Early Childhood Education

Luria, A. R. (1902-1977)


Alexander Romanovich Luria was a twentieth-century Russian psychologist of the sociohistorical school of thinking. A friend and colleague of L. S. Vygotsky, Luria continued and furthered the premises of the sociohistorical theoretical perspective after Vygotsky’s premature death in 1934, adapting his work to the political and historical circumstances of twentieth-century life in the then U.S.S.R.

At the core of his research was the goal of understanding the nature of human development as a function of the social resources and historical circumstances of individuals as well as groups of people.

Luria’s professional training was in psychology and medicine. He studied memory, attention, language and thought, mental retardation, brain damage, the development of fraternal and identical twins in western Russia, as well as the nature of thinking among illiterate Islamic agrarian communities in the Central Asian steppes of the early 1930s. He combined his talents and interest in the biological and neurological aspects of child and adult development with his vision for understanding development against the backdrop of historical and cultural circumstances. His goals were ambitious and broad. He lived long enough and wrote extensively about these ideas in ways that contemporary psychology and neurosciences have begun to address in recent years, particularly in a way that relates to the work of early childhood development.


Theory of Development

Luria’s work, along with that of L.S. Vygotsky and A. Leont’ev, paved the way for a revolutionary view of development: one that reconciled the nature of the human brain (neuropsychology), along with mental development (psychology) across time (history), in the great variety of social and cultural circumstances (anthropology). Luria and his colleagues established three premises to this view of development that he refined over five decades of his career (Cole, 1996, p. 108).


Mediation. Development for humans is marked by the ability to create and use tools to reorganize one’s interactions with others and objects. By tools, Luria and his colleagues were not only referring to objects, but more importantly, tools of the mind, namely language. Luria researched how language provides a currency for thinking, reflecting, planning, and formulating new possibilities for ourselves and others.


Historical Development. As humans, we do not “start from scratch” in development over a lifetime but rather each generation benefits from the ideas and tools of the preceding generation as they are passed on in circumstances for which the culture arranges.


Practical Activity. Understanding mental activity requires studying the particulars of daily activities of those we care to understand: both their interactions with one another over time, and how they use tools—objects and various forms of language—to get their work done.

Luria pioneered a methodology for empirical research that differed from experimental psychology with control and experimental groups but was no less rigorous. His studies of adults and children began with careful observation and documentation of their actions and talk in everyday situations followed by planned interventions attempting to remediate, or reorganize, their interactions with the world of objects and people. He then looked for evidence in his subject’s responses that indicated what was amenable to change: cultural, physiological, or biological. Close observation followed interventions as he sought to document how, if at all, a person’s activity was reorganized and changed as a result of the intervention.


Relevance of Luria’s Work for Contemporary Early Childhood Education

Luria’s work is important in contemporary educational and psychological research related to understanding the development of young children and their families from diverse backgrounds. His work reminds us to (1) seek to understand children and families from close-up involvement with them as participant observers, not arms, length detached “testing” of them; (2) understand children and their families from the premises of the important activities in their home and school life and the historical meaning of those tasks for the family and community; (3) observe closely for the tools and resources children and families use to accomplish their tasks and how they use them; (4) study closely how they make use of help and ideas offered in interventions, tracking the reorganization of their thinking from before to after to understand how people change and grow, and how the intervention might have influenced the course of that development.

Luria's work provides rich and carefully crafted empirical studies that were groundbreaking at the beginning of the twentieth century, and equally so in the twenty-first century.

Further Readings: Cole, M. (1978). The selected writings of A. R. Luria. New York: M.E. Sharpe; Cole, M. (1996). Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Luria, A. R. (1976). Cognitive development—its social and cultural foundations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Luria, A. R., and F. la Yudovich (1972). Speech and the development of mental processes in the child. Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd.; Luria, A. R. (1979). The making of mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gillian D. McNamee