Learning and practice: agency and identities
Learning and practice: agency and identities

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1 Thinking about the nature of knowledge

There are many theories of learning which have different uses as they emphasise different aspects of learning. There is no 'grand' or complete theory of learning but each reflects different assumptions about the nature of knowledge, of knowing and of people as learners and, therefore, what matters in learning - what should be paid attention to. The sociocultural view of learning, introduced in this course, offers a challenge to traditional ways of thinking about learning and how to support it that is having an increasing impact in writings about learning, be it in the context of educational institutions, the home or the workplace. The reason for this is that it offers tools to help you think about what might be disabling learning.

Activity 1

  • When you think about knowledge where do you imagine it exists?
  • Can you think of an example of what you would recognise as knowledge?
  • What do you think other people would typically recognise as knowledge?

Listen to the Audio below.

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Testing children
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  • What is the view of knowledge emerging here and how does it compare with your examples?


In the audio above, knowledge was very much what individual children could show they know and what a teacher can 'see' as evidence of this. The collecting of evidence of knowledge typically requires children to write what they know in response to tests taken in test conditions to ensure that what is assessed is that individual's knowledge. Andrew Pollard describes the products of school assessments as 'socially approved knowledge'. Karen talked of how, on the basis of this, parents might consider their child to be 'very bright' or not 'normal'. In this type of discourse there is an expectation that there is a 'normal' - an average, below average and above average type of person. So how we view knowledge brings with it a relational view of people.

The school assessment view of a child might be challenged, if, as Karen says, 'at home it isn't like this'. This says something about both the context for learning and the sources of evidence used to make judgements about a person. In a sociocultural view of learning attention is paid to the context and how it might influence what sense a person makes and what is made available for them to learn. The assumption is that making sense is what learning is all about and, importantly, that meanings cannot be given; they have to be negotiated.

Activity 2

The following assessment item was used in 1994, in the national mathematical assessments of 10-11-year-old students in England and Wales. It was said to assess children's ability to interpret statistical diagrams: 'the construct'. Cooper and Dunne (2000) used the item in their research:

  • Looking at the item, can you think of any factors that might influence children's understanding of the task?
(Source: Cooper and Dunn, 2000, p. 46)
Figure 1 A mathematics test item: assessing children’s mathematical knowledge


Cooper and Dunne found considerable difficulties with this assessment item when they piloted it with fifteen children aged 10-11. For example, when asked in interview how he would respond to the item one boy commented:

Is it - I think, really, boys just wear, like, plain old sporty socks, white socks - unless they're like teachers' pets - with the socks up here, and things - socks all the way up to their knees [pointing to his knees during this]. But the girls, the girls seem to have more pattern on their socks - they're white and they've got patterns on all of them. The boys have just got the old sporty things with something like sport written down them. Not much of a pattern.

(Cooper and Dunne, 2000, p. 47)

In responding to the item, the student paid attention to the real-life situation presented in it – that is, the types of socks people wear. For him, the data presented did not match his experience of the world, and indeed it doesn't! Consequently, he rejected the validity of the data and could see no purpose in engaging in the ritual of interpreting the diagram. In their larger-scale research involving three schools and 125 children, Cooper and Dunne found small effects across items indicating that students from lower socio-economic groups were more likely to be disadvantaged by items set in realistic contexts than students from higher socio-economic backgrounds, and their potential mathematical achievements were underestimated. Importantly, when Cooper and Dunne engaged directly with students to help them negotiate what the task was about these same students could demonstrate their mathematical achievements. In a sociocultural view, biology alone is not assumed to determine what is learned; rather people's potential to learn throughout their lifetime is accepted and the notions attached to beliefs about 'normal' achievement are rejected.

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