22 September 02003

Learning through social relations

While looking for something else, I came across the book Learning Relations by Alexander M. Sidorkin. As a Russian emigré living in the US, the book applies the social emphasis of theorists such as Vygotsky and Bakhtin to the current educational establishment in the west (and particularly America).

I've only read the first chapter, available for free on the web, which reviews the way education is organised in society. In a counterpoint to my earlier posting based on Charles Handy's article, Sidorkin sees formal education as an example of the division of labour in society. 'Learning activity' he defines, apparently obtusely as 'the production of useless things' — but part of what he means is that doing things wrong is part of the necessary learning required to do things right. Educational institutions serve the purpose of splitting off this 'useless' production from mainstream production in the rest of society.

As part of his elaboration of this point, Sidorkin writes:

What we 'learn' by doing something is a specifically human or social way of doing it. The very notions of skill and knowledge refer to the social knowledge of better ways of doing things. I will need to abstract from this fact, however, so that the main point remains more visible: anything we do has two sides to it — the productive side, which refers to the immediate goal of the person’s activity, and the 'learning' side, a sum of all gainful changes that occur in the person who is the subject of such activity.


...learning activity can be defined as an activity, an immediate product of which is not as important as changes that occur in the person — the subject of the activity. Education, in turn, is a social sphere where learning activity plays a central role. Education is a sum of social institutions and practices that are specifically designed and focused on the practices of learning activity...

Sidorkin is concerned with the implications for this analysis on how learning activities are organised, and on learners' motivation. However, this looks like a book aimed more at the administrators of educational institutions than the teachers and practitioners, for, as he says, 'I am interested in political economy and anthropology of learning, not in psychological mechanisms of it.'

As such, it may be relevant to anyone setting up new e-learning systems and environments that re-engineer traditional learning processes. Re-engineering as a method is notoriously blind to social relationships, so this book may help avoid the 'production of useless e-learning systems.'

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) E-learning, Teaching on 22 September 02003 | TrackBack
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