Learning and practice: Agency and identities
Learning and practice: Agency and identities

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Learning and practice: Agency and identities

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.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Testing children
Skip transcript: Testing children

Transcript: Testing children

I’m always getting a low score and everyone’s getting a higher score than me and I don’t really like it.
I’ll get it all completely wrong and I won’t even get any right and I’ve just got that worry in me.
I don’t really like testing because you get a massive booklet and it’s go about 50 questions in it and you’ve only got half an hour to do ‘em.
It makes you worry because sometimes you rush it and you don’t get the right answers.
It doesn’t really matter if someone’s better than you at one subject because if you’re trying your best it doesn’t really matter.
Lloyd Hutchinson:
A formal system of testing in primary schools was introduced by the government in England and Wales in the mid 1990s.
Andrew Pollard, Professor of Education at Cambridge University, has done extensive research on this area.
Andrew Pollard:
There was a, a clear intention by the government to make schools more accountable. So tests had that kind of primary purpose when they were initially introduced. They would provide evidence for parents. They would provide evidence with which schools could be compared and evidence with which standards could be ratcheted up.
Lloyd Hutchinson:
Since their introduction, tests have increased academic standards but they have also had an unforseen impact on children themselves.
This primary school in the English Midlands has 425 children aged four to eleven years old.
Good morning, Luke.
Good morning, Miss ?
Lloyd Hutchinson:
Karen teaches four and five year olds in the Reception class. It is her job to do a baseline test on the children, usually within the first few weeks of starting school.
Right. You’ve all got a set of numbers. I’m going to ask you to show me a different one. Dominic, can you show me number nine?
Rebecca, can you find me number six?
Baseline assessment is basically finding out where the children are at. So we use that really as a type of a bench mark as to where we’re going to go from here.
Can you now get me ten?
We’re ordering, first of all, it’s numeral recognition to see how many of the numbers between zero and ten they can select themselves and recognise. Ordering them, to see if they have an awareness of where the numbers come in sequence, giving them the number lines so they can self correct for themselves if they would like to and now we’re doing one to one counting to see whether they can count up to ten objects accurately.
Lloyd Hutchinson:
The results of the baseline test also enabled parents to assess their child’s abilities.
This is a booklet which has already been filled out. On the personal and social development, they’re graded A, B and C, C being the highest grade. So, it can be quite alarming to parents if they see As, especially if it was all As because sometimes they may not either feel it’s justified or they feel that at home it isn’t like that.
Now, in this particular one, it’s sort of quite, you know, pleasing to the eye, because, you know, they have their four ticks whereas in some other areas where there is maybe only one tick it would instantly bring, you know sort of, ‘is that OK?’, normally is the question and, you know, ‘do we need to be doing things? Is this normal?’ So, parents can use the baseline to label their children, if they so wish. If they have lots of ticks they could decide that their child was particularly bright and if they had lots of crosses they could, at the end of the day, decide their child wasn’t.
Andrew Pollard:
Assessment provides parents with some kind of socially approved information about their children’s performance which they didn’t have before. So an awful lot depends on the kind of view that the parent takes. What you need, of course, is a parent who supports the child’s learning in a developmental way.
Clearly, if a parent treats the child harshly in relation to an assessment outcome then the child’s going to feel more pressure because of that. And, but there is a great deal of variability, I think, in parental response.
End transcript: Testing children
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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