Using Socio-cultural Theories to Interpret and Evaluate Children’s Learning

Abstract The thesis mainly focuses on how socio-cultural theories can work under the observation of the Children’s learning. Child is a kind of mysterious creature, from which we can make much study. There are thus numerous researchers dedicating all their life on the topic and Barbara Rogoff is one of them, a special woman. She finds that in the process of children’s growing a multidirectional mode instead of unidirectional. Three planes of analysis come into being after her hard work. The thesis borrows the tools to analyze the learning of children and elicits some cases to refresh the body and interpret the points above. On this basis, some of my new ideas are added in the following. I hope the interpretation and my opinions can give you an overall view of the theory and its further development.

Key Words: Development, Interpersonal affect, institutional affect


I. Introduction

On a midsummer night, a group of children of 4 or 5 ran here and there on the square, doing the dog fight at their own will. If you are just a passer-by, you may not notice the way they were fighting. I was willing to be the observer and I found a strange thing that they were dog-fighting under some influence of the Kong Fu experts. Is this true that I encountered Jacky Chen in the street? After some longtime pondering, I took a long sigh and closed my eyes. How could they act like this? Indeed, I find the answer after I learned some theories about children’s learning. In the shining stars of the researchers, Babara Rogoff stands out most with his special contribution to the study of children’s development and learning. She claimed that there are three planes of analysis to interpret the children’s development and learning, the individual sense, the interpersonal sense and the institutional sense. First, the individual sense is closely related to the young child at an early age. The second refers to the age nearly from 7-14 and the last one focuses on the later development. The planes are not what it’s like; instead, more sayings are discussed in the following.


II. Plane I- This is my life

To start with, we should dip into our early happy days of life. Everyone has his own good memory of early childhood. Babies are giggling in the bosom of the mum while he/she is tittered. The children at this early age are born to be active and eager to touch the world.(Rogoff, 1998) but the first impression for them may be “life is life. This is my life. I have the ability to do what I’d like to. What about my parents? No, I do not even recognize them but I see some people around me glaring at me.” Theoretically, the babies who are newly born are supposed to learn to do everything from zero, but the thing does not go like that. As we know, one fact of the babies is a miracle that they can perform some actions and gestures as they like, which may be only some surprise for the parents, but theoretically it is within evidence. New born children can hold his/her hands up and down and even wave round and round. (Rogoff, 1990) seeing these small cases, the mist is prone to be clear. What the above tells us is that the children are born with the ability to do some easy actions and thinking. Mrs. Rogoff observed these actions and made some report, which was elicited as the first plane of the analysis, the young child stage. She believes that the early stage learning is by no means influenced by the outside world, instead, by the born blood of his father and mother (Rogoff, 1995).

She finds that the individual sense should be divided into two components, one from developmentally centered lens, and the other from learned centered lens. Developmentally centered lens includes the early childhood actions, which means at an early age, the children are born with something heretic and close to his/her parents. The basic actions are possible to be seen just like the action of giggling and rolling. (Hughes, 1995) They find much interest and curiosity in the new world with the instinctive actions. They are indeed not intentional to perform the actions but they do. So in this stage of life, the actions are of no meaning. At least, the babies can open their mouths for food and drink. And they are able to crying loudly while they are feeling uncomfortable, whatever it may be. Also, the language is always the main point. What can a baby speak out while he/she was born? The answer seems not so difficult. They may say “ah, ha, mm, hi”, which are for us something insignificant but for the babies, the pronunciations are full of intention. They cry for food and drink, for fear and pain, and for ease and coziness.

Then, the babies are spending their first few years in the sea of warmth and love. Here comes the next stage when they begin to realize the possibility to do some imitations. That is named by Roggot (Hughes, 1995) learned centered lens. To be more exact, the lens can be separated into two parts, the ability to learn from human activities and social context.

For the first part, some people say, you can never get clear what the child at this age think about. In their small brain, the curiosity works from time to time. The sense of imitation comes into being at this time. Everything in the world seems strange and interesting. It is reasonable for them to do what other people do. The actions are too tiny for us to notice but for the children, they are fairly different. Take a small case for example, a girl, Amy, acts like what our adults do. One rainy afternoon, Amy was walking her way to school. Her friend J was striding ahead, who was so attentive to her own though without noticing the stone on the ground. Fortunately, she fell on the ground and shed tears. At this time, Amy ran aside and gave a hand. J gave back her cuddle. This case ended with the two friends’ friendship lasts forever. As we know, a friend indeed is a friend in need. In this case, we can see how Amy acts when she faces the difficulty. She did an excellent deed to make everyone moving, but this deed is originated not from children but from our adult world. Living with their parents, the children begin to learn what we do to cope with the problems. Also, the language has some sense of imitation. In the case above, the little girl Amy said, “J, cuddle?” Then, Amy helped her friend J straight up. Together, they spent a life of happiness and friendship.

From this case, we can trace Amy’s intention road to the eternal friendship. Truly speaking, the road seems not so harsh. It can be concluded as these steps. At first, to take an interest is inevitable. In this case, Amy was intentional to help her friend in trouble for she had been nurtured from an early age. She knew the importance to help others and make friends with others. As she grows older, she recognized it further that the more she gives, the more she receives. Second, being involved say to itself. As Amy accumulated her intention and interest to help others, she is more likely to attend into any occasion when any of her friends is in trouble. Third, persisting with difficulty is honorable. Everyone in the world should meet the difficulties, so did Amy. This stage lays the climax of the whole process, for difficulties is a piece of testing stone to test the depths of their friendship. With this unbending spirit, the friendships can sparkle in the dark sky. Fourth, they should express an idea of feeling. To make others clear what you are doing for him and how you devote yourself is necessary. As we know, the communication is the bridge of the two friends. The feeling of pain or ease should be heard by others for this indicates how you feel. Sometimes, appreciation and gratitude are conveyed in this sense. After all of these steps, it is time for us to conclude- taking responsibility. The friendship is laid upon our shoulders. It is our duty to perform it well between friends. Fairness, loyalty and devotion are always the main theme in the world of friendship.

For the second part, social context should not be ignored. At this stage, social context is to the children what a sea to a ship. Children are the small ship marching through the waves. Society is too complex to be looked through. Sometimes, it weighs even more than the former individual one. Here is also an example from literature figure. Edgar Allen Poe, the famous American horror story writers, was born in a good family. But after he experienced his tragic and pathetic life, he changed from head to feet. The reason seems clear that during the harsh years of his life with his parents gone, he grew in the cruel uncle who treated Edgar badly. Edgar was thus resolute to enroll in the army. As a soldier, he tasted the warm and cold of life. In the end, he found that he indeed experience too many things, which can provides him with a bandage of resources to write. As we expect, he was respected after his death as the father of American horror stories. There are many other cases illustrating this point. From these cases, we could know how important the society is to an individual growth.


III. Plane II- Interpersonal function

The society is made up of the individual unit, each of which takes his/her own duty. There is no doubt that individual impact is thus the overriding power to a child’s development. But the point that we should never forget is the interpersonal impact. From the word interpersonal, we come to know that an individual is not able to develop or even to survive without reach of the others. (Bronfenbrenner, 1997) It is apparent that many literature figures had proved it. In Robinson Crusoe, Robinson travels nearly half of the world, while the misfortune falls upon his head one day when the ship meets a terrible rainstorm. Only Robinson survives. He faces a new world- a small isle without any inhabitants. It means that he will challenge himself and the nature to live on. During the next years, he does it. Additionally, he gets a black slave Friday. Finally, Robinson returns to England after long years’ odyssey. Probably, it seems a little legendary and imaginary, but some gist can be dug out, one of which is how a man can survive without any others. Apparently, the action of interpersonal communication fails. The man can not see or talk to any other men from dawn to dark. After returning to London, he must feel uneasy and strange to make the conversation with others. For an even worse part, he can fail to survive in our modern world. The life on the isle always haunts him. The most appropriate solution is to return to the isle for life there is the one he really wants. This case is approximate to the case of the wolf boy. Those kids are raised by the wolf or any other beasts. People find that their actions and sounds are more or less similar to the animals. Some people even say that they should not be included into the category of Human. This saying can be accepted for they are destined to fail to live with human after long days’ living with the animals. Interpersonal function here has no way out and is doomed to exist.

If the point is still not clear, we come to incite the learning case of Amy again. As we can see, one girl Amy helps the other J. Although few words, they still have some conversation and interpersonal communication. One moves the other and they hold hands and walk on. At least, J can learn from Amy the characteristics to be helpful to others, which is beneficial to others and the self. From this early age, they have the chance to make a successful interpersonal function and communication.

Some researchers have proved this from similar angles. Vygotsky believes that when a child stands in a group of people, he could perform anything skillfully and efficiently, which seems more acceptable than he does on his own. In his world, he holds that “emerging out of interpersonal process in situations where the child is involved in joint actions, which then become transformed into intrapersonal skills culminating in more abstract thinking” (Smith, 1998, p226). This implies that to work together with other people always overweighs to work alone. In the process of cooperation and communication, people can not only learn something all by himself but from others. This is thus the most precious treasure we should gain from others.(Schmidt, 2006) To the point, this thinking is then transferred to the theory of Rogoff. Rogoff says that the individuals should never stop learning from others, especially the experienced ones. In this case, we can improve ourselves and advance in an easy way. Another contributor is Bronfenbrenner, who holds that people can perform themselves better while they live in a society. This angle is the maximum one, established on the basis of the theories of Vygotsky and Rogoff. From the angle of society, no one likes to fail in the fierce competition. But cooperation works at the same rate.(Bronfenbrenner, 1989) Above all, the three theories above are quite similar but explicated from different angles. Besides, each of the theory affects each other, which can be seen as interaction. Like a chain, the buckles mouth each other tightly.

IV. Plane III- Institutional Effect

The world today seems like a constituted entity. The differences and discriminations are being solved by the globalization. Like a large mouth, globalization is swallowing any culture and any custom. People are more likely to be informed of the life in other parts of the world and even get used to them. (Wertsch, 1991) So, Institutional Effect means that the children have more access to get in touch with the outside world. During this combination, children can learn more of the world and any other culture’s gist. Like the case above, we can imagine that Amy is an American and J is from Japan. Everything would change and goes not like that. When Amy helps J stand up, J just say thanks as a westerner. But as a Japanese, she may bow deep to give her gratitude saying thanks. Amy smiles and gets a little surprise. She was deep fascinated by the new way to give thanks, which is quite familiar in the world of Japan. Also, the language works to some extent. Under this big atmosphere, the world is beautiful and colorful with children’s florescent laughing.


V. More learning theories and inflections

In the part above, three learning theories have been displayed and analyzed. Yet, the problem how learning is more than individual construction can not be so convincing. Another three learning theories should be added.

First, flow experience can be attributed to this point. Csikszentimihalyi elicited this opinion. He holds that, flow describes the spontaneous, effortless experience we achieve when we have a close match between a high level of challenge and the skills you need to meet the challenge. (Csikszentimihalyi, 1998) Flow happens when a person is completely involved in the task, is concentrating very deeply and knows step by step what the next steps should be. If we are playing football, we know what actions we should do after several dribbles. If we are playing piano, we know what the next note is. We have a goal and we are getting feedback. The experience is almost addictive and very rewarding. Small children are in flow most of the time as they learn to walk and talk and other new things. The choice of action is matching with the mind. However, they began to lose this technique after going to school for there they could not predict what the next step is while the school will instill everything into their poor brain. So this kind of learning is not the individual construction but much related to the outside.

Second, Erikson’s stages of development are outstanding. Erikson, a German psychoanalyst, his psychosocial theory of development considers the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood. According to his theory, everyone should have taken the life of such following stages. Infant, Toddler, Preschooler, School- Age Child, Adolescent, Young Adult, Middle Aged Adult and Older Adult, are matched respectively with Hope, Will, Purpose, Competence, Fidelity, Love, Care, and Wisdom. Here, the point we are discussing is the age of Toddler, which is attached by Will. It refers to 18 months to 3 years’ children. At this time, children are shame to meet the world. Most of times, they are influenced mainly by the family and preschools. The environment could give them some featured character, which is essential to their latter lives.

Third, Dweck’s self- theories can also contribute to our discussion. Carol Dweck (currently at Indiana University) describes a series of empirically-based studies that investigate how people develop beliefs about themselves (i.e., self-theories) and how these self-theories create their psychological worlds, shaping thoughts, feelings and behaviors.

He believes that students carry two types of views on ability/intelligence:

1. Entity View – This view (those who are called “Entity theorists”) treats intelligence as fixed and stable.  These students have a high desire to prove themselves to others; to be seen as smart and avoid looking unintelligent.

2. Incremental View – This view treats intelligence as malleable, fluid, and changeable.  These students see satisfaction coming from the process of learning and often see opportunities to get better.  They do not focus on what the outcome will say about them, but what they can attain from taking part in the venture.

The former one implies that children learn things beyond their own wills. That is to say, they act helplessly to the outside. Unlike Entity theorists, Incremental theorists believe that effort, through increased learning and strategy development, will actually increase their intelligence. After the comparison, we can also see the children’s growth is by no means his/her own construction but influenced by multifaceted parts.


According to the explanation above, I believe everyone is clear about the condition of the children’s development and what should be the most acceptable way to educate our children. At certain times, children’s growing is first originated from the child himself/ herself and influenced by some other factors, such as the interpersonal and institutional factors. Children are now the main focus in our society. More care and consideration should be granted to them.




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