Models and theories of effective learning are of interest for the improvement of learning in both the individual, and the organization of which the individual is a part. All individuals and all organizations learn, but whether they do so effectively or not is another matter. This essay examines such a learning organization, the kindergarten in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of which the author is Head Teacher. This organization is described, both structurally and in terms of its culture of learning, which bears the hallmarks of the influence of the Confucian heritage and Chinese culture.
Next, this study will examine two perspectives on effective learning: Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD), and communities of practice. Vygotsky’s ZPD describes the difference between that which the learner is capable of doing on their own, and that which they can learn with help; this is also a social theory of learning. The communities of practice approach situates learning within society and culture, wherein every participant negotiates and constructs identity. The study then examines learning in the kindergarten through these two perspectives, in order to ascertain how effective the organization is. Finally, the study concludes with some suggestions for further improvement.
The organization is a private bilingual kindergarten in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with 265 students and 25 teachers. The average class size is about 20-25 students. Every class is taught by two teachers, one English-speaking and the other Cantonese- or Putonghua-speaking. The English teachers are native speakers, typically from the United Kingdom or Canada, while the Chinese teachers are native speakers of Cantonese and/or Putonghua. About 80% of the children are from Hong Kong; however, they can speak English fluently, as most of their parents were raised in foreign countries. The remaining 20% of the children are international students. As Head Teacher, the author is responsible for managing the teachers, and for drafting and organizing the curriculum, which is then given to the teachers.
The influence of the Confucian tradition is readily discernable in the nature of learning as it takes place in the kindergarten. Much as He et al. described, there is a strong emphasis on education as both the means of perfecting and developing the character of the individual learner, and as the means for advancing one’s socioeconomic status (78). The learning style is reflective, with an emphasis on memorization to cultivate deeper understanding of the subject matter, and diligent practice to foster proficiency (80). Teachers are authority figures who seek to impart not only knowledge, but also moral and character instruction (79-80).
Features of Effective Learning
There are a variety of ways in which effective learning can transpire. For example, the core premise of Vygotsky’s concept of the zone of proximal development (ZPD) is that for children, there are some things that are learnable only with the help and direction of a more experienced mentor, whether an adult or a more knowledgeable peer. The role of the teacher, then, is to attempt to identify the learner’s ZPD and work within it, thereby facilitating the learner’s progress at a greater rate (Wertsch and Tulviste 62). There is also a very crucial distinction between an individual child’s subjective or personal ZPD, and the objective ZPD, which describes the psychological functions that a child needs to attain at a given stage of development, in order to progress to the next (Chaiklin 49). This ‘objective’ ZPD is also determined, to no inconsiderable degree, by the sociocultural matrix in which the child lives (49). In essence, then, learning in the ZPD takes place through a process of scaffolding, wherein the mentor or teacher encourages the learner to make use of that which the learner already knows in order to grasp some new concept, skill, or other ability (Verenikina 2).
However, the relation between Vygostky’s ZPD and the concept of scaffolding has been characterized by various authors in a number of different ways (Verenikina 2-3). A common view is that scaffolding is simply the process by which learning takes place in the ZPD, with teacher and learner co-constructing knowledge (2). A related idea is that proposed by Mercer and Fisher, who argued for “the ZPD characteristic of transfer of responsibility for the task to the student as the major goal of scaffolding in teaching” (ctd. in Verenikina 2). And for still other authors, the ZPD concept is the broader one, emphasizing collaboration and cooperation between teachers and learners, while scaffolding is the narrower concept, wherein the teacher imparts knowledge to the student as a recipient of learning (Lave and Wenger, ctd. in Verenikina 3).
A key theoretical foundation of Vygotsky’s ideas pertaining to the ZPD is that social processes are responsible for mental processes: thus, learning takes place through a social process (Wertsch and Tulviste 60). Vygotsky contended that if one is to understand the mental processes of an individual, including learning, one must first understand the society and culture responsible for shaping them (60). Specifically, Vygotsky believed that “’the social dimension of consciousness is primary in time and in fact. The individual dimension of consciousness is derivative and secondary’” (qtd. in Wertsch and Tulviste 60). This is the theoretical lens through which Vygotsky’s conceptions of the ZPD must be understood, for it has significant ramifications for understanding the difference between actual and potential development as articulated by Vygotsky (62). Vygotsky held that instruction ought to correspond “more closely to the level of potential development than to the level of actual development”; in other words, the responsibility of the teacher or other mentor is to encourage learners to achieve things they are only capable of achieving with help and guidance—again, because the social aspect of consciousness is antecedent to the individual, derivative aspect of consciousness (62). From the perspective of Vygotskian theory, it therefore follows that social or “intermental” learning should precede individual or “intramental” learning: what the child learns to do with the help and guidance of an adult or a more experienced child can enable them to then advance individually (Verenikina 4-5, Wertsch and Tulviste 62-63).
Another important dimension of Vygotskian theory is Vygotsky’s distinction between tangible experiences—experiences precipitated by environmental stimuli—and “experiences shaped by interactions mediated by symbolic tools” (Kozulin 23). For example, Vygotsky held that finger counting constituted a tool of symbolic mediation: fingers can be used as symbolic tools to aid the mind in performing simple arithmetic (23). The cardinal point is that even so simple a tool of symbolic mediation draws upon cognitive abilities to facilitate learning and processing of information (23). And beyond such elementary examples as finger-counting are systems of symbolic mediation which include “different signs, symbols, writing, formulae, and graphic organizers” (23-24). Vygotsky’s conclusion was that the child’s cognitive development and learning are dependent upon their “mastery of symbolic mediators, their appropriation and internalization in the form of inner psychological tools” (24). Thus, symbolic mediation has a crucial function to perform in the ZPD: in teaching within the ZPD, an adult or more experienced peer must not take it as a given that the student will comprehend a symbolic representation (24). Rather, teachers must ensure that their students comprehend the significance of symbolic systems of representation and meaning, in order to help them expand the cognitive reach of their ZPDs by using the symbols as they are intended: as psychological tools (24). The development of cognitive skills, mediated by the use of symbolic representational systems, thus emerges as the most important goal of teaching within the ZPD (25).
Learning in the ZPD is, therefore, a matter of imitation on the part of the learner and collaboration between learner and mentor (Zaretskii 75). For Vygotsky, the very development of the personality—surely a process of learning in its own right—was precipitated by sociality, by collaboration with other people (75). And for Vygotsky, imitation was itself a powerful form of collaboration between child and adult: adults should seek to direct children by means of asking leading questions, as well as by means of direct instruction (76). Moreover, the social nature of learning in Vygotskian thought has another implication: learning proceeds in a teleological fashion (Tudge 156). An important point here is that this teleology is not universalistic, but rather relativistic: it is not that development is aimed toward some overall goal, but rather that development in different societies occurs in culturally-appropriate ways, in accordance with particularistic cultural teleologies (156). Although children learn adult meanings through collaboration, their participation is important as well: they are active participants, and as such their contributions to the learning process should be recognized and encouraged (156).
Teachers have ZPDs as well: a teacher’s ZPD is the learning space between their “present level of teaching knowledge”, both theoretical content and pedagogical skills, and their potential level of proficiency which can be attained by means of the tutelage of a more experienced teacher (Shabani, Khatib, and Ebadi 242). Teachers can advance their ZPDs through teacher education, as well as through the guidance and assistance of other teachers, and their results with the students (242). The cardinal factor in determining a teacher’s ZPD is the teacher’s willingness to learn: as Shabani, Khatib and Ebadi explained, teachers should progress their ZPDs by continuing to define and pursue “new goals throughout their teaching life” (242).
Another conception of effective learning is that of “communities of practice.” This view is akin to Vygotsky’s, inasmuch as it emphasizes the social dimensions of learning. As Wenger explains, the cardinal theoretical underpinning of this perspective is that learning takes place by means of social participation (210). This is an ecumenical and holistic view, wherein the learner is situated as an active participant in a social community, wherein the learner constructs their identity (210). Therefore, participating in communities of practice “shapes not only what we do, but also who we are and how we interpret what we do” (211). Learning in communities of practice entails a process not only of learning and doing things, but also making meaning and identity through social participation (211).
This process of making meaning through social participation is integral to learning in communities of practice: that every community of practice produces its own symbolic representational systems and shared tools and conceptual frameworks is no accident (Gómez and Rico 19). In fact, practice in this context refers to what is, in essence, the common, unifying culture of a circumscribed community: “the shared historical and social resources, frameworks, and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action” (19). Practice is what defines communities and binds them together, and as such, it cannot exist in the abstract: it is realized through the performance of “actions whose meanings are negotiated” (19). Learning in communities of practice, then, differs from conventional (Western) views of learning as individual and cerebral (Lave and Wenger 149). From the perspective of this social practice theory, there is a deep “relational interdependency” between any given learner and their environment, including not only the activities in which they engage, but also what and how they think about them (151). But as Lave and Wenger explained, participation is a complex phenomenon: it cannot be reduced to either internal knowledge structures or external, “instrumental artifacts or overarching activity structures” (151-152). Instead, the basis of participation is interaction: “situated negotiations and renegotiation of meaning in the world” (152). In this view, the individual learner socially participates in learning as the measure of their status within communities of practice (152).
A crucial point is that learning in communities of practice entails a far more holistic view of what constitutes learning, and the practical results thereof: learning in communities of practice is concerned principally with the social relations that bind the community together (Lave and Wenger 152). As such, learning consists of far more than learning facts, or participating in new activities, or gaining other new capacities. Indeed, all of these things are derivative from, and a subset of, the broader pattern of social learning and participation (152). As Lave and Wenger observed, all of these things—learning facts and new skills, being allowed to participate in new activities—are situated within embedded networks of meaning, or “broader systems of relations in which they have meaning” (152). It is in this matrix of embedded meanings, constructed by social relations, that the individual learner negotiates and renegotiates their identity (Lave and Wenger 152-153). However, this process of negotiation and renegotiation may be derivative from, accompanied by, or the determinant of tensions within the community of practice. Beyond the simple dyad of teachers and learners, Lave and Wenger envision a complex set of relationships between newcomers, “young masters with apprentices, and masters some of whose apprentices have themselves become masters”—and journeyfolk who are not masters, but are nonetheless considerably more experienced than newcomers (154-155).
The very essence of learning in communities of practice is collaboration and the need for relatedness (Pascual 6). In fact, the two are integrally intertwined: according to self-determination theory, people attempt to mimic or otherwise respond to the behaviors of people whose approval they desire—in other words, people “to whom they feel (or want to feel) attached or related” (6). This need for a sense of belonging, or relatedness, is at the crux of a working, self-identifying community of practice: it binds together the participants with a common sense of shared identity and purpose (6). Unsurprisingly, collaboration, particularly collaborative learning techniques, is a key strategy for building relatedness: by involving members of a community of practice in the process of learning, the community increases the effectiveness of learning outcomes (6). This is crucial in the educational context. As Caldwell explained, in many countries, particularly Western ones, many schools are undergoing transitions from hierarchical models of governance dependent on extensive bureaucracy to “a simultaneously top-down, bottom-up, and laterally distributed arrangement in which the professional is paramount” (1-2). The result is an approach with profound ramifications—and potential—for the concept of communities of practice: in particular, the new system emphasizes horizontal approaches to networking and operations, and distributed leadership functions (3). As Caldwell explained, communities of practice may be informal, involving little more than the exchange of knowledge by participants, or more formal, consisting of codified relations between autonomous organizations, formed with the intention of mutual benefit (4-5).
Mitchell and Mitchell detailed one such community of practice: the Project for Enhancing Effective Learning (PEEL), formed in a Melbourne, Australia high school in 1985 (7). The founders were a group of like-minded teachers and academics who were concerned about “the prevalence of passive, unreflective, dependent student learning” (7). PEEL was guided by the vision of John Baird, an academic who argued for the importance of teaching students metacognitive learning skills (7-8). However, the project was collaborative, in that all participants shared ownership, including ownership of research design (8). This program of collaborative action research was a great success, and spread to other Australian schools and then to schools in other countries (9). As Mitchell and Mitchell explained, in trying to encourage their students to become more metacognitive, the teachers themselves became more metacognitive (10). The collaboration of the teachers and the academics provided the crucial formula for this success, as all parties were involved in the process of formulating and implementing research and ideas (10). Indeed, the students became active and involved participants in the process (10).
The concept of “communities of practice” has a great deal of relevance for the learning environment of the kindergarten. As Head Teacher, the author arguably occupies the position of a ‘master’ or authority figure, not only vis-à-vis the students but also vis-à-vis the other teachers. However, the reality is considerably more complex than this, inasmuch as the author and the other teachers unquestionably learn from each other: indeed, on many an occasion, the author has participated in conversations with the other teachers about classroom procedures, course materials, and ways to improve the educational experience for the children. In these exchanges, I have sought to do far more than share my expertise: I listen to and learn from the other teachers, taking their input as well as offering my own guidance and counsel.
Overall, the teachers relate to each other as fellow teachers, defined by their participation in an institution designed to educate young children. This is an important point: the teachers negotiate their occupational identity vis-à-vis their fellow teachers, as well as vis-à-vis the students. They are colleagues and coworkers, and relate to each other as such; the author is both a coworker and a boss. In fact, participation in this community of practice is much like that described in Fuller, Hodkinson, Hodkinson, and Unwin: all of our teachers learn from each other, and many of our teachers experiment with ideas in an effort to make them their own (60). Some of our teachers are considerably more experienced than others, and are ‘masters’ in their own right, while several teachers are still relative ‘newcomers’. In some cases we have had tensions between ‘old-timers’ and newcomers, particularly as newcomers settle in and become more active participants in the school. We have also had tensions between the English teachers and some of the Chinese teachers, either due to cultural factors or their respective places in the school. The main problem is difficulties with communication: the English teachers are unable to speak Cantonese or Putonghua, while the Chinese teachers speak English only as a second language. In addition to the problems with communicating verbally, there are also innumerable cultural differences: the Westerners tend to approach the classroom from a more Western perspective of individualism, with less emphasis on the highly formalized relationship between teacher and students. In some cases newcomers have proffered new ideas and suggestions which have divided old-timers—and newcomers as well—into supporters and detractors.
Of course, the interactions between teachers and students form another dimension of this community of practice. The teacher-student dynamic is, again, a constructed one: there is an embedded meaning within the sociocultural context attached to the categories of teacher, more specifically kindergarten teacher, and student, more specifically kindergarten student. The students certainly learn from the teachers, but the teachers also learn from the students: I cannot count the number of times a teacher has recounted to me some experience in which the students’ responses taught them something about their own teaching style, or a particular technique, etc. And not only do the teachers teach the students knowledge and—as previously mentioned—attempt to instill in them fundamentals of good character, they also play a crucial role in the students’ socialization process. In kindergarten, our students learn many things which help to prepare them for the years of schooling they have ahead of them. At the same time, they also learn a great deal about how to relate to authority figures, i.e. their teachers, and to their peers.
Finally, the students also learn from each other. They are an integral component of our community of practice in their own right, and they possess varying abilities, interests, and personalities. To a very considerable degree, they learn by imitating not only teachers, but also each other: whether working together in group activities, or learning a new skill simply by watching a peer, or learning behavioral norms—including appropriate and inappropriate behavior—our students are constantly observing each other, interacting with each other, and learning from each other. Of course, this learning goes well beyond new skills and activities: they are also engaged in making meaning together, as classmates and as friends or rivals.
Using the concept of “communities of practice”, our school is an effective learning environment: overall, teachers have the support that they need from other teachers, including the author, to learn how to teach the curriculum effectively. The other teachers and I are always learning from each other, although though there are times when we are divided by interpersonal disputes or conflicts over how to best teach the curriculum. As stated, there have also been other tensions within our ranks, notably between newcomers and old-timers, as well as—on some occasions—the teachers of English and of Chinese, respectively. In general, our students perform very well on their examinations, and we have relatively few behavioral problems with them. They seem to learn very well, both from us and from each other. As a part of our community of practice, they tend to be very effective learners. Our school’s emphasis on repetition and disciplined practice is sometimes difficult for them, but a key advantage is that there is time enough to help the students to understand difficult concepts. If some students are confused by a given idea, task or activity, or simply find it difficult, they will have time enough to learn it and master it. Moreover, our teachers will often identify those students who have mastered the concept, and encourage them to help their peers, which teaches teamwork and good character.
Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development also offers a great deal of insight into how learning takes place in the school. Firstly, there is a discernable objective ZPD: the students must master certain skills and abilities before they can obtain the next grade, by scoring well on their examinations. Furthermore, they must demonstrate their mastery of certain social skills, including respect for authority figures and appropriate interactions with their peers, if they are to be considered mature in their next developmental stage. Secondly, each student has their own individual, subjective ZPD, which describes the difference between their own abilities and skills and those they are potentially capable of.
The students rely on both their teachers and other, more experienced students to help them learn within their respective ZPDs. I can think of many incidents in which one or more of our students learned how to do something, a given task or skill, with the aid of a teacher or more experienced peer, that would probably have eluded them on their own. There is a very strong social and intermental component to learning as it takes place in our school: the teachers encourage the students to develop a deeper understanding of each concept or skill before moving on to the next one. Moreover, because we allot plenty of time to those concepts, tasks and activities that the students find difficult, we can often teach within the ZPD in a very effective manner, one which gives all the students the opportunity to learn and maximize their potential. The pedagogical approach that we favor is deeply reflective, which facilitates comprehension and effective mastery of any given concept or idea.
Overall, the school is a very effective learning environment. However, there are some key areas which would benefit from improvement. First of all, although we generally give students plenty of time to master difficult concepts, at times we err in one of two ways: either we challenge them too much at first, which makes the learning process needlessly long and exhausting for all concerned, or we allot too much time to mastering a concept which the students have already grasped. Secondly, we as teachers need to be more open to new ideas and suggestions from each other, and from our students. There are definite tensions between the Confucian Heritage model of pedagogy, with the teacher as a respected authority figure and instructor, and the approaches of communities of practice and Vygotskian theory. In our school, we tend to try to synthesize the two, so that the teacher is still an authority figure who teaches the students in something of a Confucian manner, but who also incorporates student participation and collaborative learning. In some ways these approaches can and do complement each other, but at other times there is more strain. I have come to the conclusion that it is simply a delicate balance which must be continually renegotiated within the dynamic environments of the classrooms.
In attempting to evaluate students’ progress, there is, of course, a confounding factor in that different students learn and mature at different rates. Nonetheless, I plan to speak with my teachers about better ways in which to gauge their students’ actual knowledge and potential knowledge, respectively: only if the teachers know where their students are and where they might be with help can they teach within the ZPD effectively. I will listen to all suggestions, but I will also recommend that my teachers rely less on tests and students’ answers to questions asked by the teachers. Instead, some of them need to pay more attention to the students themselves: how they participate in class, and what difficulties and frustrations they voice. And to rectify the second problem, of course, we also need to pay more attention to suggestions that the students voice. The teachers are still the authority figures, but there are ways in which they could increase student participation and co-creation of knowledge. Finally, I will encourage my teachers to pay more attention to the suggestions and opinions that their coworkers voice, so that we can better improve the learning efficiency of our organizational environment.
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