The Epiphany of Learning

Zhuozhang Li, University of Liverpool


Conditions for knowledge and learning

Life follows its natural course, with routine, relationships and commitments, until the fateful moment occurs: the tram passes the corner and Ana sees the blind man chewing gum. When the epiphany happens, the damage is done and there is no turning back. Despite the fact that the stimulus is “just” a blind man chewing gum, there is no way of knowing why the turn has taken place or what is the exact moment when the mental connections are effectively consolidated and the epiphany occurs.

However, this apparently sudden turn is not restricted to the short story “Amor”, by Clarice Lispector, since it is also the key element of the other spheres that involve social relations and psychic interactions. Specifically, in the case we will deal with here, the proposed question is about the epiphany of development, the exact moment when the ideas that are floating around in the child's mind come to fruition and learning is consolidated.

How does the student consolidate knowledge? How does learning as a mental process occur? What is the social role of the other (teacher, colleague, or the individual himself) in this process? Is this other necessary? The answers to these questions are multiple theorizations of different researchers who, over time, have not yet been able to pinpoint the moment when learning occurred.

Our horizon will be Vygotsky who, as a theoretician, defends that this process of development and learning is a social process that takes place through the mediation of the meaning process. But, so that Ana's epiphany is not the only one in the chair of analysis, let's invite another character.

In the movie Anne Sullivan's Miracle, Anne, the tutor, proposes to teach Hellen sign language so that she can mediate her psychic processes and her relationships with the outside world. The little one understands the role of the tutor as a mediator in some situations, responding to some stimuli by imitating the proposed signs, but it is only in the final minutes that she consolidates language learning when she understands that this is a form of mediation with reality, which is associated to the objects it was exposed to, and which will allow it to communicate with others and understand the world around it.

However, no matter how great the tutor's efforts, and the constant object-language associations, the psychic process of learning this relationship only happens when the girl goes through the internal cathartic process of development, consolidating the sign language knowledge that the tutor repeats to exhaustion for it to internalize and finally signify this cultural element that is language. But then what makes the girl finally manage to understand the relationship between language and objects in the world if the tutor's method does not change?

Apparently, this is where the great secret of the human psyche is hidden, which provokes its epiphanies and consolidates learning at unexpected times, with multiple triggers, and concluding the processes at different times for each individual. Despite this, the theorist in question proposes that this knowledge only takes hold because it was already ready for consolidation in a processing area of ​​the brain.

Lev Vygotsky tries to understand consciousness from the perspective of social relations, associating language as a mediator of psychic processes. Thus, a mediated and cathartic process would be necessary to promote the meaning of knowledge and, consequently, its internalization. In the same way that Ana needs the blind man chewing gum as a trigger for the meaning and internalization of her reflections and perceptions of the world, Hellen also demands a trigger for the consolidation of language learning. However, the girl's cathartic process takes place internally.

When analyzing the theoretical conceptions of learning in the light of human development, Lev Vygotsky proposes the idea of ​​the historical development of specifically human processes. Vygotsky considers that they are continually changing and, therefore, “to study a function historically is to study it in a process of change” (Braga, p. 23). Thus, thinking about the process of changing the organism and developing consciousness, the theorist starts from the premise that learning should be measured not by consolidated learning, but by what the child is ready to accomplish with help and which he later consolidates to accomplish in a more efficient way. independent. That is, he proposes that the child be seen through his transformation process. Thus, he develops his own theory: the zone of proximal development.

This zone would be precisely the distance between the child's potential learning (what he can understand and accomplish with the mediation of another individual) and the consolidated learning, already acquired and sedimented. Thus, he goes against the idea that analyzing what the child already knows would be a good measure of development, because when looking at the complete development, one does not see what is already being elaborated and that will soon be incorporated.

In the same way that Ana would not have had her epiphany with the blind man chewing gum if she had not already been reflecting on her own life, and Hellen would not have been able to understand that objects in the world have names if the teacher had not sensitized her to this type of communication, school-age children would also not be able to implement learning and transpose knowledge to the actual level of development if they were not already developing knowledge internally, regardless of mediation or the efforts of teachers.

Thus, despite the mental process of consolidation being particular and internal to each individual, Anna needs the blind man chewing gum for the epiphany to occur, Hellen needs the tutor to teach the language, and we also depend on a mediation for the epiphany of learning to take place. happen. Whether through the role of the teacher, who transposes the content, the tutor who tirelessly repeats it, a colleague during a game, or some external and random event, mediation is necessary for the learning process to consolidate and for the internalization and meaning of curricular and cultural contents.

Thus, Smolka states that “it is within the interactive dynamics that children make their own and relevant forms of action that are valued in their social environment. […] Actions have no meaning in themselves, but they become significant in the everyday cultural practices in which the child is inserted” (p. 74).

That is, while a certain element does not go through the cathartic process and acquire cultural significance for the child, he/she rarely assimilates it. Thus, while Hellen does not go through the cathartic psychic process of meaning, the assimilation of signs as language does not occur and the girl does not understand that as a cultural and communication symbol.

But this does not mean that the mediation process takes place exclusively through an individual. Restricting mediation to this sphere would be to state that students only acquire knowledge and consolidate learning through the mediation of a teacher, tutor or preceptor, almost like a doctrinal process. As Lev Vygotsky states, what materializes the student's learning are the mental processes that transfer knowledge between the two levels and, although social relationships are a fundamental pillar for Vygotsky, especially in the child's formative period (whether in pedagogical relationships or even in the social relationships that the child establishes outside the school environment) language and memories are also a way of mediating knowledge in the learning process.

So much so that Ana's visual interaction with the blind man chewing gum provokes an epiphany in the character, who interprets him through her own memories and thoughts; that Hellen understands that the objects correspond to the symbols she has learned and with them she will be able to dialogue with her parents; or, in the case of education, the passage of knowledge/content from the level of proximal development to the level of real development. In this sense, Smolka states that “the word, as a sign, thus acquires a fundamental role in the construction of the human psyche. Psychism is not seen here as originating in the individual, but is conceived as a result of interaction between men, constituted in relation to the other and in language. It is the human environment that promotes development, raising the apprehension and production of culture” (p.73).

Helen Keller herself states, in her book the story of my life, the importance she sees in the meaning of language as a cultural element of communication, since she goes through the psychic process of learning language consciously: “I was immediately interested in this game with fingers and tried to imitate it. […] I didn't know I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply letting my fingers ape an imitation. […] I suddenly felt a fog-shrouded awareness, as of something forgotten – the electrification of a returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that "water" meant the wonderful cool thing that flowed over my hand.

However, it never denies the fundamental role of the tutor as a mediator of this knowledge, and describes how the social relationship with her provokes not only the process of mediation and meaning of knowledge of sign language, but also how Anne's mediation is fundamental to her understanding of the world in several passages “I listened with increasing wonder to Miss Sullivan's descriptions of the great round world with its burning mountains, buried cities” and “In the beginning I was but a small mass of possibilities. It was my teacher who unfolded and developed them”

This also reflects on the autonomy that the learning process and knowledge at the level of real development provide. Smolka states that “autonomy is only possible with the other. […] Cognitive elaborations at the individual level do not occur outside the social fabric that necessarily involves the “other”, and the words, perspectives, knowledge of others” (p.75). Thus, the mediation of the world that Anne and the blind man chewing gum do and provoke the epiphanies also collaborate on the issue of the subject having the autonomy to access this knowledge and make use of it autonomously, but not alone, after its meaning.

Thus, the essential role of social relations in the development process proposed by Vygotsky, based on the concepts of mediation, internalization and meaning, is evident.

Braga, when dealing with Lev Vygotsky's theory of mediation, states that, for the theorist, “Instead of acting directly and immediately in the physical and social world, our contact is indirect or mediated by signs and instruments, by the other. For him, mediation is the hallmark of human consciousness” (p.23). Just as Ana needs the blind person to mediate her mental processes and achieve the relationships she establishes between her routine and the life she would like to have, Hellen needs language to be able to connect with the world and establish more productive social relationships since, as deaf, she was deprived of the process of the other children in which “The conversation she hears at home stimulates her mind, suggests topics and brings about the spontaneous expression of her own ideas”. Thus, the other and language are mediating elements of psychic processes according to Vygotsky and necessary for the internalization of cultural elements to occur. 

Internalization is the process in which “what is initially shared must become an internal psychological plane” (Braga, p.26). We understand here the shared as social and the internal as psychic. After mediation, that is, knowledge or situation shared through language, sign or situation in a context of social relations, the process that was external becomes internal, that is, it is a process of assimilation of knowledge from the zone of proximal development. It is the moment when Helen starts to incorporate signs through repetition, but without the knowledge of the world to emancipate herself from her tutor's need for mediation. Thus, “Internalization is [..] a process of development and human learning as an incorporation of culture” (Braga, p.27).

And this incorporation concludes with the meaning, when certain knowledge acquires a social, historical and cultural meaning and passes to the level of real development, as happens with Helen, who understands language and can not only repeat it, but effectively understand it and communicate through it, incorporating language as a cultural element. Thus, “what is internalized is the meaning of the action, not the action or the objects themselves, but the meaning that it has for people and emerges in the relationship” (Braga, p.29), confirming that this mediation process , internalization and meaning that culminates in learning can only happen through social relations, since, more than exercising the role of mediation, they are those that establish meaning, making everything acquire meaning within the culture in which the individual is inserted . And then, after going through the development process, when the epiphany happens, “the damage is done and there is no turning back”.

* Julia Polato is a graduate student in Literature at the University of São Paulo (USP).

*Manuela Molina Roman is a graduate student in Literature at the University of São Paulo (USP).



BRAGA, ES The social constitution of development – ​​Lev Vygotsky: Main Theses. In: Education Magazine – Lev Vygotsky. Segment Publisher, p. 20-29, 2010.

Keller, Helen. The history of my life. Publisher José Olympio. Rio de Janeiro, 2008

LISPECTOR, Clarice. "Love". In: Family relationships. Editora Rocco – Rio de Janeiro, 1998.

SMOLKA, ALB; FONTANA, RAC; LAPLANE, ALF; CRUZ, MN The issue of development indicators: notes for discussion. child development notebook. Curitiba. v. 1, no. 1, p. 71-76, 1994.

Anne Sullivan's Miracle. Directed by: Arthur Penn. United States, 1962. Available at

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