Review of Nicolopoulou and Cole

Gabriel Horenczyk (ghorencz who-is-at
Mon, 8 Jan 1996 13:51:30 -0800 (PST)

A review of:
Nicolopoulou, A., & Cole, M. (1993),
Generation and transmission of shared knowledge in the culture of
collaborative learning: The Fifth Dimension, its play-world, and
its institutional contexts. In E. Forman, N. Minick, & C. Stone
(Eds.), Contexts for learning (pp. 283-314). New York: Oxford.

Zvi Bekerman (zvibek who-is-at
Gabriel Horenczyk (ghorencz who-is-at
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The authors attempt to situate institutional and cultural
contexts within Vigotskian perspectives, which mostly until the
present have dealt with dyadic pairs and face-to-face
interaction. They contend that such a step is a natural outcome
of the Vigotskian approach itself, which otherwise will remain
limited in its scope and in its potential to contribute to a
better understanding of the social context of development.
Through an analysis of the results of the implementation of
the Fifth Dimension, an after-school educational program for
elementary school children, in two different sites (a library and
a Boys' and Girls' Club), Nicolopoulou and Cole situate and
analyze small group interactions in the context of cultural
institutional frameworks. The chapter presents, and supports, the
view according to which knowledge, its creation and its
transmission, can be seen as the product of collective
collaborative achievement. The authors suggest as well a tool for
studying collaborative learning. They conclude that different
types of collaborative work influence cognitive development, and
that such a collaborative activity is strongly affected by
cultural institutional environments.

In another publication, Cole situates the work by him and
his colleagues within the research orientation that characterizes
the "Second Psychology" (Cahan & White, 1992); research work by
the "second psychologists" combines the goals of theoretical
understanding and practical results. Cole declares that the
Fifth Dimension project is intended to deepen our understanding
about the cultural mediation of mind and processes of cognitive
development. On the other hand, it is designed to produce a
change in everyday practices. It is with these premises in mind
that we need to approach and evaluate this chapter and the
research described in it.
The authors' project to go beyond the narrow focus of
Vigotskian research on face-to-face interaction, so as to allow
for a better understanding of the ways in which the social
(broadly conceived, including the institutional) and the
individual construct each other, is laudable. We think that it is
in line with other calls that have been heard in the same
direction, such as Cicourel's (1980) claim that the status of
normative rules during social interaction still remains unclear
in sociological research. Accordingly, Cicourel expects social
sciences to be able to build the necessary bridges between micro-
and macro-social phenomena. A step in this direction was taken by
Moerman (1988) when carefully describing sequential organization
of Thai conversation in order to investigate how social actions
relate to the planning actor and how at times they relate to
perduring institutions. From this perspective we realize that
values, emotions, institutions, etc., are not only socially
constructed but also locally invoked in what seems to be an
ongoing micro-macro social dialogue. (This well touches upon some
of the topics raised a while ago on xmca on individual and
collective action.)
The chapter provides us with a detailed description of the
Fifth Dimension program -- its rationale, goals and activities.
The implementation of the program in two different sites is
compared: a Boys' and Girls' Club (a nonprofit, privately funded
youth center) and a library (a public institution, the
community's branch of the county library system). The Fifth
Dimension is described as "an activity system with a certain
specific inner logic. The goal is to create a context that can
promote collaborative learning and within which children
themselves are motivated to progress step by step, so that they
are actively involved in their own development rather than simply
receiving information from other people" (pp, 291-2). All these
components of the program are commendable, and they constitute
much of what we would like to see in educational activities at
all levels.
One additional aspect of Nicolopoulou and Cole's
characterization of the program, however, seems to us to be
somewhat problematic. The authors emphasize that the Fifth
Dimension creates a make-believe world that is constituted by a
system of ... shared and voluntarily accepted rules that are
embedded in, and constitutive of, an ongoing practice". They
suggest that the discipline of the structure ... "should rest not
on the authority of individuals but on the authority of an
impersonal normative system" (p. 292). It seems to us that in
postmodern times claims about the impersonality of normative
systems are hard to defend. In addition, the authors contend that
rules not only constrain but enable and maintain group cohesion
if they are shared and voluntarily chosen. However, it appears
that the rules of the Fifth Dimension games were created not
through sharing and were authored by someone; moreover, in the
context of kids going for afterschool activity to a club or a
library, the term 'voluntary choice' is not always clear.
The authors decided to take a game (conceived as on ongoing
system of collective activity) as the basic unit of analysis, and
recorded the scores achieved in a complex computer game played
both at the Library and at the Boys' and Girls' Club . The
results showed that the game "worked" much more successfully at
the Library. After analyzing the different cultures that
developed in the two sites, the authors concluded that "the
degree of cognitive success and growth in the task activity ...
depended on a collective characteristic of the group as a whole -
- the strength or weakness of the culture of collaborative
learning". A more tentative conclusion reached by the authors
suggests that the strength or weakness of the culture of
collaborative learning developed at each site can be explained in
part by the degree of affinity between the internal culture of
the Fifth Dimension program and the larger cultural environment
of the host institution.
The authors indicate that knowledge, its creation and
transmission can be seen as product of collective collaborative
achievement which is influenced by cultural institutional
environments. We submit to this claim, but we would like to
suggest that pedagogical approaches should also be further
investigated. We refer more specifically to work conducted in the
field of informal education (e.g., Greenfield & Lave, 1987;
Rapoport, 1989; Rapoport & Kahane, 1988). Although Greenfield and
Lave tend to reject the "formal"-"informal" dichotomy on the
basis that within cultural settings, educational institutions can
(and indeed do) adopt educational strategies of both informal and
formal education, it still seems that schools have been slow in
adopting informal approaches such as the pedagogical organization
of learning in the context of daily activities, teaching by
demonstration, learning by observation and imitation --
strategies which seem to be part of the two educational contexts
of the Fifth Dimension as described by Nicolopoulou and Cole.
The description of the ideal type of informal educational
organizations provided by Rapoport and Kahane can also be
relevant to the understanding (and eventually the improvement) of
processes taking place within the Fifth Dimension. They list the
following criteria for "informality" in educational institutions
and programs: voluntarism, expressive instrumentalism,
multiplexity of educational activities, symmetry between actors,
moratorium which allows for trial and error and minimal social
sanctions, and dualism which allows for the coexistence of
different and even opposite behavioral orientations. Rapoport and
Kahane suggest that the greater the level of informality within
the socializing agency the greater the personal development of
the participants and the longer the educational impact. Although
their analysis refers more specifically to role development, it
seems worth trying -- within the Fifth Dimension project -- to
investigate whether these categories are reflected in the
educational work carried out in the various sites, and in what
ways (if at all) they influence the different institutional
settings and are influenced by them.

Cahan, E. D., & White, S. H. (1992). Proposals for a Second
Psychology. American Psychologist, 47, 224-235.
Cicourel, A. (1980). Language and social interaction.
Sociological Inquiry, 50, 1-30.
Greenfield, P., & Lave, J. (1982). Cognitive aspects of
informal education. In D. A. Wagner & H. W. Stevenson (Eds.),
Cultural perspectives on child development (pp. 181-207). San
Francisco: Freeman.
Moerman, M. (1988). Talking culture: Ethnography and
conversation analysis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania
Rapoport, T. (1989). Experimentation and control: A
conceptual framework for the comparative analyis of socialization
agencies. Human Relations, 42, 957-973.
Rapoport, T., & Kahane, R. (1988). Informal socialization
agencies and role development. Sociological Inquiry, 58, 49-74.