Creating a Social Context for Learning

Sam Hausfather

(1996) Action in Teacher Education, 18(2), 1-10.

School is primarily a social environment, a culture where people interact with each other and various cultural materials. Think back to your own early schooling experiences. As a child, I had vague feelings of fear at being left in the kindergarten room with this strange adult. I remember classmates’ antics and personalities. I remember being teased on the playground. I have little memory of learning reading, writing, or arithmetic, although I learned them well. When I ask my daughter what happened at school today, recess is the first topic. Social processes dominate our consciousness.

This article reviews the research linking social and cognitive processes and the implications for schooling. Despite recent advances, cognitive psychology continues to focus almost entirely on the individual in explaining cognitive development (Wertsch, Minick, & Arns, 1984). The schools likewise tend to ignore the social context of learning (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988; Wood, 1986). This paper looks at the social basis of cognitive development, focusing on sociohistorical perspectives. The work of Vygotsky is explored, elucidating major aspects of his theory. The focus then shifts to schools, first exploring the implications of sociohistorical perspectives on aspects of schooling and then identifying promising practices related to sociohistorical theory. The challenge for teacher education is to prepare teachers to create social environments that foster cognitive development for all students.

The Social Basis of Cognitive Development

The cognitive revolution in psychology has departed considerably from previous behaviorist theories of learning. Learning is currently being conceptualized as a process of knowledge construction, dependent on students’ prior knowledge, and attuned to the contexts in which it is situated (Resnick, 1989). The emphasis, however, continues to be on the individual. The processes psychology studies are assumed to be universal (Cole, 1990). Context factors are missing from current motivation research (Weiner, 1990), strategy use research (Garner, 1990), and thinking skills curricula (Adams, 1989), three areas where environmental factors would seem to play a strong role. The assumption continues to be that individuals interact with a static world, constructing internal representations of external realities. A different view, a view of cognitive development as a reciprocal interaction with a socially constituted world, has just begun to gain increased credence among both psychologists and educators.

The social basis of cognitive development has been identified in cross-cultural research (Cole, 1990; Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 1986; Lave, 1988), mother-child interaction (Rogoff, 1990), and research on apprenticeship systems (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989). The sociohistorical school of psychology is based on the central idea that “human psychological processes are determined by humanity’s historically developing, culturally mediated, practical activity” (Cole, 1988, p.137).

 Cultural artifacts are both conceptual (such as language) and material. Cultural artifacts mediate interaction with the world, coordinating people’s activity with the physical world and with each other. Especially in the use of signs such as language, humans are able to break away from biological development, as humans put sign use between themselves and the physical world (Vygotsky, 1978). The use of these cultural artifacts develops over history, both individual and species. Sign use is not just invented or passed down by adults. It develops in a series of transformations. Psychological processes arise from practical activity, the activity of individuals interacting with others or with the cultural artifacts of others. All human activity takes place within this system of social relations (Cole, 1990).

 It is in the work of Vygotsky that these ideas are developed and applied to education. Vygotsky’s work viewed education as central to cognitive development and also an essential sociocultural activity. He emphasized the social organization of instruction “as a key part of schools’ enculturation of the child into the practices of society” (Moll, 1990). Vygotsky links sociohistorical psychology with a theory of schooling.

Vygotsky and Education

The work of Vygotsky has recently begun to influence thinking on education in America. This is surprising considering that he lived in Russia between 1896 and 1934. He did most of his writing and research between 1924 and his death from tuberculosis in 1934; however, his work was repressed until the 1960’s (Davydov, 1995). Vygotsky was involved in establishing a new psychological theory, a unique approach that does not separate individuals from their sociocultural setting. His approach can be characterized by three themes: (a) the best way to understand mind is to look at how it changes; (b) higher mental functions have their origins in social activity; and © higher mental functions are mediated by tools and signs.

Vygotsky believed that the major way to understand the mind is through specifying the origins and genetic transformations it has undergone (Wertsch, 1990). Mind is always changing as part of a dialectical relationship, with the world influencing the individual and the individual influencing the world. It is this process that should be analyzed, not the product (Vygotsky, 1978). Otherwise we end up looking at “fossilized behaviors” instead of looking at their origin.

Vygotsky studied psychological processes in transition by examining the effects of disruption and interventions. A major cross-cultural study involved an analysis of the psychological changes in central Asian peasants as they became collectivized. He found that many mental processes had been directly shaped by basic practices of human activity and the actual forms of culture (Cole, 1988). Vygotsky also studied many individual children. His concern was in how a reaction initially appears, takes shape, and changes after it is formed (Vygotsky, 1978). Vygotsky concluded that child development was a complex dialectical process between the child and the social environment. The social environment supports the child’s development, so that what a child can do in collaboration now, she or he will be able to do independently later.

 The second theme in Vygotsky’s approach is that all higher mental functions originate in social activity, “actual relations between humans” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.57). Development involves mental processes first occurring on the social level, between people, and then on the individual level, inside the child. Vygotsky saw internalization as the internal reconstruction of an external operation. He looked in depth at the role of speech, delineating the process of children progressing from external speech to egocentric speech to inner speech. This process results from a long series of developmental events, resulting in mental functioning retaining a quasi-social nature (Wertsch, 1990). Our inner speech “talks” to us, maintaining social activity within the individual.

Intimately tied to the internalization of social activity is the third theme in Vygotsky’s approach: the mediation of higher mental functions by tools and signs. Human activity is fundamentally shaped and defined by the tools and signs that mediate it. Vygotsky studied the development of speech as a particularly potent mediational tool. In the learning of speech, the child moves from responding directly with movements to responding with speech and eventually inner speech. “The immediacy of natural perception is mediated by speech” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.32). Speech comes between the child and the world and influences one’s perception of that world. The system of signs restructures the whole psychological process, regulating attention and creating new forms of culturally-based psychological processes. Cultural artifacts, tools, and signs create who we are and how we view the world, while we recreate and transform the cultural artifacts we have inherited.

Vygotsky’s theory of learning and development finds its connectedness in his concept of the zone of proximal development. Here Vygotsky’s approach has clear implications for education.

The Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky saw learning not as development but as a process that results in development. Each child, in any domain, has an “actual developmental level” and a potential for development within the domain. The difference between the two levels is what Vygotsky termed the zone of proximal development, “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, 1978, p.86). Learning creates the zone of proximal development as, through the child interacting with people in the environment, a variety of internal developmental processes are awakened.

The zone of proximal development can be seen to exist when people work on a problem where at least one of them alone could not work on it effectively (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989). This can occur in classroom interactions, apprenticeship settings, mother-child interaction, children’s play, or whenever two or more people with unequal expertise are jointly accomplishing a task. Within this zone the possibility for cognitive change exists. What happens between people in the zone of proximal development can become internalized to happen within the child. The focus here is on change, but cognitive change does not happen automatically within the zone of proximal development. Appropriation is also a key process.

People come to social interactions with different perspectives, different interpretations, different understandings of a concept or task. To develop, individuals must take active roles in sharing understandings. Joint construction of knowledge occurs when each party assumes some understanding of the other. The zone of proximal development needs to involve intersubjectivity between participants, where individuals share a purpose and a focus (Rogoff, 1990). Joint attention and shared problem-solving is needed to create a process of cognitive, social, and emotional interchange. Learning in the zone does not involve the internalization of external lessons. It involves appropriating aspects of shared activity in which participants are interpersonally engaged.

In in-depth observations of her own children and in many cross-cultural studies, Rogoff (1990) confirmed the importance of children’s appropriation of shared thinking for their own use. Guided participation was universal around the world. Caregivers supported children’s efforts to participate in subsistence and family maintenance in the fabric of everyday life. “Cognitive development occurs in socioculturally organized activities in which children are active in learning and managing social partners, and partners are active in structuring situations with access to observe and participate in culturally-valued skills and perspectives “ (Rogoff, 1990, p.37). Striking cultural differences were found in the intensity and explicitness of communication, interactional status, and the company children kept. The nature of the interaction between partners was critical. Where intersubjectivity in decision making was achieved, later performance was decidedly better.

The constructive work in the zone of proximal development takes place as much in the interaction between adult and child as in the child’s internal processes (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989). Adults, peers, and cultural tools can assist the child during cognitive change, but joint construction must exist for cognitive change to occur. In the interdependence of social activity, children can appropriate higher order thinking. In an ethnographic study of the transmission of knowledge and skills in 35 Hispanic households, Moll and Greenberg (1990) found zones of proximal development were constantly generated by the productive activity of family members. Knowledge was not imposed by adults but was obtained by children within reciprocal social relationships. It was the reciprocity of social networks that allowed children jointly to construct knowledge within social contexts.

The zone of proximal development is clearly a potent theory for looking at cognitive change in informal environments. Formal schooling presents new challenges to the application of Vygotsky’s theory. Let us turn now to the context of school and the implications of this work for our view of instruction.

Pitfalls in Practice

A sociohistorical approach to looking at schooling involves more than just an analysis of school’s effects on individual cognitive development. School must also be understood as a context socially constructed over history. Its basis goes back to humans’ capacity for cultural mediation. Our ability to use signs and artifacts to act indirectly on the world separates us from lower animals (Vygotsky, 1978). It is this development of the species that allowed the context of schooling to develop.

Not all cultures have schooling, literacy, or numeracy. Formal schooling in Western society grew out of the development of large urban centers and the need to regulate economic and social activities (Cole, 1990). Formal schooling historically developed a unique context, removed from practical activity, with peculiar social and values structures. Cross-cultural research has shown schooling not to have an effect on general cognitive performance but only to affect specific cognitive abilities (Rogoff, 1990). Schooling appears to improve memory for disconnected bits of information, to improve logical problem solving in terms of using verbal reasoning, to result in gains in skills in two dimensional graphic conventions, and to promote the organization of objects on a taxonomic basis instead of a functional basis (Cole, 1988, 1990; Rogoff, 1990). It seems that formal schooling is more an integral part of the social process than a force for cognitive development. “Schooling fosters context-specific cognitive consequences with limited generalizability to nonschool settings” (Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition, 1986, p. 1053). The settings of school are just too discontinuous from the settings out of school (Resnick, 1987).

If formal schooling is viewed more as a social process or cultural practice, it makes sense to look more closely at the values and processes of schooling as socialization. A sociological perspective emphasizes the acquisition of values and ideologies as an integral part of development (Goodnow, 1990). Knowledge is not distributed freely or equally in schools, but is used as a form of power. Oakes’ (1985) detailed study of tracking in schools clearly showed how schools structure inequality, differentiating the types of knowledge to which students have access according to race, class, and gender. Social inequalities in school contribute to the inequalities based on social class in our society. Through restricted access to economic and cultural resources, and the truncating of their aspirations, developmental opportunities for some are limited (Dowd, 1990). The social environment of formal schooling sends clear messages about what are important and proper ways of learning and thinking. Schooling promotes the “voice of decontextualized rationality” (Wertsch, 1990, p. 120). Objects, events, even people are represented in formal and quantifiable categories, objectified to exist independent of context. Students’ own voices and experiences are silenced in the social environment of school, an environment generally centered on managing and controlling.

In such a social environment, the zone of proximal development is not always positive. There can be a “zone of prohibited actions and another of barely tolerated actions” (Goodnow, 1990, p. 101), when the adult is more interested in restricting access to objects or knowledge. More typically, however, is the nonexistence of the zone of proximal development due to the lack of joint interaction. Often teachers are not willing to be seen as partners, too tied to their roles as controllers (Bruner, 1985). Learners likewise are not always willing. Some learners exhibit resistance to school knowledge, resistance whose source lies in the social conditions that restrict access to status and other assets (Goodnow, 1990). Not-learning is not always failing, as some students consciously devise ways of becoming not-learners (Kohl, 1991). For the zone of proximal development to be effective, a teacher must be willing to support learning and a student must be willing to assent to learn.

Environments for Learning

How then can teachers create environments in school that allow zones of proximal development to exist? We need a support system in the social environment that matches the acquisition process in the learner. Although this appears to occur easily in one-on-one caregiver-child and master-apprentice relationships, it does not happen easily in the context of school. Classroom environments are complex. Real changes are needed in the role of teacher and student for the zone of proximal development to be effective in schools.

Scaffolding is a metaphor with the potential to redefine teachers’ roles in the classroom. Scaffolding is creating supported situations where children can extend their current skills and knowledge. It involves recruiting a child’s interest, simplifying a task so it is manageable, and motivating the child to maintain their pursuit of the goal. The adult should mark the discrepancies between the child’s efforts and the solution, control for frustration and risk, and model an idealized version of the act (Rogoff, 1990). Children are encouraged to take on increased responsibility as the adult fades from the task. Yet scaffolding is not enough. It does not specifically speak to the necessity of developing intersubjectivity, where both partners in an activity share knowledge and responsibility (Diaz, Neal, & Amaya-Williams, 1990). The nature of the social transaction is central to the creation of the zone of proximal development.

The intellectual skills students develop are related to how they interact with others in the zone of proximal development (Moll, 1990). The teacher’s role is more than just assisting performance through the zone, although that is clearly the entry point into the zone. The teacher must collaborate with students to negotiate meaning in ways students can make the knowledge and meaning their own. Newman, Griffin, and Cole’s (1989) analysis of a fourth-grade division lesson illustrates this interactive construction of cognition. The teacher presented a precise procedural description to the children, but while interacting with the children, “the teacher and children negotiated a new form of the procedure appropriate to the children’s current arithmetic skills and level of understanding” (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989, p. 104). The form of teacher-child interaction varied with different children as the teacher adjusted to their goals. Knowledge was not acquired directly, but through the process of reciprocal appropriation and interpsychological construction.

We need to design systems of social interaction and social organization that will promote more interpersonal joint activity. The recitation script and the practice of directing and assessing are firmly entrenched in the classroom. Instead the classroom needs to be marked by interactions that create intersubjectivity. Tharp and Gallimore (1988) report on their attempt to create occasions where collaborative interaction and assisted performance occur in the Kamehameha Early Education Program. Building on an indigenous cultural activity, teacher and students are involved in lively instructional conversations around literacy. This daily group activity is characterized by informal mutual participation by teachers and students, bringing in both students’ experiences and texts and jointly establishing relationships between the two. Tharp and Gallimore (1988) emphasized that they are creating activity settings: occasions when collaborative interaction, intersubjectivity, and assisted performance can occur. It is in their jointness that activity settings become zones of proximal development.

Activity settings in schools need to create and support instructional conversations. To converse involves assuming the learner has something to say beyond answers, engaging learners in the discourse. Too often classroom discourse shuts down students through interrogation instead of dialogue. Wood’s (1986) studies of classroom discourse found the frequency of teacher questioning inversely proportional to the extent a child reveals his or her own ideas or seeks information. The control function in teaching often precludes the creation of the joint space needed for the zone of proximal development. Teachers must move closer to the communicative styles of parents, allowing and assisting social interaction in joint productive activity settings (Tharp & Gallimore, 1988). We are beginning to see the creation of such environments for learning in the promising practices of classroom research programs.

Promising Practices

Various instructional programs have researched environments in K-12 classrooms that promote the creation of zones of proximal development. Brown and Palincsar (1989) used a Vygotskian approach in their successful program to teach reading strategies in elementary classrooms. Using a reciprocal teaching method, teacher and students took turns leading a small group discussion about a reading. The teacher initially modeled four reading strategies, externalizing the cognitive strategies necessary for expert reading. Students then began assuming the role of leader, slowly being weaned off instruction. The teaching was embedded in as natural a dialogue as possible, with the social context supportive of the efforts of the learners. Experimental results showed significant gains far above other possible instructional strategies featuring the key activities (Brown & Palincsar, 1989). Transfer also was made to other settings, including generalization to the classroom setting and substantial improvement overall in standardized test scores.

Becoming dissatisfied with reading groups as the context for thinking instruction, Brown and Campione (1990) developed the concept of community of learning, where critical thinking was practiced in learning content. Moving from learning to read to reading to learn, they set out to create an intentional learning environment where ninety fifth- and sixth-graders had a great deal of control over their own learning. Students designed their own curriculum units under assigned topics. They worked cooperatively to prepare research booklets, then regrouped into learning groups, with an expert from each research group teaching the other members of her or his learning group about the topic. A culture of learning was formed in the service of the recognized goal of learning and helping others learn about a topic that concerned them. “Students seeking an encompassing explanation to support facts create an active learning environment for themselves that is quite different from the passive reception of assigned knowledge that too often dominates classroom interactions” (Brown & Campione, 1990, p. 123).

Various disciplinary programs have attempted to create environments where the zone of proximal development can exist. Scardamalia and Bereiter (1985) have developed models for teaching writing that use a combination of modeling, coaching, and scaffolding. Goals in writing were brought to a metacognitive level, and collaborative work allowed expert/novice interchange. Graves’ (1983) emphasis on writing conferences clearly promotes the creation of a zone of proximal development. The teacher provides an active audience for the student writer by confirming her or his understanding of the text and then by asking clarifying questions. The teacher helps the entire class learn the same procedure during group share time. Reciprocal relationships are emphasized throughout.

Cognitively Guided Instruction in mathematics involves different relationships in the classroom, emphasizing instruction growing from and adapted according to levels of existing student knowledge. Teachers with a cognitively-based perspective viewed the teacher and learner as “actively engaged with one another in the construction of mathematical knowledge and understanding” (Peterson et. al, 1989). The zone of proximal development was established in group explorations of mathematical problems, where students and teacher shared their different problem solving techniques in open dialogue.

 Conceptual change instruction in science likewise begins with eliciting students’ conceptions and then collaboratively scaffolding student concepts with scientific concepts in solving problems. Being extremely sensitive to the students’ viewpoints is emphasized as the teacher negotiates the acquisition of new knowledge by students (Hewson, 1988). As the teacher creates occasions where conceptual conflict challenges students’ alternative conceptions, students are motivated to be active participants in collaboratively restructuring their understandings of scientific phenomena.

Implications for Teacher Education

Vygotsky’s sociohistorical approach to cognitive development challenges much of the current practice in schools today. Instead of understanding the mind by how it changes, school emphasizes a static assessment-driven curriculum. While Vygotsky saw development originating in the social plane, schools systematically deter social interaction. The discourse of schooling represents objects and sign systems as immutable, while Vygotsky stressed their sociocultural formation. Finally, schools canonize individuals learning on their own, while the zone of proximal development holds out the promise of cognitive development through the joint construction of knowledge. Schools obviously have a long way to go toward creating supportive environments for learning as envisioned by the sociohistorical approach.

Teacher education has a clear role in clarifying a vision of a social environment supportive to learning. Preservice methods courses must model collaboration between and among the teacher and students, negotiation to create intersubjectivity, and the creation of interpersonal joint activity settings that support instructional conversations. College teaching has traditionally stressed individual processes over social processes in learning. Teacher education needs to provide opportunities where college students learn within social situations. College students should metacognitively experience zones of proximal development within college classrooms, working within cooperative or discourse groups while analyzing their own experience as a guide to their own teaching. Instructional conversations can occur within the classic Socratic seminar, where instructor and students together explore problems as a small community of learners. Pairing students for field experience placements in schools can provide peer collaboration which fosters deeper understandings of classroom situations.

Preservice teachers must reconceptualize the social context for teaching and learning in schools while understanding the challenges involved in school change. There has been little research into the application of Vygotsky’s approach in teacher education. An experimental program based on Vygotskian themes emphasized interactional teaching to assist rather than to assess student performance (Dalton, 1989). While preservice teacher thinking was transformed in this program, institutional demands in schools were in conflict with these transformations in practice.

 Classroom practice is amazingly resistant to change. While blaming teachers for not changing is easy, the actual structure of schooling seems to work against change. Teacher education must prepare teachers for changed relationships within classrooms, who also question the form of the institution within which we expect change (Wood, 1986). As the sociohistorical approach reminds us, schooling comes as part of its long history. Yet it also reminds us that nothing is “natural” about schooling (Moll, 1990). Schooling is a social construction and, as such, it can be socially changed.

The challenge teacher education faces is preparing teachers who can create new environments for learning within schools. As teacher educators, we must first understand the interaction of the social context with cognitive development. Creating interpersonal joint activity settings in college classrooms is the natural next step.  Much more research is needed as we begin to apply sociohistorical approaches to teacher education.

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