Anthropology, Educational Psychology and Experiential Learning

The funniest thing happened in my Psychology of Learning course this past winter. The instructor had set up a class debate about the developmental theories of “Jean Piaget”: and “Lev Vygotsky”: . Whereas Piaget’s work, in a grossly oversimplified nutshell, looks at children’s development through the various cognitive stages as a natural occurrence of sorts, Vygotsky’s ideas bring forth the importance of social interaction in the development of children’s cognitive abilities. In other words, it is interaction with more knowledgeable individuals that pulls children along through their cognitive development. The process whereby adults present children with problems that the children could not solve on their own and provide support so that the children can effectively learn the appropriate tasks is called scaffolding.

Oh, that wasn’t the funny part, by the way. The funny part is that I, the token anthropologist in the room, was randomly chosen to speak on behalf of the Vygotsky-ite team whereas the spokesperson for the Piaget-ites (ians?) was . . . you guessed it . . . a biologist (also randomly chosen).

Oh, it was great fun! I got to accuse her of biological determinism. (I should mention that I love accusing people of biological determinism and I do it as often as I can, in all sorts of contexts and in my most indignant voice: “You biological determinist, you!”) OK, so I guess you had to be there.

While the experience was a hoot, it got me thinking about teaching anthropology, especially to people in their late teens, which comprise the bulk of our student population at Vanier College. The knowledge that I gained about learning theories in this course was invaluable and, ever since I completed the course, I’ve been experimenting with ways to apply them specifically to anthropological content.

For example, Vygotsky’s sociocultural approach to learning is quite appealing from an anthropological perspective. It is in line, after all, with our notion of enculturation. It also fits right in with the middle ground in the nature vs. nurture debate where one refuses to go the extremes of biological or cultural determinism.

The compatibility goes beyond that, however. Vygotsky, like Piaget, can be categorised as a constructivist according to my instructor, which signifies adherence to a body of thought that posits that knowledge is constructed by the learner as opposed to being something that exists “out there”, external to the learner.

This has allowed me to move away from a teacher-centered classroom to a certain extent. With experimentation, I have found that my students already know much of what I’m there to teach them. By asking them questions such as “What do you think are some functions of religion?” and seeing that they explained most of what I was about to tell them, I saw that, in fact, all I was doing was giving them tools with which to discuss what they already know from an anthropological perspective. By posing questions that require them to think about prior knowledge in a new light and by providing them with tools that will help them to do it more effectively, I am providing scaffolding for them in their construction of anthropological knowledge rather then simply filling their brains and notebooks with knowledge that comes from outside of them.

Now, of course, I couldn’t just leave well enough alone. I’m a big fan of experiential anthropology (a.k.a. radical participation) and “Jean-Guy Goulet’s work”: had a big influence on my M.A. research. Naturally, then, I was attracted to the idea of experiential learning where students engage in meaningful activities that will help them learn through the very process in which they are engaged.

In other words, I’m seeking to get away from the tendency to tell students what they need to know. Rather, I’m working toward using a greater number of activities that will allow them to realise that they know stuff (and I do call it stuff, just because . . . ) and that they can, with a little help from me or another qualified professional, figure out what it all means.

An example of an exercise that I’ve experimented with is the use of different coloured poker chips to demonstrate various methods of distribution such as generalised and balanced reciprocity. Before even telling them what these methods are, I set them up in small groups with little scenarios that they must act out according to what they think makes sense. You got it . . . we do play acting! Weeeeee!

When the gut reaction of the hunter is to keep all of the meat for herself, I ask her to think about the long run. A light goes on and s/he realises that s/he would lose social credibility if s/he did not share and that this could result in others not sharing with her a few weeks down the road. I get the students to explain all of this to me and then I give them a term: generalised reciprocity. And they get it because they already knew it in their own way.

So, what I am getting at with all of this is that the teaching of anthropology, especially to students who will not necessarily go on to major in the field, needs to be centered not just on learning anthropological jargon or on reading ethnographies but on figuring out, through experiential means, why things make sense in their various cultural contexts. The students at this age (17-19) have the capacity to do so but, as per Vygotsky’s theory, they need to be pulled through and supported in the construction of this knowledge. With more understanding of how learning takes place (in other words, with a little help from educational psych), I think that anthropology teachers can become more effective at this and, indirectly, have a social impact which reaches farther than the classroom and into the lives of future math teachers, business administrators, lawyers and plumbers.

4 thoughts on “Anthropology, Educational Psychology and Experiential Learning

  1. The best cross-cultural, suspending-one’s-values and cultural reference points training I ever had involved a role play. we observed a ‘villager’ for about 15 minutes. The guy was carving a stick of sorts (obviously a totem of some kind) and it was readily apparent he was conducting some spiritual ritual because every so often he would put on a mask – he also would hold up the stick/totem to the 4 cardinal directions and every so often while facing in one certain direction, he made specific, repeated gestures. Our discussion centered for the most part on what type of spiritual ritual the ‘villager’ was doing.

    Actually, the guy was making a toy for his son, not a totem – he would hold it up to view it from different directions and in relation to the lighting source in his home – he had made a mask for an upcoming ceremony and was simply seeing how it fit and if it might need adjustments – the gestures he was making were to a neighbor, motioning for him to come over because it is not polite to yell at neighbors unless some condition of distress/emergency was occuring in the village. In concluding the exercise, the ‘villager’ told us that his people never discussed their spirituality with outsiders.

    The point you make is most valid.

  2. Lonely Donut Man(love that name): was the “villager” in this exercise a fellow student? Or an external participant?

    Thanks for your comments . . . I was afraid that my first post ever would be a flop!

  3. Sorry for the delay, I was digging and rooting in my garden. The ‘villager’ was an external agent with a script. He was also wearing some impromptu regalia. This would be a good exercise for any beginning students in the profession. You could use some Grad volunteer to be the ‘villager’ – create an open space in the classroom, have the students gather around, tell them they are to observe a Tassaday man in his home for 15 minutes, record their observations and form a professional opinion of what was occuring, have a small group discussion of what they observed then have the villager tell them what was actually occuring.

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