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Sociocultural Theories of Learning and Motivation: Looking Back, Looking Forward

reviewed by Tricia Niesz - May 01, 2012

coverTitle: Sociocultural Theories of Learning and Motivation: Looking Back, Looking Forward
Author(s): Dennis M. McInerney, Richard A. Walker, & Gregory Arief D. Liem
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1617354384, Pages: 324, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

Since the translation of L. S. Vygotsky’s work into English in the 1960s, sociocultural theories have transformed understandings of learning and development across a number of disciplines.  Vygotsky’s influence, along with that of his colleagues and students, has generated scholarship that has pushed at and subverted disciplinary boundaries, producing vibrant and varied fields of inquiry into the social nature of learning.  In contrast, research on motivation in education has not been so influenced by sociocultural theories.  Instead, it has remained largely the domain of educational psychologists focused on the individual.  Despite this imbalance—or perhaps because of it—Denis McInerney has edited a book series titled, Research on Sociocultural Influences on Motivation and Learning.  For the tenth volume in this series, Sociocultural Theories of Learning and Motivation: Looking Back, Looking Forward, editors McInerney, Richard Walker, and Gregory Arief Liem have assembled an international group of authors to address how sociocultural theory has informed understandings of motivation and learning historically, as well as to suggest new directions for the future.

In two introductory chapters, six chapters focused on motivation, and four chapters devoted to learning, the authors explore myriad aspects of sociocultural theory from diverse points of view.  Most of these theoretical discussions are developed with authors’ research (or practice), with some chapters drawing on illustrations from research and others presenting full studies.  The contributing authors’ expertise stands out as a strength of the book, and several bring this expertise to bear on work to reconcile or otherwise address the ‘individual versus social’ divide that characterizes areas of contention in the study of learning and motivation.  Yet, with respect to its worthy goal of looking back and looking forward in this complex field of study, the book is spotty.  The editors do not address the challenge of the book’s subtitle directly, and a couple of chapters only address sociocultural theory in a cursory fashion. However, a few stand-out chapters provide particularly valuable contributions to the endeavor.

For example, several authors featured in the book’s section on motivation aim to push and pull that field in varied directions within the terrain of sociocultural theory.  Wolff-Michael Roth leads the section off with a chapter that draws deeply on the classics in critical psychology, Leont’ev and Holzkamp in particular, to develop an understanding of motivation from the standpoint of cultural-historical activity theory.  Looking back, in Roth’s chapter, includes looking to original works in Marx’s German and Vygotsky’s and Leont’ev’s Russian to discuss (among other things) how the concept of activity itself has been misconstrued over time and in translation.  Roth explains that the ‘activity’ at the center of early cultural-historical activity theory is that “characterized by a collective object/motive” (p. 49, italics in the original).  In looking forward, Roth builds from this classic critical psychology to argue that the concept of motivation can be replaced altogether by the categories of object/motive and emotion.

In contrast to Roth, who critiques conventional motivational theory from the standpoint of critical psychology, authors Nolen, Ward, and Horn seek to “forge some alliances between cognitive theories of motivation and sociocultural theories of engagement, suggesting possible points of dialogue along with ways in which both perspectives might be expanded and our understanding of the phenomenon enriched” (p. 110).  Theirs is another standout chapter coming from a different point of view that foregrounds more conventional motivational theory.  Yet they examine this work through the lens of sociocultural perspectives on engagement, which they conceptualize as “motivated activity in social worlds” (p. 112).  As with many chapters in the volume, two strengths of their contribution are, first, the expert discussion of points of conflict between sociocultural theories and the individualistic theories of cognitive psychology and, second, the illustrations of theoretical ideas with empirical research.  Moreover, their sophisticated theorizing across disciplinary borders poises the authors to raise powerful suggestions for theory and practice ‘looking forward.’

Equally valuable chapters in the book’s section on learning provide reviews of existing research and theory to articulate promising ways to advance sociocultural studies of learning.  Sainsbury and Walker, for example, limit their discussion to the topic of conceptual change to thoroughly explore and critique the history of research in this area.  They then promote a model for future inquiry on conceptual change that, they argue, overcomes the limitations of the past.  Likewise, Vadeboncoeur, Vellos, and Goessling, advancing “identity construction as one process that, together with the construction of knowledge and values, defines a sociocultural perspective on learning” (p. 224), make strides with their review of sociocultural perspectives on identity in/and learning and with their astute theoretical and methodological suggestions for future work in this area.

As with these standout chapters, many chapters in the volume have the potential to push the thinking of readers, regardless of their experience with sociocultural theory.  Yet the book as a whole fails to provide much in the way of background or context for understanding sociocultural perspectives; this may cause particular difficulty for readers new to sociocultural theory.  The editors provide neither a thorough overview of the main tenets of sociocultural theories nor an explanation of the varied camps that fall under this large umbrella.  Individual chapters often provide helpful descriptions of sociocultural theory, but, as noted above, the authors have disparate perspectives.  Some appear to write from educational psychology, where conventional research on motivation is housed, whereas others write from a range of positions on the interdisciplinary landscape of sociocultural studies.  In addition, several different ‘brands’ of sociocultural theory are represented in the volume, indexed by labels including sociocultural theory, situativity theory, activity theory, and cultural-historical activity theory.  As such, authors do not share the same language, concerns, orientations, or commitments.  For readers familiar with sociocultural theories, this diversity is not a weakness but a strength, as the book provides interesting juxtapositions that contribute to a larger conversation (whether intentional or not) that transgresses disciplinary borders.  Yet readers new to sociocultural theories need some orientation to this multifaceted field.  Indeed, most readers, regardless of their familiarity, would likely find the introduction more satisfying if it mapped the theoretical trajectories that have emanated from the work of Vygotsky and his students and colleagues.

The second chapter of the book, authored by La Tefy Schoen, offers promise in this regard as it explicitly acknowledges sociocultural theory’s “differential interpretation in multiple research communities” (p. 11), the incommensurability of language across disciplinary and paradigmatic divides, and the difficulty of communication across research communities that share an interest in sociocultural theories but little else.  However, Schoen’s focus on reconciling the competing research methodologies of sociocultural researchers ultimately sidesteps substantive discussion of contested views in favor of advocating pragmatism and mixed methods research.  As such, even after the first two introductory chapters, readers are left without a fuller picture of historical and contemporary sociocultural theory.  

Despite these missed opportunities, the volume’s authors contribute much to the goals of “looking back” and “looking forward” through their thoughtful discussions of important topics and debates in sociocultural theories, their presentations of compelling research, and their expert theorizing for the future.  In many cases, they skillfully bring readers into complex conversations, teaching us where sociocultural theory has been and where it is going.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 01, 2012
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16767, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:26:48 PM

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About the Author
  • Tricia Niesz
    Kent State University
    E-mail Author
    TRICIA NIESZ is an associate professor in the School of Foundations, Leadership, and Administration at Kent State University. Her research focuses on how progressive social and professional movements introduce cultural change in the field of education. Tricia’s current work explores the history of the Activity Based Learning movement in Tamil Nadu, India. Recent publications include articles in the academic journals, Teaching and Teacher Education and Urban Education.
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