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Towards an Account of Teaching General Thinking Skills That is Compatible with the Assumptions of Sociocultural Theory



The sociocultural paradigm in educational research, emphasizing the situatedness of learning and the embeddedness of thought in cultural and linguistic practices, has called into question the plausibility of the enterprise of teaching general thinking skills. In this paper I argue that the sociocultural research programme needs an adequate conceptualization of general thinking skills if it is not to be vulnerable to various criticisms, including that of a lack of reflexivity, connected with the charge of relativism. I go on to argue that Habermas’ insight that rationality can be described in terms of a speech situation can be adapted to provide a coherent redescription of general thinking skills. This redescription of reason, compatible with the assumptions of the sociocultural paradigm, is in terms of the orientations and ground rules that structure an always socially situated but self-reflective and self-transcending type of dialogue. On this account teaching general thinking skills can be conceptualized as induction into the practice of dialogue across difference.
To wards an account of teaching general
thinking skills that is compatible with the
assumptions of sociocultural theory
rupert wegerif
Open University, UK
The sociocultural paradigm in educational research, emphasizing the situatedness
of learning and the embeddedness of thought in cultural and linguistic practices,
has called into question the plausibility of the enterprise of teaching general
thinking skills. In this paper I argue that the sociocultural research programme
needs an adequate conceptualization of general thinking skills if it is not to be
vulnerable to various criticisms, including that of a lack of reflexivity, connected
with the charge of relativism. I go on to argue that Habermas’ insight that ration-
ality can be described in terms of a speech situation can be adapted to provide a
coherent redescription of general thinking skills. This redescription of reason,
compatible with the assumptions of the sociocultural paradigm, is in terms of the
orientations and ground rules that structure an always socially situated but self-
reflective and self-transcending type of dialogue. On this account teaching general
thinking skills can be conceptualized as induction into the practice of dialogue
across difference.
keywords dialogue, discourse, Habermas, reason,thinking skills
The sociocultural approach to cognitive development has gained
ground in recent years and led to many valuable studies with an emphasis on
the teaching and learning of specific forms of cognition related to specific
cultural practices (Rogoff, 1990;Saljo, 1991;Wertsch, 1985). Some have sug-
gested that this approach, while strong in providing convincing accounts of
the reproduction of cultural knowledge, faces the challenge of providing an
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adequate account of the construction of new knowledge or of thought appar-
ently going beyond its cultural context (e.g. Hatano and Miyake, 1991:283;
Vo sniadou, 1991:287). In this paper I respond to that challenge through con-
sidering the issue of how to conceptualize from a sociocultural perspective
the teaching and learning of general thinking skills. My main argument is that,
while Habermas’s theory of communicative action, is open to criticism, it
provides a fundamental insight that can be built upon to provide a redescrip-
tion of general thinking skills in terms of a situated type of dialogue.
The paper is divided into four sections. The first section looks at the idea
of teaching general thinking skills and why this idea has become problematic.
The intellectual sources of the challenge to the idea of teaching general
thinking skills are traced to two traditions which see thought as embedded in
culturally situated ‘language games’ (Wittgenstein, 1967) or ‘speech genres’
(Bakhtin [1981]/Volosinov [1986]).The second section suggests that the socio-
cultural paradigm is potentially vulnerable to the philosophical critique of rel-
ativism and argues that this problem is closely related to the difficulty of
conceptualizing general thinking skills within that paradigm. The third section
takes insights from Habermas’s theory of communicative rationality to help
construct a solution to this problem. This solution is that we locate general
thinking skills in a situated type of dialogue defined through intersubjective
orientations and structuring social ground rules. Since this locates general
thinking skills in a situated, historically emergent, discourse practice it is com-
patible with key sociocultural assumptions. The final section deals with the
practical implications of this theory, which are that the teaching of general
thinking skills should be seen as induction into a discourse practice or
‘language game’. This offers insight into two successful approaches to teaching
thinking: Philosophy for Children and the ‘Thinking Together’ approach that
promotes the use of ‘Exploratory Talk’.
idea of general thinking skills and challenges
to it
‘Central Processing Model’ and general thinking skills
In an article on the impact of viewing cognitive development in cultural
contexts, Rogoff et al. (1991:315 ) draw out and contrast two very different
models of cognition. Their characterization is broad but useful in revealing a
fundamental division in underlying assumptions about cognitive development.
The first model, associated with Piaget (1929) and the rationalist tradition in
general, they call the ‘Central Processing Model’ (CPM). According to this
model each individual has a central processor which contains general skills and
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propensities. All experiences feed into developing these general skills and
propensities and all are equally available to apply to tasks in any context.
Rogoff et al., quoting research from the Laboratory of Comparative Human
Cognition, call the alternative to the CPM the ‘Specific Learning Model’
(SLM). This alternative model which, they claim, has emerged from cross-
cultural research, stresses the context-bound nature of cognitive skills. In this
model, what is learnt in the context of one cultural task can only be assumed
to relate to that task. This SLM is the corollary of conceiving thinking skills
as embedded in cultural tool systems, especially situated language use.
In what Rogoff et al. call the CPM of cognition, the transfer of cognitive
skills learnt in one context to another context of application does not need to
be explained because it is considered to be the normal case, what needs to be
explained is the absence of such transfer. For Piaget, for example, the failure of
children who could do a task in one context to be able to do a task with the
same underlying logical structure in a different context was a problem which
he felt needed explaining and which he attempted to explain in terms of con-
textual factors (Donaldson, 1987;Rogoff, 1990:5). This CPM naturally suggests
the existence of general thinking skills, viewed as context-independent abstract
structures of thought underlying context-specific applications. It has been a
major influence behind programmes intended to teach such general thinking
skills (Adey and Shayer, 1993;Nickerson et al., 1985:36;Papert, 1981).
According to Perkins and Salomon (1989) there has been a shift away from
this model of general thinking skills motivated by a lack of empirical support.
They quote a variety of research projects – including work by Thorndike
dating back to the early years of this century, recent studies by Hayes and
Simon and the considerable research on Papert’s LOGO, a programming
based thinking skills project – all of which have failed to find evidence of
the automatic transfer implied by the traditional model. They sum up the
evidence:The case for generalisable, context-independent skills and strategies
that can be trained in one context and transferred to other domains has
proven to be more a matter of wishful thinking than hard empirical evidence
This analysis is closely supported by Hennessy et al. (1993:79) who argue
from it that the teaching of general thinking skills should give way to the
teaching of subject specific thinking skills on the cognitive apprenticeship
model. Perkins and Salomon (1989), however, argue that it is a pity that this
evidence has been used by some to reject the idea of teaching general thinking
skills when the problem lay, they claim, with the overly abstract and overly
universal view of thinking skills underlying the different educational pro-
grammes. They write that transfer has been shown to occur when certain con-
ditions are met: ‘perhaps most importantly . . . when learning takes place in a
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social context (e.g. reciprocal teaching), whereby justifications, principles, and
explanations are socially fostered, generated, and contrasted’ (1989:22).
General thinking skills can be taught, Perkins and Saloman conclude, but
to understand how best to teach them we need a new model of what these
skills are, a model mediating between the inadequate alternatives of context-
free generality and context-bound specificity. This conclusion is to some
extent supported by evaluations of thinking skills which show that they can
work, but that more contextualised approaches tend to work better than more
de-contextualised approaches. Hattie et al. (1996), for example, conducted a
meta-analysis of 51 study skills interventions and found that ‘Despite, perhaps,
the conventional wisdom, most intervention does work most of the time’
(1996:128,original emphasis). However separate general study skills pro-
grammes were found to be much less effective than teaching meta-cognitive
strategies as part of the teaching of content within courses. Other evaluations
have led to similar conclusions (see Wegerif, 2002).
Wittgenstein’s influence
Forrester (1992:335) argues that explaining thinking skills in terms of
internal mental mechanisms on the CPM is redundant. Since the only
evidence we have of the development of cognitive skills and their transfer to
different contexts is from social interaction it is more efficient and effective,
he argues, to interpret these skills in terms of social interaction, especially
‘participation in dynamic and “on-line” conversational contexts’. A very
similar argument is made by Edwards and Potter in advocating a discourse
based psychology (Edwards, 1992,1996). These arguments are versions of
arguments found in the writings of Wittgenstein. In the Blue and Brown books
(1958), describing the mystifications inherent in ordinary language, he writes:
...we are strongly inclined to use the metaphor of something being in a peculiar state
for saying that something can behave in a particular way. And this way of representation,
or this metaphor, is embodied in the expressions ‘He is capable of . . .’, ‘He is able to
multiply large numbers in his head’‘He can play chess’. (11718 )
Wittgenstein goes on to note how sure people are that to these kind of abilities
there must correspond a peculiar state of the person’s brain, although on the
other hand they know next to nothing about such psycho-physiological cor-
We r egard these phenomena as manifestations of this mechanism, and their possibility is
the particular construction of the mechanism itself. (Wittgenstein 1958:11 718)
Wittgenstein’s point is not that such mechanisms do not exist, although he
seems sceptical, but that even if they do they could not explain our thinking
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and our understanding to us. In place of reductionist explanations, Wittgen-
stein’s method is that of redescriptions to show us the phenomena in a
different light. This he calls ‘perspicuous representation’ (1967:122).
The redescriptions that Wittgenstein gives to illuminate the nature of
thought are in terms of ‘language games’ embedded in ‘forms of life’. Under-
standing how to play a language game is the same as ‘knowing how to go on’.
According to Wittgenstein the posited inner darkness of private cognitive
abilities is a kind of dream produced by the language and quite unnecessary
to seeing clearly the reality that we are and live as we speak, think and ‘know
how to go on’ (1967:61).
McPeck (1981,1990 ), the most vocal critic of the general thinking skills
movement, produces an argument against the possibility of teaching general
thinking skills based explicitly on Wittgenstein. He claims that it is meaning-
less to consider thinking apart from thinking about some subject area. The
temptation to do this, and turn thinking into a separate skill, is an illusion of
the way we use language. McPeck writes that ‘Reasoning ability covers all
manner of cognitive phenomena’ including fishing, writing poems, driving a
car and others to the extent that ‘the phrase ‘reasoning ability’does not denote
any particular skill, nor indeed any particular kind of skill’ (1990:45). He
overtly grounds his argument, that critical thinking can best be taught through
the traditional subjects, on what he calls ‘Wittgenstein’s insight about the very
intimate connection between thought and language’ (199 0:35).
‘ . . . different subjects employ different language games, and different language-games
have their own peculiar (or unique) rules of predication. . . . Thus, there are almost as
many distinguishable logics, or kinds of reasoning, as there are distinguishable kinds of
It follows from this that there are no useful general skills to be taught, but only
the specific skills needed for participating in different language games.
The sociocultural perspective
In his introduction to a special edition of Learning and Instruction on ‘Culture
and Learning’ Roger Saljo (19 91:17985) argues that the issue of the cultural
context of learning has been brought to the fore by historical change,
especially the increasing pluralism of modern societies. Culture can no longer
be viewed ‘as a separate variable and, as it were, be added on to an acultural
conception of human activities’, he writes, but must be seen as the essential
medium of human understanding (Saljo, 19 91:180). Although the recent
cultural turn in educational research shares much common ground with the
philosophy of the later Wittgenstein it seems to stem more from Soviet
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theorists, especially Vygotsky and, to a lesser extent Bakhtin (who also wrote
under the name Volosinov). In this special edition Wittgenstein was not men-
tioned while Vygotsky was heavily referenced (Saljo, 1991). Mercer and Fisher,
referring to this perspective as ‘neo-Vygotskian’, although Mercer later
adopted the term ‘sociocultural’,characterise it as follows:‘The essence of this
approach is to treat learning and cognitive development as culturally-based,
not just culturally influenced, and as social rather than individualized processes’
This theoretical perspective questions some of the assumptions tradition-
ally associated with the thinking skills movement. To make sense of the idea
that thinking is a social rather than an individual phenomenon requires a con-
siderable paradigm shift. Another aspect of the same paradigm shift is to
question the idea of thinking as essentially formal. The stress on the import-
ance of the context of thought becomes, in the ‘neo-Vygotskian’ (Mercer and
Fisher, 1992) or ‘sociocultural’ (Mercer, 2000;Wertsch, 1991) research pro-
gramme, a rejection of the traditional implicit model of thought as being
essentially abstract and formal. On the sociocultural model, thought is pictured
as fully embodied in the often ambiguous business of social interaction.
We r tsch seems to have coined the term ‘sociocultural’ (1991:1846).
Vygotsky preferred the term ‘sociohistorical’ but is quoted by Wertsch and
other proponents of this approach as the main theoretical influence. Writing
in the 1930s at the same time as Piaget was developing his enormously influ-
ential logico-mathematical structural model of cognitive development,
Vygotsky produced a different account of development emphasizing the
crucial role of culture and education. He criticized Piaget for the unsituated-
ness of his approach, writing: ‘The developmental uniformities established by
Piaget apply to a given milieu, under the conditions of Piaget’s study. They
are not laws of nature, but are historically and socially determined’ (1986:55).
Vygotsky’s programmatic statements repeat the central message that ‘all that
is internal in the higher mental functions was at one time external’ (Vygotsky,
1991:36). The claim is that ‘higher mental functions’ or thinking skills, when
looked at as the property of an individual, are internalised versions of social
interactions. Even in their internal and individual form they remain essentially
social (Wertsch, 1991:27).
We r tsch (1979) draws the parallel between a Vygotskian account of learning
thinking skills as the internalisation of interpersonal processes with Wittgen-
stein’s account of thinking embedded in language games. Although these two
approaches seem highly compatible, Vygotsky was working within a Marxist
framework which differed considerably from Wittgenstein’s. One of the most
significant differences is Vygotsky’s stress on history and the genetic origins of
thought. Wittgenstein acknowledges that language games are embedded in
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forms of life which change historically but he seems uninterested in the causes
of that change. He was concerned only to describe language games, expressly
repudiating any idea that the insights of philosophy should change social
practice (1967:124). Vygotsky, by contrast, was an engaged educator as well as
a psychological theorist. His interest was precisely in changing children by
teaching them more effectively and in participating in historical transform-
ation in the new socialist experiment that surrounded him and to which he
was committed (Alex Kozulin, introduction to Thought and Language,
Vygotsky, 1986).
The sociocultural paradigm, defined broadly to include those who do not
use the term but seem to share the key assumptions referred to by Mercer
(quoted above) has led to many valuable and insightful studies of learning
thinking skills. Collins et al.s influential paper on ‘Cognitive apprenticeship’
(1986) is subtitled ‘teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics’ and
includes detailed recommendations on ways to teach these ‘crafts’ basic to
school-based education in accordance with the apprenticeship model.
Edwards and Mercer’s study of classroom interactions describes education as
a form of ‘cognitive socialisation’ (1987:161) into a particular form of dis-
course, ‘educated discourse’. Lemke (1990) does much the same for school
science teaching, describing it as an induction into a way of using language.
Rogoff’s (1990) Apprenticeship in Thinking: Cognitive Development in Social
Context refers to many studies of teaching and learning thinking skills, all of
which are studies of skills tied to the context of specific cultural tasks.
Where the CPM places thinking in the heads of individuals the sociocul-
tural paradigm situates it in cultural practices, social institutions and situated
language games, discourse practices and literacy practices. Whereas for the
CPM the idea of general thinking skills is unproblematic and specific cultural
influences on thought need to be explained; for the sociocultural paradigm,
and the associated SLM drawn out by Rogoff et al.,this situation is reversed.
Thinking skills embedded in specific cultural practices are considered to be
the normal case while the idea of thinking skills in general, that is skills that
transcend specific practices and are general to all of them, is problematic and
difficult to conceptualise.
sociocultural paradigm and the charge of
In situating thought in cultural contexts the sociocultural paradigm inevitably
raises what Bruner calls ‘the spector of relativism’ (199 0:30). This apparent
area of theoretical weakness is closely linked to the difficulty of conceptual-
izing general thinking skills. If a solution to the problem of relativism can be
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found within the sociocultural paradigm, that solution may well translate into
a solution to the problem of conceptualizing general thinking skills. This is
why it is worth exploring the charge of relativism and responses to it.
McPeck (1990), quoted above, argues that different language games define
their own criteria for truth validation. The same conclusion must follow even
more strongly for moral values. McPeck, being more a follower of Wittgen-
stein than of Vygotsky, is not perhaps exemplary of the sociocultural position.
However he expresses clearly a position, opposed to the possibility of teaching
general thinking skills, that is a version of the SLM and is related to similar
issues central to the sociocultural paradigm. Wittgenstein’s notion of a
language game interdependent with a form of life is closely related to Bakhtin
and Volosinov’s (1986) notion of discourse genres developed to explicate
Marx’s claim that consciousness is embedded in actual social relations. If
thought and logic are conceived of as fully situated in language games or dis-
course genres, which are in turn embedded in cultural practices, then it would
appear to follow that we cannot judge the validity of truth claims or moral
claims made within a cultural context from a perspective outside that context.
McPeck’s claim that each language game defines its own logic is closely related
to the sociocultural claim that thinking skills are culturally embedded. Both
appear to be claims that lead to relativist conclusions about truth, reason and
Need for reflexivity
Habermas’s idea of performative contradiction offers an argument against
relativism based on rules implicit in the performative use of language. This is
the idea that:
there are certain unavoidable assumptions that accompany any argument and the propo-
sitional content of the argument cannot contradict these assumptions. (Holub, 1991:143)
There appears to be such a performative contradiction involved in arguments
leading to cultural relativism: their propositional truth claims contradict their
implicit performative claims. If they are true, then, as themselves apparently
universal claims transcending cultural contexts, they are false.
This argument points to the need for a self-reflective account of thinking
skills that can understand the thinking involved in putting forward the
account. If, following McPeck, one can isolate the specific logics of language
games then what is the logic that enables one to do that and in what language
game is it embedded? In Lemke’s study of school science, to give another
example, we have reason described as ‘a way of using language’ (199 0:121).
Lemke shows how approaching the issue of reason from this perspective
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proves insightful in revealing the genre patterns that apply to it. Reason clearly
is, among other things, a way of using language. But the challenge raised by
the critique of relativism is: can Lemke account for his own reasoning in the
same way? Can his own practice of social science, as exemplified in his book,
be adequately described in terms of the ‘rhetorical and genre structure
patterns’ he uses to analyse the reasoning of the subjects of his study (1990:
122)? Clearly it could be analysed in this way but such an analysis alone would
not do full justice to its claims. Lemke’s implicit claim, a claim he shares with
the scientific rationality he describes, is to transcend any limited cultural
context in order to tell the story of school science as it really is.
Need for context transcendence
An important moral argument against relativism is that it removes any yard-
stick for the criticism of social practices. This usually has conservative impli-
cations because it legitimates, by default, the current practices of any society.
In educational terms the critique of the possibility of teaching general
thinking skills can lead to the enshrining of existing practices as immutable,
particularly traditional subject divisions. This outcome can be seen clearly in
the Wittgensteinian arguments of Hirst (1974) and McPeck (1981,1990), both
of whom argue for the specificity of the logics required by the already estab-
lished academic subjects. In the sociocultural paradigm the use of both
apprenticeship and socialisation as models of learning account well for the
reproduction of social practices but not for the development of the capacity
to criticize and change them. What is needed in addition to an account of
social reproduction is a socioculturally situated account of how apparently
context transcending reflective and critical thinking can be taught and learnt.
towar ds a redescription of general thinking
Communicative rationality
Habermas argues that once we make the shift from what he calls ‘the paradigm
of consciousness’ to ‘the paradigm of mutual understanding’ it becomes
apparent that reason is not about the structures of representation in a con-
sciousness, but about the way participants in dialogue orient themselves to each
other (1987:314). In all of the different contexts in which reasoning occurs, it
retains a certain unity of form because of ‘communicative presuppositions’
necessary to it. For example, Habermas points out, argument would be futile
unless participants believe that the outcome will not be determined simply by
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coercion but also by, what Habermas calls, ‘the unforced force’ of the better
argument. If this minimum belief is not present then sincere debate cannot
occur. From this and other similar requirements, requirements which could not
be argued against without falling into self-contradiction, Habermas claims that
minimal rules characterising an ‘ideal speech situation’ can be deduced. Pro-
visionally, at an earlier stage, he proposed a formulation (Habermas, 1990:89)
which read like a set of participant rights, such as the right of all to speak, to
question assertions and to remain free from coercion. Habermas does not argue
that these ground-rules are the facts of argumentation but rather that they, or
some similar set, are the necessary ideals of argumentation:
Once participants enter into argumentation, they cannot avoid supposing, in a recipro-
cal way, that the conditions for an ideal speech situation have been sufficiently met. And
yet they realise that their discourse is never definitively ‘purified’ of the motives and com-
pulsions that have been filtered out. (Habermas, 1987:322)
Habermas’s account of the ideal-speech situation can be and has been criti-
cized (Linell, 1998:11 ). It is in the nature of communicative rationality that
its ground rules cannot be fixed in advance because they can always be chal-
lenged in a debate which has no necessary end. Despite this, the central insight
of Habermas’s position, that reason is more a matter of historically emergent
social ground rules than of a determinate logic, is hard to deny. Rorty argues
that, while Habermas is misguided in apparently seeking universal and quasi-
transcendental grounds for rationality, he is nonetheless right that rationality
must be defined through ‘the sort of encounter in which the truth cannot fail
to win’ (19 91:39,by ‘truth’ he means the best belief to hold in the context)
and that this depends on certain ‘virtues’ such as ‘relying on persuasion rather
than force’ and ‘respect for the opinions of colleagues’. Similarly Seyla
BenHabib (1992) criticizes Habermas’s stress on legalistic rules and what she
calls the reduction of the concrete other in a dialogue to an abstract other,
however, nonetheless, she agrees with Habermas that, if we are to bring up
children in peace we need some sort of ideal of reason or at least an ideal of
‘being reasonable’. This ideal is, she argues, about how real people solve their
problems without resorting to violence through engaging in dialogues
informed by an attitude of care and respect.
A socioculturaly situated answer to the problem of relativism
Bruner defends cultural psychology against the charge of relativism by first
pointing out that values are not freely chosen but inhere in cultures, and then
arguing that his constructivism is an expression of pluralist values inhering in
a democratic culture, which is the most appropriate culture for modern
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conditions where there is both rapid change and the clash of many different
claims to validity (Bruner, 1986:2430). Faith in absolutes is no longer
adequate, he writes: ‘All one can hope for is a viable pluralism backed by a
willingness to negotiate differences in world view’.
Where there is a need for coordinated action, inhabitants of different
cultural perspectives must seek mutual understanding. This requires that the
habitual assumptions of each culture must be bracketed while a new,mutually
acceptable, version of reality is worked out. In this process of reaching under-
standing across different perspectives we have a situated yet transcendent
rationality. It is not transcendent in the static, a priori, sense of Kant’s
categories, but in the historically situated and fallible sense of constantly going
beyond the given context in the search for a broader consensus. This bridging
of barriers to create a framework for mutual understanding is always situated
historically and socially. It is an aspect of the evolution of cultures and may
involve the creation of new communities.
A similar argument applies to issues of reflexivity in sociocultural research.
The charge of operating double-standards leading to an incoherent relativism
is applicable where the truth claims of the subjects studied are bracketed out
or ‘ironised’ (Edwards, 1996) and their rationality described only in the objec-
tified form of a set of genre conventions while the rationality of the researcher
remains unexamined and unsituated. On the alternative dialogical reason
model, inspired by Habermas, it is not possible to describe claims to ration-
ality without engaging with them and thereby being part of a historically and
socially situated dialogue (see Habermas, 1984:130 ).
Habermas’s claim to overcome the problem of relativity through a model
of communicative rationality can be criticised. Habermas brings in an import-
ant new social dimension to the definition of reason by pointing out that
reason occurs in contexts structured by orientations and ground rules which
can be more or less reasonable. However some would argue that there is more
to the idea of reason than reasonable social orientations and ground rules.
Habermas’s appeal to ‘the unforced force of the better argument’, for example,
appears to assume a transcultural framework from which the quality of argu-
ments can be assessed. If there is no such transcultural framework then the
shared way forward that emerges from dialogue might be described as a nego-
tiated consensus rather than the product of critical reasoning. Relativity is a
complex problem in philosophy which Habermas does not completely
resolve. However, while characterizing reason in terms of descriptions of
concrete dialogues might not be the whole story it does appear to be a signifi-
cant part of the story and a valuable way forward beyond some of the more
obvious problems of relativism in contemporary social science.
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Specifying dialogical reason
The sociocultural perspective has been characterized as tending to situate
thought in discourse genres, a term first applied in this context by Bakhtin
(Bakhtin, 1981;Volosinov, 1986:20). Bakhtin described discourse genres as
‘typical situations of speech communication’ (quoted in Wertsch 1991:61) and
mentions examples such as military commands, everyday narration and
intimate chats. Fairclough’s more recent definition of genre seems similar:
I shall use the term ‘genre’for a relatively stable set of conventions that is associated with,
and partly enacts, a socially ratified type of activity, such as informal chat, buying goods
in a shop, a job interview, a television documentary, a poem, or a scientific article. (Fair-
clough, 1992)
On the model of discourse bounded by genre conventions it is difficult to
conceptualize the basis for that critical discourse which seems to transcend its
context in order to reflect back on it. What is required is the characterisation
in discourse terms of the meta-discourse invoked when genre conventions are
challenged and changed.
Instead of an inevitably backward looking characterization of speech genres
we need to characterize those social situations which open up the possibility
of creative reflection that transcends its context to create new understandings.
These descriptions of situated dialogue require two levels: a characterization
of intersubjective orientations and a specification of the social ground rules.
intersubjective orientations
Habermas begins his account of communicative rationality by drawing a dis-
tinction between ‘a success-oriented attitude’ and ‘an attitude oriented to
reaching understanding’. (Habermas 1991:286) While he does not dismiss the
strategic or profit-maximising rationality that issues from a success-oriented
attitude, he argues that this kind of rationality is parasitic on a more funda-
mental communicative rationality issuing from an attitude oriented to
reaching understanding. Use of the word ‘attitude’ carries with it the danger
of being interpreted as only referring to individual states whereas Habermas
makes it clear that he is referring to ways in which participants in a dialogue
can orient themselves to each other. He refers to this as the ‘structural prop-
erties’ of intersubjectivity. To emphasise this I will use the term ‘intersubjec-
tive orientation’ in place of attitude.
Habermas’s claim about the centrality of intersubjective orientations
connects his later work to the very different tradition of Jewish writer and the-
ologian, Martin Buber. In his seminal work, ‘I and Thou’, (Buber, 1923/1970)
Buber draws a distinction between the ‘I–thou’ type of relationship,
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characterised by mutual responsiveness, and ‘I–it’ relationships in which an
active subject confronts and dominates a passive object.
A similar distinction is found later in the work of Bakhtin, who contrasts
the ‘authoritative’ voice that demands that we either accept or reject it to the
‘persuasive’ voice (Bakhtin, 1934/19 81:343) that enters into us and stimulates
our own answering words.
social ground rules
Buber’s ‘I–thou’ relationship might be a pre-condition for the emergence of
reason but it is not, in itself, reasoning. In Habermas’s account of communi-
cative rationality a second level of description of reason is often referred to as
the social rules governing what he calls an ‘ideal speech situation’. These are
rules of the kind that every participant has an equal right to participate and
to question claims (Habermas, 1990:92). These particular rules have been
criticised by Seyla BenHabib and others as being too formal. Benhabib’s claim
is that reasonableness stems not from the abstract rights of a universal other
but from recognising the needs of a concrete other (BenHabib, 1992) which
presupposes an attitude of care not mentioned by Habermas. While Habermas
can be challenged on the details, his important insight here is that we need
shared social rules to open up a space for thinking between the Scylla of
coercion on the one side and the Charybdis of unreflective consensus on the
Dialogical reason and general thinking skills
If general thinking skills are embodied in a type of dialogue that can be
characterized by intersubjective orientations and social ground rules and that
can be supported by social contexts, this provides a basis for understanding
how general thinking skills can be taught and learnt. In the sociocultural
model of learning thinking skills this model of reason naturally suggests an
approach to teaching and learning general thinking skills as induction into full
participation into a discourse practice structured by the ground rules of dia-
logical reason. Vygotsky has been quoted claiming that the higher mental
functions are all originally found externally in social interaction before being
internalized by individuals. On this model general thinking skills, viewed as
the property of an individual, could be seen as an internalization of an external
communicative rationality viewed as the property of a sociocultural system.
Experimental evidence, as well as Vygotskian theory, suggests that the quality
of individual thinking reflects the quality of collective thinking and vice versa
(Wegerif et al., 1999).
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practical implications for education
While cognitive psychology has tended to characterize thinking skills in abstract
and formal terms, educational practitioners often take a more situated approach.
Richard Paul,sometimes described as the leading proponent of teaching critical
thinking skills (e.g. Weinstein, 1993) emphasizes the importance of promoting
dialogues in which participants are lead to question their own assumptions
(Paul, 1987). Mathew Lipman, founder of the popular Philosophy for Children
approach, similarly advocates drawing children into dialogues within a ‘com-
munity of inquiry in the classroom’ (Lipman, 1991). ‘Thinking Together’ lessons
used in the UK to promote ‘Exploratory Talk’ focus explicitly on teaching
certain communicative ground rules that include responding to challenges with
reasons (Dawes et al., 2000). However, many programmes to teach thinking
skills are not informed by a dialogic approach and those that are often base
themselves more on intuitions than on theory (Murris, 1993,Segal et al., 1985).
The value of the framework for understanding the teaching and learning of
thinking skills as induction into dialogues characterized by particular orien-
tations and ground rules, is that it can form a basis for design studies in which
the consequences of promoting particular orientations and ground rules can be
explored (see, for example,Wegerif et al., 1999).
One of the consequences of the success of the sociocultural perspective in
education has been a widespread mistrust of the enterprise of teaching general
thinking skills. Many do not see the idea of general thinking skills as com-
patible with the assumptions of sociocultural theory that thought is always
embodied in practices in social contexts. In this paper I have argued, follow-
ing insights from Habermas, BenHabib and others, that general thinking skills
are embodied in a situated type of dialogue, dialogical reason, which can be
characterized in terms of intersubjective orientations and social ground rules.
Although such dialogues are always historically and socially situated, they are
self-reflectively able to transcend that context in order to forge new shared
understandings. They also employ standards that can be applied internally as
well as externally. According to this model, teaching general thinking skills
involves a combination of inducting children to participate in such dialogical
reason and structuring social environments to support dialogical reason.
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biographical note
RUPERT WEGERIF heads the Educational Dialogue Research Unit at the UK
Open University where he is a permanent senior research fellow. He has written
and researched extensively on the significance of dialogue in education but is
perhaps best known for his work on the role of new technology supporting
learning dialogues in classrooms. He writes a column for a UK magazine called
Teaching Thinking.His books include Computers and Talk in the Primary Classroom
and Thinking and Learning with ICT.Correspondence to: Rupert Wegerif, Faculty
of Education and Language Studies, Open University,Walton Hall, Milton Keynes,
MK76AA, UK. [email:]
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... He argues that knowledge is not neutral or impartial, but is shaped by the interests, ideologies, and power structures of the people and institutions that produce it. For knowledge construction a constant dialogue is required in a socio-cultural setting (Wegerif, 2004). The constant interaction between teacher and student is not sufficient rather there is a need for a dialogue based on mutual respect so that the learning experience can trespass the boundary of one-sided communication. ...
Development education has been acknowledged for a long time as an essential instrument for advancing social justice, global citizenship, and sustainable development. The field of development education is entering a new era that is fraught with both new opportunities and new problems brought about by the proliferation of digital technology. This paper explores the role of development education in the digital era, focusing on how digital technologies are being incorporated into educational settings to enhance learning and engagement, as well as the theoretical and practical repercussions that these changes have for the field of development education. The paper argues that while digital technologies offer new possibilities for engaging learners and promoting global understanding, they also present challenges related to access, equity, and critical engagement. Drawing on existing literature and case studies, the paper concludes by outlining some of the key issues and opportunities for development education in the digital era.
... I have discussed some important theories about educational dialogues and historical thinking. As Wegerif (2004Wegerif ( , 2011 argues, teaching general thinking skills can be conceptualised as an induction into the practice of dialogue across differences. However, is this the same case when teaching historical thinking? ...
The study reported in this dissertation explored: (1) teachers’ use of dialogue to facilitate students’ historical thinking and (2) the trajectory of historical personal epistemology through a design-based approach. Empirical evidence emerging in previous decades has acknowledged that good quality classroom dialogue could have a positive impact on students’ learning. Through dialogic teaching, it has been argued that teachers could probe and promote students’ higher thinking skills. However, how dialogue is being used in history classes as well as the cultural context of dialogic education in East Asia was a salient gap in current research. The first research aim was to explore both teachers’ and students’ epistemic beliefs regarding the domain of history, which has been largely neglected in this field of study. The aim of this research was also to propose a new perspective on dialogic education that might not only bridge the dichotomy of the monologic and dialogic forms of teaching, but also address the pedagogical dilemma in history education raised by the latest Taiwanese national curriculum reform. Finally, another major aim of the research was to design a teacher professional development programme to change teachers’ epistemic beliefs and their teaching practice towards dialogic history education for promoting historical thinking. Adopting the notion of design-based research, a teaching professional programme was designed and administered throughout the one-academic year to 7 high school teachers. Three students of each participating teacher were chosen for semi-structured interviews to explore their personal epistemology, which were later analysed with an innovative discourse analysis method: Epistemic Network Analysis (ENA). Data concerning classroom dialogue was collected from monthly class observations and then analysed with a reconceptualised coding framework adapted from the Teacher’s Scheme for Educational Dialogue Analysis (T-SEDA, Hennessy, et al., 2021) and an observational instrument for historical thinking (Gestsdóttir, et al., 2018). In regard to personal epistemology, the findings reported a mixture of results with only a few students seeing a significant change in their epistemic beliefs after the programme. However, a pattern-based model for analysing historical epistemic beliefs reported from this study, has been generated resulting in four major patterns of beliefs being identified. In terms of classroom dialogue, the results found a positive increase in teachers’ use of dialogue. A hybrid form of dialogue informed by current dialogic theories synthesised with Confucianism and Taoism allowed dialogue to transgress away from the dichotomy of structural forms of monologue and dialogue was also put forward and characterised from the analysis. The contributions of this present study are discussed in terms of theoretical, methodological and practical uses.
... Wegerif aims at the development of transdisciplinary 'thinking skills' (Wegerif, 2004(Wegerif, , 2010(Wegerif, and 2013, while Bereiter and Scardamalia (2005) maintain that "the ability to contribute through conversation to knowledge creation in one context does not ensure that the same will suffice in another context" (p. 756). ...
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Dialogic Literacy is understood as being able to participate in productive dialogue with others and is a key competence for learning and active citizenship in a cultural and societal landscape shaped by the ‘participatory turn’. The article develops a definition of Dialogic Literacy based on a cross-disciplinary approach combining deliberative discourse, collaborative rationality, and Moral Foundation Theory. Furthermore, it presents a framework that educators can utilize in order to transform classroom discussion into activity that fosters learners’ Dialogic Literacy. Finally, the article argues for elevating the status of Dialogic Literacy as an overarching learning goal that should become an integral part of language education.
... This is the implication of a situated 'communities of practice' approach to learning (Lave and Wenger, 1991). I have responded to this possible criticism of the whole idea of teaching thinking elsewhere (Wegerif, 2004). Accounts of different contexts of thinking describe the horizontal dimension of thinking but in addition to this we need an account of the vertical dimension of thinking in order to understand thinking in response to a new event or thinking that cuts across contexts in order to criticise or challenge existing practices. ...
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This paper develops a dialogic theory of thinking and of learning to think that has implications for education. The theory is offered as a contrast to theories that are based on both Piaget and Vygotsky. The paper proceeds by unpacking and interweaving three key concepts: dialogue, thinking and learning in order to argue that learning to think can be understood as a shift in self-identification towards becoming dialogue. This theory is then applied to the context of primary classrooms through the analysis of three short episodes of interaction. These analyses offer evidence that a dialogic theory of learning to think can offer new and valuable insights into classroom interaction with the potential to inform pedagogy.
... There is considerable debate over whether it is more effective to adopt a discrete programme or an infused approach (ten Dam & Volman, 2004). Underlying this debate is the question of whether thinking skills are generic and applicable across disciplines (Ennis, 1989;Siegel, 1992;Wegerif, 2004) or domain and task-specific (Baer, 1998;Brown, 1997;Feldhusen & Goh, 1995;Haylock, 1987;Hu & Adey, 2002;McPeck, 1981McPeck, , 1990Perkins & Salomon, 1989;Swartz, 2001;Swartz & Parks, 1994). There is also the related question of whether thinking skills are transferable across contexts (Glevey, 2008;McGuinness, 1993). ...
... Many decades on, justifications are being hunted to support the teaching of thinking skills that are now part of the school curriculum in the British educational system. The issue of teaching thinking skills has generated much controversy producing adherents (Wegerif, 2004;Smith, 2002;McGuinness, 1999;Quinn, 1994) and sceptics (White, 2002;Johnson, 2001;Andrews,1990;McPeck, 1981). I will briefly outline the current debate on thinking skills. ...
This article sets out to explore some of the issues raised by the introduction of a number of particular skills in the English National Curriculum known collectively as thinking skills. These skills are now embedded in the National Curriculum and teachers are required to address them as part of their daily duties. This article argues that presenting such a limited selection of skills as the foundation for effective thinking may lead to an inadequate approach to enhancing pupils' thinking. Although creative thinking is emphasized in addition to the considerable focus on reasoning in the list of thinking skills presented in the National Curriculum, silence prevails on other types of thinking of equal significance, such as contemplation and sign-cognition (a form of pre-verbal and pre-imaginal form of cognition). The article attempts to highlight the need for the awareness of the complex nature of thinking and concludes by highlighting the opportunities that the introduction thinking skills offer teachers.
... Alternatively group work may have a general impact by enhancing argumentation and higher order thinking strategies such as the ability to apply, analyse, synthesise and evaluate knowledge (Davidson & Worsham, 1992;Wegerif, 2004). Further research is clearly needed to examine these possibilities further. ...
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This longitudinal research tests the effectiveness of the SPRinG programme, which was developed through a collaboration between researchers and teachers and designed to provide teachers with strategies for enhancing pupil group work in ‘authentic’ classroom settings. An evaluation study involved comparing pupils in SPRinG classrooms and trained in group work skills with those who were not in terms of science attainment. There were 560 and 1027 pupils (8–10 years) in the experimental and control groups respectively. ‘Macro’ attainment data were collected at the start of the year. ‘Micro’ attainment data were collected in the spring and summer before and after science lessons involving either group work (intervention) or the control teachers' usual approach. SPRinG pupils made greater academic progress than control pupils. Findings are discussed relative to enhancing the quantity and quality of group work in schools and a social pedagogic approach to classroom learning.
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This introduction paper provides the context for the Symposium. It begins with a brief account of the ways in which the Internet is being held responsible for poisoning democracy, then unpacks the nexus of the three main terms of the title of this Symposium: democracy, education and technology. The conceptual aspects of this nexus are inextricable from the technical aspects. That is why it is appropriate that this Symposium integrates together papers that might seem primarily conceptual and papers that are more focused on technical issues of how to design to support deeper reflection and collective intelligence. This paper ends with a justification of the need to take an expanded ‘design based research’ approach to the issue of how education and technology relate to democracy. What we need now is not so much contemplative knowledge of relationships between abstract concepts but engaged knowledge that supports collective technology design, where we, ourselves, or the nature of human subjectivity and human subjectivities, are understood to be part of that technological design based research project.
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Dialogic: Education for the Internet Age argues that despite rapid advances in communications technology, most teaching still relies on traditional approaches to education, built upon the logic of print, and dependent on the notion that there is a single true representation of reality. In practice, the use of the Internet disrupts this traditional logic of education by offering an experience of knowledge as participatory and multiple. This new logic of education is dialogic and characterises education as learning to learn, think and thrive in the context of working with multiple perspectives and ultimate uncertainty. The book builds upon the simple contrast between observing dialogue from an outside point of view, and participating in a dialogue from the inside, before pinpointing an essential feature of dialogic: the gap or difference between voices in dialogue which is understood as an irreducible source of meaning. Each chapter of the book applies this dialogic thinking to a specific challenge facing education, re-thinking the challenge and revealing a new theory of education. Areas covered in the book include: • dialogical learning and cognition. • dialogical learning and emotional intelligence. • educational technology, dialogic 'spaces' and consciousness. • global dialogue and global citizenship. • dialogic theories of science and maths education. The challenge identified in Wegerif's text is the growing need to develop a new understanding of education that holds the potential to transform educational policy and pedagogy in order to meet the realities of the digital age. Dialogic: Education for the Internet Age draws upon the latest research in dialogic theory, creativity and technology, and is essential reading for advanced students and researchers in educational psychology, technology and policy.