1.1 A sociocultural perspective on language and learning

A sociocultural perspective on language and learning entails a particular view of how language and social interaction are involved in the processes of human development and learning. From that perspective, education and cognitive development are seen as cultural processes, whereby knowledge is not only possessed individually but shared amongst members of communities; and understandings are constructed by people jointly, through their involvement in events which are shaped by cultural and historical factors. Language acquisition and use is seen as having a profound effect on the development of thinking. This does not mean that sociocultural researchers boldly assert that social experience rather than heredity shapes children’s development. They may take different positions on that issue. But they share the view that we cannot understand the nature of thinking, learning and development without taking account of the intrinsically social and communicative nature of human life.

A sociocultural perspective sees education as taking place through dialogue, with the interactions between students and teachers reflecting the historical development, cultural values and social practices of the societies and communities in which educational institutions exist. The educational process which takes place within those institutions might thus be better described as ‘teaching-and-learning’, rather than there being separate processes of ‘teaching’ and ‘learning’. This implies that educational success, and failure, may be explained by the quality of educational dialogues rather than being just the result of the intrinsic capability of individual students (or the didactic presentational skill of individual teachers).

Deborah Hicks is a leading American researcher in the study of classroom talk. She has written an article, supplied in PDF form below, which provides a comprehensive overview of work adopting a sociocultural perspective on language and the process of teaching and learning.

Reading 1 Discourse, teaching and learning

Timing: Allow about 2 hours

Now read ‘Discourse, teaching and learning’ by Deborah Hicks.

In particular, pay attention to the following concepts:

  • ‘discourse’
  • ‘academic discourse’
  • The teacher-student exchange sequence called the IRE or IRF
  • ‘participation structures’.

Note: Hicks uses the term ‘socio-cognitive’ to describe the approach we have called ‘sociocultural’ (the more commonly used term). Her overview is mainly based on North American research (rather than, say, that from Europe and Australia, where similar work has been carried out); but the perspective she endorses is essentially similar to that adopted by many researchers of classroom discourse elsewhere in the world.

Right-click on the following link to open the PDF in a new tab or window.

1 Talk and the processes of teaching and learning

1.2 What is meant by ‘discourse’?