Education in Ireland

Perspectives on the Irish education system distilled through the crucible of experience,leavened with the empirical wisdom of the perpetual student!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Where is the Mind?

Where is the Mind?

My mother was wont to say when she heard that a certain person had done something foolish that some people’s brains were in the seat of their pants. This brings me to the nub of the current essay, where exactly does the mind reside? Is it in the head? When a person acts emotionally is the mind in the head or in the heart?

We can identify two major trends in education research during the past decade that deal with the question of the mind. These are:
1. The constructivist view - i.e. students actively construct their knowledge as they try to be effective by restoring coherence. This view is underpinned in the literature by epistemological arguments and empirical evidence documents that the understandings that students develop in instructional situations are frequently and qualitatively different from those intended by the teacher.
2. The sociocultural view - a student’s activity and learning is profoundly influenced by participation in encompassing cultural practices, like shopping, selling or working for wages. This view of the mind is underpinned by the writings of Vygotsky with empirical support from Lave.

Depending on which of the two trends is being followed there is a dispute as to whether the mind is located in the head (constructivist) or in the individual-in-social-action (sociocultural).

The two trends also differ on the role that signs and symbols play in psychological development. Constructivists characterise them as a means for students to express and communicate thinking. Socioculturists treat them as carriers of established meanings.

Is there an apparent forced choice between the two theories? One could argue that learning should be viewed as both a process of active construction and as a process of enculturation. The apparent conflict between constructivist and sociocultural perspectives is not just a theoretical conflict; it also has significance for teaching. Ball (1993) makes reference to students’ learning as active construction while also referring to their “heritage” as in his view enculturation.

Both theories emphasise the importance of activity in learning and development. Sociocultural theorists link activity to participation in culturally organised practices, whereas constructivists emphasise sensory-motor and conceptual activity. Sociocultural theorists assume that social and cultural processes subsume cognitive processes. This is Vygotsky’s contention that “the social dimension of consciousness is primary in fact and time”.

Constructivist theorists analyse thought in terms of conceptual processes located in the individual, while Socioculturalists take the individual-in-social-action as their unit of analysis. For them the primary issue is to explain how participation in social interactions influences psychological development. Vygotsky emphasised the importance of social interaction with more knowledgeable persons in the zone of proximal development. Several theorists including Rogoff have developed Vygotsky’s ideas and talk about cognitive apprenticeship. Lave and Wenger speak about legitimate peripheral participation, i.e. the negotiation of meaning in the construction zone.

Each of the above locates learning in the coparticipation in cultural practices. Educational implications focus on the kinds of social engagements that enable students to participate in the activities of the expert rather than on the cognitive processes and conceptual structures involved.

Cognitive theorists trace their intellectual lineage to Piaget. Cobb distinguishes between 2 kinds of constructivism, psychological and interactionist. Von Glaserfield in advocating the psychological, incorporates the Piagetian notions of assimilation and accommodation. He uses the term knowledge in Piaget’s sense of adaptation to refer to sensory-motor and conceptual operations that have been viable in the learner’s experience. Learning is characterised as a process of self-organising in which the learner reorganises his activity in order to eliminate perturbations.
Glaserfeld acknowledges that constructive activity occurs as the learner interacts with other members of the community.
Bauersfeld has an interactionist view of constructivism that compliments von Glaserfeld’s. He views communication as a process of mutual adaptation in which the learner continually negotiates meanings by modifying their interpretations. This reference to indirect learning clarifies that the occurrence of perturbations isn’t limited to occasions when learners believe that communication has broken down and need to explicitly negotiate meanings. Communication is a process of implicit negotiations.
The Sociocultural theory defines negotiation as a process of mutual appropriation in which the teacher and learner continually co-opt each other’s contributions.

The two perspectives address different problems and issues. Sociocultural analysis locates the classroom within a broader activity system that takes account of schooling as a social institution, and is interested in the immediate interactions between teacher and student. This dual focus can be seen in Lave and Wenger’s claim that their concept of legitimate peripheral participation provides a framework for bringing together theories of situated activity and theories about production and reproduction of the social order. A basic tenet underpinning this work is that it is not appropriate to single out qualitative differences in individual thinking apart from their sociocultural situation because differences in students’ interpretations of school tasks reflect qualitative differences in the communities they participate in, (Bredo and McDermott)
Cognitive theorists on the other hand are concerned with the quality of individual interpretative activity, with the development of learning at a micro-level and with the learners interactive constitution of the classroom social norms.

In comparing Rogoff’s and Von Glaserfeld’s work we can note that Rogoff’s view of learning as acculturation via guided participation implicitly assumes an actively constructing child. Von Glaserfeld’s view of learning as cognitive self-organisation implicitly assumes that the child is participating in cultural practices. Each view, sociocultural and cognitive, tells half a good story and each can be used to complement the other.

Rogoff’s work indicates that SC analyses involve implicit cognitive commitments. Claims about the location of the mind reflect essentialist assumptions. Adherents of both theories claim they have got the right mind. Rorty gets around this problem by assenting that the perspective taken is merely an instrument for coping with things rather than ways of representing their intrinsic nature. This pragmatic approach considers what various perspectives have to offer relative to the issues or problems at hand. For Cobb this suggests that sociocultural perspectives give rise to theories of conditions for the possibility of learning and cognitive theory concentrates on both what students learn and the processes by which they do so. Lave and Wenger say a “learning curriculum unfolds in opportunities for engagement in practice. Their analysis of apprenticeship in terms of legitimate peripheral participation accounts for the occurrence or failure to learn. A constructivist analysis would focus on the ways learners reorganise their activities as they participate in a learning curriculum and on the processes by which the curriculum is interactively constituted in the local situation of development interactively constitute the curriculum in the local situation of development. Cobb approves of both theses
Constructivists might argue that socioculturalists don’t adequately account for the process of learning and socioculturalists might retort that constructivist theorists fail to account for the production and reproduction of the practices of schooling and social order. Adherents to each perspective must acknowledge the potentially positive aspects of the other side. Cobb suggests that in dispensing with essentialists claims, the pragmatic approach proposes that the adoption of one perspective over another should be justified in terms of its potential to address issues whose resolution might improve the students’ education.

The sociocultural and constructivist theories each constitutes the background of the other. This implies that justifications should explicitly bring the researcher into the picture by acknowledging his interpretative activity. Pragmatic justifications reflect the researcher’s awareness that he has adopted a particular position for particular reasons. The pragmatic approach also contends that ways of coordinating perspectives should be developed while addressing specific problems.


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