3.2.7 Communities of Practice
As you have seen in the overview of learning theories, it is possible to view learning as something that happens on a purely individual basis. There are other types of theories that question this individual focus. There are psychological theories that suggest learning is an activity that occurs in a particular social context. A good example of this is the theory put forward by Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).
According to Vygotsky (1978), learning occurs when human beings take part in activities that are provided by the society in which they live. You may detect some similarities with Köhler’s theories. However, Köhler tended to focus on an animal’s readiness to use particular objects to carry out particular tasks. Vygotsky’s ideas are useful because they extend the scope of thinking about what is used by people as they learn. Although Vygotsky focused on what children need to learn as they grow up, here we are applying this thinking to the needs of adult learners.
Vygotsky argued that it is impossible to understand learning without taking into account the effect of living in a particular society at a particular time. One example of this would be the learning that occurred on the Scottish island of St Kilda. The people who used to live on this island needed to collect eggs and catch some of the birds that nested on the island. These were an important source of food for a population that could be cut off from the mainland by bad weather for many weeks. However, the cliffs where the birds nest often reach more than 1,000 feet above sea level.
In order to collect the eggs, St Kildans had to learn how to climb the cliffs. This learning would not have been encouraged in other societies with other needs. As a young St Kildan grew up, there would come a point where he or she might be taken out onto the cliffs by a more experienced climber.
Perhaps they would start with parts of the cliffs that were not quite as dangerous as others and gradually progress to the trickiest climbs. The point is that St Kildan society provided a framework to enable people to develop important skills and knowledge. This knowledge was held by the society and made available to people as they became ready for it.