International College Hong Kong
May 17, 2021

Learning through observation and pitching in

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the power of habit in our lives, and the difficulty we face in trying to change habits once they have become firmly embedded in thought and action. Picking up good habits and dropping bad ones should be one of our principal aims in life, because, by definition, habits are the default behaviours that we rely on automatically and without reflection.

Creating an environment in which young people are provided with the opportunity to encounter behaviours, whether of mind or body, that make for good habits is surely one of the chief functions of school, or should be. And, if they are to serve the full range of opportunities for human personal and social expression in daily life, these encounters must concern a correspondingly wide spectrum of methods of thought, action, and relationship.

The infinite potential of this idea was brought home to me as I watched a lecture on YouTube by Barbara Rogoff, an American psychologist and educator for whose work I have great respect. Rogoff has spent over 40 years studying the learning profiles of indigenous children in Mesoamerica and has amassed a body of research that offers fascinating insights into the ways in which different cultures promote different ways of learning and being.

In this particular lecture, she expands on the method of learning through observation and pitching in (LOPI). "Pitching in" means lending a hand, without being asked, adding one's contribution to the group effort, at whatever level of expertise.

There is one very revealing moment when she reviews footage of an experiment staged first in a traditional Mayan community and, then, in a middle-class American school.

The experiment involves one child being instructed in how to construct a toy - a wind up duck - while a second child is sat apart and asked to wait patiently for their turn with the instructor, when they will be shown how to construct a different toy, an origami jumping frog. In the meantime, they are given a "do nothing" object to play with (a "do nothing" object is one that provides momentary distraction, but which, on further exploration, does nothing, that is it holds no interest).

The results are fascinating. In the Mayan case, the second child ignores the "do nothing" object and focuses all his (it happens to be a boy) attention on the child who is being instructed in the construction of the duck. In this way, through unbidden, voluntary attentive observation, he will pick up how to construct both toys. In the American case, the second child ignores the instruction going on at the nearby table, and noisily plays with the "do nothing" object in a way that seems intended both to cause disruption and to demand attention from others. This pattern of results, we are told by Rogoff, was stable across a wide sample of children from the two cultural traditions.

The reason, she suggests, is that Mayan children are accustomed to learning by observation and, she explains further, to pitching in. These are habits they pick up in infancy and continue to strengthen throughout their lives.

In Mayan culture, competency is conceived of as a process, rather than a thing or a state, and it is assumed that the way to reach adult competence across all behaviours of mind and body is to watch carefully and pitch in, so as to contribute to social life as early as possible. One's competence, being a process, needs to be constantly revisited and reinforced. It is quite possible to be competent one day and lose competency the next, if your ongoing process suffers interruption or damage, or if, for whatever reason, you let the process slip.

As Rogoff suggests, this is a very different approach to learning than the "assembly line instruction" adopted by many modern schools, when competency is delivered as a product that can be bolted on as a new accomplishment. For children who do not "get it" quickly, there is a tendency to feel that the opportunity has been missed, they are "no good", and to give up. For those who do "get it", there is a tendency to imagine it is now secure, even if left unused or unrehearsed. As many experience to their cost, life will teach them differently.

Watching the lecture I fell to thinking that, while students at ICHK most definitely are encouraged to learn by LOPI, there is always more that we can do and that no effort is wasted, because forming habits of collaboration in all its guises, can only really be achieved through regular practice. It was a timely reminder that the approaches we use at ICHK are fundamental to lifelong development - and that we cannot emphasise enough to our students that competency is something that you work at, perhaps over an extended period, and not something that suddenly materialises.

So, bottom line, develop a growth mindset, show courage in the learning zone, and support others! It is here that we encounter the potential of a truly versatile epistemic apprenticeship and the role and scope of the learning opportunities that we need to continue to evolve as a school.

If you are interested in a "capsule version" of Rogoff's insights to collaborative practices achieved via technologies made available through daily cultural experience (also known as learning!), this short TED talk is very worthwhile.

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