Discourse and Learning in the Classroom: A Sociocultural Approach
James V. Wertsch
Frances L. Hiatt School of Psychology
The claim that learning and development are inherently social is very much in the limelight these days. Instead of restricting our focus to the isolated individual when studying cognition and other forms of mental processes, we have come to realize that key aspects of mental functioning can be understood only by considering the social contexts in which they are embedded. To many practitioners in education, this is hardly news. Yet a great deal of educational and psychological theory still is ill- equipped to deal with this issue in any serious way.
One of the reasons for the weak theoretical underpinnings in this area is that focusing on the social constitution of mental functioning requires us to cross disciplinary boundaries. Instead of viewing this as a barrier, however, we believe that it is an opportunity. It is an opportunity to integrate methods and bodies of knowledge that have been artificially separated by disciplinary boundaries, and it is an opportunity we cannot ignore if we are to be serious about how theory and practice in education can inform one another.
We address this set of issues by employing a "sociocultural approach to mediated action" ( Wertsch, 1991). A fundamental claim of this approach is that mental functioning is assumed to be inherently situated with regard to cultural, historical, and institutional contexts. Thus, it focuses on issues such as how the thinking of Japanese and American children differ when approaching a problem, how the arithmetic calculation procedures used by today's pupils differ from those used by pupils 50 years ago, or how