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Learning as participation: a more inclusive stance?

This Western advocacy of ‘learning through play’ has been located by socio-cultural theorists (Rogoff et al. 1996) within a broader pendulum swing of ideas which is characterized by periodic shifts in preference from adult-led to child-led theories of instruction. The trajectory of this pendulum is bounded by the oppositional beliefs in learning as transmis- sion (adult-led) and learning as acquisition (child-led). The adult-led mode is universally recognized as pedagogy – intentional actions to bring about learning – while the child-led mode will be generally recognized as play – voluntary, exploratory and spontaneous (Smith 2006), but may or may not be viewed as instructional.

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The persistent tension between these opposed models can be resolved, Rogoff suggests, by defining learning differently: as the trans- formation of participation in cultural activities. Such a transformation sees a child’s performance in culturally valued activities change over time from that of novice to that of expert, as a result of drawing on the afford- ances of the environment, under the guidance of more experienced individuals:

Guided participation involves adults or children challenging, constraining and supporting children in the process of posing and solving problems – through material arrangements of chil- dren’s activities and responsibilities as well as through interper- sonal communication, with children observing and participating at a comfortable but slightly challenging level.

(Rogoff 1990: 18)

Cognitive development, in other words, occurs in the course of ‘chil- dren’s everyday involvement in social life’ (1990: 18), including their intent participation in all the activities which they see other children, and adults, performing. Such participation, Rogoff argues, depends for its effectiveness on the intersubjectivity or ‘shared understanding’ which exists between the expert and the novice (1990: 71). The activities may

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Brooker, Liz, and Suzy Edwards. Challenging Play, McGraw-Hill Education, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/ubc/detail.action?docID=771397. Created from ubc on 2022-10-21 05:48:59.

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include ‘play’ (as in most Western childhoods) but they may equally include some form of ‘work’, or of didactic instruction. Research into this broader conception of learning was until recently associated with the non-formal learning activities of children in developing societies such as Kenya (Harkness 1980), Liberia (Lave and Wenger 1991) or Cameroon (Nsamenang and Lamb 1998) rather than with the learning of children in industrial nations. When the research gaze shifts to Western societies, and to institutions such as schools and pre-schools, a tension emerges: is the apprenticeship model described by Rogoff and others equally effective in developing school-related knowledge such as literacy, mathematics or science, or is it only applicable to learning skills such as fishing or weaving, childminding or goat-herding? Socio-cultural theory challenges us to attempt to answer that question through looking carefully at what children learn, and how they learn it, in environ- ments such as schools and pre-schools, where different cultural activi- ties prevail.

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