Cultures and Learning in Further Education




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BRITISH EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH ASSOCIATION

ANNUAL CONFERENCE

UNIVERSITY OF LEEDS

13-15 SEPTEMBER 2001.

Cultures and Learning in Further Education




David James University of the West of England, Bristol

Martin Bloomer University of Exeter


Contacts:

Dr David James

Reader, Faculty of Education

University of the West of England, Bristol

Frenchay Campus

Coldharbour Lane

BRISTOL BS16 1QY

UK


Tel. 44 (0)117 344 4215

Fax 44 (0)117 344 4150 or 344 4110

Email David.James@uwe.ac.uk


Professor Martin Bloomer

University of Exeter School of Education

Heavitree Road

Exeter EX1 2LU

UK


Tel. 44 (0)1392 264848

Email J.M.Bloomer@ex.ac.uk

Introduction



Whilst many would agree with Bruner’s insistence that ‘learning and thinking are always situated in a cultural setting, and always dependent upon the utilization of cultural resources’ (Bruner, 1996, p.4), the concept of culture nevertheless has several broad distinctive meanings (Williams, 1976), each with educational significance. This makes the term culture both attractive and difficult to use in understanding educational activity.


In this paper, we identify a range of understandings and uses of the concept as revealed in contemporary research and scholarship, giving particular attention to an approach derived from the work of Pierre Bourdieu and some areas of affinity this has with the recent sociocultural work of James Wertsch. We then turn our attention to a new ESRC-funded research project, Transforming Learning Cultures in Further Education, and consider the requirements and opportunities presented by that project for theorising a concept of culture. We ponder the notion of ‘authentic learning sites’ and consider what it might contribute to conceptualising the temporal, spatial, psychological and social parameters of learning and the notion of learning culture. Finally, we present a number of questions which we consider are worth addressing at this early stage in the project and prior to our attempts to operationalise a concept of culture in our own fieldwork.


Notions of culture in the study of learning

Despite objections from at least as far back as Dewey (1901), it is only recently that criticisms of western psychology for its individualistic orientation (Rogoff, 1990) and for its treatment of mental functioning as existing, ‘in a cultural, institutional and historical vacuum’ (Wertsch, 1991, p 2) have been made to tell. Since the 1980s, the essentialistic functionalism and static models underpinning cognitive psychology have been subject to increasing critical scrutiny, principally because they emphasise learning as a determined, individualistic cognitive process and have had little regard for context. The old orthodoxies in which learners were treated as disconnected knowledge-processing agents have now largely given way to ones in which learners have moved centre stage as active knowledge-makers or constructors who bring to their learning a wide range of social and cultural experiences.


Such a movement is noticeable in constructivism which rests upon the premise that, ‘knowledge is not passively received but actively built up by the cognizing subject’ (von Glasersfeld, 1989, p 182). Cognitive constructivism focuses on the development of the cognitive schemes which make knowledge construction possible and draws significantly from Piaget’s (1950) theory of intellectual development. It is concerned with the ‘progressive adaptation of individual’s cognitive schemes to the physical environment’ (Driver, et al., 1994, p 6). However, like cognitive psychology, it is based upon a highly individualist model of human development and offers only limited opportunities for exploring culture.


Social constructivism has been inspired partly by the work of Vygotsky (1896-1934), although its emphasis upon the social construction of meaning and personal knowledge in a symbolic world suggests it draws also upon the basic organising ideas of phenomenology and symbolic interactionism. In so far as social constructivism is built upon an understanding of social, as distinct from individual, constructions of knowledge, it affords some scope for theorising cultural dimensions of learning. However, it maintains in practice a conceptual dichotomy between individual activity and social processes and fails to make explicit their dialectical interdependence (John-Steiner and Mahn, 1996). Moreover, much of its research has been conducted within the confines of formally designated educational programmes and institutions. For these reasons, the capacity of social constructivism to relate questions of learning to wider cultural concerns must be considered limited.

Vygotsky’s work on cultural-historical activity theory, emphasising as it does the cultural context of individual meaning-making, has contributed significantly to the recent rise of interest in culture. Activity theory, developed initially by Vygotsky (1978), Leont’ev and Luria, claims that all activity is socially mediated and that consciousness is located not in the head but in practice (Nardi, 1996). Moreover,


context is constituted through the enactment of an activity involving people and artifacts … (which) carry with them a particular culture and history and are persistent structures that stretch across activities through time and space (Rodriguez, 1998, p 2).


The aim of activity theory is thus to deepen understanding of the dialectical relations binding the individual and the social, cultural and historical (Bannon and Bødker, 1991). Prominent here is the work of Engeström (1987, 1990) on activity systems and expansive learning and Cole (1988, 1996a, 1996b) on cultural diversity and cultural psychology. Cole, for instance, argues against ‘simplified notions of context as cause’ (1996a, p 139), citing the works of Giddens on structuration, Bourdieu on habitus, and Engeström on activity systems. He makes distinct claims upon the opportunities which culture affords for transcending dualisms of structure and agency, and for pursuing temporal and lateral connectivity1 :


(Culture) provides me with a unit of analysis that has natural linkages to the macro pole of society and its institutions and the micro level of individual thoughts and actions. … Central is the need to study culturally mediated behavior developmentally to reveal the dynamic interactions uniting different parts of the overall life system. Equally important is the need to conduct research at several developmental/historical (genetic) levels in order to analyze the ways in which they intertwine and fuse in human life over time (Cole, 1996a, pp 143 and 145).


Other work in the field draws from social anthropology and incorporates elements of phenomenology as well as Vygotsky’s (1981) work on psychological development and the social construction of the mind (Leont'ev, 1981). Much of this work is referred to as ‘sociocultural theory’ and distinguished partly by the importance it attaches to social interaction, community and culture, and inter-relationships between learner, activity and context. ‘Explanations of developmental coupling between persons and activities lie within broader patterns of sociocultural change and their embodiment in activity’ (Beach, 1995, p 302). Sociocultural processes and individual functioning are relational, existing ‘in a dynamic, irreducible tension rather than a static notion of social determination’ (Penuel and Wertsch, 1995, p 84). Learning, in this view, is to be understood not as acquisition but as activity contributing to change and enrichment of the individual (Renshaw, 1992).


However, as Bereiter (1994) notes, the neo-Vygotskyists ‘are not the first to have studied learning in its cultural milieu. Educational anthropology has done this from its beginning’ (p 21). Bereiter claims that the distinctive contribution of recent work is its illumination of learning and cognition outside formally prescribed learning situations. Driven by a conception of learning as participation, and distinguished by an absence of instructional metaphors, this work has released opportunities for theorising learning as a social practice in a range of cultural settings. It has captured some of the complexities of learning in ways not permitted by other approaches through such notions as ‘situated cognition’ (Brown et al., 1989), ‘cognitive apprenticeship’ (Collins et al., 1989; Rogoff, 1990) and ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991). These have been employed to represent individual-context relationships and learning processes. However, while research is frequently focused on communities of practice, such anthropology, or situativity theory, takes little account of the complex relational and continually changing patterns of a wide range of cultural experiences as may be relevant in particular cases.


Activity theory and sociocultural theory appear to give ample recognition to cultural dimensions of learning. However, a number of concerns should be registered. First, despite strong claims about dialectic relationships of individual and context, theorists frequently fail to consider the concrete social organisation of activity. ‘In the field of cultural psychology it is exceedingly rare to find a concrete discussion of culture … It is even less usual to find cultural psychologists connecting … features of a social system in a meaningful way to psychological phenomena’ (Ratner, 1996, p 2). Second, while there has been, following Scribner (1984), significant work focused upon learning in the workplace and other naturalistic settings, much research in the field centres upon classroom- or other institution-based interactions between teachers and learners. This latter work ‘obscures the broader cultural and political concerns that are central to the perspective’ (Renshaw, 1992, p 1). Third, the primary concerns of many theorists in the field are with the development of mind and higher psychological functions, giving rise to an ‘imbalance’ in the individual-culture dialectic. This one-sidedness, or mentalist tendency, has been noted by a number of critics including Ratner (op cit.). Packer (1993), for instance, has criticised sociocultural theory’s use of the concept of ‘internalization’, claiming that it promotes a dualism between the internal and the external: ‘the processes and mechanisms being examined keep creeping back inside the head’ (John-Steiner and Mahn, 1996, p 197).


There is evidently a wide range of interpretations and applications of activity theory and, while a regard for the cultural-historical dynamics of sociocultural processes and for the individual-context dialectic is evident in some works, others display a marked mentalist tendency or a failure to relate the complexities of learning to their wider cultural contexts. Similarly, educational anthropology, or situativity theory, claims learning to be a culturally situated phenomenon. However, not only do studies frequently portray learners as somewhat passive, guided by ‘experts’ or ‘masters’ with little regard for their active construction of knowledge (Hughes and Greenhough, 1998), they take little account of the complex relational and continually changing patterns of cultural experience.


While many such theoretical approaches may be criticised for understating the significance of culture, the anthropological works of such figures as Geertz, Schneider and Sahlins have been criticised for their heavy reliance upon cultural explanations to the exclusion of other possibilities. At the end of his comprehensive tour of the anthropological uses of culture, Adam Kuper argues that whilst these works do constitute a “success story”, the various “critical experiments in cultural determinism … fail when they overreach themselves and presume that culture rules, and that other factors can be excluded from the study of cultural processes and social behaviour” (Kuper, 1999, p. 246). Extending an argument from the cognitive anthropologist D’Andrade, Kuper wants us to consider the “pieces” of culture and their “relations to other things”, rather than expecting cultural explanations to be sufficient.


Kuper mentions both Foucault and Bourdieu as theorists who insist on relations with other things (such as power, or institutions) in this connection. But what notion of culture is to be found in Bourdieu’s writing, and what sorts of relations does it give us cause to attend to, especially if we wish to study something as diverse as learning?
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