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

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3 Social mediation

Sociocultural theories view learning as central to practice, and all practice is understood to be social. Engaging in the practices of an educational institution or workplace is an example of a social activity. It follows, then, that learning is not something that only occurs in particular activities and institutions at particular times; rather, it is part of our everyday lived experience as we participate in the world. It is what people do as they engage in the practices associated with schooling, with work, with shopping, with looking after a family, and so on. On the basis of this view of learning, there is no separation between contexts in which learning occurs and contexts of everyday life: both are just different opportunities for learning.

Activity 5

Patricia Murphy has written some notes on this subject. Download and read the notes from the link below.

Patricia Murphy notes [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

  • Consider the evidence and the argument offered in the chapter. Does it support a sociocultural theory of learning in your view?
  • How would you explain the trade teachers' reluctance to see themselves as learners or to recognise activity in the in-between spaces as learning?
  • Make notes about the characteristics of these transitional spaces and consider what they might suggest about how to support learning.


The trade teachers seem to have a view that learning only occurs in particular places and when it is a specific, intentional goal. This also suggests that only certain kinds of knowledge are recognised as learning. This is much like the view of 'knowledge' discussed in 'Testing Times' that is what is recognised as being learned is what can be tied down, made explicit and abstracted; it is not concerned with knowing how to act which is informed by tacit understandings of the individual and the group. From a sociocultural viewpoint the interest in the trade teachers' beliefs is their potential influence on their learners if they only value and support certain forms of learning. This will mediate what is made available for their learners to learn and so has to be taken into account when trying to understand their students' learning and achievements.

Solomon and her colleagues’ exploration of hybrid spaces suggested that they allowed more horizontal forms of relationships and expertise to develop, and legitimated practices between colleagues that avoided challenges to professional identities. The findings indicate that much was learned in these hybrid spaces: indeed, often more than in the formal learning spaces, if you consider the teachers' views of in-service training (INSET). A key pedagogic feature of the interactions in hybrid spaces was that they enabled dialogue that went in many directions, and were 'safe' spaces in which to express ideas and to be tentative about new thinking. An important point made is that in these spaces professional identities are transitional. This supports risk-taking because the assumptions about the competence and the status of individual contributions differ between these transitional spaces and formal learning spaces. The resistance to formalising these transitional spaces is significant because it indicates something about the way in which participants value what these spaces make available to them.

These hybrid spaces allowed reflection on learning and time to ponder, in contrast to formal learning spaces. They also allowed individuals to gain feedback, develop new relationships and make connections to know-how that the workplace might not afford in more formal spaces. All of these features, therefore, suggest something about how learning is enabled. If learning difficulties are experienced it suggests that rather than looking to the learner alone to explain the difficulty, attention should also be paid to the learning spaces to consider the extent to which they create the conditions of these transition spaces:

  • allowing a sense of safety to be experienced
  • legitimating a discourse of uncertainty about thinking, and of learning as trial and error
  • supporting listening and sharing
  • where the participants rather than an authority figure set the agenda and, importantly, determine what a valuable outcome is.

Solomon et al. also talk about the ongoing identity work that is undertaken as people negotiate and manage identities in the spaces made available to them in the workplace. In a sociocultural view of learning, identity is a key concern in understanding learning and what might undermine it.

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