was, however, much more critical and political. The main exponent of this movement in the seventies is prof Ed Elbers, who became one of the main proponents of the cultural historical community in the Netherlands in the 1980s.
In that same period, Jaap Vos made a study of the (philosophical) foundations of cultural-historical theory. He was a member of a group of researcher and students under the guidance of Leon van Gelder (University of Groningen). Van Gelder was an educationalist who was not directly involved with the cultural-historical approach, but he studied education from socio-political point of view. As such he endorsed the idea of the political, social and cultural dimensions in education and development. In this context new co-workers of van Gelder could easily engage themselves with Vygotskian theory. From this community, mainly Wim Wardekker and Sarah Blom adopted the Vygotskian approach and contributed permanently to the development of this approach in the Netherlands, both in theory and practice.
By the end of the 1970s a concentration took place at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Jacques Carpay was appointed as a professor of Education at the Vrije Universiteit (VU University), followed by Bert van Oers, Wim Wardekker, Jaap Vos and Sarah Blom. This group of people productively combined their shared interest in cultural historical theory with their diverse backgrounds in psychology, pedagogy, philosophy and education. So this became a strong (but small) group of cultural-historical educationalists. This group got engaged in more empirical research and could strengthen the cultural-historical paradigm in the Netherlands. For the mainstream cognitive psychology the group remained, however, a minority. In the mean time the cultural historical approach grew enormously on the international level, mainly through the works of Jerome Bruner, Michael Cole, Barbara Rogoff, Jaan Valsiner, Gordon Wells, James Wertsch and many others.
This group at the VU University Amsterdam (Department of Education and Curriculum/Afdeling Onderwijspedagogiek/Onderwijs en Innovatie) could also set up a curriculum for university students’ education that was mainly conceived from the Vygotskian perspective. The basis of the approach is still strongly activity based, but the focus on meaning has become more explicit than it was in the 1970s.
As the only department in the Netherlands, the Department of Education and Curriculum could train their students in the theory of development, schooling and education from a cultural historical point of view. Such teaching (both at the VU and elsewhere) contributed to the formation of a third generation of cultural-historical scholars in the Netherlands, who are well-trained in Vygotskian theory, but they also have taken a strong interest in educational practices (mainly school and educational services).This third generation featured scholars like Bea Pompert, Niko Fijma, Mariette de Haan, Dorian de Haan, Monique Volman. Particularly Bea Pompert played an important role in helping Frea Janssen-Vos to develop her curriculum strategy for young children (called Basis Ontwikkeling). Janssen-Vos and Pompert, with the help of Niko Fijma, Trudy Schiferli and many others, developed and implemented an approach for working with preschool en primary school children on the basis of Vygotskian ideas on learning, development and schooling. The approach is now well known in the Netherlands as ‘Ontwikkelingsgericht Onderwijs’ (Developmental Education). A growing number of schools is now adopting this way of working with children, supervised by Pompert and many colleagues from their National Centre for Developmental Education, called 'De Activiteit' in Alkmaar.
In this collaboration between the university (Bert van Oers, Wim Wardekker, Monique Volman and others), the Academy for Developmental Education, and 'De Activiteit' a powerful platform is created for the future development of the Cultural-historical Activity Theory- paradigm on both the theoretical and practical level. The dissemination of this movement in the Netherlands is now supported by an association for Developmental Education (Vereniging voor Ontwikkelingsgericht Onderwijs), an expert institute for coaching schools which want to innovate their practices along the line of Developmental Education (called De Activiteit), a specialised journal for the exchange of theoretical and practical ideas about Developmental Education (Zone), a bi-annual conference for Developmental Education, and the scholars of the VU Department 'Theory and Research in Education'. New schools, teachers and teacher trainers are joining the movement, new students are trained, new researchers (like Phd students) are contributing to the understanding of learning, development and social context. Collaborating teachers, teacher trainers, developers, and researchers are investing much effort in the implementation of the concept of Developmental Education in schools. The number of teachers that feel attracted to this approach is constantly growing. Together (academics and praticioners) they constitute the fourth generation: Chiel van der Veen, Marjolein Dobber, Femke van der Wilt.
The chair for Cultuurhistorische Onderwijspedagogiek (prof. B. van Oers), together with the lectureship of dr W. Wardekker (Vrije Universiteit and professor at the University of Higher Education and Teacher Training, Zwolle), lectorship of Chiel van der Veen (Windesheim, Almere) and the professorship of Prof. Monique Volman (University of Amsterdam) constitute a firm network of research and development in a variety of dimensions. Due to the work of these scholars (at the universities, training institutes, and schools) this fourth generation of CHAT adherents is now at work in the Netherlands (Marjolein Dobber, Chiel van der Veen, Lorien de Koning, Marte van Vliet, Femke van der Wilt, and many many others).
Together they elaborate, implement and evaluate the Developmental Education concept in practice, strengthen one of the basic tenets of Vygotskij regarding the necessary integration of theory and practice.
For the benefit of children and our future society.
Some English book publications of Dutch Cultural-historical researchers:
Haenen, J. (1996). Pjotr Gal’perin. Psychologist in Vygotsky’s footsteps. Commack: Nova
Van Oers, B. (2003). Narratives of Childhood. Amsterdam: VU University Press.
Van Oers, B. (ed.), Developmental Education for youg children. Berlin: Springer
Van der Veer, R. , & Valsiner, J. (1991). Understanding Vygotsky. A quest for synthesis. Oxford: Blackwell.
Van der Veer, R., & Valsiner, J, (1994). The Vygotsky reader. Oxford: Blackwell
Bert van Oers