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The Learning Classroom: Theory Into Practice

Learning From Others: Learning in a Social Context

Based on Lev Vygotsky's work, this program explores how learning relies on communication and interaction with others as communities of learners. The program features a fifth-grade teacher and a ninth- through 12-grade teacher, with expert commentary from Tufts University professor David Elkind, Yale University professor James P. Comer, and University of California at Santa Cruz professor Roland Tharp.

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Linda Darling-Hammond: We humans are essentially social creatures. We laugh, we play, and we learn with and from each other. Schools can take advantage of the fact that students learn from each other as well as their teachers. But what kind of guidance must a teacher provide to ensure that this learning is productive?

I’m Linda Darling Hammond and that’s our challenge for this session of The Learning Classroom.

Lev Vygotsky, a psychologist and schoolteacher, expanded on Piaget’s ideas to include the notion that learning is basically social and that both the teacher and the peers can assist in the learning process.

Roland Tharp, Ph.D., University of California, Santa Cruz: 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.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Yvonne Scott has built a community of learners among her fifth graders at the San Francisco Community School. We visited her and her students over a period of several weeks during which they researched, designed and constructed a butterfly garden.

Notice how Yvonne guides her students through modeling, coaching, and providing  feedback, and by creating a social system in which students assist one another while she assists them.

Yvonne Scott: We’re doing a butterfly garden this semester. The school has written a grant so that we can have an outdoor learning environment and there’re parts of it, there’re different sections of it. There’s a climbing area. There’s a, a garden area which we started already with a garden – two small patches. And so one of the things we wanted in there was a butterfly garden.

(classroom scene)
Molly, you can’t believe this!
 I see a, I saw a rolly polly.
 Over there!
 Ok, I’m going to come over there. Is that where everybody is?
Boy: Yeah.
Where’s the rolly rolly?
Girl 1: 
It turned over.
Girl 2:
 No, leave it alone!
Girl 3:
 Leave it alone! Don’t hurt it!
Boy 3:
 Remember what Molly said. Don’t touch it.
Hey, you lost it.
: No I didn’t!
: Then where is it?
Boy: It’s right there, you just gotta see it. It’s there, look at it! Look at it!

Yvonne Scott: The students posed questions that they had about butterflies. That’s how we approached it, you know. What, what do you know about butterflies?  What do you wanna know about butterflies?  And instead of writing down what they already learning to  about butterflies, I wrote down what their questions were, or if they had any “I wonder” or “I think,” because I felt that when you ask them what they know sometimes, what they know is true, but sometimes what they know is not true. So we just set out just trying to find out the answers to the questions that we already had, and we made a very long list of those, and we started out trying to learn about them.

(classroom scene)
This is no longer going to be just a class at San Francisco Community School. We have a challenge, and what is our challenge in this class? Joe?    
Joe: To make a butterfly garden.
 To make a butterfly garden. So one of our homework assignments tonight is going to be able to come up with a company name. Something that we’re going to be running our company, and this classroom is going to be run like a business.

Yvonne Scott: In the beginning of the project they chose what part they want. Did they want to be on the research department, and they had a garden department.

So they did all the planning, and each stage of the planning they brought it back to the classes and asked them their opinion. And wrote down their suggestions and asked them for drawings if they needed them, and then they sorted through them, and they came back with their final plan.

(classroom scene)
   My team, which is the layout team, um David, Oscar, Bianca and I, um we need to get the final blueprints done of the garden so we know where our plantings.

Yvonne Scott: When you’re beginning a project you should always keep in mind that you have a group of children who are very eager to learn, and that they don’t know the answers, and that you don’t have to know the answers. That you can discover together and you can create together. And that you have a range of abilities, and you have a range of people who like different things. In other words, some of them are very artistic, and they love to do things. They want to do it artistically all the time. Other people want to learn from just the books. But if you take in account all these different ways, and you, in the beginning, try to find out who likes what, who learns which way, and then you give them a challenge to teach each other, to bring the rest of the group up to where they are in this particular field, then that will help them.

David Elkind, Ph.D., Tufts University: Another concept people are dealing with is the so called integrated curriculum which is really a new term for Dewey’s old project method. Which means that you teach things in an integrated way that instead of teaching science, and art, and music, and so on, you try and bring those together. So you try and teach…you’re trying to teach zoology for example. You might also teach arts so that the kids will draw birds, for example. Then you might do math, you might do the size of different birds and so on, and measure them. So that would be another approach, which is to try to tie different disciplines in together in so that you’re not teaching them in separate domains, but all put together.

Yvonne Scott: What we want from the project is for them to understand what they need to learn. What math, what social studies, what science, what reading that they need to learn to make a challenge work.

And when they start to really study something in depth where they can have hands-on, where they can do art, where they can do science, and they can do all kind of investigation, that makes it real.

(classroom scene)
Yvonne: What do you think you would see coming out of the nectar?
The uh…
Girl 1: 
The proboscis.
 The proboscis, yes. That would come out and it would uncurl and then it would start to try to see if you were a flower, right?
 Yeah, but um… you, you um…
 What? You want me to come back to you?
 Okay. Yes?
Girl 2: 
Um, but inside the movie we saw ah, it said that some butterflies um, like the sweat of, um, humans.
Right! The sweat, they do, and they want to drink that. That’s another reason they would come to you.
Girl 1: 
‘Cause the water, the water, your sweat is water.
Yvonne: Exactly, exactly.
Girl 3: 
But hot, so it would be steamy.
Now we’ve talked about that, now, when we go into the butterfly habitat, it’s going to be hot and steamy. What about that other word, camouflage? Tell me about that.
Girl 1:
 Camouflaging next to the plants or flowers.
Camouflaging. So we’re gonna need to look very carefully. Who can tell me what it is when a butterfly tries to look like another butterfly. Say for instance, that we know that the Monarchs are poisonous, and there are other butterflies that try to look like them. David?
 That’s right, mimicking.
Yesterdays field trip. We had a butterfly walk. Comments?  What you learned?   What you thought?  John?
 Before that, I thought butterfly eggs were really rare, and you wouldn’t find them. Like maybe, if you looked through, maybe a thousand plants you’ll find one. And  actually we only looked through maybe a hundred plants, and we found, I don’t know, ten. So I had no idea butterfly eggs were that common.
If it wasn’t for the project I wouldn’t have known that those little things were eggs, I’d probably think that they were like something, I don’t know. But um, my dad said that when I start collecting all my allowance, he said that I could raise a butterfly; cause I could get like a big container or something.

Yvonne Scott: We learned about butterflies in a lot of different ways. We did the research. We have lots of books around here about butterflies. I encourage them to, to find books at home and in the library and then also we just started to observe. And we observed in the garden and we figured out what was going to actually attract butterflies.

(classroom scene)
John: They’re what caterpillar eats, so they’re what the female adult butterfly lays her eggs on, so the caterpillar can eat it.
Adult male: 
So what plants would those be?
Um, well there are lots of different house plants.
Adult male: 
Which ones did we see?
John: Well, yeah. Fennel leaves, um, dill, and cabbage, and lots of other ones. Um…
Adult male: Why don’t you put that on the mural, too?
Um, yes.

Yvonne Scott: And we’ve been keeping a journal, an observation journal about how things have been progressing.

(classroom scene)
 What else do we have to do?
First you have to write it down. And then it has to look like it’s typed already, and then you have to check it again, just in case there’s any mistakes.
Okay, so we have the mural, and we have the report, and we have the questions that we have to answer. What else do we do?

Yvonne Scott: We’re making reports, not in the traditional way, but we’re making them as plaques to go out in the garden so that there’ll be information for the, our K through eighth grade students to learn about what we’ve already learned. And each of the reports has a picture, a brightly colored picture of butterfly and the information, the name of the butterfly, the wing span and special features, and then any other interesting facts that they’ve learned about it.

We want our information to go out into the garden and we want it accessible for all our students.

During the, during the course of this ten weeks I’ve seen the culture change quite a bit. They’ve all worked together, and the tables have all been mixed, and so they’ve been working together to get their projects done, and they’ve emerged experts in different things. There’s a couple of people who have been helping everybody on the computer, and some people have been helping them, to help with their wording on their reports and their art projects. And so they’ve been collaborating, and different people have taken the lead and everything. And so, I see the class coming together.

(classroom scene)
  I need the scissors, big ones.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Yvonne provides just the right mix of whole class leadership, individual and group coaching, and independent learning.

Student learning depends to a great extent on the opportunities kids have to talk about what they’re thinking. Teachers can deliberately support these skills through managed dialogue.

Roland Tharp: The basic structure of assistance is best supported through dialogue…dialogue with a purpose. And managed dialogue means several 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.

Linda Darling-Hammond: Urban Academy teacher Avram Barlowe has created a discussion-based classroom. Let’s take a look at how he helps his students move beyond off-the-cuff opinions toward deeper understanding and the use of evidence through Socratic dialogue, in which he manages discourse.

Avram Barlowe: The way that we are opening up a look at Reconstruction is we are looking – the kids had read through a series of laws that were passed by seven state legislatures shortly after the end of the Civil War called the Black Codes which, in which Sou…south…the former Confederates, who then controlled southern state governments were sort of attempting to reassert control over the black population in the South. But what they, what I asked them to do was to look at that material, and to actually look at the text of these laws, and read through, through some of them and, and decide for themselves why they thought, what they thought the laws were, were designed to do, why they thought they were created, what the people who would have defended those laws would have felt about, how, how they would have been defended by the people who wrote them   And you’ll see, you saw in the class there were multiple interpretations of that.

(classroom scene)
Do people agree with Stephanie that this is trying to keep black people in check, and it’s sort of, it’s trying to sort, is almost a form of slavery. Matt, you have a comment.
 In a way I think it is, but they’re saying, okay you’re free, but you can’t do this, this, and that, but I think it’s because overall it’s keeping… I, it is, it’s not a great way to live, but it’s better than the way the slaves were living.
 Okay, Michelle?
I think that this, that this stuff was made to keep them in check, and that they were, like, scared after, like, the slavery and all that was going on. Maybe the black people would rise up and, you know, go against, go against all the white people and, you know, try to get revenge back for what they did to them and their ancestors and all that. And you know, yeah, the white people were scared, but you know they, they did a lot to the black people…

Avram Barlowe: The culture of the classroom is many things. But one of the important things it is, is, is an attitude towards what the learning process in the classroom is, and attitudes that the, that the kids have, and that the teacher has. And that, if you feel like the, the, the, the discussion has value, if you feel that your voice, and what you think, and your interpretation of the material is important, and is being developed in that discussion. If you’re learning something by putting out your ideas, hearing them responded to, being forced to defend them, or if you’re sitting and listening to two people who have different ideas and try, and you you’re trying to make up your mind what two people or four people or six other people are saying, that if, if you think that has value to you, there’s a level of respect you’re going to bring to the, to, to what ha…to the exchange that’s gonna be very high. So that there’s a list, for example, in the discussion, people are raising their hands all the time to speak. I’m trying to keep a list.

So I’m trying to keep track of the ideas and the comments.

(classroom scene)
What is so bad about that? What is so bad about saying, “You’re a former slave, you’ve never owned land before, you’re gonna own land for the first time, we’re not gonna let you just own land and rent it off any, any place in the world, you have to do it in the city where, where there’s some structure, where there’s an authority.” Wha-Wha, why is that so bad? Ok, Matt, and then Stephanie.
What I don’t understand is why, why would they, is it, does it help white people or does it help the government to put these restrictions that, that like make these freed, now free black men, like, live a hard life or whatever? Is it, it’s like is there a need, does it help anybody?
Avram: That’s a good question, why, which is really the question of why do you think they passed these laws? Why, wh, you don’t see that it necessarily helps anybody. Okay, Stephanie, Joanna, Stephanie then Joanna. Okay, go ahead, why, why’d they pass these laws?
Joanna: Um, I think just to have restrictions, just so you know they can have control over them. They know it’s a big city, they know what they’re doing with it, and they’re, they wanted to, like, see where they are, they didn’t want them to have total freedom, even though they’re not a slaves, you have 10 million laws that you know that make us have control over you still, you know. If you do this you go to jail, if you do that, there’s always, you know things that happen afterwards. So I can… definitely wanted just to have control over them, they didn’t want them, they didn’t believe they were equal.
 Does that make sense to you, Matt? She’s saying just because they did not want to give up control of these people, they didn’t believe that they were equal, and they wanted to keep them in control.
Matt:Then keep them as slaves, I don’t…
Avram: Well you can’t do that, you can’t keep them

Avram Barlowe: One of the very important things in the management of discussion is being able to hold up the kids’ ideas to them so they can see them and reflect on them, and being able to sort of tease out what the disagreements are and what the questions are that are percolating in their discussion, so that they can really maintain a focus in it. So, sometimes you will raise a question, there’ll be disagreement or exchange on that question and some of the comments and some of the disagreements will really be begging another question. It’s very important in that setting to say, “It seems to me that what Matt and, and Stephanie are arguing about is also this question” and then you, you state that question so the kids can hear it. So that you’re constantly holding up their ideas to them in a way that they can look at them and think and, and think about them, so the discussion is notand you’re helping to structure the discussion in that way, even though it’s very much them exchanging their ideas.

James P. Comer, M.D., Yale University: The social interactions in a classroom, if everybody gets to participate and everybody feels belonging, feels that they have something to contribute, motivates the desire to learn more and to learn everything. Anything that’s brought out in the classroom is something that the child will want to learn, in part because what happens in a good social climate is that the child makes an emotional attachment to the adult leader and also an emotional attachment to the other children.

(classroom scene)
When you give somebody a contract to pay them and to give them money, or to go out and starve and live in the forest or wherever it is that they had down south. What are you gonna, what are you gonna choose? Starve and die with your family or try to, you’re still doing slavery, but I guess you’re getting, like, a dollar for whatever which your doing, you know? I think they didn’t have much of a choice, they had to choose the contract even if, like, even if it abused them, and it didn’t pay them enough, and it didn’t really help them at all.
Now there was no, there was no minimum wage laws in this country at this time.
 Yeah, so when they signed the contract, when Michelle said they had to, I mean they had no other choice. They’d rather work, they haven’t worked, they wanted to make any kind of money. They were forced into this kind of environment where I can’t quit, I can’t go anywhere else, I have to abide by these rules, I can’t like ask for anything more, you know? So basically they probably got paid nothing or close to nothing, and they had, like they couldn’t do anything. The white people had all the control, they had everything they wanted. Even though they weren’t slaves.
Can I ask a question?
 Yes, question…
If you, like, complained or asked for more they would like also punish you for that?
Well let’s look at what the law says, it says here ah…

Avram Barlowe: Now, there may be times when they raise a question which is not one of the questions that I thought would be crit, a critical question to look at in terms of the material, but that that question does a very good job of mining the material and really, and where they really work with the evidence that they’ve been given, and they raise a, a, a wholly new question that I hadn’t anticipated. If I feel they’re working with the material using that question, my job is to go with that question and really gi, give it structure and hold up the responses in the same way they were with the questions that I’ve come up with. I have that flexibility. It’s not the, just the, but it’s not just them talking about whatever they want to talk about. Even when they generate a new question, their own question, I have to feel that it’s something that connects to the material in some ways for it to be of…and, and it’s forcing them to work with the material and develop their ideas.

(classroom scene)
Girl: What did you expect the people to do? They don’t want them free in the first place, so of course they’re gonna make up all these kind of laws and stuff like that. Nobody is dismissing anything, what I’m asking you is what did you really expect? That they would do their best to try to hold them down, and that’s exactly what they’re doing with these laws.
Okay, let me take Jules and then let me take that disagreement, and raise it to the third question, which is what, what about the people who passed these laws?  What did you expect from these people, but what should have been done with the people who passed these laws?

Avram Barlowe: One of the things that may happen is sometimes a conversation is very interesting and there are, a, a lot of kids wanna speak at once because an issue seems so vibrant on the floor that everybody’s talking. You have to get in there and say, look, hold it. You can’t, you cannot, you, you, you know, we have to, we have to stick to the list here. On the other hand, there, there may be times when a kid says something and another kid wants to respond to it immediately and, and, and it’s, they’re supposed to wait, but you sort of feel like the dialogue between the two kids has to happen.

You have to be able to, to, to, to let that, to sort of cast out the, the line a little bit and then reel it back in so that not everybody’s jumping in.

(classroom scene)
The whole, part of the war was keeping the union together you know. You can’t, you can’t have a country together when you’re pushing away half of it, you know?
The black people?
 No, I think she’s talking about the southern white people.
 No, I’m talking about the
…Black people
But the black people weren’t as important as, like, the white people were, it’s a sad thing to say, but it’s true, you know. You had to keep the Union together, you have to have the Congress and senators from, you know the other states, you had to have representatives, and even if they did not agree with what you wanted, or like what you want for the country, or whatever, you still have to have it or else there would be no Union. What’s the point of having a war over keeping them together if you’re gonna push them out after when it’s over?

(everybody talking over one another)
Avram: Go ahead Stephanie….SSHHH!
 If you keep those same people in power, the same people that started the first succession, then you give them, you give them another chance to be in a place where they could start another war. Why would you do that?
 Alright, what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna give, let me just say, Lincoln, before the war was over, we have one minute here, so I need to have everyone pay attention, this explains the homework, right. Before the war was over, Lincoln came up with a plan that was very similar to what Michelle’s philosophy saying, “Look, these people rebelled against us, but we need to bring the Union back together. We need to, sort of, bring those leaders, some of those leaders back in, we can’t be that tough on the people in the confederacy ’cause the country will split apart.”

Avram Barlowe: Well, I, I mean, I think there, it, it works very differently for very, for different kids.  I think one of the real strengths of this, of what, of what we’re doing methodologically with a diverse group of kids, is we’re, is, is we’re allowing kids to see that I can put out an idea and defend an idea in this classroom, even though I don’t necessarily feel like I read as well as this kid or as much as this kid, or I write as well, or as I score as high on a test, because here’s an issue that’s being posed here,

I’m looking at something that I’m reading, I uh…I think I understand what it means and, gee, I have an opinion about this that’s based on my experience, and I can sort of test my mettle here. And, and I think that’s a very empowering experience for kids, um, very important.

You know, I think that really, everybody in there can see that there’s, that, that on any given day somebody can say something that makes you think about something in a way that you haven’t thought about it before. And it doesn’t matter who that kid is in the classroom. And that’s good for every kid in that classroom.

Linda Darling-Hammond: There are several principles involved in creating classroom communities that take maximum advantage of how people learn.

The first principle is that students learn more when teachers and students work together on a task. The second principle is that language development is central across the curriculum. Regardless of the subject matter, developing competence in the language of instruction is fundamental for effective learning.

Third, choosing tasks that are meaningful to students accelerates learning enormously. Fourth, we find that good learning occurs most often in intellectually challenging activities that teach complex thinking.

And finally, the instructional conversation that is, dialogue with a specific academic goal — is at the heart of the effective classroom.

Yvonne Scott and Avram Barlowe have both created community-centered classrooms that are carefully organized to support social learning. They create opportunities for dialogue and collaboration that push students to think more clearly and to produce high quality work.

In doing so, these teachers give their students the skills for both academic success and success in the human community.

This is The Learning Classroom. Thanks for watching.

“Vygotsky understood that all learning is social – that we don’t actually end up doing most of our learning all by ourselves in our own heads; that we work with others, we assist one another to learn. Teachers can help students learn by consciously teaching within their zone of proximal development – right in that area where they’re ready to learn and providing assistance, or having other students provide assistance in that social context.”
Linda Darling-Hammond

Key Questions

  1. How do people learn in social contexts?
  2. How can teachers develop communities of learning?

Learning Objectives

  1. Assisted performance and the “zone of proximal development” – Teachers will understand how they can identify students’ levels of proficiency and readiness for a given task and target assistance accordingly.
  2. Strategies for fostering communication – Teachers will understand the importance of language, communication, and interaction in learning. Teachers will consider several specific teaching strategies to foster and guide communication in the classroom, including the role of questioning, group work, managed discourse, and reciprocal teaching.
  3. Social contexts and learning communities – Teachers will recognize that when students work collaboratively to assist one another and take on expert roles, their learning is strengthened, reinforced, and refined. Teachers will consider strategies they can use to build learning communities.

Video Program

Based on Lev Vygotsky’s work, this episode explores how learning relies on communication and interaction with others. The episode features two teachers, Yvonne Scott, a fifth grade teacher at San Francisco Community School and Avram Barlowe, a ninth through twelfth grade teacher at The Urban Academy in New York City. Tufts University professor David Elkind, Yale University professor James P. Comer, and University of California at Santa Cruz professor Roland Tharp provide expert commentary.

Session Content Outline

Key questions

  • How do people learn in social contexts?
  • How can teachers develop communities of learning?

Learning objectives

  • Assisted performance and the “zone of proximal development” – Teachers will understand how they can identify students’ levels of proficiency and readiness for a given task and target assistance accordingly.
  • Strategies for fostering communication – Teachers will understand the importance of language, communication, and interaction in learning. Teachers will consider several specific teaching strategies to foster and guide communication in the classroom, including the role of questioning, group work, managed discourse, and reciprocal teaching.
  • Social contexts and learning communities – Teachers will recognize that when students work collaboratively to assist one another and take on expert roles, their learning is strengthened, reinforced, and refined. Teachers will consider strategies they can use to build learning communities.

Session Outline

  • Learning takes place through our interactions and communication with others.
  • These ideas are based heavily on the work of Russian teacher and psychologist, Lev Vygotsky, whose theory of learning has been developed and put into practice in schools by many other teachers and researchers.
  • While Piaget focused on the individual child’s progress through biologically determined learning stages, Vygotsky called attention to the ways in which social environments influence this learning process.
  • Vygotsky proposed the idea that learning and development take place in the interactions children have with peers as well as with teachers and other adults.
  • Teachers can build on the ways children learn from each other by creating a learning environment where there are ample opportunities for student-to-student discussion, collaboration, and feedback.

Vygotsky’s Theories of Learning

  • Vygotsky suggested that knowledge is constructed in the midst of our interactions with others and is shaped by the skills and abilities valued in a particular culture.
  • He argued that language is the main tool that promotes thinking, develops reasoning, and supports cultural activities like reading and writing.
  • The teacher or a more expert peer is essential to this learning process.
  • Individual development takes place in the context of activities modeled or assisted by this more skilled person.
  • Contemporary theorists have built on Vygotsky’s ideas about learning as a social process and suggested some implications for teaching in the larger context of schools. Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz offer the following five principles for effective pedagogy, based on a Vygotskian perspective and emerging from extensive classroom research. Their work suggests the importance of –
    1. having teachers and students produce work together
    2. developing language and literacy across the curriculum
    3. making meaning: connecting school to students’ lives
    4. teaching complex thinking
    5. teaching through guided conversation (Dalton, 1998, cited in Tharp, Estrada, Dalton, & Yamauchi, 2000, p. 20)

Strategies for Fostering Productive Interaction in the Classroom

Certain kinds of interactions can assist the learning process. Two ways that teachers can guide and enrich interaction with and among their students are –

  • managing student discussions
  • assisted performance and scaffolding

Developing Learning Communities

  • Vygotsky’s theory about how individuals learn from each other is often used to explain the benefits of learning in groups.
  • His ideas about how we learn have led to the development of “learning communities” centered around student-to-student interactions and the exchange of ideas.
  • In a learning community, students learn through carefully structured collaboration as they participate in a shared practice or a group project in a setting that resembles a real-life situation. Learning is always “situated” in a social context because what is learned cannot be separated from how it is learned and used.

Community of Learners Classrooms

  • Work is carried out through a division of labor and through repeated cycles of work – students first research a topic, in order to share their expertise with their classmates and finally perform a consequential task requiring that all students have mastered the content generated by each group.
  • In a community of learners, expertise is “distributed.” Each individual contributes to his research group and each group contributes a part to the whole, based upon their knowledge about a specific topic.
  • In learning communities, peers help one another to build knowledge and skills. The teacher is not the only expert or source of assistance.

Teacher and Student Roles in the Interactive Classroom

  • The development of such a classroom learning community is multifaceted. Teachers are charged with –
    1. creating and designing a learning environment that maximizes students’ opportunities to interact with each other and other experts
    2. acting as an expert, model, guide, and facilitator of these social interactions.
  • One of the more common misconceptions about the teacher’s role in a socially interactive classroom is that the teacher backs away, stands off to the side, and lets students discover for themselves in an almost unplanned fashion.
  • On the contrary, such classrooms are carefully constructed ecosystems in which teachers are very much involved in shaping the learning environment.
  • The learner also takes on more responsibility – as a teacher of her peers, an emerging expert, a group member, and an individual responsible for her own learning and interests.

Collaborative Learning and Group Work

  • Supporting learning as a social process does not require that every classroom focus solely on long-term inquiry projects.
  • Daily tasks that foster more student-to-student collaboration can build on the range of strengths and abilities that exist in a given class.
  • Many research studies have demonstrated that students in cooperative learning groups perform significantly better than those in competitive or individualistic situations in terms of their reasoning, the generation of new ideas and solutions, and how well they transfer what they learn from one situation to another, as well as on traditional test measures.
  • The teacher plays a significant role in helping students learn to work effectively with one another; these are not skills that develop without assistance.
  • Another way to encourage students to depend on one another and to be responsible for group behavior is to have them practice these skills during short exercises and games that require collaboration.
  • Another way to facilitate group work is to assign specific roles to group members that are related to how the work is to be done so there is a clear division of labor.
  • Effective group tasks require students to draw on their individual strengths.
  • David Johnson and Roger Johnson suggest four characteristics of truly cooperative groups:
    1. Members see their work as interdependent in terms of the task, roles, and resources (“we” instead of “me”).
    2. Each member is personally and individually accountable to do his or her fair share of the work. (We are assessed individually and as a group).
    3. Members use interpersonal and small group skills needed for successful cooperative efforts.
    4. Members reflect and process as a group how effectively the group is working together (Johnson & Johnson, 1999, p. 89).

Reciprocal Teaching

  • Reciprocal teaching (RT) is a method of group instruction that enables the teacher to fade from a central role and builds in a structure for students to teach their peers.
  • RT is a term used both because it embodies the generic idea that students can learn by taking responsibility for acquiring knowledge and teaching it to others and because it is a specific strategy for teaching reading comprehension.


  • The lens of learning in a social context helps us to think about how, through engagement in purposeful tasks, with expert assistance, and by collaboration with others, the learner is encouraged to operate “as though he were a head taller than himself” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102).

Key Terms - New in this Section

  1. Joint Productive Activity – a task or tasks in which an expert and novice work together
  2. Learning Communities – classrooms or schools in which students learn through carefully structured collaboration as they participate in a shared practice, or a group project, in a setting that resembles a real-life situation (Wenger, 1998). It can also describe schools in which teachers and administrators share goals of continuously improving professional practices to raise student achievement.
  3. Managed Discourse – an instructional conversation which is guided by a teacher using purposeful questions and listening carefully to achieve an academic purpose – providing intellectual, cognitive, social and emotional growth.
  4. Reciprocal Teaching – a specific strategy for teaching reading comprehension that involves students working on the deep reading of text using four expert strategies: questioning, clarifying, summarizing, and predicting (Palinscar & Brown, 1984). The term is also used generically to express the idea that students can learn by taking responsibility for acquiring knowledge and teaching it to others (e.g. the expert jigsaw).
  5. Scaffolding – the work the “master” teacher does to provide just enough support, depending on the needs of the student, to move the novice student’s skills and understanding forward.

Questions for Reflection Step-By-Step Instructions

Step 1. The video segments in The Learning Classroom were taped as teachers worked in their own classrooms. As you watch, jot down the questions you have about what you see the teacher do and how the students respond.

Step 2. When you’re done, click on the episode title from the list and compare your questions with the Questions for Reflection and responses that our project team has anticipated.

Step 3. Review the responses we have prepared to questions that match the ones you have asked. The expert responses are not “final answers,” they are provided to give you a starting point for your own reflection. What else might you add to the response you read?

Questions for Reflection

Question 1: Yvonne Scott wrote down the children’s questions about butterflies but did not specifically ask about the children’s prior knowledge of butterflies. Why did she take this approach? What if their prior knowledge is confused or incorrect?

Response 1: There are several approaches to assessing and working with children’s prior knowledge. In this example, Yvonne Scott started by asking them what they wanted to know about butterflies. Scott could get a sense of their prior knowledge based on what questions they posed. She then chose curriculum appropriately, and integrated what they were learning into the student-generated list of “wonderings.”

Question 2: What if a child is reluctant to participate in a project because she feels she doesn’t know anything about the topic?

Response 2: The child needs to be encouraged and reassured that this is normal when beginning to learn about any new topic. The teacher, for example, often is learning about new topics when working on projects and can model for the learner how to begin this process. Thus, the student through interaction and guidance from peers and teacher(s) will observe others learning new things and come to understand that that is one of the characteristics of the classroom.

Question 3: After a hands-on activity, what if the student is still confused or simply doesn’t grasp the concept being taught?

Response 3: There are several options open to you after student responses have been analyzed and you feel that the responses indicate a lack of conceptual understanding. One is to re-teach the lesson if you determine that several students have not grasped the fundamentals of the concept. If there are, however, only one or two students who are still confused, you can have those students work with a peer who understands the concept or you could work with those students individually while the class was engaged in other activities.

Question 4: Is managed dialogue an effective learning strategy? If everyone doesn’t participate in the conversation, does that mean they’re not learning?

Response 4: Managed dialogue is one form of class discussion and class discussion is one acknowledged strategy to help learners develop higher-level thinking skills such as interpreting, analyzing, and otherwise working with information and ideas.

Some, but not all, of the purposes of classroom discussion are to help students engage with the subject content, practice the social skills necessary for good discussion, or demonstrate knowledge of content. One important skill that influences the quality of dialogue is the ability and willingness of students and teachers to actively listen as others speak. So if a student is not speaking in a discussion, that student may be learning by listening to the comments and interpretations of others.

Students should feel emotionally safe enough in these discussions to take risky positions, or offer contributions that are stretching them intellectually. The teacher can help create that environment by actively calling on reluctant participants from time to time and modeling language that shows their contributions are valued, even if (or maybe because) their comments are challenged by others.

Question 5: When a teacher uses group discussion, how do you know whether or not individual students are learning?

Response 5: First of all, the teacher can make careful notes about participation. Reflecting on those observations later can give the teacher good indications of individual student understanding, and ideas for addressing weakness in individuals or the group as a whole.

There are also other strategies to evaluate learning when using group discussion. One way to determine if all students are learning is to have assessment tasks before, during, and after a group discussion. In Avram Barlowe’s class, for example, students might be asked to write their ideas about the Black Code before, during, and after the discussion, thus giving the teacher insight to his students growing understandings. It would also help identify students who were struggling with the basic understanding of the topic. Then the teacher could make modifications accordingly.

Question 6: How does the culture of a classroom change when students’ learning happens in the context of social interaction – for example, projects or cooperative learning activities?

Response 6: Specific changes in classroom culture will depend on the class itself. Generally, however, it can be said that classroom culture may become more oriented to peers and teachers working together on such things as initiating projects, engaging in problem-solving and searching for knowledge. As a result, the students may have more control over their day-to-day verbal and social interactions with each other. The students may also be able to evaluate and reorganize their work at a pace that is suited to that group, rather than responding to a pace set only by the teacher.


Linda Darling-Hammond
Charles E. Ducommon Professor of Education, Stanford University

Roland Tharp
Director, Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence, University of California, Santa Cruz

David Elkind
Eliot Pearson Department of Child Development, Tufts University

James P. Comer
Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry, Yale University

Yvonne Scott
Fifth Grade Teacher, San Francisco Community School, San Francisco, California

Avram Barlowe
Teacher, Urban Academy, New York, New York

TRANSCRIPT OF COMMENTS BY Roland Tharp, Ph.D., University of California

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

[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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

TRANSCRIPT OF COMMENTS BY David Elkind, Ph.D., Tufts University

Excerpts from an interview with David Elkind, Professor and Chair, Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development, Tufts University

Taped July, 2002

Definition of developmentally appropriate teaching

Developmentally appropriate teaching is teaching that is geared to the child’s level of understanding and emotional and social development so that it fits in with where the child is developmentally. And that’s tough to do because you really have to know where children are in order to fit in, and you also have to understand the subject matter that you are teaching, and how to present that at a level that is appropriate for the child. So developmentally appropriate practices is not a curriculum, really, it’s an attitude, it’s a way of approaching teaching most of all.

Discussion of the term “zone of proximal development”

Proximal development is a Vygotsky term, and what he had in mind was the fact that children don’t spontaneously maximize their abilities, but there is a zone of ability that is only maximized with adult support or peer support, and the task is to find out what that zone of proximal development is. One of the things that Vygotsky suggested was that when children are playing, for example, they’re playing with a fork, cutting a piece of cake or something with a toy spoon, that tells you that I’m ready to learn to deal with real things. And so you go in as an adult and teach with real things. I think the ZPD is a very difficult thing to find, and to diagnose, and to try to teach to it. So it’s a nice concept, I think, in fact it’s very difficult to figure out where children where they can really go. We see it experimentally, I’ve seen it perceptually and so on, where John does something spontaneously, and then you train them, and you find out what they can do. But I don’t think you can just find the ZPD without doing some additional testing. So for me it’s not that useful a teaching concept, because you have to work so hard to find out what it is and then to find out where to go with it, and so on. It makes a certain amount of sense that kids don’t spontaneously maximize their ability and then go farther, but how to assess that zone and how to maximize it is a very different kind of issue, and I’m not sure if that’s the best approach to take in teaching. My sense is to find out where kids are developmentally and try and gear not only to their intellectual capabilities but also to their interests, and so on. As many of the teachers on these tapes we show you – they tied up kids with things that kids are really interested in, like sledding, car driving, and so on. So you tap into kids’ motivations as well as their intellectual abilities.

Discussion of assessing developmental stages

Teachers have to be very much aware of child growth and development, language, and cognitive skills, but there are many ways, for example, to get at children’s basic levels of cognitive development. For example, to know whether or not a child is concrete operational or not, language is a good measure. If you ask a child to describe a block or something or a series of blocks, the little ones will say that this is a mommy block, this is a daddy block, this is big, this is little. The child who is concrete operational will say, “This one is taller and wider.” They will use two dimensions and so on. There are a kind of concrete operational children’s stories. Children like fairy tales, but school-age children like Winnie the Pooh and Piglet where you can deal with two dimensions at the same time. He’s bad and good at the same time, and so on. In the fairy tales character are all one dimensional. So there are a lot of views that will tell you from children’s language their kind of interests when they are moving into concrete operations.

A different way of assessing where children are developmentally is to use a commonly watched television show or a popular movie and ask children to describe it. Concrete operational children will describe it in very different way than will formal operational children. Concrete operational children will try to describe the details about food, what the action was and so on, whereas formal operational kids will be more likely to talk about personalities and characters, motives and that sort of thing. So that is a very informal way of doing that assessment.

Discussion of knowledge of development and the content of the curriculum

I suppose the critical thing is – how does a teacher bring his or her knowledge of child development together with his or her knowledge of the subject matter – and that does take a lot of understanding. I think that’s one of the reasons I find Piaget so helpful, because he helped us not only understand children, but understand curriculum, and that’s one of the things that has not been fully appreciated with Piaget. He never gave us a curriculum, but he did give us tools to analyze curriculum and to understand the logical structure of tasks. For example, he could analyze reading and see what reading required in terms of children understanding one in the same thing can be two things, and so on. To be able to match the curriculum to the child means first understanding where children are developmentally, their cognitive abilities, but also understanding the logical substructure of the task. What is the logical substructure of the task that the teachers are trying to teach that child? For example, the inclined plane and so on, that’s fairly complicated in terms of logical substructure, because there were many variables going on. And if you know that, and if you know that children are just having trouble dealing with two variables at a time, you’re going to be much more cautious about introducing that. So it means both understanding the logical substructure of the curriculum of the task on the one hand, understanding the logical abilities of the child on the other hand, and bringing those together. And that’s really what developmentally appropriate practices are all about. Every task has a logical substructure and children have logical abilities. You know those things, then you can match those. Certainly you can always have a little bit more challenge – and I suppose that’s what Vygotsky meant by the ZPD. Challenge which goes a little beyond where kids are. How you do that is a very complicated thing, but certainly the ideal would be to have teachers know both cognitive development and to be able to analyze the subject matter they are teaching from a cognitive point of view.

One of the things we’d find in our research is that the verbal skills are essential to moving into formal operation. So kids, for example, for whom English is a second language may have trouble simply because their language skills don’t help them move into formal operation. So, I’m not sure that we can move kids into formal operations through curriculum, necessarily. Providing children opportunities to practice concrete operations in a variety of ways is probably one way.

Readiness is a term that is often misunderstood, and it seems to me that we often try to say that readiness is in the child, but readiness is never in the child. Readiness is always a relationship between the child and the curriculum. So that one in the same child may be ready for one classroom but not ready for another classroom. So that readiness is not simply in the child; it has to do with a relationship between a child and the program that he or she is going into.

It depends really on both the classroom and the child, and hopefully there is enough flexibility in the classroom for teachers to recognize that children may be the same chronologically but at very different places developmentally and have to assess that. And kids are differential; some kids are very good verbally but not very good mathematically. Some kids are good spatially, and so on. And so it takes time to, sort of, know kids. It’s one of the reasons I think multiple-age groupings are so useful, because a teacher has a child for two or three years, and then he or she can really get to know the kids really well, whereas if you have a child for a year, you’d get to know that child by the end of the year – just to lose him, and then someone else has to start all over. So for really good developmentally appropriate practice often multi-age grouping are good, or do as they do in the Waldorf schools, the same teachers stay with children for five years, as they do in many European countries as well. Then that teacher really knows those kids and that’s when you can really do that matching of where kids are developmentally, socially, emotionally, and in terms of their own particular abilities. The teacher knows that child well enough to be able to really customize that curriculum to the needs, abilities, interests – and know that particular child. We can’t do it with the facilities we have now but you come closest to it when you do some of this multi-age grouping or very small classes where teachers have the opportunity to know kids. The good reason for small classes is that you have an opportunity to really know kids well.

Discussion of spiral curriculum

The spiral curriculum that Bruner talks about is really a take off on what Piaget talked about, and he said that children have to construct and reconstruct reality at each successive level of development, and he saw development as an extending spiral, so that at each stage of development a child has to reconstruct concepts of causality, space, time, and number as he or she develops. And that means not only learning new concepts but giving up old concepts. I think that isn’t fully appreciated enough that sometimes children have the wrong ideas that they have to give up. For example, in the concept of weight, children at a certain age believe that you weigh more when you sit down than when you stand up because there is more touching, and then they learn about weight in a more abstract way and have to give up that other notion, and so on.

I had an experience with my four-year old who said he was glad we took the station wagon to the store rather than the sedan, because we would get there faster, because he thought the longer car would get there faster. I thought Piaget would be amused by that, but he always said, “You Americans, you always have two cars.” [laughs] But, I think the point is that kids have wrong ideas as well as right ones, and that you have to be aware of those wrong ideas that interfere with their learning. So you have to recognize that in going up to our levels, you also have to help children deal with ideas which are wrong. Learning is always unlearning and re-learning, and I think that isn’t sufficiently appreciated.

Discussion of integrated curriculum

Another concept people are dealing with is the so called integrated curriculum – which is really a new term for Dewey’s old project method. Which means that you teach things in an integrated way – that instead of teaching science, and art, and music, and so on, you try and bring those together. So you’re trying to teach zoology for example. You might also try and teach arts, so that the kids will draw birds, for example. Then you might do math, you might do the size of different birds, and so on, and measure them. So that would be another approach, which is to try to tie different disciplines in together, in so that you’re not teaching them in separate domains but all put together. One of the things that people will do at older age levels, for example, is putting on a play, a Shakespearian play, so that kids are learning literature, they’re learning Shakespeare, but they’re also learning history, they’re also learning science, because they have to put together the sets and so on. They’re learning social skills, because they’re directing, and so on. That would be a good example of an integrated curriculum with the project method in which you totally involve kids socially and emotionally, but also intellectually. And that’s one of the ways that people are trying to move into this sort of integrated curriculum, so that things are not taught – we teach science today, and we teach literature tomorrow, and history tomorrow and so on. But see that they really tie together in a lot of ways.

Discussion of making education relevant

I think the clue of good education is getting kids involved, so that they see the relevance to their own lives and to their own meaning. That’s what John Dewy talked about all the time, was making education relevant to kids, and when you do that, then kids are motivated to learn these kind of things, and that’s real. The real art of teaching is to be able to translate these things into things that are really meaningful to young peoples’ lives, so they can relate them. When they begin to integrate them, that’s true learning, that’s true education, because they can see how I can bring this to life in my own life. Otherwise a lot of that stuff is simply just forgotten.

Discussion of creating classrooms and schools that support learning

I think we all would like to have the best possible education for all children and would agree that would be wonderful, but that takes a great deal of time, a great deal of money and a great deal of energy, and I’m not sure if it’s really possible. Education is basically people dealing with people. And people are complex, and children are complex, and teachers are complex, and educational systems are, and the point is that there is no simple solution. There is no one magic theory that you’re going to wave as one magic curriculum or one magic principal who’s got all the answers. Nobody has all the answers, and nobody ever will have all the answers, and you have to be careful with that. For me the most important thing is that we recognize that children are people, and we care and respect them and try and do the best we can. Too often we simply get caught up in our other kinds of things and forget that, really, these are people, and that this is our major job. Certainly, a lot of things we can do would make education better. Certainly, small classes could improve education across the United States quickly and easily with one full swoop – reducing class size to 18 or less. It’s simply we know that all the research shows that the more one-on-one time between teachers and child, the better that child’s going to learn. It’s a no-brainer, it’s not rocket science. Obviously just because you have a small class doesn’t mean that automatically it’s going to be better, but because teachers get to know kids better, they can individualize better and do all the wonderful things that we have.

Here at Tufts we have a department of child development, our belief is that first and foremost a teacher should be a child development specialist. In other words, they should know all about children, and from that you can develop curricula, you can develop assessment, and management techniques, but without that, you know, you really don’t have the solid base. I mean, if you’re a physicist you learn about physics, if you’re a chemist you learn about chemistry, if you’re a dentist you learn about dentistry, and if you’re a teacher you learn about kids. And unfortunately many schools of education have only one course in child development.

Discussion of teacher cooperation

I think that teacher cooperation is an excellent idea. I think that at the University I’ve complained that we each teach our courses; we don’t know what the other people are doing; we don’t relate to one another, and that’s so much lost information in the school. Teachers deal with the same kids at different times, so to collaborate, to talk with one another, to work together – it makes so much sense. You can share so much more. I think too often we are in our isolated classrooms doing our own kind of thing, and we lose so much, because there is so much we can learn from one another and so much we can learn about the other children, and it gives us a sense of community – of people working together. So we just have to work much harder at doing that. I think collaboration really makes so much sense and works better for kids and teachers. And if we can somehow socialize beginning teachers to that way of teaching, I think that would be very important to do.

I just want to emphasize that there, again, are no simple solutions to educational problems. They are very complex, and there is no single answer, and that the most important point is to keep kids in mind. That kids are the aim and goal of education. You have to park your egos at the door but some of you may need valet parking.

TRANSCRIPT OF COMMENTS BY James P. Comer, M.D., Yale University

Excerpts from an interview with James Comer, M.D., Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center and founder of the Yale School Development Program.

Taped August 10, 2001.

Well, learning takes place along several developmental lines that are critically important. There is the physical, the social interactive, the psycho-emotional, the ethical, linguistic, intellectual cognitive. And it is development along all of those lines that’s really important. Up until recently, the school focused on the linguistic and the intellectual cognitive. But it is growth along all those developmental pathways that is important. And the social pathway is particularly important because that is the social context in which the child is learning and the social skills which enables the child to interact with other people successfully. All of that’s required to promote good learning. And that is why people are now beginning to think of the social context and the social skills that children need, because you have to make that contact, contact. The child with the teacher, the child with other children to develop the comfort, the competence, and the confidence necessary to take the chances that are important for learning.

Well, you have to be aware that children are not born knowing how to manage themselves in the world, and not think of what they do that you find unacceptable as bad, or indications that they’re not very smart. We have to understand that you, the adult, are there to help them learn all the things they need to learn – how to handle themselves, how to have a conversation, how to manage disagreement, all of the things that are required to be successful in school, you should help them and not simply see their behavior as bad when they’re not able to do things.

[Reacting to the way Ken Gillam facilitated a class discussion] Yeah, he, he was doing what my parents used to do around the table, you know. They would have, have us all talk about, we were expected to talk about what went on during the day. Had differing opinions. Respect the others opinion. Listen to the other’s opinion and to express ourselves and not talk too long. But if we had something to say that was particularly important, particularly interesting, you go ahead and listen, let that one talk, and then you kind of reel it back in, so that everybody doesn’t just jump in, but you manage the situation so that it doesn’t get out of hand, and at the same time everybody gets to express themselves. But you don’t cut off prematurely things that are interesting and exciting. You don’t wanna be too mechanical about it, but you want to manage it so that it doesn’t get out of hand.

Because if they knew how to do that well and could control themselves then it, it would work out so that the most aggressive children wouldn’t take over, and the most timid or insecure children would be left out. That would be okay, but you also have to learn that you have to work in a way so that everybody gets to express themselves and everybody feels free to express themselves. And at the same time, everybody respects the right of the other person to have a chance to express themselves. And that’s why you try and manage it so that they come to understand that everybody has to participate, and they should have an opportunity to participate.

Well, it’s important for a teacher to manage the conversation because it can get out of hand and the most aggressive children can take over, the most timid or insecure children will be left out or forced out, and various view, viewpoints will not be introduced, because a few, or one or two children may take over the conversation. And you, so you manage it so that everybody gets to participate, and all the viewpoints can be heard.

Well, the, the social interactions in a classroom, if everybody gets to participate and everybody feels belonging, feels that they have something to contribute, motivates the desire to learn more and to learn everything. Anything that’s brought out in the classroom is something that the child will want tolearn, in part because what happens in a good social climate is that the child makes an emotional attachment to the adult leader and also an emotional attachment to the other children. Now, if everybody in that classroom is engaged in learning and wants to learn, and they know that the teacher wants them to learn, and they have a positive emotional attachment to the teacher, they are then motivated to learn, and that’s what helps children learn things that aren’t particularly interesting or exciting to them, sometimes boring to them. They learn it because the teacher wants them to learn it, and they want tobe a part of a group that, where the group wants to be successful learners. And so it is the social context, a desirable, good, social context that motivates the children to learn anything and everything. And that’s why what teachers should know is that they themselves are instruments of learning. It is not the child alone. It is the child’s emotional attachment to them that encourages the child to want to learn.

Well, the misconception about the, the social process in learning is that it doesn’t exist. The problem we have as a society is that we have a very cognitive oriented society. We believe it is very mechanical that you, that you take information and you pour it into the open and willing heads of children, children willing to learn, and that that’s all there is. And you will hear, I have heard teachers say that my job is to teach them, as if teaching them is simply pouring in information. And they forget the fact that all the relationships from the time the teacher walks into the class in the morning, even into the building in the morning, and smiles and interacts with the children and speaks with them about various personal things, all of that creates a climate and a tone that prepares the children and enables the children to make the attachment, that makes them want to learn. And that’s what is very important.

Well, there are ways in which, it’s almost automatically integrated because of what I just said, that, that belonging in, motivates you to learn. But, and learn almost anything. But there are ways to take what’s going on in the life of the child – if it’s election day, if it’s something very exciting that all of the adults are concerned about, like the last election where there was conflict and disagreement and so on and it’s on television and people are talking about things. All of those are activities that are, you know, on the minds of children. If your spelling words, if your, your geometry, if your whole variety here, your literature and all can pick up some of the things that are current and in meaningful and important to the child at the moment because there’s a lot of emotion and tension around them, you don’t forget those things. The, the things we remember are the things that happen to us during emotional, emotionally important moments, and we remember those things better than anything else. And so you grab, you seize the moment in a way to, to make, make it relevant to the core curriculum. But the core curriculum can be made relevant by picking out things. For example, an African-American youngster was asked about the Missouri Compromise and he was not interested in the Missouri Compromise, but he was at the age where he was beginning to establish an identity and his father pointed out, asked him about the, the thirteen, and pointed out that the decision was based on whether the states would come in, slave or free. Now he’s interested. He wants to know more about the Missouri Compromise and he wants to know more about learning in general because they picked, he picked out something that was relevant to the child, emotionally important to the child. The child in the process of establishing his own personal and racial identity is very interested in that question. Now, whenever a teacher has an opportunity to find something in the life of the child that’s exciting, important, and emotionally important, then you try and tie it, and it’s in the core activity, then you try and tie it in.

Well, you know, if you keep in mind that children are born underdeveloped and that they develop along the critical pathways that I mentioned, through all the experiences that they have. Now when you look at their behaviors, whatever their behavior is, you think about whether, what’s going on that shows underdevelopment or a lack of development. If a child has a fight on the playground, what is that about? Is that just a bad child? Well, sometimes the child lacks a, lacks negotiation skills. Or the child may have impulse control problems. It doesn’t know how to work things out, tends to store up his feelings and then explodes. Teachers are in the position to do more than control that situation and punish the child. The teacher’s in the position to explore it, help the children learn how to manage, express themselves, negotiate, discuss, work things out. So you take the activity, whatever it is, whatever comes up, and you keep thinking about how will, how can children manage this better and how can I help them manage it better. And when you have that approach in your mind, you can be helpful in all situations to help children learn to handle themselves socially and develop overall. The children themselves, once you begin to do that, begin to function different, differently. An example, last week I heard a teacher using her school program where one of the ideas, one of the concepts is no-fault. We don’t point the finger of blame at anybody – the teachers, the parents, the children. We try to solve problems. And so they had a substitute teacher come into that environment who didn’t know the rules and the way they worked. And she began to yell at the children and to blame. A seven-year-old stood up and said, “We don’t do that in this school. We have no-fault.” And the substitute teacher went to the principal, what is this no-fault business? And so the child had internalized a way of working and thinking and working out problems that he and the other children were now living by because they had been given those skills by their teachers. And that made for a better environment in the school. The outside teacher wasn’t prepared. She had to be brought in on it so that she could understand it. But the more everybody understands and is thinking all the time, how do I create a condition that will help the children grow and manage themselves better? That’s the social process that we want to create that leads to good social development.

Well, the six developmental pathways is just a way of thinking about overall growth and development. You don’t develop separately along those pathways. It’s all happening at the same time, and development, a social kind of situation effects the cycle of emotional, the ethical, the linguistic, all, all are effected at the same time. But they’re – we live in social environments, and it is usually the social situation that leads to an activity, an incident, a problem, a challenge that causes an adult to interact with the child, and the adult interacts with the child in a way that helps him or her manage that situation and grow along developmental pathways as, as a result of that. And so the, and, and you have to have some sense of where a child is to be able to deal with it. And so, I was in a meeting the other day where a legislative aide spoke with us, and he had brought his son to the meeting. Son was about eight years of age. Now he had prepared, he gave his son his business cards to hand out. First, so he had something meaningful and important to do. But that’s social development also. He had his son introduce himself, and we introduced ourselves, too. Social development. He sat there for a while, and he began to get restless. The father sensed and knew – physical development – that children can’t sit there that, can’t sit still that long. So he asked him if he wanted to go out, and he said, “No.” So he was able to sit a little longer. And then when he really got restless the father asked him again and allowed him to go out. And so it was knowledge of the social development, the importance, the skills that he taught in that little situation, the knowledge of the physical development as well, going on at the same time. But those activities and being there gave that child competence, confidence. He didn’t leave him there long enough for him to have a bad experience, because that would be a loss of confidence. And so confidence and then comfort to be able to operate in that kind of setting came from the activity along those two pathways. And then the ethical pathway is really about what’s right, and what’s wrong, and how children think that out and figure it out as that teacher was doing in, in the video I observed. There was this discussion about slavery and whether the, the masters were right in what they were doing and wrong. And there were moral and ethical issues being discussed there. And it is important, I mean it doesn’t have to be at that level. It is in the level of relationships – child to child, and child to adult, and adult to children where discussions about what is right, wrong, good, or bad can take place. But listening to the child and how they think through what’s right and wrong, and what, what your options are, and what you can do, what else you can do. But helping them think through that is what’s very important. In fact the seven-year-old who told the substitute we don’t do that in this school was confronting and suggesting another way of behaving. So, that, that’s psycho-emotional development as well. What is so very important, and we take for granted that children come to school having already managed to handle all of the impulses that they have and to have the comfort and the confidence that they can sit and take in the information that we’re trying to provide. Many children have not received that, and so the teacher has to help, has to help create an environment in which children can have psycho-emotional comfort to be able to engage in the social and intellectual activities that are going on in the classroom. And so it is more than anything else, it is an awareness of what children need to function in various areas intellectually and socially, and the kind of psycho-emotional conditions and social conditions you need to make that possible and creating those. Teachers have great power. You know, you’re the adult authority in a situation where all of the children are, have less power than you, and you use your power to create desirable conditions for all the children. If you favor one or another, you’re creating doubt, fear, suspicion, lack of confidence – who am I? Does the teacher like me? Does she like Johnny better than me? Why? There are all kinds of things and feelings that children have that can be troublesome in a classroom because of the way the teacher behaves. And so all of the time it’s a consciousness of how your behavior effects the child’s feelings and the child’s comfort, competence and confidence.

You know, you know the, the, I told you about the legislative aide. That’s the question he asked us when I talked about development in school. And what I told him was, is that, it is what you just did with your child. Good child development along all those pathways is no more than good child rearing. It is helping the children learn to manage themselves. And when you do that, they grow, social and interactive, psycho-emotional, ethical, linguistic, intellectual cognitive, physical. Physical also includes the development and growth of the brain. And so every interaction you have with your child helps your child grow along all of those developmental pathways simultaneously. And so rearing your child well, creating conditions where they have confidence and at the same time not allowing them to do things that will get them into great difficulty or, or have them viewed badly by other people, having them behave in ways that are fair, and just, and responsible gets them good feedback, helps them feel good about themselves. And so permissiveness is not good, either. And overcontrolling and, and punitive behavior is not good. There is focus on helping your child, rearing your child in a way so that you help them grow in all of those important areas. That’s what’s important.

It’s unfortunate that most teachers do not have the experience in their pre-service that allows them to understand how children grow and develop and then must be supported in their development in the school. What they really need to understand is that the child is born totally dependent, and yet at eighteen years of age we expect them to be able to do everything. Now, if that’s so, that means that we have to help them grow along all the critical developmental pathways from birth and all the way through, to teach them all of the skills and have all of the growth necessary to be able to carry out adult tasks, and functions, and responsibilities, and to be successful in school and in order to be successful in life. And that, that starts at the beginning. And at the child-rearing that takes place where the parent provides the warmth and the closeness and support of the, of the child is the beginning of the kind of support necessary to promote growth and development. It doesn’t stop there. When the child enters school, the child has to make an emotional attachment to the teacher, and to the other students, and to the program of the school, the activities of the school in order to be motivated to be a learner. A child has to have a sense of belonging, and that’s why participation, making contribution to the activities of the classroom, all very important and that gives a child a sense of belonging. A child also has to experience fairness and to believe that the teachers care about him and, or her, and want them to be successful, and the teacher has to serve as a model. Children are watching teachers. If teachers behave in troublesome kinds of ways, the child is very likely to behave in a troublesome way and that, your use of your authority in a classroom to make it a fair, good place is what causes children to want to behave in that same way. And so the teacher has to be aware of their great power, and that they have to use it in fair and just ways in order to have good outcomes for the children, and that they are helping the children grow developmentally when they do that.

Well, the key aspects of child development that effect learning is, is the motivation that grows out of the growth along all the developmental pathways. When a child has a good experience, you can just see them grow, with a good social experience, a good learning experience. For example, I watched a child step on the mat that opened the door at the, at the counter, just beyond the counter as his mother was checking out. The mother was busy checking out and the child started a little experimenting. He was surprised when the door opened. And so he went back, he stepped off and the door closed. And he went back and he stepped on it again, the door opened and, came back. And by that time the mother noticed that the child was carrying out this experiment. And then the mother got into it and began to talk to the child about the connection between stepping on the mat and the door opening. And it became a good learning, teaching experience and that child walked away happy with his arms swinging. He had had a good learning experience. He had something, he’d grown. He’d grown intellectually, socially. He, he, he had gained some knowledge ove..of his environment and how you manage it. Those are the things that good parents and good teachers do. And that’s the benefit for the children is growth and a, a feeling of confidence and ability to manage themselves in various environments.

No, no. It’s all, it’s like an oasis. When you give a child a good experience, it’s like an oasis. The child really wants that. But children are very good, you see. They learn how to make it in school and how to make it at home. They know the expectations of the home and the expectations of the school. Better that they have a good and necessary experience at school than not to have one at all. But it’s very important to get parents involved in the work of the school so that they themselves, without having to raise their hand and say I don’t know certain things, can be involved in a way that they learn the connection between their behavior and the way they rear their children, and the ability of the children to perform in school. Now, when I shop at the grocery store, I can predict the students that are gonna do, the children who are gonna do well in school and those who are probably not gonna do well in school. It has to do with the way the parents interact with the child to give them learning experience in pre- and non-school situations and to support inquiry, and thoughtfulness, and reflectiveness, and the desire to know it, manage their environment better. When parents do that, then their children are more likely to be successful in school. But what happens is that parents who are less, well-educated or do not understand – even some who have degrees don’t understand what it takes for the children to have good educational learning experiences. When parents understand that and provide those at home, then they’re more likely to be successful in school. But where children don’t receive it at home, the teacher really has an obligation to provide it and to try and involve parents in the work of the school, so that they can also join with the teacher in giving the children the kinds of experiences they need to be successful in school.

You know, you know, many children gain what they need to be successful in school at home. And so, many children learn to take in information and sit, be able to sit still and take in information when it’s important to do so. They learn that at home. They learn to be spontaneous and curious when it’s important to do so at home. And they learn how, all of the, they have all the social skills necessary to be successful in school. Many children don’t have it and so the teacher has to not see the behavior of a child who’s spontaneous, and curious, and impulsive, and who doesn’t know how to sit still. You don’t wanna see that child as simply bad or troublesome or so on. You see that child as underdeveloped. You understand him or her as underdeveloped. And so, you help them learn what is appropriate, and how to express themselves, and when to wait and you give them all that they need to be successful. It’s that simple to think about it in that way. It is, “What is it the child needs to be successful?” and to explain and to help them, rather than to control and punish for not doing what they’ve never been taught to do, and for not doing what they’ve never been helped to do. There’s another thing about children that you have to remember. They need practice doing things. My favorite story is of the teacher who told Johnny not to run down the hall, and the teacher after several times, Johnny was running down the hall. Finally, he was doing better, but finally he was running down the hall again and the teacher said, “Johnny, didn’t I tell you not to run down the hall?” And Johnny said, “Oops, Mrs. Jones, my head remembered, but my feet forgot.” And that’s a child, you know, children have energy. They’re thinking about lots of things, they’re doing lots of things. They are not well-disciplined yet, and you have to help them. And you have to help them by repeatedly calling upon them to respond in a certain way and understanding, and sometime you’re gonna get frustrated, but understanding, and having them understand that you got frustrated, but you really expect them to respond in this way, and you just have to keep doing it over and over until they develop the capacity and don’t understand it as simply not wanting to do it, being troublesome, trying to give you a bad time. They don’t have the capacity. And so you have to help them develop the capacity to manage in desirable ways. You also have to look at the way you expect things to be done, because maybe your classroom is to rigid, too tight, is unreasonable. What you’re asking may be unreasonable. And so you have to look at what you’re doing in asking of the child, and you also have to ask the child to live up to the expectations of the school in the classroom.

Well they bring, in a cultural context, children come, you know, with their holidays, with their food, with the songs from their culture, music, their style, their ways. And all of it can enrich an environment if we respect the differences that children bring. You know, the school represents a mainstream culture, and children from all backgrounds have differences and activities and ways at home that may be different from the school. You have to honor those and at the same time if they’re truly unacceptable you have to call on them to, to behalf differently. And now that’s also where you involve the parents and why it’s important to have the parents involved. Because if there are cultural ways that are unacceptable and will get the child into trouble in the mainstream environment, then you and the parents will have to have a discussion about why you want things done a certain way and expect certain behaviors in the classroom because of what it permits in the way of school, the classroom, people in the classroom living together and what the child will need to be successful in the larger world. And they can maintain those cultural ways outside of the classroom and in, at home and in their own environment. But you rarely run into that. Most of all, it is the richness and the fullness of cultures brought together that makes a school an exciting place.

I, I, when we have our training, I always ask teachers, veteran teachers, how many of you had a child development course? Ninety percent had child development courses. And then I say, “How many of you had an applied, hands-on, in-practice child development course?” And out of 200 people, three to five will have had that kind of course, where there was a discussion about what a fight on the playground might mean other than a child being bad, and where a supervisor or someone could help them think about that behavior and help them think how to help the child, use that to help the children grow. My point is, I want all teachers to think development and to realize that you are in a social setting, a social context that allows, as a school that allows you, it gives you great power and authority at a time when the children are very dependent. It allows you to help them grow along those developmental pathways in a way that few other people in the lifetime of the child will have. So that you are very, very important in helping children develop very early patterns and skills that will serve them for a lifetime. And if you ignore or pass up that opportunity or simply…and control the children when you could be helping them grow along the developmental pathways, then you haven’t served them well. Now, what does that have to do with academic learning? As I pointed out, it has everything to do with academic learning. It is confidence and competence, and that allows the child to have comfort that motivates them to learn the academic material. And when they’re motivated they will learn anything, because Mrs. Jones wants me to learn. My teacher wants me to learn. And I’m important to my teacher. And so understanding that, you are really an instrument of learning, and that you can help the child grow all, all the developmental pathways and that growth along all the developmental pathways is what makes academic learning most possible. If you can think that, then you will find all kinds of opportunities to help children grow, and develop, and learn, both what it takes to be successful in school and as adult, and to get the academic material they need to be successful as adults.

Children are taught how to manage themselves at home by parents and others in the neighborhood, and they learn from people in their environment. And sometimes they’re taught to fight rather than to cooperate, collaborate, work things out, negotiate. Sometimes children are told that if you don’t fight when Johnny bullies you, you will get another beating at home. Or, children may be taught to cheat, lie, steal. Sometimes not directly, but because they observe their parents doing it, or they deserve other people doing it, or they see it on television. And so they bring all of what they have learned to school with them. But they’re not expected to do that in school. They’re expected to perform differently in school. It is up to the teacher to understand that wherever that undesirable behavior came from, you’re not dealing with a bad child, you’re dealing with troublesome behavior that a child has learned that a child must learn another way of behaving, and that you have to help them learn that the troublesome behavior is unacceptable and will get him into trouble in school, in the classroom, with other people, and that here’s a better way of doing it, or to think about with the child a better way of doing it, because they also know better ways. And you call up on them to think about ways that will be more helpful to them, more helpful to the people around them, more helpful to the school as a community. Again, that’s why it’s important to try and get the parents involved, because the parents need to hear that discussion and be a part of supporting the more desirable, successful ways. It’s also important for parents to understand that a child can learn to be courteous, responsible, a nice boy, in school and still be a rugged, tough kid who can take care of himself on the playground, in the housing project or in a variety of other places. The children are very good in understanding the behavior that is required here as opposed to there.

Many children, particularly those from mainstream backgrounds where their families participate in the mainstream, come with experiences almost from birth that prepare them to be successful in school. They know how to get along with other children. They know how to sit and take in information when it’s important to do so and to be spontaneous and curious when they’re engaged in activities. And, and they are curious and interested and they know how to handle themselves. And it needs to be reinforced in school, but they come with those experiences. Other children do not come with that kind of preparation. And sometimes children, even from mainstream backgrounds simply because they’re an only child, or parents working, or a whole variety of circumstances do not have what it takes to be successful. But many children, particularly mainstream backgrounds, come with all of the social interactional skills necessary to be successful. Also if they’ve had good psycho-emotional experiences they come with a kind of comfort and confidence and belief in themselves that allows them to be successful, whereas many other children do not come with that, and you have to provide it in the school setting so that they can develop that type of comfort.

Well, culture, most cultures provide a sense of belonging, activities that give you traditions and rituals that give you a sense of comfort and belief in yourself, belief in your group, and provide you with what is really necessary to be able to function well. Unless your culture is marginalized or under economic and social stress so that you’re not dealing with culture anymore, you’re dealing with the effects of economic and social stress. Your culture…so that your culture becomes destructive, and harmful, and is not a source of support and pride. But whatever the circumstances, in school you can create comfort, support, belonging, opportunity to participate that will give children the kinds of experiences that allow them to be successful.

Additional Resources

Web-Based Readings

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.). (2000). The design of learning environments (Chapter 6). In How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Viadero, D. (1996, January 17). Mix and Match. Education Week on the Web, 16. Retrieved 1/12/03.
A number of innovative programs implemented with ?Schools for Thought? are described here. All these programs are based on theories of cognition and social learning.

Schulz, E. (1994, October). Designing woman. Teacher Magazine7. Retrieved 8/29/01.
(note: go to and type in title, publication and year.)
This article is an overview of Ann Brown’s research, with an emphasis on the motivations and reasons for her research on social learning.

Related Links

The Buck Institute for Education Problem Based Learning
This Web site is a collection of resources about project-based learning, including suggestions from teachers, a middle and high school teachers’ handbook, Web resources, and teacher training. Included is a special section on problem-based social science (economics, government, geography and history).

The Center for Problem Based Learning (CPBL)
CPBL, established by the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, engages in problem-based learning research and development, teacher training, and curriculum development for K-16.

Creating a Community of Learners:  Lessons from a High School Journalism Program
This site illustrates a community of learners around a high school journalism program. The site provides background on learning communities as well as resources from which teachers may draw.

George Lucas Educational Foundation
The George Lucas Educational Foundation Web site provides feature articles related to project-based learning, interviews with experts, and examples of project-based learning from K-12 schools around the country.

Institute for Learning Technologies – Columbia University
The Institute for Learning Technologies was established in 1986 by Teachers College, Columbia University.  It is at the forefront of the movement to integrate technology into education.