By Roger O’Halloran
Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) was a Russian academic whose work was at first suppressed in Russia and only translated into English in the US when the Cold War ended.
At this time schools in Australia and elsewhere held a transmissionist or instructionist model in which a teacher or lecturer ‘transmits’ information to students. Vygotsky focused on the connections between people and the sociocultural context in which they act and interact in shared experiences (Crawford, 1996). This has been adopted by many as an important addition to Theories of Learning, contrasting with or as a development of other theories such as Behaviourist, Cognitivist, Constructivist.
According to Vygotsky, humans use tools that develop from a culture, such as speech and writing, to mediate their social environments. Initially children develop these tools to serve solely as social functions; ways to communicate needs. Vygotsky believed that the internalization of these tools led to higher thinking skills.
An important theory to appreciate in a cross-cultural situation
Called Social Development Theory it argues ‘that social interaction precedes development; consciousness and cognition are the product of socialization and social behaviour.’ Vygotsky’s theory also promoted learning contexts in which students play an active role in learning. These two ideas are important to remember when the students come from a culture different to that of the teacher.
Indeed, a learning opportunity is presented when students come from a variety of cultures. Collaboration with students will help to facilitate meaning construction. Learning can therefore become a reciprocal experience for the students and teacher.
Many of the schools Palms educators go to work in overseas are operating within a monoculture that has only ever supported a transmissionist or instructionist model of learning. It is why it is so important to understand the culture of those we go to teach or mentor before we can expect to participate in successful cross-cultural mentoring.