Learning And Instruction Research Paper

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1. Learning And Development In The Nature–Nurture Debate

Development and learning were for decades a matter of distinct ways of research and theoretical discussion, with a switch from the primacy of one of the poles, for example, from development as a basis for learning, to learning as a cause of development, with some radical positions, for example, learning without development. But the development–learning dilemma and the larger nature–nurture debate, even in the more recent forms of genetics and experience, has long hindered theoretical and methodological attention to the communicative social and cultural framing of the learning and testing situations considered. In the last decades of the twentieth century, important shifts in the research paradigms under consideration brought forward data that could not be interpreted anymore in terms of social factors as external variables affecting the learning of biopsychological individuals from the outside. It also required the consideration of the critical role played by social interaction in learning and instruction and the social construction of cognition within cultural activities.

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This research has been built on a long tradition (e.g., the seminal works of scholars like Baldwin, Piaget, Wallon, Vygotsky, or Luria, and more recently, Bronfenbrenner). However, although it is one of the fundamental tenets of the social and behavioral sciences that human behavior and development is, at least in part, a creation of social forces, social interaction, and social appropriation, it is also true that theory and method do not always coincide in developmental work. Thus, there is a continuing search for the role of the ‘social-interactive’ in developmental theory and research.

One persuasive example is the enrichment and transformation of social-learning theory by cognitive dimensions to get a better understanding of the social and collective foundation of action and thought. Another example of this continuous struggle for a better match between theory and method is the revisitation of early twentieth century social constructivist scholars, such as Baldwin or Piaget . A third example is the ongoing mandate of interactionism, or the recent stream of ‘postmodern’ efforts at articulating reality as social construction. Finally, the recent debates about collectivism versus individualism deserve mentioning in this context.

On the surface, the fundamental role of social forces and social processes in the evolutionary and ontogenetic origins of behavior and the human mind seems clearly and widely acknowledged. Yet the translation of the intellectual agenda into scientific evidence continues to be incomplete. The non-social personcentered research paradigms seem to persist in the study of cognition, even when the fundamental role of context is obvious.

Many have tried to achieve a greater match between theory and empirical methods. At the turn of the century, several reviews have appeared that aim at similar goals (e.g., Baltes and Staudinger 1996, Carugati 1999, Resnick et al. 1991, Van der Linden et al. 2000, Perret-Clermont et al. in press).

These shifts in the perspectives on learning have been accompanied by changing views on the nature of psychological development, the interdependencies between cognition, language, socialization, motivation and identity; and also on the nature of knowledge, no longer tied to individuals but relative to a community and subject to change. All of these approaches could still gain by devoting more attention to the critical role played by the communication and the construction of meaning in learning and instruction. This could enhance a revisitation of the current understanding of cognitive development, and contribute landmarks to the current educational endeavors that aim at encouraging learning together (not as isolated individuals), with relevant semiotic mediations on substantive issues.

2. Gradual Shifts Of The Paradigms: From The Individual To The Societal

Studies on learning have operated gradual shifts of paradigms, from the overemphasis of the biopsychological functioning of the individual learner, where failure is necessarily seen as a sign of incompetence, to taking into account other social factors, either in a perspective inspired by Lewin’s notion of field, or in a more macrosociological approach. Notably, the latter has called attention to major social problems in discrepancies in learning performances in students in schools, according to their social position (socioeconomic background, gender, ethnicity), educational methods and their hidden curriculum, the streaming structure of school institutions, etc.; and differences between the same subjects’ performances in and out of schools. At the psychosocial level, evidence has pointed to field effects on performances. Since Orne’s pioneering work in 1962, many studies have shown that the assessment of the subjects’ competencies is affected by social factors such as the linguistic, motivational, attributional, identity characteristics of the subjects; teachers’ expectations; individual and public dimensions of the situation; and the climate of cooperation or competition. The rather controversial results of these studies have called for a more integrative theoretical framework, articulating the various levels of analysis from the individual to the societal, in order to take into account the ways in which these factors interact. This relies upon precise descriptions of the networks of sociocognitive processes within which subjects think, behave, and learn (e.g., in the laboratory, at home, at school, in the street), and observations of the impact these experiences have on individual and collective cognition.

This has led to a new shift from determinism to constructivism, and from product-oriented studies to process-oriented ones. Studies were made on the interdependency between successful formal learning in schools and family socialization. Closer attention was paid to the teacher’s role in defining precise expectations and giving adequate feedback to the students, on the one hand, and to the communication modes and patterns elicited in the learning and testing situations, on the other.

3. Learning As A Sociocognitive Activity In Which Partners Ha E An Essential Role

It has been established that interaction, in order to be instructive, does not always have to be between a child (or novice) and an adult (or teacher expert), but can be just as effective if it takes place between equally novice peers, given a certain number of conditions and for certain tasks. But this called for detailed studies of the influence of social interaction on the appropriation of cognitive tools. Some authors have illustrated the effects of the destabilization of the previous subjects’ procedures (e.g., in problem-solving tasks). Destabilization triggers the questioning of, and the change in procedures and representations concerning, a given task (e.g., reasoning by recurrence; the notions of left and right; hypothetico-deductive reasoning in a fictitious weighting task). The control function takes on various forms: control can be exerted by triggering a verification of a statement or solution proposed by the partner, or by simply agreeing with or reformulating the partner’s proposal. There appears also to be an interdependency between the type of problem to be solved, the cognitive functioning of the individual and the sociocognitive functioning of the two or more partners.

Recovering the importance of conflict, both in social and in developmental psychology, the notion of ‘sociocognitive conflict’ was introduced in order to stress the effect of the simultaneous confrontation of different individual perspectives, or points of view, during social interaction that necessitates and gives rise to their integration within a new cognitive organization. These experiments have explored under which conditions such confrontations with other points of view induce learning.

A further claim is made in studies on ‘social marking’ that show that the social regulations that govern a given interaction constitute an important factor for the building of a new cognitive coordination, because they bring a symbolic order that conveys meaning to the tasks.

4. Learning As Participation In Social Discourse

The problems of the meaning of a cognitive task, and the expectations activated in the subjects questioned both in experimental and in a more concrete school situation, are well-known in developmental psychology. Rose and Blank’s studies (1974) on the role of double questioning in Piagetian tasks and Donaldson’s (1978) study of tasks which ‘make human sense’ for young children, are only several examples of well-established studies that have had an important influence on the study of communication in learning and testing situations, bringing forth evidence for the inextricability of meaning and expectations in every cognitive Activity. A series of studies whose common ground is often the notion of ‘contract’ (inspired by Rommetveit’s communication contract) have renewed the general claim that experimental and pedagogical situations are interactional settings governed by specific contracts, made up of explicit and implicit rules on the basis of which social actors adjust their behavior.

Failures in learning are reappraised as failures to communicate, and to convey meaning. Attention is then paid to the interactional patterns between teachers and students, and to the nature of the regulations that permit interlocutors to establish joint attention as a common object of discourse and maintain this common ground and mutuality. Learning is understood as participation in a social process in which meaning takes form (Bruner 1990), scaffolded by language and culture. And on the instructional side, authors explore the role of discourse in teaching.

5. Studies Of Learning Has Encouraged A Reconsideration Of The Idea Of Development

Gradually, learning is appearing as the sociocultural experience of a person who is experiencing his or her agency within a history of social encounters, joint Activity or post hoc individual or social meta-reflection. The basic research paradigm can no longer take the simple form of ‘pretest–treatment–post-test,’ as this chain of events itself gets its meaning partly from the setting and social context in which it is embedded. The pretest is already an interaction and in some ways a treatment from which the subject will draw information and experience on how to behave at the next step. What is it then that develops or that is learned along the different moments of a person’s encounters with his or her social, semiotic and physical environment? The metaphors of children’s developmental growth have usually been that of ascending lines, ranging from straight lines and scales to curves and spirals, all having in common, some vector towards fixed endpoints, with a general flavor of biological or cultural absolutes (such as formal reasoning, autonomous thinking, generalized and transferable competencies, etc.). The cognitive competency of the adult (teacher, mother, etc.) was usually taken for granted.

When the learner is considered as being the partner of joint activities and conversations in which he or she has stakes and continuously unravels and renegotiates rules, norms, and expectations, in changing social environments, then the form of development loses its determinism. New metaphors have been emerging to designate this sociocognitive Activity in terms of gradual participation in socially shared cognition, and moves from peripheral participation to more central social positions in communities of practice, apprenticeship and guided participation, distributed cognition, the socialization to discourse in Activity settings. It is becoming clearer that not only individual novices and tutors learn, they learn to become social learners, but also social entities.

Hence the shifts in the research paradigms have brought about very different understandings: learning as nurturing, a stage (or step-by-step) process of individual development; or learning as apprenticeship, via guided participation into the skills, discourses, and competencies of given communities of practices; or learning as co-construction and negotiation of activities, discourses, understandings, and identities.


  1. Baltes P B, Staudinger U M (eds.) 1996 Interactive Minds. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
  2. Bruner J S 1990 Acts of Meaning. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
  3. Carugati F 1999 From Piaget and Vygotsky to learning activities: A long journey and an inescapable issue. In: Hedergaard M, Lompscher J (eds.) Learning Activity and Development. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus, Denmark, pp. 211–32
  4. Donaldson M 1978 Children’s Minds. Fontana, Glasgow, UK
  5. Orne M T 1962 On the social psychology of ten psychological experiments: With particular reference to demand characteristics and their implications. American Psychologist 17: 776–83
  6. Perret-Clermont A-N, Pontecorvo C, Resnick L, Zittoun T, Burge B (eds.) in press Joining Society: Social Interaction and Learning in Adolescence and Youth. Cambridge University Press, New York
  7. Resnick L B, Levine J M, Teasley S D (eds.) 1991 Perspectives on Socially Shared Cognition. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC
  8. Rose A, Blank M 1974 The potency of context in children’s cognition. An illustration through conservation. Child Development 45: 499–502
  9. Van der Linden J, Erkens G, Schmidt H, Duffy T 2000 Collaborative learning. In: Simons P R J, Van der Linden J (eds.) New Learning. Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht, Netherlands, pp. 37–54
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