One Learning Environment

I have always felt drawn towards Vygotsky’s socio-constructivist views on how learning comes about. He establishes that communication is critical to the development of thought and behaviour and puts forward the notion of the “zone of proximal development”1 or ZPD.

The ZPD is defined as the greater range of tasks that a child can complete with the guidance and assistance of others – be they adults or other children – as opposed to the tasks a child can complete independently.

Thus, according to socio-constructivist views, close contact between the learner and those within the ZPD helps individuals make sense of what is being learnt and stretches the learning beyond what any single student would have been able to construct in isolation.

The penny is dropping

When Vygotsky first fleshed out the socio-constructivist narrative in the early 20th century, he could not have foreseen how technological advances would enable communication on an unprecedented scale less than a century later. In fact, his theories are given renewed significance by the emergent social networks currently establishing themselves as the preferred means of communication of humankind.

Our education system has arguably changed little in structure and ethos since it became institutionalised in the XIX century2. However, for many in education, the penny is currently in the process of dropping as they begin to realise that social media could provide school communities with a low-cost, high-value platform in which teachers and learners could remain in close contact and interact beyond the constraints of the school walls, and within which the teacher would be able to provide the learner with further personalised feedback and support to that already provided in the physical learning environment.

False dichotomies

It is important to highlight the importance of the physical learning environment at this point, for it is rather easy to get mired in fundamentally silly and ultimately false dichotomies regarding learning environments: I think that a virtual learning environment is not a substitute for its physical counterpart, but rather an extension of it.

Social construction of knowledge theories applied to the 21st century therefore allow us to conceive traditional classroom teaching and the emerging pedagogies as two sides of the same coin. From this perspective, there are not two distinct learning environments, but rather a single multidimensional one that encompasses all aspects of teaching and learning.

What do you think?

Many thanks to sourbrew for the photo.

  1. VYGOTSKY, L. (1986) Thought and Language. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
  2. ROBINSON, K (2001) Out of our minds. Oxford: Capstone Publishing
  • Caroline

    An interesting post, Jose. I do think we have to be careful not to go so far down the road of “social media” that the students do indeed end up working alone. Social media is almost a misnomer! I have just finished a Masters degree and spent quite a lot of time reading about Vygotsky and other more modern eminemt thinkers who also extolled the virtues of learners interacting with others. Certainly in terms of learning a language, it is more effective when moving round the classroom and sharing with other learners.

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      You make some interesting points, but I am concerned that you finish off by making a comparison pitting physical contact against virtual. Where above (or anywhere else for that matter) do I say that virtual contact, as afforded for example by social media, is better or, in your words, “more effective” than physical contact?

      That assumption is of your own construction and it illustrates how easy it is to fall prey to false dichotomies. In my view, it’s not, it has never been and it will never be a case of either/or but rather as well as

      Thanks for your comment caroline.

      (By the way, I also hold a Masters degree in ICT and Education :-)

      • Caroline

        Hi, Jose
        I didn’t mean more effective than using technology, rather more effective than NOT socialising when learning. Don’t worry, I’m the one teacher in the school allowed the school i-pad for lessons and am the techno promoter. I’m on your side!!

        • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

          Glad to hear that! It’s a little pet hate of mine when it is assumed that I promote technology for the sake of technology(in this context social media for the sake of social media), whereas I am only trying promote sound innovative teaching that happens to exploit technology.

          Thanks again Caroline :-)

  • http://twitter.com/IaninSheffield Ian Guest

    Couldn’t agree more Jose. I share your belief in the importance of socio-constructivist approaches and feel they can be mediated in different ways, though there ought to be no dichotomy between physical and virtual learning environments. Perhaps this is a semantic problem? The notion of an ‘environment’ suggests a bounded place; learning isn’t, or rather shouldn’t be bounded. I tend to favour the notions of formal, informal and non-formal learning, though appreciate that those terms also drag their own baggage behind them.

    Every time I read someone’s blog post, or respond to it, my ontological perspective is challenged. More so if responses take the discussion further. Surely that’s what learning is about, not whether that took place through the social medium of a blog or in a F2F discussion?

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      As a linguist, it never ceases to amaze me (in a good way) how we tend to get hung up on semantics and how the intended meaning can go unnoticed as the focus shifts towards the unintended target of a contentious term.

      This may well be the linguistic equivalent of a well documented psychological phenomenon: selective attention, as illustrated here http://youtu.be/vJG698U2Mvo 

      Many thanks for your comment Ian.

  • Marion Hubbard

    Nice to see a discussion along psychological lines emerging here – we’ll convert you yet Jose! 
    I think it is interesting that a ‘dichotomy’ is being seen between ‘physical environment’ and ‘virtual’ environment. As I understand it, Social Constructionism argues that we socially construct our reality through the use of ‘tools’. Speech, written language, painting on cave walls, pens, printing or writing on virtual walls, all of these are just the tools available at the time. So what goes on in the ‘physical environment’ of school is just as ‘socially constructed’ as anything else, eg the belief that our pupils should be in our classrooms, behave in certain ways and learn certain things that we as a society value. According to Social Constructivism, this physical environment is therefore just as ‘virtual’ as the online world – so ‘real’ learning could be happening anywhere (or not, depending how you look at it)

    • http://www.josepicardo.com José Picardo

      Which is the main thrust of my post. Those who insist in arguing that physical is better than virtual (or vice-versa less often) are, in my view, missing the point and establishing false, misleading dichotomies.

      The use of contentious terms such a em>virtual, digital or social media only lead to arguments fuelled by different semantic interpretations which only serve to blur the main issue.

      When that happens,  the gorilla in my post – the concept of ZPD exploiting social networking technologies – goes largely unnoticed.

      By the way, I’m already a convert! 
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Marion. 

  • http://twitter.com/sensor63 Simon Ensor

    Second attempt. Hi Jose thanks for the post! I agree that we must stop thinking in terms of a separation between virtual and physical environmemts. I also think we should spend time analysing social learning environments which are complex, fluid and unpredictable.(Larsen-Freeman)

    I am not convinced that the importance of social media is to extend the contact between teacher and student.

    We should rather be enabling our students to extend their networks, to participate in diverse communities of practise (Wenger) and to help us to learn to enhance their and our personal learning and development more effectively.

    This comment is an example :-)