by Judith Aschenbrenner & Michael Hellwig
Imagine: Mr. W., an office worker of a big company, sits at his desktop. There’s no contact to his colleagues: Mr. W. begins his working day alone and leaves his workplace without having any social relationships during the day. The notebook in front of him is neither connected to the World Wide Web nor to the intranet of the company. There’s no telephone in the office, and no possibilities of postal contact exist. In short: he’s totally isolated, and that’s his daily routine since he has started his job at the company 20 years ago.
This case isn’t very realistic. Excepting the human needs for social participation, Mr. W. surely couldn’t do his job very well under these conditions. However, the example might hit an essential point in understanding the principles of Workplace Learning: Although a nurse and a broker behave totally different at work and the conditions of an assembly-line worker’s workplace aren’t very similar to those of a football player – all workers in any culture at any workplace participate in their social environment and are influenced by it. The socio-cultural approach of learning deals with these interconnections between the individual and the (social) environment and may help us in our concerns to understand the occurring processes at work in a science-based way.
Social and Culture: What does a socio-cultural perspective imply?
As the name implies, two words are central to the socio-cultural approach on psychological and educational issues: “social” and “cultural”. When something is social, it’s automatically interconnected and referred to other people. M. Weber, one of the most important sociologists in the first half of the 20th century, defined “social acting” in a way, that the sense of the action is related to others’ behaviour (Weber, 1922). If I found a wallet lying on the street, I would bring it to the lost property office in anticipation of someone who’s searching for it. If I weren’t expect that, it wouldn’t be a kind of social behaviour. So the relation to others’ behaviour gives sense to my acting and initiates it, consequently it is social acting. Moreover, the sequence of a social action is oriented to others: The social commitment, how to drink beer in a community, hence you clink glasses and have a nip on your drink, structures the procedure and gives sense to it. You see: social acting is an essential part of our everyday life and also occurs at the workplace.
The meaning of the second word “culture” is a classical anthropological issue. A row of different definitions exist, which handle the term mostly as a kind of individual quality, influenced by the social environment (Cole, 2005). For instance, Taylor (1874), a cultural anthropologist, defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (p.1; cited in Cole, 2005). Goodenough (1994), influenced by a more psychological point of view, described culture as something, which “one needs to know to participate acceptly as a member in a society’s affairs”(p.265; cited in Cole, 2005). Furthermore, he adds: „Material objects people create are not in and themselves things they learn…What they learn are necessary percepts, concepts, recipes, and skill – the things they need to know in order to make things that will meet the standards of their fellows.”(p.50, cited in Cole, 2005) That means: culture is the interconnection between the individuals and the objects in the environment through their usage in a specific and socially legitimate way. Moreover, culture is necessary to participate in the social environment. Because of that, culture is both a contextual and a cognitive phenomenon: the context influences and creates human cognitive structures and vice versa.
Thus, a socio-cultural perspective on Workplace Learning underlines the importance of the social working context and its structure for the individual learning processes. The basic element of examination is neither the individual alone, as typical for cognitive psychological perspectives, nor just the social complex by itself: the socio-cultural perspectives on psychological issues means a holistic research aim to understand the interconnections between the intrapsychological and the interpsychological mechanisms. Consequently, the social community and the specific working culture at the workplace become essential for individual development and learning processes at work. Each community in a specific domain develops own ways of “tool” handling to fit in its environment (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). How someone categorizes objects and how he or she behaves, is influenced by the social environment at the workplace.
The origins of a socio-cultural approach on educational and psychological issues
Because of the described characteristics, to merge the basic research units and combine different types of analysis to a holistic one, the socio-cultural perspective is a multidisciplinary undertaking since its date of birth. The main influences are made by anthropological research and psychology with its different sub-disciplines.
The deep origins of the socio-cultural perspective on educational and psychological phenomena go back to three important Soviet Researchers in the early 20th century – they founded a socio-historical school of psychological processes: Alexander R. Luria, Lev S. Vygotsky and Alexei N. Leont’ev.
The first one, A. Luria, started two expeditions to Central Asia in the early 1930s to investigate the hypothetical links between socially organized modes of interaction and cognition. He tried to find differences between people in the region of Central Asia, who hadn’t been influenced by Soviet concepts of industrialization yet, and those, who already lived in industrialised circles of Russian culture. His aim was to create an anthropologically and culturally coloured approach on human behaviour and cognition. However, Luria had serious problems of interpretation because of unclear results: although some studies showed influences of e.g. age and literacy on behaviour, there weren’t general results, which could have legitimated a basic theory (Cole, 1985).
A. Leont’ev was interested more in psychological issues of research and his investigation was less empirical. He criticized the “two-part scheme” of all cross-cultural psychological research, also Luria’s: the theories are based on the imagination of the individual and its functions on the one side, and the social environment on the other side. However, these ideas exclude the process which active subjects use to form real connections with the world of objects. Hence, the possibility of a principled psychological analysis including both parts is denied. For that reason, Leont’ev pointed out the need of a three-part scheme: the third part consists of the subject’s activity. It includes the goals, means and constraints, which are operating on the subject, and it relates the individual to the social environment (ibid.).
It was Lev S. Vygotsky who interconnected Luria’s and Leont’ev ideas to a socio-cultural approach on psychological and educational concerns. Influenced by Leont’ev’s thoughts, he denied the strict separation of the individual and its social environment. Instead, they interact with each other, and cognitive development is the process of acquiring culture. Vygotsky’s basic ideas were expressed in the “general law of cultural development”: general higher psychological functions appear on two planes. First, they appear on the social plane and then through internalization on the psychological plane. Therefore interpsychological categories become intrapsychological categories over time. Higher mental functions, which are seen as totally individualistic in the Classical Cognitive Psychology, thus have social origins. Worth mentioning here is that the transformation from the external plane to the internal plane isn’t seen as a simple copy process; it’s rather a process wherein an internal plane of consciousness is formed by external influences. Thinking, a seemingly lonely process, is quasi-social: we behave like socially interacting with ourselves. Vygotsky calls this process Internalization and it is a well known concept of him (Wertsch, 1985).
A second term, well related to the one of Internalisation, is Vygotsky’s concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZoPD). A series of studies on developmental processes of children with his students caused Vygotsky to reject the assumed relationship between learning and development of Western psychologists. He criticized the imagination of development as something predetermined and necessary for learning. Piaget as well as Gestalt psychologists reduce learning to a general and formal process. Behaviourists even define development as habit formation. In contrast, Vygotsky suggests learning as a process that occurs any time in everyday life and that isn’t just an external phenomenon. Children learn all the time and through people who are more capable in doing a specific kind of action. So learning becomes the essential process and is necessary for development (Vygotsky, 1978). Because learning isn’t an individualistic process anymore, it’s more useful to measure children’s potential level of development under the guidance of adults rather than the actual level like in common intelligence tests. On this point, Vygotsky’s concept of the ZoPD gets into account: It “is the difference between a child’s actual development as determined by independent problem solving and the higher level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers” (Vygotsky, p.86). The ZoPD defines the functions that are in development at the moment. For educational concerns, that seems more important than the actual status.
Surprisingly, there’s a strong correspondence between the Soviet concept of activity and the anthropological notion of an event or context by some researchers at the same time. Cole (1985) reviewed the contributions of cultural anthropology for a socio-cultural approach. He came to the conclusion, that other important anthropologists like S.F. Nadel and Meyer Fortes address the problem of the units of analysis, too. They also define a basic unit of research, which contains both the cultural environment and the individual.
Studies and further suggestions to socio-cultural influences on learning activities
Especially the socio-historical Soviet School influenced a number of psychologists and anthropologists e.g. M. Cole, S. Scribner, J. Lave and B.Rogoff. They started several studies to investigate socio-cultural influences on cognitive development and the role of social communities on learning activities. Also here, especially the influence of the social environment on the individual’s learning activities is essential. Moreover, one’s participation on the social community is pointed out by these researches.
For instance, J. Lave conducted several studies on the phenomenon of apprenticeship in communities of practice. They provided an insight in an individual´s multiple changing levels of participation and the development of expertise. Through increased involvement individuals have access to acquire and use resources available to their particular community.
One of Lave’s studies examined and analyzed the process and curriculum of tailor apprenticeship of Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia. The finding was that there’s no direct instruction given in the whole process of learning. The apprentices learn through observation, imitation, interaction and reflection, thus through whole-activity practice. The curriculum consists of a list of complex, intertwined tasks which are essential to becoming a master tailor. Tailors begin their apprenticeship with easy tasks that become more complex. The first focus of the apprentices is on the broad outlines of garment construction (e.g. sewing on buttons), then the attention turns to the logic of sewing different pieces together, which explains why the different pieces are cut out as they are. The way the curriculum is organized gives apprentices the “unstated opportunity to consider how the previous step contributes to the present one” (Lave, 1990). In sum, the apprentices learn a trade without being taught – in practice.
A further study conducted by De la Rocha (1986) explored the math activities of nine American “Weight Watchers” – beginners. The main emphasis of weight watchers is on controlling the meal portions by thoroughly weighing every ingredient and thus assigning points to the meal. The participants incorporate the goals of Weight Watchers into their daily routines of shopping and food preparation, for which math skills are required that are set far away from school. After six weeks of observation, the participants took part in arithmetic tests and interviews referring to their food diaries. The arithmetic tests showed a consistent success in the solving of math problems that occur in other settings than school, e.g. grocery shopping. As the participants gained more experience in measurement and calculation they developed individual calculation patterns. The participants generated reusable solutions to recurring math problems by finding solutions as part of the ongoing activity. The use of arithmetics was not explicitly necessary for the preparation of meals, therefore De la Rocha concluded that the “abundance of food products in the United Stated and Americans´ fascination with the self-mastery reflected in a slim physique have provoked an obsession with body weight and its control”(De la Rocha,1986).
A great example for internalization of external categories to intrapsychological ones is given in a study by S. Scribner (1985). She analyzed the relationship between cognitive operations and behaviors in principal work tasks of dairy farm workers. “Dairy knowledge” was examined across five groups: Students, language institute employees, office workers, warehouse assemblers and drivers (the last three groups are employees of the dairy farm). Recall tasks and sorting tasks provided evidence that different work tasks provide opportunities for people to learn specific things about the underlying domain. As Scribner (1985) puts it: “What you learn is bound to what you have to do”. Furthermore, common knowledge in a domain is structured differently for groups working in different areas of that domain. That is because certain properties of a work environment are more obvious and essential than others. So the way, how your working conditions structure the objects, directly influences the process of cognitive categorization.
Studying Workplace Learning: A complex and multi-disciplinary undertaking
Because of its complexity and variety, there’s the need of multiple disciplines for studying Workplace Learning. Different approaches lead to different aspects of the learning mechanisms concerned here. Classical psychological perspectives may explain intrapsychological phenomena that may be worth examining, but not enough to explain the complex whole of Workplace Learning. The working community, its own culture and the environmental influences on the individual can’t be researched in an adequate way, if they were handled in a conventional psychological way of a “two-part scheme”, as Leont’ev has criticized it. To deal with the external influences just as single variables won’t lead to satisfactory suggestions in order to create a basic understanding of Workplace Learning. The quality of the socio-cultural approach, to merge basic units of different perspectives to a common unit, including the individual, the social environment as well as their interconnections through acting, are necessary to investigate in basic principles of Workplace Learning.
Hence, the importance of the socio-cultural approach in our concerns can’t be denied. Vygotsky’s ideas became very important for researching Workplace Learning and influenced modern psychological and educational theory making. Moreover, studies of a number of researchers of which we only mentioned a few before, led to suggestions that are of great value for understanding learning activities at work, e.g. how apprentices learn in their special social environment. Many ideas and research results of the socio-cultural perspective are in line with thoughts of modern constructivism and so have already appealed in literature.
Nevertheless, it mustn’t be the only view on this issue. Conventional psychological and sociological methods as well as those of further disciplines are necessary for results which lead to a complex whole understanding of Workplace Learning. Otherwise, the great advantage of the socio-cultural perspective, namely to avoid reducing the issue to one aspect, will be betrayed by itself.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-34.
Cole, M. (1985). The zone of proximal development: where culture and cognition create each other. In: Vygotskyian perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press
Cole, M. (2005). Culture In Development. In: Bornstein, M. H., & Lamb, M. E. (Eds.). Developmental Science: An Advanced Textbook (5e)(p. 45-102). Mawah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2005.
De la Rocha, O.L. (1986). Problems of sense and problems of scale: An ethnographic study of arithmetic in everyday life. Doctoral Dissertation, University of California, Irvine. Dissertation Abstracts International, 47, 4198A.
Lave, J. (1990). The culture of acquisition and the practice of understanding. In: J. W. Stigler, R. A Shweder & G. Herdt (Eds.), Cultural Psychology (pp. 259-286). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Scribner, S. (1985). Knowledge at work. Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 16, p.199-206.
Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in society. The development of higher psychological processes. Edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner & E. Souberman, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Weber, M. (1922). Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus. In: M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck. Bd. 1, S. 17-206.
Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. p. 58-76