Consider How to Improve the Learning in an Organization With Which You Are Familiar, Coursework Example
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 kindergarten in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with seven English teachers and twenty Chinese teachers, all of whom are managed by the author. As Head Teacher, the author is responsible for drafting and organizing the curriculum, which is then given to the teachers. The average class size is a little over forty students.
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 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).
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). As Lave and Wenger observed, a key tension is that which develops—or may develop—between newcomers and old-timers as the newcomers participate more fully (155). As newcomers learn, mature, and gain mastery, they increase their participation—raising the prospect of the old-timers’ ultimate replacement (155).
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. 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. More specifically, they must demonstrate their proficiency in these skills and activities by scoring well on their examinations. Furthermore, they must demonstrate their mastery of certain social skills, including respect for authority figures, appropriate interactions with their peers, and conformance to other social mores and norms, 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 abilities and skills in which they are proficient on their own, and those abilities and skills they are potentially capable of, given the right guidance.
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. This helps our children to develop the knowledge through a deep, meaningful learning process. 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.
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.
Chaiklin, Seth. “The Zone of Proximal Development in Vygotsky’s Analysis of Learning and Instruction.” Vygotsky’s Educational Theory in Cultural Context. Ed. Alex Kozulin, Boris Gindis, Vladimir S. Ageyev, and Suzanne M. Miller. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. 39-64. Print.
Fuller, Alison, Heather Hodkinson, Phil Hodkinson, and Lorna Unwin. “Learning as peripheral participation in communities of practice: a reassessment of key concepts in workplace learning.” British Educational Research Journal 31.1 (February 2005): 49-68. Print.
He, Ming F., et al. “Learners and Learning in Sinic Societies.” Handbook of Asian Education: A Cultural Perspective. Ed. Yong Zhao. New York: Routledge, 2009. 78-104. Print.
Lave, Jean, and Etienne Wenger. “Practice, person, social world.” An Introduction to Vygotsky. 2nd ed. Ed. Harry Daniels. New York: Routledge, 2009. 149-156. Print.
Verenikina, Irina. “Understanding scaffolding and the ZPD in educational research.” AARE-Proc. of Australian Association of Research in Education, 2003. 1-8. Print.
Wenger, Etienne. “A social theory of learning.” Contemporary theories of learning: Learning theorists… in their own words. Ed. Knud Illeris. New York: Routledge, 2009. 209-218.Print.
Wertsch, James V., and Peeter Tulviste. “L.S. Vygotsky and contemporary developmental psychology.” An Introduction to Vygotsky. 2nd ed. Ed. Harry Daniels. New York: Routledge, 2009. 59-80. Print.
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