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

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2 Thinking about practice

When you think of practice in relation to yourself, what images emerge? 'Practice' is a word used frequently to mean 'what people do'. Is that what you thought of; some aspect of doing?

In a workplace setting, novices are often immediately immersed in an ongoing practice. You saw something of this as the young doctor at the computer described how she learned. She explained her own learning as a process of becoming a different person. She described her initial sense of herself as a person 'at sea in a foreign airport': something of a mixed analogy, but perhaps something you can relate to if you think of a situation where you were dependent on signs to direct you and they were all in a foreign language. Through her learning, the young doctor described herself as becoming someone who understood how to engage in the practices of the ward and why certain things are done in certain ways. The more competent she became the more she felt like a 'doctor'. Through her engagement, she became involved in shared world views that are often not articulated but tacit and, consequently, often not assessed.

Communities of practice reflect 'a shared history of learning that requires some catching up for joining' (Wenger, 1998, p. 102) as the junior doctors demonstrated. The evolution of a community and its associated practices is influenced by changes in societal needs and values and the tools available to achieve community goals. In a sociocultural perspective then, you cannot ignore the historical context or the wider institutional and social context of particular communities as these shape what is practiced and why and, therefore, what is available to learn.

Activity 4

Listen to the Audio again, this time focussing on Karen and what she and the children are doing.

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Testing Children
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As you listen to what Karen says she does and why, think about her assessment practice and make notes on what may be influencing both what she assesses and how she assesses.


In the 'Testing times' excerpt, Karen was doing things that enabled her to do her job, and she explained what these were and how they related to the wider needs of the institution, the school. These were practices to do with being a teacher, which is her community of practice. Karen used her assessment records to communicate with parents, which was a school requirement. This school practice was, in turn, influenced by the requirement that all schools provide assessment information, a requirement placed on them by government, local and national.

To make sense of what Karen is doing (i.e. her practice), we need to know something about the social context in which she works and the situation's historical context, since the meaning and significance of the baseline assessment of young children in England has shifted over time. In the 1980s, there was no requirement to assess young children. In the 1990s, what was assessed, and how, was significantly different from what Karen is doing in the excerpt. Hence what Karen does, the practice she engages in, is mediated by structures beyond her control: that is, national policy and her school's policy about what she is supposed to assess, and how that is recorded and reported. These wider social and institutional contextual aspects give meaning and structure to her practice.

In Karen's classroom, you saw four and five year olds learning how to sequence numbers. As they did this, the children were engaging with specific resources, terms and ways of thinking about the world, all of which could be regarded as practices. Lave and Wenger (1991) distinguish what children do, when they engage in such practices, from the practices that mathematicians engage in and from those of other professional communities such as engineers, accountants or retail workers, all of whom draw on particular mathematical practices for particular purposes. Consequently, they argue that the community children are becoming part of, and are developing competence in relation to, is the 'community of schooled adults'. The practices selected for them to engage with were prescribed, and were divorced from doing maths either in the world or in the way that mathematicians do maths. This is in marked contrast to what was happening with the junior doctors.

For the young doctor, his understanding of the syringe and how to use it was embedded in his sense of purpose, the community's enterprise of treating people who are ill. This shared purpose also helped the other young doctor to negotiate the unknown. As she engaged in the daily activity of the ward her understanding of this purpose also deepened. The children, on the other hand, were engaged in becoming competent maths learners, and this competence is defined externally in terms of what society assumes people should know about maths to be considered 'educated'. For many children then their learning, and the shared enterprise, is about passing the exams that label you as competent. Consequently, their knowledge is not necessarily going to be functional and serve them as tools.

Rogoff (2008) argues that Western educational systems give value to learning abstract knowledge, which it is believed can be applied across contexts. Though she points out automatically doing the same thing in a new situation is not necessarily effective. This view of knowledge may well be a barrier for students when faced with new situations. To change the goals for learning in school to be about learning practices it is necessary, according to a sociocultural view, to enable learners to associate them with being particular types of people engaged in the world for particular purposes (Rogoff, 2008). Practices only make sense in context. An instrument like a syringe implies a lot about the practices associated with it. Think of some other contexts where syringes are used: for example, as measuring devices for gases or liquids in science lessons, as instruments for icing cakes or for applying sealant in a DIY context. In these contexts, how the syringe is filled is a quite different practice from the one used in a medical context.

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