Book Review

Guided Participation

Review_Author: Oliver Yanwei Zhang
Book_Author: B. Rogoff
Book_Title: Apprenticeship in Thinking
Date: 3/21/99
Time: 3:25:00 PM
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In this rich, interdisciplinary work, Barbara Rogoff approaches the problem of child cognitive development from a sociocultural perspective. Her major contribution is her explanation of children's cognitive growth with the notion of "guided participation" (GP) which is based on the "intersubjectivity" between children and their caregivers or more skilled peers.

Part I of the book is an attempt to clarify the mutually embedded relationship of the individual and the sociocultural context as a theoretical background for her later discussion of GP. For child development, what is stressed is the mutual roles of the efforts of the individual and of social partners in sociocultural activities. While most researchers may focus on either one of them for convenience of study, she thinks that a "contextual event approach" can better reflect this mutuality and the shifts in perspectives she calls for, like attention to the goal and meaning of event (activity), to both cultural and biological inheritance, and to the multiple course of human development. She cited the theories of Piaget and Vygotsky to support her emphasis on mutuality, and points out their difference in this aspect (interpersonal context for Piaget and sociocultural context for Vygotsky). The notion of apprenticeship as a model for child cognitive development (with shared problem-solving as the core) is more like an analogy for GP, although she use it in the title of the book. As an illustration for the sociocultural impact on individuals, schooling and literacy (as part of the cultural institutions) in different cultures are compared to show how valued goals and means are prescribed by societies and cultures. One example is the verbal syllogism in Luria's experiments we have read about.

Rogoff makes a summary of her understanding of cognitive development: "Cognitive development occurs in socioculturally organized activities in which children are active in learning and in managing their social partners, and their partners are active in structuring situations that provide children with access to observe and participate in culturally valued skills and perspectives. Collective activity, in turn, constitutes and transforms cultural practices with each successive generation. The integration of individual and social activity is necessary for a balanced consideration of the role of individuals and their social partners, with the individuals actively participating in socioculturally structured collective activity." (23)

Part II deals with guided participation per se. There is no official definition of GP but we can see that it involves "arranging and structuring children's participation in activities, with dynamic shifts over development in children's responsibilities" between children and their social partners, in order to build bridges form children's present understanding and skills to reach new understanding and skills. Underneath GP is another core concept "intersubjectivity" which she defines as "the shared understanding based on a common focus of attention and shared presuppositions", or, using Trevarthen's terms, as "both recognition and control of cooperative intentions and joint patterns of awareness". Intersubjectivity, according to Rogoff, is both innate and learned, and it undergoes developmental changes (like primary and secondary intersubjectivity).

What is happening in the process of GP is structuring situations and transferring responsibilities between children and their social partners. Abundant evidence about caregiver's choice of activities and arrangement of situation for children and about children's active function in managing their roles and the roles of adults shows that GP is an interactive and dynamic process. Besides explicit verbal communication, GP includes tacit, intuitive, and routine forms of communication and distal arrangement of children's learning environment. The widespread existence of GP is backed by Rogoff and other researchers' findings in various cultures, Mayan, Mexican, Guareno, Indian, !kang, etc.. What differs across cultures is: first, the skills and values to be learned (the goal of culture); second, the way of communication between adults and children (verbal or nonverbal, whose responsibility, participation or observation); third, social partners of children (parent or other children or community).

In response to inconsistent research findings concerning the effects of social interaction in cognitive development, in Part III Rogoff tries to reach a balanced view on the importance of expertise and equal status in social partners of GP ( an "adult or peer, who is better" question). An extensive comparison is made between Piaget and Vygotsky, the two theoretical origins, for their differences on the mechanism of social interaction. What she finds to be important is the nature of cognitive tasks, hence the distinction she makes between the development of understanding and skills(integration and organization of information and component acts into plans for actions under relevant circumstances, for which the ideal partner seems adult or more skilled peers) and the shift of perspective (giving up an understanding of a phenomenon to take another view contrasting with the original perspective, for which peers of equal status may be more appropriate). Similarly for intersubjectivity, Rogoff argues that Vygotsky emphasizes the chance to participate in a joint decision-making process while Piaget talks about two separate individuals each operating on the other's ideas by considering alternatives which are provided socially.

Rogoff cites numerous experiments and observations by her and others to illustrate the effects of children's (both young and older kids) learning from GP with adults in areas of language and conceptual development, object exploration and construction, and remembering and planning. At the same time, the unique advantages of peer interactions are recognized, especially in the social play and exploration of children's world. For either social partner, adult or peer, what is crucial is the extent to which the child, as the learner, participates, or engages himself or herself, in a shared thinking process with the support of a more skilled partner (it should be noted that for Rogoff there are no real "equal peers").

Rogoff's book is rich in ideas, empirical evidence, illustrations and pictures, which makes it a difficult task for me to make a good summary in this limited space. In fact, I doubt I am able to review the book after a single reading despite my 42-page notes. As a whole, the significance of the book lies in her almost exhaustive discussion of GP as a major channel of child cognitive development, at least in the earlier stages in childhood. Another merit is her multidisciplinary and cross-cultural approach which lends her book many insights and much fun, some of which I will try to share with the class in my presentation. At the same time, I strongly recommend this book to everyone who needs or wants to see child cognitive development as it happens in activity, in situation, and in culture.

Last changed: August 06, 2015