Culture as a basic means of education and human development, main theories

Egbert Haynes
Culture as a basic means of education and human development, main theories


  • What do we understand by culture?
  • Elkonin's cultural settings and contributions
  • Individual and Historical Development: Michael Cole
  • Learning, culture and development according to Hatano and Miyake
  • Culture, school and everyday knowledge

What do we understand by culture?

By culture is meant or means, basically, 'cultivation' or 'breeding'. Cultivate, more specifically, has other meanings:

  • Give the soil and plants the necessary labors for them to bear fruit.
  • Put the necessary means to maintain and deepen knowledge, treatment or friendship.
  • Develop, exercise talent, ingenuity, memory, etc..
  • Exercise in the arts, sciences, languages, etc..

In short, culture is closely related to individual development and seems inseparable from growing up..

Culture is related to a set of ways of life and customs that characterize human groups.

But it is not enough to say that culture is the environment where we human beings develop. Culture decisively guides all our development processes and it is necessary to deepen the processes that allow us to explain this relationship.

Elkonin's cultural settings and contributions

Human development is conditioned not only by biological capacity, but also by the historical traditions in which the culture surrounds the child. Everyday practices therefore acquire a decisive role in explaining the course of development..

The child's life can be viewed as an ongoing developmental and role-sharing process strengthened by their experiences with the cultural environment. Children create and co-construct the social world and engage with themselves in their activities.

The zone of proximal development of a child is related to each of the different stages of child development that Elkonin proposes, while, in each one, there are changing demands that come from the social context.

Stages of development and demands of the social context. Source: Elkonin (1971) and Hedegaard (1996).

But we can still go a little deeper and take into account, on the other hand, that schools and other everyday learning contexts, which define development from culture, are of relatively recent creation and have given rise to the practice of segregation; that is, children are separated most of the day from adult activities.

According to Elkonin, "the social practices of the Western world segregate childhood into specific universes have contributed to the formation of the social world of children, as something relatively independent of older people".

Elkonin spoke of the non-adaptability of children. By this he wants to indicate the importance of adopting a perspective in which the child is an active agent who forms his relationships and attitudes through others. This fact should be taken into account by institutionalized educational agents..

Individual and Historical Development: Michael Cole

Cole, an American researcher very representative of the sociocultural perspective in developmental and learning psychology, presents culture as a "supra-individual envelope" that surrounds us and provides us with instruments to interact with the world. It is here where the individual and historical development of people and social groups takes place. It is these cultural actions of individuals, also immersed in more concrete contexts and interwoven with activity, which allow us to transform the world.

"The notion of culture has long included a general theory of how development can be promoted: creating an artificial environment in which optimal conditions for growth are provided for younger organisms. This requires sophisticated instruments. throughout generations and designed for the special task that they must develop. So close are the concepts of things that grow and the instruments that the word with which culture can be designated is that of shared plow "(Cole, 1996, p 143).

Cole likes metaphors, with which he approaches to explain what culture is and how it should be understood in relation to development. It is referred to as a garden where children are protected from the harshest aspects of the environment. A garden is the link between the microcosm of the individual plant and the macrocosm of the external environment. The garden, in this sense, connects culture and context and thus provides us with a framework from which human development can be understood..

Cole (1991) points out what he considers the basic postulates of a sociocultural approach in the study of the human mind from the perspective of its development and education. Human beings, this author tells us, differ from other animals in the sense that they are culturally mediated, they develop historically and are the result of practical activity..

Education is considered as a specific context of activity in which human beings, in specific cultural circumstances and in certain historical stages, develop.

Learning, culture and development according to Hatano and Miyake

What can the historical-cultural perspective contribute to understanding the relationships between culture, development and learning? Hatano and Miyake (1991) have approached this question and, in their opinion, the starting point of the approach is twofold:

  • Interaction with other people and artifacts plays an important role in learning and developing the mind..
  • The microenvironment in which the individual learns is affected by broader contexts, for example, the community.

Culture is seen as the natural environment in which people develop and from which they learn.

Culture, school and everyday knowledge

Hatano and Miyake (1991) specify the contributions of the sociocultural perspective in the study of learning and development in three points. Their comments are especially significant when we consider the question that human development may be mediated, in certain cultures, by school learning. In the first place, knowing the cultural environment from which you learn allows us to better understand the learning process and therefore control it. This is qualified in a triple sense:

  • Knowing the culture of those who learn allows to pose situations that are similar in multiple contexts, especially when educators propose specific goals that they must achieve.
  • Knowing this culture, it is possible to more easily access the knowledge that people acquire in formal and informal learning situations that can serve as a basis for formal educational situations. In any case, although this starting point can have a facilitating effect, since the new knowledge is more significant for the subjects, it sometimes includes erroneous components that are not always easy to eliminate..
  • When trying to institutionalize certain types of learning, we will only be successful by knowing the beliefs that the people involved in the process have about it; perhaps only some are acceptable in this context.

According to Hatano and Miyake (1991), the school must take into account the prevailing culture and, in addition, consider the "relevant cultural dimensions in the goal of learning" and express them in cognitive terms.

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