Searching for A 21st Century Pedagogy

Topics like educational reform or Ed Tech require a clear understanding of  learning processes. You might think that we already understand learning, but in fact this corner of educational psychology has been and continues to evolve and is regularly disputed; the need for scientific clarity is an issue. Pedagogically you can still see remnants of behaviorism, non-social constructivist ideas and inappropriate influences stemming from psychometric approaches. Any complete discussion of learning theories and their critics would need volumes, but I want this piece to be an evolving but clarifying foundation for claims about pedagogy. Technological change requires a 21st Century pedagogy with a good theoretical foundation.

Vygotsky and Dewey

Start with two giants of early 20th Century education, Lev Vygotsky and John Dewey who has become influential  through a social and cultural foundation to knowledge and learning. Both resisted dichotomies

The student/subject matter dichotomy, he said, gives rise to a whole set of useless oppositions and wrongly-forced choices: personal development versus content; student-centered versus teacher-centered classrooms, student interest versus disciplinary rigor; and, in a wider sense, the individual versus society and nature versus culture. For both Dewey and Vygotsky, these dichotomies echo deeper but equally useless epistemological and metaphysical dichotomies. . . .((Russell, 2003, p.175)

If there is no gulf between the mind and the world, subject and object, scheme and content, then there is no gulf between doing and knowing .. Knowledge is certain acquired habits of mind, “an instrument or organ of successful action,”(p.183)

Truths and disciplines are as organic and dynamic and vital as the student is because they are all made of the same stuff: human experience in social activity. Vygotsky also regarded disciplines (even, one might conclude, the discipline of Marxism) as dynamic. Disciplines do not proceed from theoretical discovery of some universal truth of nature to specific practical applications in solving problems, but rather from specific practical problems and human needs to a wide range of analytical and theoretical and technical methods useful in various historical situations. The practical need, the human problem, determines the goal (p.177)

This externalist view, shared not only by Dewey and Vygotsky but also by Nietzsche, Davidson, Derrida, the later Wittgenstein, and others, holds that thought is largely a product of human semiotic (interpretive and communicative) activity. As Nietzsche put it, “Consciousness has developed only under the pressure of the need for communication ….. Consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings; (p. 182)

(Russell, 2003);

The benefit of Vygotskian approaches are found in a clearer expression of the genetic analysis of how social tools structure the developing individual. The benefits of Dewey’s approach are found in inquiry as a method of inspecting social practices with the purpose of implementing change (Gassman, 2001). The importance of studying both are to counter the tendency to move back toward cartesian duality. There are three aspects of development and functioning on which I will focus: the social nature of development processes, the importance of tools to our mental lives and a dialogical structure of these tools and conscious capabilities.

The Social Nature of Development

We are not blank slates at birth, but come with innate abilities that serve to jumpstart social-based learning. As state in the book How People Learn, “an infant’s brain gives precedence to certain kinds of information: language, basic concepts of number, physical properties, and the movement of animate and inanimate objects. (p. 10).  These predisposition set us up to learning through interaction, especially social interaction, and enable parents and teachers to guide us to use language and to participate in culturally relevant practices as we grow and develop. As stated in Barbara Rogoff’s book Apprenticeship in Thinking, “Children’s cognitive development is an apprenticeship – it occurs through guided participation in social activity with companions who support and stretch children’s understanding of and skill in using the tools of culture. The sociocultural basis of human skills and activities – including children’s orientation to participate in and build on the activities around them – is insparable from the biological and historical basis of humans as a species. (p. vii)

Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social Context, Oxford University Press, New York.

I believe these predispositions and early experiences are much more than just early child processes. These social, language-based and actively constructive experiences establish learning processes that persist throughout our lifespans.  Alex Kozulin notes that this adds a  “new perspective into the protracted argument between empiricists versus constructivists regarding the nature of school-based concept formation in children (Hatano, 1993). Here again the issue of activity came to the forefront. From a Vygotskian point of view the child neither internalizes concepts in a ready-made form nor constructs them independently on the basis of his or her own experience. For proper concept formation the child should become involved in specially designed learning activities that provide a framework for guided construction”. Kozulin,1998)

One cannot teach writing without teaching writing about something for someone, . . . This is why both Dewey and Vygotsky insisted that writing always be taught under the pressure of some social need. It must be an activity “the child needs,” a “complex cultural activity”that should be incorporated into a task that is necessary and relevant for the child’s life (Russell, 2003)

This modifies some misconceptions of Dewey’s notion of discovery learning. Students construct knowledge through a discovery process that is not random, but is oriented toward cultural and historical relevant tools.

The Tools Metaphor of Higher Psychological Processes

Let’s unpack these active social language-based processes a little more. The tool metaphor fits into the social / language / apprenticeship type processes seamlessly. Again from Kozulin;

‘The development of the “tool” metaphor led Vygotsky to the hypothesis that the structural properties of language must leave their imprint on the entire activity of the child, and that the child’s experience itself gradually acquires a symbolic quasi-linguistic structure (p. 17) Like material tools, psychological tools are artificial formations. By their nature, both are social. However, whereas material tools are aimed at control of processes in nature, psychological tools master the natural behavioral and cognitive processes of the individual . . . Psychological tools are internally oriented, transforming the inner natural psychological processes into higher mental functions.’ (pp. 13-14) (Kozulin, 1998)

In this perspective teachers do not program students, but they involve them in designed activities that extend upon and build through those predispositions with which we are born.  It is with the nature of language use that we must extend our metaphor. Language is not a neutral medium, but is a set of tools that we use to expend our capabilities and exert self-control and orientation.

The Dialogical Structure of the Conscious Mind

Many ideas about learning obscure that thinking is something that involves more than just the neurological functions within our heads.  The nature of cognitive apprenticeships is that the process and our resultant thoughts develop dialogically and contextually through interactions. We must abandon mechanistic models for we are much more than machines trained through reinforcement schedules. It’s not that we can’t develop habits that way, but it is not our primary modus operandi. Adaptation to our environment is a better model, but it also leaves our the social tools that elevate us beyond the processes we see in animal. A tool-based social learning model is more accurate. In other words, our inner thoughts tend to reflect our outward experiences As John Shotter says; (from 1993, The Cultural Politics of Everyday life):

. . . why shouldn’t the expression of a thought or an intention – the saying of a sentence or the doing of a deed, for example – originate in a person’s vague and unordered feelings or sense of the context they are in? And their appropriate orderly realization of formation be something that people develop in a complex set of temporally conducted negotiations between themselves (or their selves’), their feelings, and those to whom that must address themselves?  Indeed, why shouldn’t the process ‘within’ people be similar to the transactions between them . . .

Toward a New Model of Pedagogy and Education

This is not to say that current pedagogical methods are without merit and there is certainly a place for an educational foundation that includes traditional knowledge and skill development. But consider recommendations for 21st Century skills sets like: communication, collaboration, creativity, innovation, flexibility, adaptability, initiative, entrepreneurialism, self-direction, social and cross-cultural interaction, productivity, accountability, networking, negotiation and accessing collective intelligence. We are only beginning to envision possible ways of developing these capabilities and current pedagogical methods are way inadequate to our educational needs. My future thought will be based on identifying new pedagogical frontiers based on the theoretical ideas presented here. Technological innovation will improve the efficiency of education, but it must also lead to better education that needs clear pedagogical foundations.