Taking up a dynamic, design-based understanding of children’s cultural strengths
For this Newsletter, I thought I’d discuss a few ideas currently shaping my research on children’s helping and collaboration and their educational implications.
A helpful insight with respect to understanding culture in people’s lives is to view it not as a sorting category — a static group to which people belong or a measurable attribute people “have” that causes behaviors and outcomes — but as an interrelated set of mechanisms that individuals both take part in and create. One mechanism I’m studying closely lately is “prolepsis.”
Prolepsis refers to a process by which an imagined future for a child or student — who they might become and what their abilities and intentions are assumed to be — plays a causal role in how learning and development is guided in moment-to-moment interactions. These “imagined futures” are deeply connected to cultural ideologies, relating to what adults in different communities value for children’s everyday lives and for students’ learning experiences.
In early childhood, prolepsis transforms cultural assumptions into the objects of socialization. For example, what children are assumed to want to do (e.g., play, help, goof off) becomes a strong point of reference for what they are encouraged to do and learn. In adolescence, proleptic processes become entangled with identity and a self-project. That is, how youth understand themselves, their orientation to the world, and what they might become builds on earlier expectations and assumptions that the world has for and about them.
Prolepsis helps to explain gender socialization from before birth – young children are assumed to have a “nature” that sorts out dichotomously, involving differently gendered preferences and abilities. Prolepsis also helps to explain the perpetuation of racial prejudice – what’s assumed of racialized groups leads to interventions that can encourage the realization of those assumptions.
One such intervention is schooling. Each teacher imagines a future for the students in front of them, as well as for students generally, based on both cultural ideologies and their subjective assessments. Those imagined futures can support positive developmental trajectories but they are also vulnerable to stereotypes regarding gender or class differences in academic ability, behavioral differences between students of color and white students, and so on.
So, how do we improve equity? I’m shaping a research program that highlights three key elements in designs for learning in light of proleptic cultural processes:
First, parents/teachers need opportunities to see all children/students as helpful, capable, intelligent, and motivated by following their learning across contextual boundaries and activities and looking for the ebb and flow of strengths. This counteracts deficit thinking that often persists under static and myopic conditions of guidance and instruction. Second, it’s necessary to see children’s motivations and abilities as inseparable from the activities in which they are learning, a departure from common endogenous explanations of children’s behaviors, knowledge, and abilities. Third, the organizational features of activities in which children/students are at their best are captured as primary design principles. Strengths in learning are designed for rather than “found” as present or absent capacities.
By understanding the cultural-contextual core of children’s and students’ strengths (such as, in my ongoing work, Indigenous American children’s remarkable collaborative skill) and the cultural mechanisms that bring them about, the specifics of those supports can illuminate and make amenable to change the contrasting patterns of other communities and institutions.
[For further reading, see: Rogoff, Coppens, et al. (in press). Noticing learners’ strengths through cultural research. Perspectives in Psychological Science.]