Socio-cultural theory and its place in the development of the Teacher Education Program at the Higher Colleges of Technology

Introduction

Teaching and learning are socially situated activities that include human interactions, and all social interactions exist fundamentally in any educational context. Kublin et al (1998) indicate that “Vygotsky described learning as being embedded within social events and occurring as a child interacts with people, objects, and events in the environment” (p. 287). In this sense it is important to recognize that all teaching and learning activities take place in a social context where communities of practice function. Within this context, all participants in the communities are engaged in social actions and activities. Current research on learning indicates that there is now recognition of the relevance of the social context in which the teaching and learning communities are situated (Walker, 2003). Consequently, a paradigm shift which involves a critical re-evaluation of the teaching profession and subsequent reform of the professional formation of teachers in training is taking place in many educational institutions. Importance is now given to the social construct of teaching and learning contexts and of the communities that are engaged in collective practice. Hence, pedagogical practices are being related to social situations and grounded on critical socio-cultural theories.

Educational activities within a social and cultural context stem from the seminal work of Lev Vygotsky (1986) who indicates that optimal learning and cognitive development associated with higher order thinking are often socially situated. One of the central points of Vygostky’s theory is that when students learn, they are not independent from their learning context and that their learning is influenced through their Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky 1986). Similarly, teacher training in schools is influenced by the social and cultural realities that exist within those schools. Does socio-cultural understanding, awareness and training have a place in teacher education programs? Putnam and Borko (2000) claim that teacher education programs should take into account theories of socio-cultural understanding of the environment where student teachers learn and practice their profession. The adoption of socio-cultural theory approaches, which are collaborative by nature, attempts to provide solutions for existing pedagogical issues largely by acknowledging that teachers in training do not work in isolation. The support available within schools and universities can shape their future development. These learning experiences are socially dictated and support professional formation within the boundaries of the immediate social context. According to Tharp and Gilmore (1988) socio-cultural theory:

Has a profound implication for teaching, schooling, and education. A key feature of this emergent view of human development is that higher order functions develop out of social interaction. Vygotsky argues that a child’s development cannot be understood by a study of the individual. We must also examine the external social world in which that individual life has developed…Through participation in activities that require cognitive and communicative functions, children are drawn into the use of these functions in ways that nurture and ‘scaffold’ them (pp. 6-7).

We need to understand that from a socio-cultural perspective all teaching and learning activities involve social participation and interaction. In addition, all knowledge presented and acquired happens through continuous negotiation among all parties involved. Teachers negotiate with their learners and look for ways to make their teaching effective so that learners can achieve the knowledge. In addition, teaching in itself is a product of continuous exchange and sharing, both teachers and students participate in the exchange and this happens particularly in authentic contexts.

This chapter aims to discuss how socio-cultural theories and social learning shape pre-service teachers’ understanding of their profession in teacher training programs at the Higher Colleges of Technology’s (HCT) system of colleges in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The focus of the chapter is to discuss the impact of establishing communities of practice in the preparation of preservice English language teachers, and to provide a critical re-evaluation of the state of teacher training in the UAE by looking particularly at experiential learning and how our student teachers’ cognition of teaching and learning is socially situated. Collins (1988) defines “situated learning as the notion of learning knowledge and skills in contexts that reflect the way they will be used in real life” (p. 2). Preparing teachers to learn new pedagogical skills includes the integration of both the theory and practice of teaching. The main educational theories are introduced in the colleges, however the practice of teaching, the actual real life application of the theories learned within the confines of the college classroom, take place in the schools. Tennant (1997) argues that all new knowledge and learning must be grounded within a context and this new knowledge and learning are properly conceived as being located in communities of practice. Hence the pre-service teachers are totally immersed in real life contexts at the apprenticeship stage of their teaching practice and acquire their skills and knowledge about teaching within a community context.

The chapter begins by looking into the existence of communities of practice (Rogoff, 1994), and how these communities contribute to the professional formation of the teachers in the education division at HCT. The chapter also looks at the relationships among all parties involved in training these teachers and discuss how these relationships that support their apprenticeship are formed, and how they impact on the professional development of these future teachers. Finally, the chapter offers some suggestions as to what can be done to create a community of practitioners and learners that share the same values about the teaching profession.

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