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Focus on learner or teacher


These notes are based on Jean Lave’s 1996 article “Teaching, as learning, in practice”.

It is an interesting article as it clearly identifies the focus of most learning research is not research on learning but “research on instruction, on depersonalised guidelines for the teaching of specific lesson-like things in school settings in order to improve learning.” Lave draws on her research of the apprenticeship practices of Liberian tailors and on Timothy Mitchell’s observations of the training of Egyptian lawyers, to come to the conclusion that learning rather than teaching is the core concept.

Starting with Scribner and Cole’s (1973) paper drawing a clear distinction between learning in formal settings and in informal settings, Lave shows that a polarity has developed which values formal schooling. This, combined with a psychological model of learning, has led to an increasing marginalisation of those who do not succeed in the school system. Putting this into the 21st century UK context it could be hypothesised that the emphasis on achieving government set targets in schools and the emphasis on increasing the number of young people entering higher education could have had the unintended consequence of reinforcing the development of an underclass amongst those young people who do not meet the targets, leading to the development of the gang culture and criminal behaviours which are increasingly in the public eye.

Lave is clear that learning is about far more than knowledge transfer. In both her examples, the apprentices, or learners, did not only learn a skill or set of concepts, but were enculterated in a multi-layered system of cultural values with their implications. Particularly in the case of the Liberian tailors, the apprenticeship and its completion was accompanied by a strong sense of worth and self-respect in stark contrast to the poverty of the society the tailors were part of.

Lave’s work led her to three changes in perspective from those espoused in traditional education models:

  1. a reversal of the polarisation that school and institutional learning is positive and other forms of learning are negative
  2. a focus on learners and learning rather than the transmitters of knowledge – teachers, care givers, etc
  3. learning is not individual but is socially situated

In her work with Martin Packer, a tentative model to underpin learning theories was developed:

  1. Telos or the idea that learning involves some kind of change or movement
  2. Subject-world or the relationship between the individual or self and the social world
  3. Learning mechanism which focuses on how learning happens

Lave concludes by saying: “The conditions for the transformation of persons are the same whether the telos of learning is movement towards growing up from babyhood, or adolescence, becoming a craftsperson or a philosopher, and/or becoming a marginal person in a world where participation in and thus learning divisions of race, ethnicity, social class, gender, and sexual preference, determine strongly who is consigned to the advantaged cores and disadvantaged margins of society.”

I found some the article resonated strongly with me. I have already given some thought to the marginalisation and dis-empowerment of parents of children and young people with autistic spectrum disorders and it may be that part of this stems from the fact that their knowledge of their children’s condition is situated rather than as a result of teaching. Empowerment implies a polarity as for somebody to be empowered somebody else has to be dis-empowered. In the current model, professionals hold the power (and the budgets). Would a recognition of parental learning and knowledge lead to empowerment, partnership and possibly more shared decision making?


1 Comment

  1. Suzanne says:

    Hello 🙂
    I stumbled on your posts and would love to cite them but I can’t find your name :).

    Happy 2013 !

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