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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
strong supports for children’s development. However, some variations are more likely than others to encourage development of the specific kinds of knowledge and interaction styles that are expected in typical U.S. school environments. It is extremely important for educators—and parents—to take these differences into account.
Conversing, Observing, or Eavesdropping
In some communities, children are seldom direct conversational partners with adults, but rather engage with adults by participating in adult activities. In such situations, children’s learning occurs through observing adults and from the pointers and support provided by adults in the contexts of ongoing activities. Such engagements contrast sharply with patterns common in other communities, in which adults take the role of directly instructing young children in language and other skills through explicit lessons that are not embedded in the contexts of ongoing activities (Ochs and Schieffelin, 1984; Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff et al., 1993).
For example, Pueblo Indian children are provided access to many aspects of adult life and are free to choose how and with whom to participate (John-Steiner, 1984). Their reports of their own learning stress their role as “apprentices” to more experienced members of the community (Suina and Smolkin, 1994). Observation and verbal explanation occur in the contexts of involvement in the processes as they are being learned.
In an African-American community of Louisiana, in which children are expected to be “seen and not heard,” language learning occurs by eavesdropping. “The silent absorption in community life, the participation in the daily commercial rituals, and the hours spent overhearing adults’ conversations should not be underestimated in their impact on a child’s language growth” (Ward, 1971:37). “Nothing is censored for children’s ears; they go everywhere in the community except Saturday-night parties.” Older children teach social and intellectual skills: “Alphabets, colors, numbers, rhymes, word games, pen and pencil games are learned…from older children. No child, even the firstborn, is without such tutelage, since cousins, aunts, and uncles of their own age and older are always on hand” (Ward, 1971:25).
In this community, small children are not conversational partners with adults, as in the sense of other people with whom one converses. If children have something important to say, parents will listen, and children had better listen when their parents speak to them. But for conversation, adults talk to adults. Questions between older children and adults involve straightforward requests for information, not questions asked for the sake of conversation or for parents to drill children on topics to which the parents already know the answers. Mothers’ speech to children, while not taking the form