Sonia Nieto's Perspective
"The Light in Their Eyes", my 1999 book, summarizes my thoughts about ood practices related to cultural relevance in teaching...
In the past several decades, a great deal of attention has been focused on cognition as a sociocultural process. Lev. Vygotsky (1978), a Russian psychologist in the first decades of the twentieth century, was a catalyst for the development of this viewpoint. Suggesting that cognition is rooted in social interaction, Vygotsky went far beyond the behaviorist notion of learning as a response to a particular stimulus. Instead, he suggested that development and learning are firmly rooted in , and influenced by, society and culture. In a word, development and learning are mediated by culture and society.
The idea that cognition is social and cultural action takes learning out of the passive arena in which it often is located. Cognition described as social and cultural implies agency on the part of the learner; no longer is the learner simply acted upon, but she acts, responds, and creates through the very act of learning. Paulo Freire (Shor & Freire, 1987) expressed it in more poetic terms when he described the act of reading: "I say that reading is not just to walk on the words, and it is not flying over the words either. Reading is re-writing what we are reading" (p.10).
No longer is it possible to separate learning from the cultural context in which it takes place, or from an understanding of how culture and society influence and are influenced by learning. According to Jerome Bruner (1966), this view of cognition "takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could not exist save for culture" (p.3). Bruner (1996) goes on to say:
Culture, then, though itself man-made, both forms and makes possible the workings of a distinctly human mind. On this view, learning and thinking are always situate in a cultural setting and always dependent upon the utilization of cultural resources. (p. 4)
This was precisely the point made by Paulo Freire (1970a) when he described literacy education for adults not as the teaching of mechanistic techniques for deciphering language, but as cultural action for freedom, because through literacy adults could learn to read both the word and the world and therefore become actors in the world. Learning implies both action and interaction because it develops within the social and cultural conditions of society, which themselves are created by human beings.
Vygotsky and others who have advanced the sociocultural foundation of cognition (Cole & Griffin, 1983; Scribner & Cole, 1981) have provided a contextualized framework with which to view schools and learning. That is, schools and other learning institutions organize themselves in particular ways, and these wars are more or less comfortable and inviting for particular individuals. Never neutralism, institutional environments are based on certain views of human development, of what is worth knowing, and of what it means to be educated. When young people enter schools, they are entering institutions that have already made some fundamental decisions about such matters, and in the process some of these children may be left out through no fault of their own. A cogent description of how learning conditions are created and sustained in schools, and the influence that such conditions may have on student learning, is provided by Ellice Forman and her associates (Forman, Minick, & Stone, 1993):
[E]ducationally significant human interactions do not involve abstract bearers of cognitive structures but real people who develop a variety on interpersonal relationships with one another in the course of their shared activity in a given institutional context?.For example, appropriating the speech or actions of another person requires a degree of identification with that person and the cultural community he or she represents. Educational failure, in this perspective, can represent and unwillingness to subordinate one?s own voice to that of another rather than an inability to learn. (p. 6)
These ideas of how social and cultural issues influence learning are a radical departure from viewpoints that consider learning to be largely unaffected by context. Such viewpoints automatically assume that children who do not learn a specific skill have low intelligence, or that they are suffering from some psychological disorder or cultural inferiority. In their early research with the Kpelle children of Liberia, Michael Cole and his associates (Cole, Gay, Glick, & Sharp, 1971) took a very different approach:
If there is a general principle to be gleaned from the method upon which our work is based, it derives from our belief that the people we are working with always behave reasonably. When their behavior appears unreasonable, it is to ourselves, our procedures, and our experimental tasks that we turn for an explanation. (p/ xv)
A Vygotskian perspective provides a hopeful framework for thinking about learning; that is, if learning can be influenced by social mediation, then conditions can be created in schools that can help most students learn. Particularly significant in this regard is the notion of the zone of proximal development or ZPD. In his work, Vygotsky (1978) described the ZPD as "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" (p. 86). If one accepts the ZPD as a reasonable explanation of how learning takes place, one also accepts a number of assumptions that derive from it, namely, the following:
1. Schools have a role to plan in making learning accessible to students.
2. Teachers? actions can influence whether and to what extent children learn.
3. All children can learn if given the opportunity to interact socially and appropriately with others.
According to Henry Trueba (1989), if we accept Vygotsky?s theory of the ZPD, then failure to learn cannot be defined as individual failure but rather as systemic failure, that is, the failure of the social system to provide the learner with an opportunity for successful social interactions. In order to change academic failure to success, appropriate social instructional interventions need to occur in the learning context,. Extending this idea further, Diaz, Flores, Cousin, and Soo Hoo (1992) proposed that because teachers are always sociocultural mediators, their acceptance and validation of the cultural symbols used by their students of diverse backgrounds may positively influence student learning.
One of the ways that learning is socially mediated is that it depends on the relationships established between learners and teachers. Michael Cole (1985) has insisted that social relations and how these are internalized by learners are a crucial part of cognitive development. Jim Cummins?s (1996) theories concerning the negotiation of identity and the significant role this process plays in learning are particularly appropriate to mention here. According to Cummins, the ZPD needs to be understood beyond purely cognitive parameters and expanded into the realm of affective development and power relationships; otherwise, it can become another empty technique. He states: "Teacher-student collaboration in the construction of knowledge will operate effectively only in contexts where students? identities are being affirmed (p. 26). This is a further reminder that the nature of the relationship between students and teachers is key to understanding whether and how learning takes place.
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