Interview: Roland Tharp

Excerpts from an interview with Roland Tharp, Director, Center for Research on Education, diversity and Excellence, University of California at Santa Cruz.

Taped August 16, 2001.

Learning and all human development is a process of, that is basically social from the perspective of Vygotsky and those of his successors who are, been working in this area for, for many decades now. We understand that learning and development occur in a social process. Vygotsky used this very nice phrase for it - is that all that is individual was first social. So, what he means by that I think is, is that what we think, in the way that we develop individually in our capacities, began as something that happened between people and became…as it internalized, became individual capacities. So, all human development is social, beginning from probably even before birth and all the way to the end of our lives. We continue always to develop. Our individual capacities develop first and is something that happens between people. And of course for students the most important social transaction is what happens between a teacher and a student. So, the, what happens, this social process, the interactive process, the processes of assistance, the processes of conversation, that happen between teacher and student, that is what forms the mind and the capacity of those students. So teachers need to remember that what they do and what they say with a student will become a part of that student's mind.

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If we understand that teaching is a social process and that the way that development occurs is a process of assistance provided to the learner, if we understand that, it profoundly revolutionizes what we think of as the role of the teacher. The teacher becomes, in a way becomes the primary assister of the student and thus the person that is most responsible for the development of the student.

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Probably the most crucial concept in socio-cultural theory or neo-Vygotskian theory is the zone of proximal development. It's a difficult concept to get, but it's ultimately simple and once a person gets it, it, it provides wonderful guidance for teachers in, in their moment to moment, in-flight decision making. The zone refers to the difference between what a learner can do individually and what the learner can do with assistance. So if you think of a zone as being a flexible point like so, the bottom level of the zone is individual capacity, no assistance needed, task capacity mastered. However, all of us can do better with some other assistance than we could do it absolutely alone. So that is the zone of proximal development between those two places. So, understanding where this zone is for each child's individual task, understanding that allows the teacher to provide assistance when needed, exactly the right amount of assistance to keep moving upwards, so that you're not trying to eliminate the zone, you're trying to move it all up so that the, the, and the task of the teacher then becomes to discover where assistance is needed and then to provide it. And that is the fundamental act of teaching - is locating when assistance is needed and making sure it's there. Now the co…assistance that is needed primarily and most importantly is by, is by the teacher, I suppose. But also it may not be. Vygotsky pointed out that that kind of assistance that will help development in the zone can come from more capable peers. It doesn't really matter where the assistance comes from. And the most competent teachers, I think, provide the assistance themselves when they need to, make sure that a good, rich diet of assistance is available from other class members and outside resources and the web and wherever assistance can be provided to make sure that's available to the student. That's the orchestration of excellent teaching.

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Well, there's several kinds of assistance that are typical in classrooms. One of the kinds of assistance that is very, we see very often is to provide a model to show a learner how it is done. Teachers can show by talking aloud how, even how to think as a mature scholar. Other forms of assistance are breaking up the task into smaller units, or reorganizing the sequence of a complex task. Other forms of assistance can be by juggling incentives through encouragement or through even, from time to time, praise and rewards. There are a variety of ways that, that teacher's can assist and that the, probably the single most important one is by questioning. In the fifth grade classroom tape that we saw, there is a wonderful example of assistance provided in-flight during a piece of dialogue, during a nice little segment of instructional conversation when the two boys were, were sitting there and the teacher was asking what did they think about the text that they had done. And one of the, one of the boys stumbled. He said I just can't, I can't say it. I can't express it. And the teacher did a very, very good piece of teaching right there because what she did was to drop back, if we think of it as being in the zone, she dropped back to the point where with a very astute question that she gave, he was, with the help of that question, able then to give a response which, once he heard himself say it, almost then allowed him to make a good comment about the subject that she had been trying to draw, draw him out in. That was an excellent example of working in the zone of proximal development and being right there at the time when he needed the assistance and, she gave it to him in the form of a question which then cued him to make the response that he was capable of.

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The zone of proximal development is probably the key concept in socio-cultural theory in neo-Vygotskian work. The zone refers to the distance between what an individual can do alone and what that same individual can do with assistance. If you think of the, the zone as being a range between at the bottom would represent what it is that the student can perform alone independently, automatically, without any assistance whatsoever, and up here is the higher reaches of that same kind of task that can be achieved with some help and with some assistance provided. Now you're, you're not trying to eliminate that zone. You're trying to move it up, bottom and top both, move it on up because that's the process of continual development. The zone is not a measure of in..individual IQ or intelligence because there is a zone that we each have for each thing that we are learning and doing. We can, we need assistance from our tennis coach sometime, and we need assistance from our science teacher sometimes, the same individual and the zone may be v…quite different for different tasks. The zone is an important concept because to teachers it's absolutely vital, because it helps the teacher understand what is the basic act of teaching. And that is this – to locate that point in the zone of proximal development in which this learner needs the assistance and then to provide it. Good teaching means constantly stretching, moving, rising in the developmental process and that means always providing more assistance. But as during the school year, during the course of life, that we each need more and more refined and more complex kinds of assistance as we learn more. But we always continue to need that.

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In the socio-cultural point of view, the point of view that whatever is individual is first social and that we learn from each other in, through interaction discourse, dialogue becomes extremely important. Particularly as we understand that so much of learning in academic subjects is verbal, it's learning words, it's learning how to talk and how to write about things and that academic discourse, schooled learning in general, is primarily a verbal process. When we think about the ways that teachers need to provide assistance to students, we know that they have to provide it within the zone of proximal development at the point that it's needed and that means a very careful gauging of the student's level of need. That's very difficult to do in ordinary classroom organization and ordinary lecture and response kind of formats because it's difficult to tell exactly what the level of each student's capacity is and what assistance they need. How can you find out that best? One clear way and that is through dialogue. Now that kind of dialogue then in a socio-cultural model, the dialogue becomes the tent pole of the classroom. It becomes the foundation of the classroom. It becomes that that holds up everything else. Not the lecture, which has it's own place and needs to be included as, in the schedule of activities. But the basic structure of assistance is best supported through dialogue - dialogue with a purpose. And managed dialogue means subtle things. It means dialogue that is managed for an academic purpose, for providing intellectual, cognitive, social and emotional growth. But it also means real dialogue. And that means that what one participant says has something to do with what just happened in the minute before, so that there is a real exchange. And during that kind of exchange, the teacher is able to hear in this dialogue on the subject at hand what it is the student can say, can do, and what it needs to say next and to do and can provide the kinds of responses and questions that will provide the assistance in the zone of proximal development. So dialogue, whether it's ad hoc, whether it is small group, whether it is large group, becomes a necessity in classrooms both for assessment and for assistance.

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[looking at the segment in "Learning from Others–Learning in a Social Context" featuring Avram Barlowe] In the high school discussion that we saw, we saw some excellent managed discourse. And what one of the admirable features it seemed to me in this multi-cultural classroom, probably a multi-lingual classroom to some degree, we saw a group of students who had learned how to interact with each other, with the teacher in a context that was academically focused, that used important text as a part of the basis of their discussion, in which there was a clear, mutual understanding of what the rules and procedures of how that discourse was to be managed. All of that were, were excellent examples of how the teacher had managed to create a community of practice, which means had managed to create a community of discourse. There were rules, the procedures, the understanding of how it was to be conducted, may not have been the original, when, when these were young children they may not have been their original cultural style of talking and interacting, but through this classroom experience, that group, I'm sure under the strong leadership of the teacher, had managed to create a style that's theirs and this is the way they talk, this is the way they conduct this kind of dialogue. We also see in that classroom one of the disadvantages of the discourse in a large group. Although the quality of the exchanges were excellent and I am sure that even though the large group didn't allow everybody to say very much at any one time, they were listening and learning from each other. And that, that's good and that is valuable. From a point of view of language development, the point of view of learning expressive language and to think in words and speech, the large group is handicapped because it's simply not possible given time and given the structure for, to have the rich kind of discussion opportunities, expressive opportunities that are available in a small group. In this fifth grade classroom when the groups were very small - four, five, six students, sometimes it looked like only perhaps two students - in those smaller groups everyone got to talk a lot more. There was more opportunity for learning and more opportunity for judging the zone of proximal development. There is an advantage also in that, in the high instance that we saw because this dialogue was built in clearly, systematically and dependably within that structure of that lesson. That ad hoc arrangements of the fifth grade teacher allow for responsiveness. But when she is doing the pattern of floating from group to group and offering small bursts of instructional conversation as needed allows for responsiveness, but it doesn't allow for the extended period of deep thought that is possible if a small group could be conducted over a time of ten, fifteen, twenty minutes. That is probably the highest reaches of managed.. discourse because it, it provides the richest opportunity for assistance by the teacher in dialogue and it provides the most opportunity for expressive language for the students.

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Well, common misconception about Vygotsky's theory is that social learning is one thing, but individual is a different thing and that one, that social learning could be considered a technique and that individual learning is a different technique. That is not the basic position of this way of understanding the world. The basic position of understanding the world is, is that all individual capacity develops in a social context. And so, individual, all learning is individual outcome, but all learning is social process. And so the capacity to perform individually, the capacity that everyone develops to do some individual act, whether it's driving a car or whether it is writing a scholarly paper and living in the library all by yourself for three months, whatever those - and everything in the middle - all of those individual capacities are in the acquisition process. That acquisition process is social and that assistance, social assistance that needs to be provided in the lower reaches until full individual capacity is made, is a social process. And, and so the, for a teacher to be instructed by this kind of theory and what to learn from this kind of theory and adopt that would remember that no matter what the individual goal of achievement is, no matter how individual that process is, the teacher's role is to make sure that assistance is needed during the acquisition stage. Not too much assistance, 'cause you give too much you'll ruin it. There's nothing that interferes with capacity when, if you really know how to do something for somebody to be telling you. You just have to do it. Then that'll mess it up. But so that the, but all learning, all individual capacity is first a social process, and that means teacher-student process.

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Vygotsky has taught us that instruction always happens in advance of leading development. What he mean by that is that development means, a developmental stage let's say, means the capacity to perform individually. Instruction is required in the form of assistance in order to raise that developmental level. Through assistance, through assisted performance the developmental level rises. That is to say, individual capacity rises. But the task of teaching is to pull that learner up higher and higher through the process of providing instruction, which means providing assistance, therefore raising the developmental level.

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Students know so much. Now, they don't know what we want them to know in school, that's why they're in school. But they know so much, and they bring even, even four-year-olds bring to the classroom a wealth of knowledge of capacities that they have learned at home in their families, in their communities. That knowledge needs to be used in the classroom as a foundation from which the child can jump up into higher developmental levels. And much of that knowledge that students bring from home and community is knowledge that is shared in that home and community. We will refer to that often, following Luis Moll and Norma Gonzales' research where, as funds of knowledge. And that, that every individual has rich funds of knowledge, but a lot of that knowledge is cultural. And so that a neighborhood, a community, a tribe, an apartment block, a group of people who learn and work together develop their own funds of knowledge, all of which to some degree would then be shared by the students and can be used as the launching pad for rocketing on off into higher reaches. A teacher needs to know what those funds of knowledge are.

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The five standards for effective pedagogy rules principally out of research and what makes for every, every child, every group, every cultural linguistic group best able to learn in school, and thereby those five general findings are expressed most easily and most clearly and perfectly suited to socio-cultural Vygotskian point of view. The first, the first principle is teachers and students working together - joint productive activity. This is the fundamental instructional unit of activity in a classroom organized in socio-cultural principles, because working together on a task is the ideal circumstance in which every other good thing can happen, including principle number two, which is language development across the curriculum. We, in school, schools are a talking place and a writing place and learning to write and to talk is the fundamental task of education. And so regardless of whether we are talking in a science classroom, pre-school classroom, social studies in the third grade, what, regardless of what the subject matter is, developing competence in the language of instruction is a fundamental requirement for effective learning. The third principle is that of making meaning. Contextualization of instruction, so that when one uses the already known, and that already known frequently comes from outside school, from families and from communities, use that as the basis for beginning the dialogue about the goals of instruction. Making instruction meaningful in terms of the students' own concerns, desires, experience and so forth is, accelerates the learning process enormously. But that does not mean that you're merely reiterating what the students already know. That's not the idea of it because the fourth principle that we find is, is that good learning occurs most often in cognitively challenging activities. So teaching complex thinking is one of the basic principles by which children will learn complex thinking, surprising teach….students learn what we teach them complex thinking is vital. How can that best be done? How can all of the above best be done? Through dialogue. So the fifth principle is that the foundation of instruction is dialogic, particularly through the instructional conversation. Through the exchanged dialogue with a specific academic goal.

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The school should be a place where everyone's learning. If teachers don't have an opportunity to learn, how can they continue to effectively teach in a changing world? And teachers learn exactly the same way the students learn. That is to say, they learn in the social process through a provision of assistance at the point when they need it, and they have to work through zones of proximal development just like students do, just like every other human being does. The school that in…that is a, a fully transformed school in a way that maximizes the opportunity for the entire community of learners of that school to grow maximally would be one in which the teachers are also provided the assistance that they need in order to continue to develop - professional development activities, a rich culture of mutual assistance in, among faculty, provision of outside experts when it's needed. Provision of all forms of assistance to teachers is absolutely necessary if you are going to have a growing, vibrant, continually developing classroom. It's certainly true even of principals. They need assistance too from above. But an ideal school it seems to me is for learning and that's for everyone to learn. And that means that account has to be taken of the next developmental stages that we all need to have. Learning is lifelong. Development is lifelong. But it needs to be done in the social process within the profession. So if we could have a school in which teachers got all the assistance that they needed to develop, they would be much more likely to be able to provide the assistance that the students need for themselves to develop.

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Universities that train teachers have the same responsibility that those teachers will have for their students. That is to say that stu….that teachers as they move through their own zones of proximal development toward greater professional competence, also need assistance. They need assistance in two ways. One is the indi…the learning how to work with curriculum, learning how to provide specific forms of assistance, the craft of teaching. They also need that. But they also, I think, need to have the experience of learning in the environment that we hope they will create in their own classrooms. So it seems to me that we pre-service teacher educators have the responsibility for creating that kind of atmosphere in our classes in pre-service teacher education that we hope the teachers will see in theirs. And that means providing opportunity for working together, developing the professional language of teaching, making that learning meaningful by tying it to their knowledge and the very extensive skills that teacher/learns already bring to it by demanding complex thinking and stretching the pre-service teacher educators' minds to be able to think higher and higher levels of, of complexity and conceptually. And finally, what we need to work on is being sure that we're engaging in continuous dialogue with the students so that we can adjust our own training to their zones of proximal development.

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