The Social & Material Conditions of Our Practices

Main Text  I  References  I  Comments


The notes below come from the following journal article by James Paul Gee:

  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

The main premise is quite important; that is, whether we realise it (or admit it), our practices are rooted in the social & material condition of our past, present and future. And in teaching, we must be cognisant of the social & material conditions of our students, the practices they have adopted and anticipate to adopt, and how these factors will come to influence what we teach and how we teach.  These factors will come to influence how an individual uptakes and embodies a practice, and whether affordances  will be transformed into effectivities .


Main Text

“We build our model simulations to help us make sense of things and prepare for action in the world. We can act in the model and test which consequences follow before we act in the real world.” (pg 85)

“We think and prepare for action with and through our model simulations. They are what we use to give meaning to our experiences in the world, and they prepare us for action in the world.” (pg 85)

“The student[‘s] seeing, in an embodied way, [is] tied to action.” (pg 87)

“People are smarter when they use smart tools. Better yet, people are smarter when they work in smart environments; that is, environments that contain, integrate, and network a variety of tools, technologies, and other people, all of which store usable knowledge.” (pg 89)

“People are always parts of environments, whether they are particularly smart ones or not.” (pg 89)

“Through participation in common activities with already adept others, people internalize the workings of their culture, their language, and various symbols, artifacts, norms, values, and ways of acting and inter- acting. The furniture of the human mind first exits publicly in the world of social interaction and participation.” (pg. 89)

“For activity theorists, the proper unit of analysis in studying activity, certainly including learning, is an activity system; that is, a group (“community,” though without any connotation of people personally having to feel close to each other) of actors who have a common object or goal of activity (Cole and Engestrom 1993; Engestrom 1987). An activity system as a unit of analysis connects individual, sociocultural, and institutional levels of analysis.” (pg 89 - 90)

“Figure 4.1 (from Engestrom 1987) models the integrated elements of an activity system. The whole system has certain intended and unintended “out- comes.” The outer triangle contains the integration of “instruments” (various tools and technologies), “rules” (norms of use), and “division of labor” (the differential expertise of different actors in the system). Various other relation- ships in the model capture the diverse ways in which “subjects” (actors), the “object” (goal) of the activity system, and the “community” (various types of actors in the system) interrelate with each other and with the instruments, rules, and division of labor.” (pg 90)

“The object (goal) of the doctor’s work is the health problems of his or her patients. The outcomes include both intended ones like improvements in health and unintended ones like patients getting lost in the midst of overcrowding in the clinic. The instruments include tools like x-rays, laboratory tests, and medical records as well as medical knowledge that is partly internalized and partly stored in books and tools. The community consists of the various actors who constitute the staff of the clinic and its patients. The division of labor determines the tasks and powers of the doctors, nurses, aides, patients, and other actors in the system. Finally, various rules and norms regulate how, when, and where various actions and interactions take place, as well as the use of time, how outcomes are measured and assessed, and the criteria for rewards. The same activity system will look different if we take the point of view of another subject (actor) in the system; for example, a nurse.” (pg 90 - 91)

“An activity system does not exist by itself; it interacts within a network of other activity systems.” (pg 91)

“If we take an activity-system view of students in a classroom, we cannot ask only about the individual student. We have to ask what sort of activity system the student is in, what his or her role is in it, what the system looks like from his or her perspective, what it looks like from the perspective of other actors (e.g., the teacher, other students) in the system, and what other systems interact with the one the student is in. From an opportunity-to- learn perspective, we must consider more than the information to which the learner has been exposed. All of the other elements in the system need to count as well, including the ways in which all of these elements mediate the learner’s knowledge and performance.” (pg 91)

“In communities of practice, people share a set of practices, often carried out collaboratively, related to carrying out a common endeavor. Newcomers pick up both overt and tacit knowledge through a process of guided and scaffolded participation in the community of practice, a process that has been compared to apprenticeship.” (pg 91 - 92)

D’Amato (1987) noted that [individuals] who accept [practices in school] do so on basis of rationales related to either the structural or situational implications of school. Structural rationales involve children’s understanding of the significance of school performances to settings beyond school the school, such as their relationship to employment and other life opportunities ... Situational rationales are found in students’ experiences with being in school, and whether or not the experience is rewarding or enjoyable. (Au, 1998, pg 303)



  • Members of the community of practice are affiliated with each other primarily through a common endeavor and shared practices and only secondarily through ties rooted in shared culture, race, class, gender, or ability. (pg 92)
  • The common endeavor is organized around a whole process(involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontextualized tasks carried out outside of or without knowledge of the wider contexts that give them meaning.  (pg 92)
  • Members of the community of practice must all share extensive knowledge. By “extensive knowledge,” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavor; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavor as a whole system, not just their part in it. (pg 92)
  • Members of the community of practice also each have intensive knowledge; that is, specialized and deep knowledge that goes beyond the group’s shared extensive knowledge, which they have built up and can supply to others who do not share it when they need aspects of it for their own work. (pg 93)
  • Much of the knowledge in the community of practice is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members, and with various tools and technologies) and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies) and dispersed (available offsite from a variety of different sources). (pg 93)
  • The role of leaders is to design communities of practice, continually resource them, and help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge to be used to further develop the community of practice, while realizing that much knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in practice. (pg 93)

It is clear that an activity-system perspective, with its links to the notion of a community of practice, treats people, including learners in school, as actors and not just as passive recipients of information.” (pg 93)

“It is also clear from our discussion of activity systems and communities of practice that the notion of participation in social interaction is foundational.” (pg 93)

“First, according to this perspective, following Vygotsky’s (1978) ideas about the Zone of Proximal Development, learning starts when learners are first able to accomplish with others through participation in interaction what they cannot yet accomplish on their own. Such skills are said to be in the learner’s Zone of Proximal Development, and these are the skills that will soon become individual accomplishments. By the time they become individual accomplishments, learners will have internalized these skills in terms of the schemes they have seen publicly at work in their social interactions with others using various sign systems and tools. These skills, in this sense, retain a social element.” (pg 93 - 94)

From Paul Morsink is a doctoral student in Educational Psychology and Educational Technology at Michigan State University, @

“Second, we have seen earlier that the meanings of words and signs, if they are to be truly useful, must be situated in experiences that learners have had that they can simulate in their minds and from which they can eventually build simulations that are more generally applicable. Yet learners can only come to see how words and signs fit particular patterns of experience if they see these words used in specific situations in ways that make clear how they apply. Thus, models of language in use in specific situations from masters and more expert peers is crucial for learning how to situate the meanings of words and signs in specific ways – otherwise, learners have only general verbal definitions as meanings that are hard to apply in specific situations.” (pg 94)

“If we want to engage people with some narratives that we consider more important than others (say, moral or aesthetic ones), a possible foothold could be found in the informal practices children find themselves involved in.” -- (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 196 - 197)
“In other words, it is easier to be a ‘tacit teacher’ within an ongoing community of practice, where one is not the only influence drawing learners into reflective participation; conversely, it is harder to be a ‘tacit teacher’ when a cacophony of other influences distract and compete with one’s own influence.” -- (Burbles, 2010, pg 212)

“Nonetheless, it is clear that, as part and parcel of our early socialization in life, we each learn ways

of being in the world, of acting and interacting, thinking and valuing, and using language, objects, and tools that crucially shape our early sense of self.” (pg 100)

“In all of these cases and many others like them, children are not only practicing early versions of school-based practices but are doing so as part and parcel of being socialized into their vernacular culture. These children come to associate school and school-based ways with their home and community- based identities, thanks to the initial overlap between home and school practices. This is a powerful form of affiliation.” (pg 102)

“There is also ample literature demonstrating that children from groups that have tended to fare less well in school also engage in complex and sophisticated language and interactional practices at home. For example, the complex and often poetic verbal practices of many African American children have been well documented (e.g., Delpit 1995; Gee 1996; Labov 1972, 1974; Rickford and Rickford 2000; Smitherman 1977). However, too few schools make use of early school-based practices that resonate with these vernacular practices and build on them, thereby failing to build the initial strong sense of affiliation with school that often occurs for other children.” (pg 102)


References  (back to top)

    • Au, K. H. (1998). Social constructivism and the school literacy learning of students of diverse backgrounds. Journal of Literacy Research, 30 (2), 297-319.
    • Burbles, N. (2010). Tacit Teaching. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 199 - 214). London: Paradigm Publishers.
    • Cole, M. and Y. Engestrom. (1993). A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In Distributed cognition: Psychological and educational considerations, edited by G. Salomon, 1–46. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • D'Amato, J. (1987). The belly of the beast: on cultural differences, castelike status, and the politics of school. In Anthropology and Education Quarterly, 18, pg. 357 - 361.
    • Delpit, L. (1995). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: The New Press.
    • Engestrom, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding. An activity theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta Konsultit.
    • Gee, J. P. (1996). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in Discourses, 2nd ed. London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
    • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
    • Labov, W. (1972). Language in the inner city: Studies in Black English vernacular. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
    • Labov, W. (1974). The art of sounding and signifying. In Language in its social setting, edited by W. Gage, 84–116. Washington, D.C.: Anthropological Society of Washington.
    • Rickford, J. R. and R. J. Rickford. (2000). Spoken soul: The story of Black English. New York: John Wiley.
    • Smeyers, P. and Burbles, N. (2010). Education as initiation into practices. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 183 - 198). London: Paradigm Publishers.
    • Smitherman, G. (1977). Talkin and testifin: The language of Black America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
    • Vygotsky, L. (1978) Mind in society: the development of higher psychological processes. M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman (Eds.) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.