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Home arrow Psychology arrow Understanding Educational Psychology: A Late Vygotskian, Spinozist Approach

Re/Production of Inequality

In psychology, to determine the actual level of the child’s intellectual development, most of the time a method is used in which the child is asked to solve a number of problems of increasing difficulty and standardized for the child’s chronological age level. The study always determines the level of difficulty of the problems that the given child can solve and the standard age corresponding to it. (Vygotsky 1998: 201)

Vygotsky’s words that open this section were written over 80 years ago. Yet, they quite accurately describe the situation in most present-day educational psychology and institutional education (schooling) around the globe. Everywhere national and international standardized measures of school achievement such as PISA are taken as a yardstick against which success is both measured and prescribed. As Vygotsky’s work in general has become known in the West, there has been a shift in educational researchers and practitioners’ perceptions on the role of measurement. Vygotsky’s simple but insightful idea that we ought to focus on the learning potentials that emerge in and as social relations rather than on measuring already matured (individual) learning outcomes has motivated the emergence of more learner-centered practices. These include formative assessment, where the goal is not just to evaluate but also to assist learners to grow (e.g. Ash and Levitt 2003). Yet, whereas these and other laudable interventions to make classroom tasks more sensitive to the social and creative nature of {teaching I learning}, the most basic trait of institutional schooling continues to be the production of grades and grade reports (Roth 2015). The place of schooling and school tasks in the larger society remain unquestioned. From the Vygotskian perspective advanced here, this is problematic because learning and development need to be understood as moments of social production, both as products and as means.

Several inquiries into the historical origin and function of schooling agree that schooling is, paraphrasing Marx and Engel’s quotation opening this chapter, a reflection of the standpoint of bourgeois society (Foucault 1977). On this account, schooling, as well as other institutions of control—e.g. prisons and hospitals—emerged as a means to inculcate discipline and, thereby, to institute and perpetuate the dominant relations of power. Schooling constitutes the “machinery by which the power relations give rise to a possible corpus of knowledge, and knowledge extends and reinforces the effects of this power” (1977: 45). The kind of power relation that school reproduces is made manifest in the kind of production means and ends: the production of grades through testing and assessment practices. Here, the view of learning as acquisition of knowledge discussed in the previous section is not an abstract epistemology but a real form of organization. Critical analyses of educational practice have shown how institutional schooling in effect functions on the premise that learning can be commodified, favoring the exchange value of school grades over their use value, and thus resulting in a form of “estranged labor learning” (Lave and McDermott 2002). Thus, and despite current efforts to develop more learner-centered curricula, when educational researchers and practitioners still approach schooling as a means to qualify people for the job market they still contribute to maintaining the established hegemonic organization of society while neglecting other important values. This is the case in many efforts to define curricula in terms of twenty-first century skills, where the focus is on the technological advances and the fluid nature of knowledge practices in a so-called knowledge society, while apparently ignoring the most important challenges that our civilization faces, such as the continued degradation of the natural environment and the ever-increasing gap that allows 1 % of the world’s population to own more than the remaining 99 %.[1]

In its origin, the establishment of modern compulsory schooling throughout Western countries at the end of the 19 th and in the beginning of the twentieth century was a triumph of the labor movement (Holzkamp 2013). Widely accessible, school was to give everyone the same opportunities and thereby foster equity and democracy. The democratizing potential of schooling, however, has since remained an unachieved goal that has been a recurrent concern for educational philosophers and practitioners alike. Indeed, the very mechanisms that were instituted with the school to grant equity are at the heart of the reproduction of inequity: standardized leaching and testing. Thus, “the official purpose of school—to ‘equitably’ assign pupils to different professional careers/life chances—can, however, only be achieved where grading is shown to be strictly comparable and/or consistent” (2013: 117). This official purpose explains many of the characteristic features of modern schooling, including class homogeneity, standardized measurement, and surveillance. In this, however, there is an inherent contradiction, which concerns the fact that school- ing—though organized to grant equal access and opportunities to learn for all—also is designed to fulfill the societal function of delivering persons to fill different scholarly careers and professions. Thus, and independently of the kind of instructional practices employed in classrooms, to access certain careers (e.g. dentistry) that in turn give access to better paid professions, higher grade point averages are required. Such obligatory points of passage, where grade point averages (and often also where they were obtained) can open doors, are ubiquitous in society.

In this analysis, schooling emerges as objectifying a contradiction that is not reducible to either of its arguments: Despite its alleged goal of equality, schooling can be seen as part of a larger machinery, that is, as part of a larger context that works such as to inculcate and reproduce social stratification in/of society. The organization designed to provide the same treatment and assessment to all stu- dents—who come with different backgrounds and have different goals and inter- ests—also is the organization that makes their differences in performance to become an organizational and organizing object, thereby stratifying them, giving some privileged access to future careers, letting others get stuck. Thus, for example, children coming from different social classes engage in different parent-child relations, with children coming from more accommodated (bourgeois) classes having had more opportunities to develop the kind of discursive practices that are at work in classrooms (e.g. see Chap. 7 concerning the opportunities arising from early reading). By taking as starting point the equal provision of means and measures to all, these children already start with an advantage over children whose parent’s had not been educated or had had much less time developing the kind of relations that matter in school. In this way, the U.S. “no child left behind” slogan also leads to testing all students equally—as if the same size were to fit all.[2] Such testing does not help but instead perpetuates the problem of differential achievement, with its further implications in professional/societal life after school.

  • [1] As reported by Oxfam in 2016 (Hardoon et al. 2016).
  • [2] Using a perhaps hyperbolic analogy, we may liken current forms of testing to watermelon seedspitting, a very specialized sport. Collectively, we are not likely giving leadership positions to theworld champion in this sport, but we do use performance in very specialized testing formats ascriteria for access to tertiary education and jobs.
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