I was reading an article on Lev Vygotsky, the influential Soviet psychologist, and I was struck (again) by his emphasis on the social context of learning, and by what that implies for the way we organize ourselves in education.
In contrast to the individual orientation that permeates just about all organized learning, Vygotsky stresses the importance of focusing on the supporting structure, the social context, the scaffolding around the student.
According to Wertsch and Tulviste’s “L.S. Vygotsky and Contemporary Developmental Psychology” (in An Introduction to Vygotsky, 2nd Ed, Routledge, 2005), “mental functioning in the individual can be understood only by examining the social and cultural processes from which it derives” (60). Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, for example, which famously describes the area between what the person has learned and can learn (with help from teachers and adults and friends and culture) is not so much about improving individual learning, but rather about improving the social and cultural context in which that learning happens. In other words–you can improve the individual’s learning by focusing on the larger group (63).
This is about as revolutionary a thought as can be imagined for schools.
Generally speaking, institutions of education are designed with the goal of improving students as individuals. Everything we do is organized around individual students, from enrollment, to advising, to assessment, to grades. If we think about culture at all, it’s also student focused; how faculty interact with students. How students interact with students–in the classroom, in the dorm, in student clubs.
Nowhere do we really think to a similar degree about the larger culture of the institution. How faculty and staff and students as a collective whole, say, talk to each other, help each other, learn together, share ideas. Whether we trust each other. Whether we all get to have input, say, to identify institutional problems together. Whether we solve our problems together, etc.. In other words, we think a lot about assessing individual student learning, but we don’t really think about assessing the context around that learning.
Just as a simple little example, consider the amount of energy–resources, planning, assessment, time, space, books, chairs, etc.–that goes into just one regular college course. Then think of the corresponding amount of investment we make in the development of a given faculty or staff member. A faculty or staff member might get a few workshops and a retreat or conference in a given year, but there is no commensurate institutional investment in planning and guiding and supporting and assessing such learning. A student gets a teacher, a curriculum, an advisor, expectations, a dean, a dorm life supervisor, and on and on. Faculty and staff might get part of a manager or a chair and someone to review an activity report; but they of course get so much less support in their own development that I feel silly making the comparison. And that’s just thinking of faculty and staff themselves as individuals, and not taking into account their social context, which gets even less attention still, and which, after all, is the real point.
If we take Vygotsky to heart, we should be thinking precisely about how our faculty and students and staff–all of us–work together, share, think, learn, develop–as a community. Observing and assessing and understanding and improving the bigger culture should be a priority, and doing it well should translate into vast gains for students. For a better culture will make a bigger zone of proximal development. (I should note that many have developed Vygotsky’s idea here further, but it has not significantly penetrated into the DNA of our organizations. Yet.)
So that’s what I call the Vygotsky challenge: as we’re thinking about redesigning our educational institutions to better help students learn in this the rambunctious digital age, we should also think about how we assess and improve the culture around them, which means focusing on the “other” people hovering around the school’s halls, and on how we all talk to and treat each other. Such a focus will be a wonderful boon for those mysterious non-student people (who will feel that it’s finally OK for them to learn and develop, too) and, ultimately, help the students. Maybe as well as or better than anything else we might do from within the traditional, individually-focused paradigm?
We might one day even go so far as to no longer distinguish between students and staff and faculty, who are, after all, just learners at different points on the continuum, but I’m perhaps getting carried away.