Re: [xmca] Kevin's paper for discussion

From: Mike Cole (
Date: Sat Jul 01 2006 - 10:44:23 PDT

Hi Kevin--

Thanks for the expansion on the issues I touched on in my note. As tried to
indicate at the start of the message, I was kind of stalling to allow others
to read (I am sorry the video
has not been posted, not sure why--I will follow up on Monday).

Anyway, I wasn't trying to take issue with the general points you were
making but addressing an issue that has long bothered me about
"socio-cultural" approaches to
human development/behavior/whatever. That is, biological variation gets
except perhaps in discussion of gender, and even then, the way biology is
treated is as
a detectable distinction, the consequences of which are entirely
"sociocultural." As if
sociality was not a biological characterstic of homo sapiens and culture was
not a biological constituent of the human brain and body.

I picked up on only one part of this knot of issues, failure in school. And
to keep it personal, my own failure do develop deep mathematic
understanding. There are many environmental contingencies involved in my own
ineptitude, often cultural in nature, too. And I am pretty certain that I
could, under some circumstances, have developed a much deeper grasp of this
important intellectual domain. But I also believe that, for example, my son,
far more
easily acquired an intuitive grasp of various mathematical quetions at the
age of 8 than I ever had, so the sociocultural environment has diffeent
material to work on.

Your point about non-benign aspects of communities of practice is perfectly
well taken and
mirrors objections to the assumed benign character of zones of proximal
development which has been contests by several including myself and

I am hoping that others will enter into the central arguments you are making
and that the video will soon be available as support for deeper discussion.


On 7/1/06, O'Connor, Kevin <> wrote:
> Hi Mike,
> I appreciate your comments. Interestingly, I agree with all of your
> points, and I could add to your example with further examples of failures
> and inabilities, both academic and nonacademic, despite effort and
> support. I don't question at all that, for certain purposes, we can
> usefully talk about individual abilities, about habitus, about biological
> differences, etc., and about how these relate to instances or patterns of
> failure or inability.
> Those weren't the purposes for which I was bringing up the issue of
> failure in my paper, though. What I was trying to foreground is this:
> Failure, incompetence, inability, etc., happen all the time. There are
> differences, though, in how consequences of these get organized in different
> systems of social relations. Some systems are benign, and even if certain
> displayed inabilities might preclude particular life courses, they don't get
> used to close off the possibility or likelihood of a desirable and valued
> future in general. Other systems are not benign, and displayed
> incompetence, inability, or failure do get used to greatly reduce the
> likelihood of a valued future. I think it's very important to pay attention
> to how systems of social relations organize these consequences - whatever
> the biology, or habitus, or motivation, etc., of the person who displays
> inability or experiences failure because analyses that account for
> outcomes and consequences in benign systems can't necessarily be used as
> models for understanding outcomes in a system that is not benign.
> In my paper, I argued that this is exactly how L&W's work has been used by
> a great deal of the work that's been inspired by it. L&W's communities were
> benign: they were organized so as to produce valued futures for
> everyone. This doesn't mean that there was no failure, no displayed
> inabilities. It's not hard to imagine that apprentice tailors messed up
> some clothes, that AA newcomers fell off the wagon, etc. But in L&W's
> account, virtually all went on to occupy valued positions within their
> respective CoP's despite this. I don't think analyses of learning in benign
> contexts can be used uncritically as a model for understanding learning in
> systems that aren't benign, though, or in which the benign-ness hasn't been
> established (which has very little to do with the benign intentions of those
> who work within these systems). This leaves out too much, including the
> possibility that successful futures are distributed inequitably, and that
> some people's success depends upon the failure or relative lack of success
> of others.
> There's a passage from L&W (quoted in my paper) that I've always found
> provocative and sometimes puzzling: "learning only partly - and often
> incidentally - implies becoming able to be involved in new activities, to
> perform new tasks and functions, to master new understandings." It's
> puzzling because the claim doesn't entirely fit with the cases they present:
> I would imagine that a tailor who continually ruins trousers, or can't sew,
> or an AA member who fails to recognize his powerlessness with respect to
> alcohol, is not going to move very far towards full participation. New
> activities, new tasks, new understandings seem not to be incidental to
> participation in these CoP's.
> I've come to make sense of the "incidental" claim by taking a broader
> view: that is, given the right circumstances, any particular abilities and
> understandings might be incidental; what's important is how people become
> positioned in valued futures, regardless of what abilities and
> understandings they develop. That is, if particular abilities or
> understandings are hard to come by, others are cultivated, recognized, drawn
> out, so that failures or inabilities don't become consequential. In this
> way of looking at it which admittedly might be an idiosyncratic
> interpretation- it seems possible that L&W's focus on trajectories within
> communities with well-established forms of mastery might have actually
> clouded a more important point, which is that the newcomers in the cases
> they looked at were part of a system that allowed for universal access to
> successful futures. It seems to me that L&W were more interested in
> understanding learning in terms of access to valued futures than they were
> in understanding learning in terms of knowledge, no matter how situated and
> distributed. (The implications of this are very much on my mind right now,
> and working this out further is my work for the summer.)
> In this sense, the ways in which situated learning theory has been
> developed by some seems at the very least incomplete to me. I think it's
> necessary first to demonstrate the benign-ness of a CoP before moving on to
> demonstrate the effectiveness of particular designed contexts. If
> benign-ness is not evident, then "success" can't be our only focus. We also
> have to look at what Varenne and McDermott call "successful failure." In
> this sense, I completely agree with Andy's point, and would add that my
> quick move to study the details of situated interaction was intended to
> provide a warrant to move toward this more complex and symmetrical form of
> analysis.
> I appreciate all of the comments on my paper, and I'll post further on
> other comments soon - but first, I have a day of travel ahead of me.
> Kevin
> -----Original Message-----
> From: on behalf of Mike Cole
> Sent: Wed 6/28/2006 12:24 AM
> To: Steve Gabosch
> Cc: eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity
> Subject: Re: [xmca] Kevin's paper for discussion
> Hi Steve-- It appears that others have not caught up with Kevin's
> interesting article which
> addresses a ton of issues of relevance to xmca members who come to chat
> ideas from
> many different perspectives.
> I have been waiting to see the video that accompanies Kevin's chapter but
> we
> have had trouble
> opening the files and are working on the issue. Meantime, of course, this
> gives people an opp
> to catch up on the reading.
> I'll hope that Kevin will expand on the distinction between presupposing
> and
> entailing indexicality rather
> than seek to provide my own interpretation which has a great chance of
> being
> misleading.
> Instead, I thought it might be useful to take up the issue of symmetrical
> and assymetrical approaches to context/activity and the
> uses of the terms context and activity, which I trip over all the time and
> did at various points in Kevin's article.
> There is this thing about failure to learn that often worries me. I
> totally
> agree that learning is an inevitable consequence of all
> experiences in the world.... in school, in church, in a high chair, on
> one's
> death bed, or next to one's parent's death bed, or,........
> But sticking to school for a moment, its difficult for me to put aside my
> own experiences, both in my own schooling and in
> raising my kids (and being raised/lowered by them!). Geometry gave me a
> lot
> of trouble. And probability theory was not a whole
> lot easier for me. I worked at both, and I was, I think, not a successful
> learner of the subject matter. I did learn how to get to right
> answers in ways that would not genralize-- "rote memory." I do not think I
> walked into these subjects with an identity of a bad learner.
> I ended up with a degree in mathematical psychology and at one early point
> in my grad career I actually figured our something having to
> do with all or nothing learning and a simple math model that no one else
> in
> class figured out. But I was/am lousy at math.
> My 5th grade grand daughter sends me math problems that are posed as
> thought
> problems in her class and they are tough! So I get
> help from my neighbors (a chem phd and an md) and they are too tough for
> them. But their 11th grader helps and we work through them
> and we all communicate our understandings, and I get enough of an
> understanding to try to create an explanation that might actually
> be helpful to my grand daughter. And mostly, I do it in a spirit of
> inquiry
> and fun. (Here is where the identity part comes in perhaps). I
> do not her to think that math is dumb or boring but rather challenging and
> interesting. Personally, if someone had explained to me why
> triangles were interesting to Pythagorus, I would have found geometry a
> lot
> more interesting. I am mr triangle locally after all.
> So I worry when we dismiss something like "abilities" or "proclivities to
> find certain phenomena easy to grok." (Grok is a word for the
> over 40 on the list I guess, call it an identity marker). My son at the
> age
> of about 7 found it easy to solve simple algebra word problems
> that I did not find easy, nor did his sister. He got behind in college
> math
> so far he was going to flunk until we explained to him that if he
> managed to flunk out of colleged, we would wait until he figured out what
> he
> wanted to do with his life before putting more money into
> his education. At which point he sat down, solved every problem at the end
> of every chapter in the book, and got the highest grade in
> his class. I could not have done that on pain of a slow, painful death.
> But
> subsequently he struggled over other problems which his
> sister and I could find ways to think about productively when he could
> not.
> All of which makes me nervous about some of the early parts of Kevin's
> discussion, while not in any way questioning the usefulness of
> his analysis of the students from the two institutions, the complexities
> of
> defining THE goals in activity that apprentices presumably willingly
> follow, etc. Its just to say that there was a time in my life when I
> desperately wanted and work hard for an identity as a competent
> probability theorist of low order and could not do it.
> Where do such differences in ability to do what one is trying hard to do,
> with full support, come into the analyses of communties of practice?
> mike
> On 10/25/06, Steve Gabosch <> wrote:
> >
> > This tension between the Consortium group and the Institute school
> > students - the struggle over who should reveal what information to
> > who in the process of building the race cars - seems to touch on
> > quite a hornet's nest of conflicts of interest, squabbling over
> > access to resources, class differences between the students, etc. I
> > liked the use of the techniques of linguistic anthropology to analyze
> > the conversations and try to drive some of these tensions out. I
> > have a question. I did not fully grasp how Kevin used the
> > distinction between "presupposing indexicality" and "entailing
> > indexicality" in his analysis of the micro truck project.
> >
> > - Steve
> >
> >
> >
> > At 01:16 PM 6/22/2006 -0700, Mike wrote:
> > >Hello All--
> > >
> > >Kevin's O'conner's paper , *Communicative Practice, Cultural
> Production,
> > and
> > >Situated Learning, is
> > >now<>
> > >on the xmca web page at,
> > >
> > >We have not been successful in getting the video up, but are working on
> > it.
> > >Meantime, some new bedtime reading
> > >for discussion.
> > >mike
> > >*
> > >_______________________________________________
> > >xmca mailing list
> > >
> > >
> >
> >
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