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Schools are a ubiquitous institution. They surely play an important part in the development of many millions of children. Yet do we really understand how they work? Can we give an account of schooling, from within the theoretical framework of a cultural developmental psychology?

First. Let's start with what is surely the unarguable fact that schools are a principal societal institution designed, more or less deliberately, to change the kind of person children become. Schooling is best understood not simply as a place where knowledge is transmitted, or even where knowledge is constructed, nor simply as a new community of practice: it is a major arena for what I and a number of other people are calling the "production of persons." The task, then, is to figure out how this production goes on.

Consider the fact that educational researchers will always refer to children in classrooms as ‘students,’ but often without pausing to consider what this new title means. What does it mean to be a ‘student’? How is it that a child becomes a student?

‘Student’ and ‘teacher’ are new subject positions. In most schools, children and adults now relate in an impersonal way, distinct from the concrete particularity, the personal ties of family relationships. This is surely no accident. (Nor is it necessarily a bad thing. If we complain that schools are alienating we need to consider carefully just what that accusation is. I’ll return to that point later.)

Back in 1968, Robert Dreeben recognized these new relationships in the school, how ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ are positions distinct from the persons who occupy them. In his book "On What is Learned in School," Dreeben asserted that the schools’ "prime function is to bring about developmental changes in individuals," and he suggested that "the traditional notion of learning as a function of teaching, of engagement in instructional activities, may be an overly restricted view of what happens during the schooling process" (p. 20). But Dreeben tried to explain what happens when child becomes student in terms of role theory, as the internalization of new norms and values. That approach is unsatisfactory, in part because it tries to explain concrete behavior in terms of something ideal. The task is really to do the opposite: to explain how people become able to ‘do’ a role successfully and appropriately–to live an ideal–in and with their concrete behavior.

For example, there are forms of discourse associated with the position of student, and one can readily observe interactions in which the teacher leads children introduces these forms. David Greco-Brooks and I (Packer & Greco-Brooks, 1999) have analyzed interactions on the first day of first grade, where the teacher worked to establish an impersonal "you"--a subject who must raise a hand to be recognized as speaker, who must follow the classroom rules, pay attention, put a thinking cap on--where the students are indexed as a class instead of as individuals. The teacher worked, too, to shift the topic from the family–where the children had taken it, bragging about what made them special–to the way "first graders" talk about family in the classroom. Discourse moved from the family dog to ‘animals,’--academic subject matter. Changes, then, in context, in topic, and in turn-taking devices.

The shift from ‘family member’ to ‘student’ is already an ontological transformation. The new kind of subject doesn’t replace the old–the children return home at the end of each day–but nor is it simply added on. The child assumes different modes of subjectivity in the two different contexts. Where the family is lived as natural necessity, in relationships among particular concrete individuals, in school the child becomes one of a type.

Second. The classroom is a new community of practice in which ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ are governed by apparently objective constraints, and in which people engage with apparent abstractions. The first day of first grade, again, found the teacher introducing the classroom rules: "Do Your Work; Talk Softly; Line up Quietly; No Running ." They were presented as an objective disciplinary order. "Learn the rules," said the teacher, "so that we can get along together... this year."

At the same time, the classroom becomes populated with abstractions: entities understood in terms of apparently independent, decontextualized properties. These abstractions can’t exist in their own right. They must be continually reproduced in the practices of the community. Brian Rotman, in his wonderful book "Ad Infinitum" (subtitled "The Ghost in Turing’s Machine: Taking God out of Mathematics and Putting the Body Back In") suggests that abstraction can be seen as a matter of forgetting--forgetting indexicality, forgetting sense and meaning. Consider for example three girls working on a pizza problem, combining toppings. One girl rejects another’s choice of toppings, saying, "We might actually have to eat this pizza!" But the third talks in a way that makes it clear the actual toppings chosen are totally irrelevant to the task. She has successfully forgotten sense and meaning.

How do schools introduce these abstractions, these abstract entities of modern life? The answer surely lies in part in the way school demands that ‘good students’ become skilled in the use of the symbolic media of reading, writing and arithmetic. These forms of representation permit a variety of new modes of engagement, (Scribner, 1968/1997), but typically, in the traditional classroom, they are used to foster a mediated, objectifying attitude to what has to this point been grasped with immediacy (Serpell & Hatano, 1997). Participation is transformed into inspection. When children--as students--write essays about their family, use the calendar to render time abstract and organized, and so on, each of these practices involves a new manner of relating to the world, to self, and to others, an attitude of objectification and abstraction. Ontological changes.

Third point. As long ago as 1959, Talcott Parsons noted how a single ‘axis of achievement’ operates in elementary school. Children are sorted along this axis; a process Parsons viewed approvingly as a functional preparation for the different tasks and strata of adult life. Particularly in the early grades, little distinction is made between the cognitive and ethical aspects of classroom work; the major criterion of recognition is achievement-motivation--crudely put, the child’s willingness to work. It seems to me that this evaluation of students’ academic work and their conduct is a crucial form of recognition of children by the adult who teaches them. And that this is transformative; ontologically transformative.

We often think that self-consciousness is the result of a person reflecting on him- or herself, but suppose instead that it emerges in relationship with other people. Alexendre Kojève proposed that desire, especially desire for recognition, creates a lack, an absence, a hole, in the human subject. "The man who attentively contemplates a thing, who wants to see it as it is without changing anything... forgets himself... [But] when man experiences a desire... he necessarily becomes aware of himself" (1947/1969, p. 37, original emphasis). Each of us is a "greedy emptiness," and desire directed towards another person, another "greedy emptiness" (p. 40) leads not just to consciousness of self but to self-consciousness. Shoshana Felman, along the same lines, suggests that "[T]eaching is not a purely cognitive, informative experience, it is also an emotional, erotic experience... [and] cognition is always both motivated and obscured by love" (Felman, 1987, p. 86)

Participation in the classroom community of practice is motivated by desire for recognition by and connection with the teacher. Children make conversational bids for attention and admiration in their teacher’s eyes, as early as the first day of first grade. Evaluating student work is the institutionalized way the teacher gratifies the children’s desire for connection and recognition, not meeting these needs directly however, but transmuting them. These evaluations offer a basis for the child’s identity as student; it is in relationship with their teacher that the children become students, drawn into the classroom community of practice and its new way of being.

The power of evaluation becomes evident here. To really reform what happens in the classroom, one must change the kind of evaluation that takes place. It is no accident that major reform initiatives--the market-place reforms now underway in many U.S. states, for example--center around demands for new tests, new measures of "outcome," not only for students but also for teachers and schools. Recognition in the eyes of others defines--for all of us, not just for school-children--who we are. Ontology again.
But this offer of a basis for identity is not always accepted by the children.
It might seem that identity is just a matter of membership of a community. To quote Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, "in societies with very simple division of labor... everyone pretty much is what he is supposed to be.... identities are easily recognizable" (Berger & Luckmann, 1967, p. 164). But in more complex societies membership is the start of a struggle for identity, an attempt to overcome division and achieve wholeness, unity–to become self-same. There are costs to membership and participation in a community of practice, as well as benefits.

The costs are paid in the form of binary divisions that become lived: dualisms of mind and body, reason and emotion, thought and action (Martin, 1993). Mind itself, as we typically understand it, is a product of this kind of social relation and culture: disembodied and cerebral, quietly reflective, dispassionate and deliberate.
Of course the oppositions of thought and action, conscious and unconscious, self and other, subject and object are produced, not natural. Are these divisions avoidable, then? If they have their origins in the division of labor, perhaps in some utopia they can be escaped. Or perhaps to be human is to be split; to become a participant in culture is to be divided. There is what Jean Hyppolite called a "double movement" to culture (Hyppolite, 1946/1974, p. 378): our activity produces a social world that defines who we are, but that world also confronts us as something alien. Hyppolite said, "To cultivate oneself is not to develop harmoniously, as in organic growth, but to oppose oneself and rediscover oneself through a rending and separation" (Hyppolite, 1946/1974, p. 385). We become divided from ourselves, so that we need for us to find ourselves again.

These costs of schooling are ones most of us, here, considered worth paying, I suspect. The benefit is full membership of the abstract, albeit alienated, world of modern society. But not all school children would agree with us. For various reasons, some reject the classroom community.

People actively strive to come to terms with the practices of their community, adopting a stance or attitude, taking a stand on the way membership of a community has defined them. As they do this their activity acts upon that community, reproducing it or transforming it–the relationship between person and community is a dynamic one, each acting upon the other.

Fifth, it is important to insist that students are active participants in these arrangements, not passive recipients. Contrary to the formulations of some critical pedagogists, the classroom is a site of actual cultural production, not just a site of exchange. As students, children are actively engaged in the ongoing reproduction of the classroom community of practice--and sometimes its transformation. Particular kinds of discourse are associated with the subject position of student in the traditional classroom--and perhaps this is one place where Bakhtin can make a contribution.

For example, I visited a middle school class where the teacher attempted to combine project-based science with a authoritarian disciplinary style. Team-work rapidly degenerated into acrimony and sullenness, as the children struggled--and failed--to reconcile the demand that they "do their job," (as the teacher put it) with the lack of any opportunity to build the social bonds teamwork is based on.

Some children rejected their peers, saying bitterly "I can’t work with him,"--and this was true, for the conditions for collaboration hadn’t been established. Others rejected school and the teacher. "She’s a bitch; I hate school," one told me.

Students always actively align with, or against, the power and authority of their teacher. They accept, or reject, the terms of the classroom community of practice, embracing, or seeking to avoid or to overcome, the splitting that participation demands of them. We’ve all heard teachers talk, if we’ve not done so ourselves, of students with "attitude." When a student takes an oppositional stance their ‘attitude’ becomes salient and problematic, but in a real sense attitude’ is always an important outcome of schooling.

John Dewey wrote that "character and mind," (1916, p. 316-317), "are attitudes of participative response in social affairs" (cf. Packer, in press).

This account of schooling is woven around six themes, six different "ontological tropes" that any account of learning as a change of the person, not just a change of the structure of knowledge, might profitably consider (cf. Packer & Goicoechea, in press). They can be found, in different forms, in the writings of a whole range of post-Hegelian thinkers--Marx and subsequent dialectical materialists, including Vygotsky and Ilyenkov, as well as phenomenologists, including Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, such post-modernists as Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Lacan, and post-structuralists such as Bourdieu and Latour. The six tropes are these:

1. The Person is Constructed. The individual is not natural. Mind is not natural. These are both human products, the bitter-sweet fruits, of social and historical productions. This is a constructivism, even a social constructivism, but notice that what is constructed is not just knowledge. The person, the knowing subject, is constructed. ‘Mind’ is not from the outset a distinct ontological realm, but a cultural and historical product of particular social arrangements. Again, we’re talking ontology, not just epistemology. The mental schemata and processes of cognitive activity that constructivism emphasizes are formed in and through participation in specific social practices, themselves culturally and historically situated. The very formation of an ‘inner’ mental realm of deliberation and cognition is a product of specific practices and forms of relationship.

2. ...in a Social Context. The communities of practice in which we participate have a "constitutive causality"--they provide the context against which we understand what things are--and who we are. The classroom is one such social context, a community of practice in which abstractions take on reality.

3. ...Formed through Practical Activity. The child becomes ‘student’ in and through the everyday practical activity of classroom life; through the mundane everyday exchanges of the classroom community of practice.

4. ...and Formed in Relationships of Desire and Recognition. School works only if children recognize the teacher’s authority, and if she recognizes them, typically through systematic forms of evaluation. This affective dimension of teaching and learning, its erotic component if you will, is greatly under-appreciated.

5. ...that can Split the Person. The community of practice of the classroom, and the relationship of student and teacher, has costs, for it makes contradictory demands of its participants.

6. ...Motivating the Search for Identity. And the child responds to these costs with a stance of either alignment or opposition, seeking to overcome this splitting. What we call "attitude" is the active stance the child adopts within the classroom community of practice. It’s an ontologically determinative stance. And schooling is, I’ve proposed, always about "attitude."


Berger, T., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Free Press.

Dreeben, R. (1968). On what is learned in school. Reading: Addison-Wesley.

Felman, S. (1987). Jacques Lacan and the adventure of insight: Psychoanalysis in contemporary culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hyppolite, J. (1946/1974). Genesis and structure of Hegel’s "Phenomenology of spirit". (S. Cherniak & J. Heckman, Trans.). Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Kojève, A. (1947/1969). Introduction to the reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit. (James H. Nichols, Jr., Trans.). Ithica: Cornell University Press.

Oyserman, D. & Packer, M. (1996). Social cognition and self- concept. In J. Nye & A. Brower (Eds.), What's social about social cognition? (pp.175-201). London: Sage.

Packer, M., & Goicoechea, J. (1999). Sociocultural and constructivist theories of learning: Ontology, not just epistemology. Unpublished manuscript.

Packer, M., & Greco-Brooks, D. (1999). School as a site for the production of persons. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 12, 133-149.

Parsons, T. (1959). The school class as a social system: Some of its functions in American society. Harvard Educational Review, 29(4), 297-318.

Rotman. (1993). Ad infinitum: The ghost in Turing's machine - taking god out of mathematics and putting the body back in: Stanford University Press.

Scribner, S. (1968/1997). The cognitive consequences of literacy. In E. Tobach, R. J. Falmagne, M. B. Parlee, L. M. W. Martin, & A. S. Kapelman (Eds.), Mind and social practice: Selected writings of Sylvia Scribner, (pp. 160-189). New York: Cambridge University Press.

Serpell, R., & Hatano, G. (1997). Education, schooling, and literacy. In J. W. Berry, P. R. dasen, & T. S. Saraswarthi (Eds.), Handbook of cross-cultural psychology. Vol. 2. Basic processes and human development, (pp. 339-376): Allyn and Bacon.

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