Learning and development in context

Children learning under trees in Kenya.

Children learning under trees in Kenya. Copyright Sadaf Shallwani. All rights reserved.

Learning and development occur within social and physical contexts. Not only do learning and development occur within contexts, but in fact are shaped by contexts.

Over the last few years, I have had opportunities to work with child development and early education programmes in various global contexts. In one of my earlier experiences working in the Majority world (1), I worked with a community-based early childhood programme in South Asia. The community workers had been trained to visit family homes and promote child development by conducting developmental assessments and providing caregiving advice to the primary caregiver. The assessment measures and parent education programme had been based on mainstream child development research (from the Western/European world), with some cultural modifications. Many of the families in the programme appreciated the monthly visits, and the support and attention being given for their child’s development and learning. However, upon deeper engagement with the community workers, the families, and the content of the programme, it emerged that many aspects of the programme were inappropriate for their community. For example, the emphasis on a close and exclusive relationship between the child and primary caregiver (as prescribed in mainstream attachment theory) was at odds with the cultural and contextual norm of multiple caregivers caring for multiple children as part of an extended family household (which provided clear benefits in the local context in which these children were growing up).

Early childhood development programmes are often based on mainstream child development literature. This mainstream literature describes child development as a universal and linear phenomenon, with concepts about child capacities and needs, and ideas about what is best for children – based on research and theory from the Western/European world. This knowledge is socially constructed, in that it is fundamentally shaped by values and assumptions from the Western/European world; but it is presumed to be universal.

As Martin Woodhead has described,

Programme approaches, curriculum models, and evaluation strategies are strongly informed by the child development literature, which in turn becomes part of an export/import trade through books, international conferences, training programmes and commercial packages. With few exceptions ‘textbook’ child development originates mainly in Europe and North America, and mainly within a fairly narrow socio-economic band within these Continents. Theories, programmes and evaluation strategies don’t just convey well-researched knowledge about development. They also transmit hidden messages through rhetorical devices, notably about children’s ‘nature’, their ‘needs’, what aspects of the ‘environment’ are ‘harmful’ or ‘beneficial’ for healthy development. The problem is that much of this rhetoric has as much to do with particular socio-cultural contexts (of the research community as well as of the children they have studied) as with shared features of early human development. (Woodhead, 1998, p. 8)

The mainstream knowledge base on early childhood is socially constructed. A personal example: In Canada, a few years ago, a fellow researcher spoke about a study on children’s social cognition. The study looked at English-speaking and Cantonese-speaking children in a Canadian urban context, and the findings indicated that Cantonese-speaking children were ‘delayed’ in the development of their social cognition. There was no acknowledgement that the study’s conceptualization of social cognition, as well as the measures and norms that were used, were based on completely Western/European research and constructs – and thus may not have been applicable in the same way to children being raised in different contexts and cultures. For example, children in families of Asian descent may have a sense of self that is more integrated with ‘others’, compared with children in families of European descent who may have a sense of self as very separate from ‘others’. This affects ‘social cognition’ – how one understands and relates to one’s self and others. Paradigms and ‘norms’ of social cognition that are constructed within Western/European contexts are built on the assumption that Western/European ways of functioning are optimal and normal – implying that children and families deviating from these cultural ways of functioning are somehow abnormal or suboptimal.

Categories or dimensions of development are also arbitrarily defined. In Japan for example, the concept of ‘intelligence’ is closely integrated with ‘helpfulness’ – in fact, one cannot be considered ‘intelligent’ without being helpful. In comparison, in North America, cognitive development and social development are treated as separate dimensions of human development. Similarly, measures and assessments of child development reflect the individualistic achievement-oriented values of the Western/European world and measure children’s ability to accomplish tasks relevant in a particular Western/European society or context. Helen Penn has described how young children in the United Kingdom are expected to recognize basic colours (e.g., red, blue, yellow) as a result of preschool attendance, in comparison to Mongolian herder children who, by the same age, will have learnt to distinguish about 320 horses through their colouring in different combinations of varying shades of black, white, and grey. Indeed, “the expectations of the level of visual discrimination the children can achieve, and the uses to which it is put, are very different in each community” (Penn, 2000, p. 10-11). Clearly, categories of development and developmental tasks expected to be achieved by children at certain stages of life are not universal, but rather socially constructed and inextricably linked to children’s contexts.

In the last decade, there has been increasing awareness that context is not just one dimension of development, but that context in fact fundamentally shapes every aspect of learning and development, as well as how we conceptualize and talk about learning and development. There has also been a growth in research and theory which deconstructs and reconceptualize concepts of child development and learning from critical perspectives. These approaches:

As this knowledge base grows richer, its multiple perspectives are likely to (a) increasingly influence mainstream research, theory, and practice in early education and child development; and (b) translate into more contextually appropriate and socially relevant programmes for children and families.

Sadaf Shallwani


(1) The term “Majority world” is used in preference to terms such as “developing world” or “Third world” due to the negative connotations associated with these terms. The term highlights the fact that the majority of the world’s population lives in these countries.

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One thought on “Learning and development in context

  1. Pingback: Learning and development in context | Learning Challenges | Scoop.it

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