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

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Learning and practice: Agency and identities

1.1 Locating meaning

Cooper and Dunne describe the tendency for students from particular socio-economic backgrounds to draw 'inappropriately' on everyday knowledge as indicating a 'relative failure ... to recognise the strongly classified nature of school mathematics' (Cooper and Dunne, 2000, p. 117). From a sociocultural view of learning it would be interpreted as a failure within classrooms, and of assessors, to understand learning as a process of negotiation of meaning that is influenced by individual's unique experiences of being in the world. Further, learning about school maths should enable students to learn the situations in which it is appropriate to use it.

Underpinning sociocultural theories of learning and other educational theories is the theorising of the Soviet philosopher Lev Vygotsky. Of particular significance is one of his many seminal insights concerning the relationship between the individual and society. He argued that individual mental functioning originates in social communicative practices:

the social dimension of consciousness is primary in time and in fact. The individual dimension of consciousness is derivative and secondary.

(Vygotsky, 1979, p. 30; quoted in Cobb, 1999, p. 137)

The essential claim made by socioculturalists on the basis of this, is that any meanings people have gained have been derived from interaction with others first. Sfard describes this theoretical perspective in the following way:

learning to speak, to solve a mathematical problem or to cook means a gradual transition from being able to take a part in collective implementation of a given type of task to becoming capable of implementing such tasks in their entirety and on one's own accord.

(Sfard, 2008, p. 123)

It follows from this that to understand individual meaning making and learning from a sociocultural perspective, attention has to be paid to collective learning. It also suggests that the goals for learning are competency in achieving socially productive tasks.

Activity 3

Watch the video below.

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Transcript: Junior Doctors

Sister Selina Trueman:
It's very busy, it's quite hectic, because all the new doctors have come in they're not really taught the basics like how to write drug charts up, where things are, how they go about referring people, so a lot of it's spent in us trying to chase them up and sort of show them exactly what we need to be doing, so a lot of this week it is actually turning round to the doctor saying well you write this up, and you write it up like this this this and this please erm but I think in the same breath they're quite happy for that to happen because then they actually learn the right way to do it.
Has anybody ever explained to you how to use all this.
Student lady Doctor:
No, no but it seems as this is what everything's like you just sort of, I suppose it's like arriving at an airport, you know you don't speak the language and there are no signs in a language or an alphabet you can speak in.
Sister Selina Trueman:
It only takes a few days for them to get settled in about a week, and week of hell yes that's what we always say ask how is it it's a week of hell as I'm sure they would say the same thing it's a week of hell, so it's but I mean basically what I say to people and what I say to all the new doctors that come in I make sure I introduce myself, and if they have any problems or want to know anything however stupid they might think it is then I'm sort of there to help them cos I think that it's quite intimidating nurses can be intimidating, I think because we we seem to know exactly what we're doing and they feel that they don't.
End transcript: Junior Doctors
Junior Doctors
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How is learning and knowledge described and demonstrated here?

Again, how does this relate to your example?


In the excerpt Sister Selina Trueman referred implicitly to competence in doing tasks rather than knowledge when she talked of how junior doctors were scared of the nurses who 'know exactly what they are doing'. She described competence in terms knowing how to do things; 'how to write up drug charts,' etc. You also saw how Selina overtly supported one doctor as she talked him through how to load a syringe, thereby enabling him to learn new practices. This view of what is learned and how it is learned is central to a sociocultural view of learning and of knowledge and challenges the idea of knowledge as individually acquired and a property of an individual. Sister Selina Trueman was explaining something else that is important about learning and about the nature of practice when she described how, as part of their becoming competent doctors, junior doctors must engage in practice. Knowledge then becomes a matter of competence in relation to valued social enterprises and knowing is demonstrated in participating in their pursuit. This view of knowledge alters what is assessed and focuses attention on performance and the understandings that underpin it.

Etienne Wenger writes about how people are constantly engaged in the pursuit of shared enterprises:

As we define these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we interact with each other and with the world and we tune our relations with each other and with the world accordingly. In other words we learn.

(Wenger, 1998, p. 45)

It is this collective learning that results in practices and, as Wenger argues, these practices are 'the property of a kind of community created over time' (Wenger, 1998. p. 45). He refers to these communities as 'communities of practice'.


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