Journal on Human Development, Culture and Education
Revista Interdisciplinar de Desenvolvimento Humano, Cultura e Educação
Benjamin Constant, Amazonas, Brasil
photo © Marcelo Lima
table of contents
/ numero 4, Vol I, May / Maio 2003
The Developmental Consequences of Formal Education
years my colleagues and I have been interested in what impact attendance
in formal school has on young children. This is a difficult topic to study
under any conditions, but especially difficult in countries where schooling
is (at least) nearly universal. While such education is by no means equivalent
across different demographically defined groups (socio-economic status
for example) the array of socio-cultural variables that co-vary with education
(and which are tangled among themselves) makes isolating any sort of “causal”
contribution to education in observed differences in outcome open to a
great variety of interpretations, regardless of the care taken by the investigator.
Implicitly, if not explicitly, modern education mixes these two social goals, although the former is probably by far the dominant form in all societies where formal education is wide spread.
History, Social Differentiation, and “Education.”
In a recent monograph entitled Non-Western
Educational Traditions Timothy Reagan argues that the term, “education”
applies equally across all societies at all times because “one of the fundamental
characteristics of human civilization is a concern for the preparation
of the next generation” (Reagan 2000), p. xiii). I sympathize with
his criticism of thoughtless writers on the topic who assume that societies
lacking formal schooling are bastions of ignorance (and there are many
such commentators), but an unfortunate byproduct of assuming a universal
meaning for the concept of education forces Reagan, and many whose work
he draws upon, to place the term in quotation marks, or to qualify it with
terms such as “informal” or “education in the broadest sense” to indicate
that the process of “preparing the next generation” has indeed varied across
time and across societies. I prefer to think of education as a particular
form of schooling and schooling as a particular form of institutionalized
Although I will be focusing on modern education in countries where education is far from universal, it will be helpful in thinking about these current circumstances to take at least a brief look at earlier times, when education was just becoming differentiated from other forms of enculturation and the socio-political-economic conditions that were implicated in the emergence of this new cultural form.
Small, face to face societies: “Education = enculturation = participation"
Bruner (Bruner et al. 1966), in an influential monograph on culture and cognitive development, remark that in watching “thousands of feet of film (about life among the Kung San Bushmen), one sees no explicit teaching in the sense of a “session” out of the context of action to teach the child a particular thing. It is all implicit.” (p. 59). Elsewhere in the same essay he comments that “the process by which implicit culture is ‘acquired’ by the individual ... is such that awareness and verbal formulation are intrinsically difficult “(p. 58).
Similarly, Meyer Fortes, in his well known monograph on education among the Tale in what is now known as Ghana emphasizes that “the social sphere of the adult and child is unitary and undivided.... As between adults and children, in Tale society, the social sphere is differentiated only in terms of relative capacity. All participate it the same culture, the same round of life, but in varying degrees, corresponding to the stage of physical and mental development... " (Fortes 1938; Schmandt- Besserat 1975) p. 8).
Echoing these descriptions, Reagan reviews ethnographic evidence from 76 societies in sub-Saharan Africa and concludes that in the African setting, education “cannot (and indeed should not) be separated from life itself” (2000, p. 29),
However, even in such small, face to face societies, there are exceptions to these generalizations concerning the total fusion of adult and child social sphere, such as rites de passage, and I am always suspicious of accounts which minimize the heterogeneity within cultural groups (with respect to sex role obligations, for example). But for purpose of argument, it may be useful to assume that this picture of undifferentiated social life and education-as-enculturation represents a reasonable approximation to most of life in small, face to face, hunter-gatherer groups or subsistence farming groups.
Rudimentary forms of separation between enculturation and education
Even granting such an “Ur” starting point, what one encounters in many small societies where agriculture has displaced hunting and gathering as the mode of life, but which remain small in size and relatively isolated from each other, is the beginnings of differentiation of child and adult life suggesting early forms of deliberate teaching which usually involve a good deal of training, but perhaps with some degree of inducing involved as well.
In many societies in rural Africa, for example, what are referred to casually as rites de passage may be institutionalized activities that last for several years and teaching is certainly involved (Reagan, 2000). Among the Kpelle and Vai peoples of Liberia, where I worked in the 1960’s and 1970’s, for example, children were separated from their communities for four or five years in an institution referred to in Liberian pidgen as “bush school.” There children were instructed by selected elders in the essential skills of making a living as well as the foundational ideologies of the society, embodied in ritual and song. Some began there a years-long apprenticeship which would later qualify them to be specialists in bone setting, midwifery, and other valued arcane knowledge.
Shifting to the historical record, it appears that it is primarily, if not only, when a society’s population grows numerous and it develops elaborate technologies which permit the accumulation of substantial material goods, that the form of enculturation to which we apply the term, schooling, emerges.
Social accumulation, differentiation, and the advent of schooling
As a part of the sea change in human life pattern associated with the bronze age in what is now referred to as the Middle East, the organization of human life began a cascade of changes, which while unevenly distributed in time and space, appear to be widely, if not universally, associated with the advent of formal schooling. In the Euphrates valley, the smelting of bronze revolutionized economic and social life. With bronze tools it became possible to till the earth in more productive ways, to build canals to control to the flow of water, to equip armies with more effective weapons, and so on. Under these conditions, one part of the population could grow enough food to support large number in addition to themselves. This combination of factors made possible a substantial division of labor and development of the first city states (Schmandt- Besserat 1975).
Another essential technology which enabled this new mode of life was the elaboration of a previously existing, but highly restricted mode of representing objects by inscriptions on tokens and the elaboration of the first writing system, cuneiform, which evolved slowly over time. Initially the system was used almost exclusively for record keeping, but evolved to represent not only objects but the sounds of language enabling letter writing and the recording of religious texts (Larsen 1986);(Schmandt-Besserat 1996)
The new system of cuneiform writing could only be mastered after long and systematic study, but record keeping was so essential to the coordination of activities in relatively large and complex societies, where crop sizes, taxes, troop provisioning, and multiple forms of exchange need to be kept track of for the society to exist, that these societies began to devote resources to support selected young men with the explicit purpose of making them scribes, people who could write. The places where young men were brought together for this purpose were the earliest formal schools.
Not only the activities that took place in these schools, but the architecture , the organization of activities, and the reigning ideologies within them were in many respects startlingly modern. The classroom consisted of rows of desks, facing forward to a single location where a teacher stood, guiding them in repetitive practice of the means of writing and the operations which accompanied it. Note that instead of inkwells, the classroom contains bowls where wet clay could be obtained to refresh current tablets. In many such schools, the compiling of quantified lists of valued items was a major past time, although some letter writing also occurred. These lists were often viewed as evidence of extraordinary cognitive achievements. Table 1 compares an ancient list with one current in American schools
Significantly, evidence concerning
early schooling indicates that more than socially neutral, technical literacy
and numeracy skills were thought to be acquired there. The ideological
implications, as well as the material, were quite explicitly recognized.
Such lists and the means for creating them were routine imbued with special
powers such as are currently ascribed to those who are “civilized” and
it was clearly recognized that socio-economic value flowed from this knowledge.
As one father admonished his son, several thousand years ago:
Although the details differ, a similar
story could be told for China, where bureaucratized schooling arose a thousand
or so years later, and in Egypt, as well as in many of the civilizations
that followed. In the middle ages, the focus of elementary schooling shifted
to what LeVine and White (1986) refer to as “the acquisition of virtue”
through familiarity with sacred texts, but a certain number of students
were taught essential record keeping skills commensurate with the forms
of economic and political activity that needed to be coordinated through
As characterized by LeVine and White
(1986) the shift from schools in large agrarian societies to contemporary
societies (whether industrialized, or agrarian, former colonies of European
industrial powers) share the following set of common features:
Overwhelmingly, the form of schooling adopted currently around the world is based upon this European model that evolved in the 19th century and which followed conquering European armies into other parts of the world ( See LeVine and White 1986; LeVine, LeVine et al. 2001), for a more extensive treatment of this evolution over a longer period of time).
However, locally traditional forms of enculturation, even of schooling, have by no means been obliterated, sometimes, preceding (Wagner 1993), sometimes co-existing with (LeVine and White, 1986), the more or less universal “culture of formal schooling” supported by, and supportive of, the nation state. Often these more traditional forms assert local religious and ethical values. Nonetheless, these alternatives still retain many of the structural features already evident in the large agrarian societies of the Middle Ages.
As a consequence of these historical trends, which are still contested (as the current rise of religious fundamentalism and nationalism that threaten the lives of people all over the globe clearly attests) an institutional form, somewhat crudely identifiable as “Western-style” education, is an ideal if not a reality all over the world. It operates in the service of state building, economic development, the bureaucratic structures through which rationalization of this process is attempted, and exists as a pervasive fact of contemporary life. According to a survey conducted by UNESCO in 1998, by 1990 more than 80% of children in Latin America, Asia (outside of Japan) and Africa were enrolled in public school, although there are large disparities among regions and many children only complete a few years of schooling. Nonetheless, experience of what, for lack of a better word, I will call “European - style” schooling has become a pervasive fact of life the world over.
With this set of considerations as background, albeit presented in a foreshortened and somewhat vulgarized fashion, I now turn to the question of the consequences of this pervasive form of educational experience for the development of individual children, their communities, and perhaps humanity more generally, in the contemporary world. Although I believe my argument can be more broadly generalized, I will pay special attention to post-colonial (sometimes referred to as “third world” societies where education is far from universal, because it is within these circumstances that my struggle to understand the cognitive consequences of education first arose when I became a practicing psychologists several decades ago, and because I think that solutions to problems which my narrowness of approach at the time made me vulnerable have received the strongest empirical support.
The consequences of education in post-colonial societies.
Although there were some attempts
to assess the cognitive and social impacts of formal schooling compared
to indigenous forms of education prior to World War II, by and large the
beneficial effects of formal schooling were assumed to be self evident
to European and American policy makers. During the 19th century teachers,
often missionaries, followed European troops to help carry the “white man’s
burden.” Asia, South America, and Africa all experienced this form
of cultural penetration. One participant in such work referred to women
sent to the Philippines in 1901 as “a “second wave of troops,” remarking
that the school in which she taught was no different in content from what
was concurrently occurring in schools across the United States (Cleaves
1994; Rogoff 2002).
A small sample of statements by the founders of UNESCO, a secular organization, reveals clearly the way in which they viewed their mission:
...the wide diffusion of culture,
and the education of human beings for justice and liberty and peace, are
indispensable for the dignity of man (UNESCO 1951), frontpiece)
In the spirit of UNESCO's view, economist Daniel Lerner argued that a key attribute of modern thinking is the ability to take another person's perspective and to empathize with their point of view (Lerner 1958). Lerner was quite specific about the relationship between psychological modernity and modern economic activity. The ability to take another's point of view, he wrote,
"is an indispensable skill for moving
people out traditional settings... Our interest is to clarify the process
whereby the high empathizer tends to become also the cash customer, the
radio listener, the voter." (Lerner,
1958, p. 50).
The inability to adopt another’s point
of view is, of course, the central characteristic attributed to the thinking
of 3-6 year old children by Jean Piaget. Some did not shrink from
drawing the obvious conclusion. In 1979, C. P. Hallpike summarized
decades of psychological research comparing the intellectual performance
of educated and non-educated people of various ages on Piagetian and other
a wide variety of cognitive tasks. With very few exceptions, the schooled
participants outperformed those who had not attended school. These differences
between schooled and non-schooled children led him to conclude that most
of the time, “primitives” do indeed think like small children.
Two examples describing the kind
of performance changes associated with schooling illustrate the basis for
such broad reaching conclusions.
Donald Sharp and his co-workers
studied the potential impact of schooling on the way Mayan Indians on the
Yucatan peninsula of Mexico organized their mental lexicons (Sharp and
et al. 1979). When adolescents who had attended high school one or more
years were asked which words they associated with the word “duck,” they
responded with other words in the same biological category, such as “fowl,”
“goose,” “chicken,” and “turkey.” But when adolescents in the same area
who had not attended school were presented with the same word, their responses
were dominated by words that describe what ducks do (“swim,” “fly”) or
what people do with ducks (“eat”). Such word associations are often used
as a subscale on IQ tests where duck-goose is accorded a higher score than
duck-fly. In addition, a good deal of developmental research shows that
in the course of development, young children are more likely to produced
duck-fly than duck-goose. The results of this study and findings
from other parts of the world (such as (Cole, Gay et al. 1971)) were interpreted
to mean that schooling sensitizes children to the abstract, categorical
meanings of words, in addition to building up their general knowledge.
Children who attended school were also said to benefit from memory - enhancing skills (Wagner 1974). Daniel Wagner also conducted his study among educated and uneducated Maya in the Yucatan. He asked a large number of people varying in age from 6 years to adulthood to recall the positions of picture cards laid out in a linear array (see Figure 2). The items pictured on the cards were taken from a popular local version of bingo called lotería, which uses pictures instead of numbers, so Wagner could be certain that all the pictures were familiar to all of his subject. On repeated occasions, each of seven cards was displayed for two seconds and then turned face down. As soon as all seven cards had been presented, a duplicate of a picture on one of the cards was shown and people had to point to the position where they thought its twin was located. By selecting different duplicate pictures, Wagner in effect manipulated the length of time between the first presentation of a picture and the moment it was to be recalled.
Figure 1 and 2
Earlier research in the United States
had demonstrated a marked increase in children’s ability to remember the
locations of cards after they reached middle childhood (Hagen, Meacham
et al. 1970). Wagner found that the performance of children who were attending
school improved with age, just as in the earlier study by Hagen and his
colleagues (see Figure 3). However, older children and adults who did not
attend school remembered no better than young children, leading Wagner
to conclude that it was schooling that made the difference. Additional
analyses of the data revealed that those who attended school systematically
rehearsed the items as they were presented. leading to the improvement
in their performance.
These findings make it appear that
schooling helps children to develop a new, more sophisticated, repertoire
of cognitive abilities. In the case of word associations, it appears that
a more mature, scientifically organized lexicon comes into being. In the
study of memory, it appears that schooling promotes specialized strategies
for remembering and so enhances children’s ability to commit arbitrary
material to memory for purposes of later testing. Had this research been
conducted in the United States, older children or adults who responded
in the less sophisticated ways would have been suspected to some form of
But were then, and there are
now, serious reasons to doubt that differences obtained with standard psychological
testing methods provide any logical evidence at all for generalized changes
in classical categories of cognitive functioning. For example, it is not
plausible to believe that word meaning fails to develop in among children
who have not attended school. The nonliterate Mayan farmers studied by
Sharp and his colleagues knew perfectly well that ducks are a kind of fowl.
Such demonstrations led my colleagues
and I to conclude that when schooling appeared to induce new cognitive
abilities, it might well be because the entire structure of standardized
testing procedures served as covert models of schooling practices. We noted
that virtually all of our experimental tasks, modified or not,. bear a
strong resemblance to the tasks children encounter in school, but bear
little or no relation to the structure of the intellectual demands they
face outside of school. Piagetian water conservation tasks,
word associations, and remembering arbitrary arrays of objects are reasonable
cases in point. When, except in school or on a quiz show, does one encounter
such a task? Might it not be the case that in school children learn
relatively restricted cognitive skills and do not undergo any general cognitive
Here is how we posed the issue at the
The logic of this sort of comparative
work appeared to demand that we find tasks that schooled and unschooled
children from the same town encounter with equal frequency, and then demonstrate
that children who go to school solve the problem in more sophisticated
ways tied to specifically their schooling. Failure to find tasks of equal
familiarity, in effect, meant that we were treating psychological tasks
as neutral with respect to their contexts of use, when this was patently
At the same time, the finding of school/non-school
differences, if treated as specific forms of skill acquisition did not
mean that schooling exerts no significant impact on children. First, as
many have noted, schools are places where children’s activity is mediated
through print which not only adds a new mode of representation to the child’s
repertoire, but introduces a whole new mode of discourse and new ideologies
(Olson 1994). At a minimum, it seems certain that practice in representing
language using writing symbols improves children and adults’ ability to
analyze the sound structure and grammar of their language (Morais and Kolinsky
2001). Nor does such meta-linguistic awareness require schooling. Vai farmers
from north-western Liberia showed similar increased language analysing
abilities even though they had acquired literacy apart from schooling (Scribner
and Cole 1981). But these effects, while not trivial, do not indicate that
education produces any general cognitive influence on children that can
be considered superior to the kind of enculturation that has existed in
all societies throughout human history.
This realization led us on a multi-year
investigation of the methodological foundations of experimental approaches
to cognitive development: when and how might it be possible, we asked,
to identify cognitive tasks that occur in everyday lives of villager and
townspeople in countries where modern schooling is unevenly distributed
so that we could assess how schooled and non-schooled people tackled tasks
of equivalent significance and familiarity? That it inculcates specific
skills which may well be of economic and social value is not in dispute,
although the proportion of children who achieve such valued skills while
still in school is only a fraction of those who enter the institution of
In the intervening years, a great deal of work has been done to provide more plausible measures of the outcome of schooling. A number of investigators for example, studied how children and adults who attend school versus those who engage in some other activity using mathematically equivalent tasks (such as selling candy on the street, or measuring cloth, or calculating the area of a building site) make various calculations (Nunes, Schliemann et al. 1993; Saxe 1984). What this research has repeatedly discovered is that groups differing in their amount of school-based experience or everyday, work-related experience, approach the same task (logically speaking) in very different ways. The schooled subjects’ reliance on written algorithms often lead them to make egregious errors, while the mathematical activities arising in the course of candy selling or calculating the ratio of one board length to another was both quantitatively superior and free of nonsensical answers. Moreover, in a number of cases, the procedures acquired informally in the course of work were more adequately generalized, undermining the oft-repeated idea that such knowledge was somehow bound to particular contexts of use. Over and over again, it has turned out that it is knowledge acquired in school that is most vulnerable to becoming encapsulated. At the same time, one does not want to over valorize the consequences of on-the-job mathematics learning, because they are found only at relatively rudimentary levels of mathematics and it is unlikely that the calculus or string theory would arise without special institutions for the teaching of mathematics precisely as an abstract form of knowledge.
These are important issues to pursue, but owing to lack of time, I wish instead to turn my attention in a different direction, and to answer the rhetorical question, “where could cognitive skills and modes of discourse such as those learned in elementary school find application outside of school of equal relevance to schooled and non-schooled populations?
Actually we provided an answer to this
question in our monograph on the consequences of education in the Yucatan:
While we did not follow up on the implications of this conclusion, Robert LeVine and his colleagues did, in a program of research that provides what I believe to be the most convincing evidence of the cognitive and social consequences of schooling, and one that has extremely important policy implications as well.
These data focus on the ways in which
formal schooling changes the behavior of mothers toward their offspring
and their interactions with people in modern, bureaucratic institutions,
as well as the subsequent impacts on their children (LeVine and White 1986;
LeVine, LeVine et al. 2001). Le Vine and his colleagues start from three
major changes in maternal behavior that have been widely documented by
demographers over the last several decades: the children of women who have
attended elementary school experience a lower level of infant mortality,
better health during childhood, and greater academic achievement (See also
Chavajay & Rogoff, 2002) . LeVine and his colleagues propose a set
of plausible habits, preferences, and skills that children acquire in school
which they retain into adulthood and apply in the course of raising their
own children. This set includes, in addition to rudimentary literacy and
Levine et al.’s model for the pathways by which maternal education can bring about changes in skills and attitudes which produce generalized changes in the social and cognitive behavior of their children (LeVine, LeVine et al., 2001, p. 26)
LeVine, his colleagues and others have carried out an impressive set of studies sampling many parts of the world, on the basis of which they offer the following general model of how school-based learning, although it does not produced generalized socio-cognitive change at the time, does produce context-specific changes in behavior that have quite general consequences with respect to the task of child rearing which in turn produces general consequences in the next generation
A great deal more research needs to
be done to clarify important causal relations hidden in the diagram in
Table 2. For example, how much education of what kind produces what levels
of behavioral change? How serious might selection factors be in the reported
results? But at least as important are questions about what has been lost
in addition to the obvious benefits of reduced infant mortality the ability
to perform better in schools. As LeVine and White (1986) comment,
modern schooling as part of the rationalization of technologically advanced
nation states is not an unproblematic moral good. At present it rests upon
forms of age-grading that alienate generations from each other and put
individuals within generations into competition with each other in ways
that are also alienating. It is also part of a world wide acceleration
of the decimation of the earth as a common ecology for human life which
may push human kind inescapably down the path to total extinction.
Having traveled through several
millennia of time and across the globe in examining the past and present
state of education in relation to culture, I will use the remaining
time to offer some conclusions about how the trajectory I have drawn and
how it might give us some hints about the future of education.
This short list of generalizations
makes it unlikely that we can use the cultural history of schooling to
predict with any certainty, the future of schooling because that future
will depend so crucially on the sort of societies that schooling will mediate.
However, in the spirit of this occasion I can offer a few, so to speak,
educated guesses and comments about major choices facing humanity with
respect to the enculturation/schooling/education of its children. Each
is presented as a choice between contested tendencies.
At present it is too early to tell whether any of the alternatives to centralized, standardized models of education will gain ascendency and if so, where the leading edge of such changes will be in – in the most highly advanced, technologically oriented parts of society as means of dealing with cultural diversity and decentralization of knowledge and industrial production, or on the technological periphery, as a mode of resistance and survival in the face of centralized globalizing forces.
To a very great extent, the outcome with respect to the two issues I have singled out to end this discussion will depend on the nature of society that emerges from the current round of globalized, just-in-time, more-or-less instantaneous interactions at - a - distance that have come to be the hallmark of modern life. A Soviet archeologist of my acquaintance said, in the early 1980’s, that Summer was the most totalitarian society of all time. If the model of education it promoted continues to dominate the world, it bodes ill for us all, because that form of education has brought us to the brink of self-extermination. But whether, and how, a more horizontally organized, distributed, democratic and locally controlled form of societal interaction and enabling forms of education can compete with the Leviathan of history is highly uncertain. That alternative will be, if and when it comes into being, a hybrid of new and old forms, of the standardized and the locally adapted. It will eschew the notion of human education as the preparation of children to triumph over nature and teach us how to live within, as a part of nature, including nature’s multicolored, multicultural, enormously heterogeneous forms of society.
If the social sphere is to become re-integrated,
it will not be by returning to the past, but by creating a new kind of
future in which central values of the past combine with the amazing accomplishments
of the present to enable us to live in a sustainable garden, for and with
Bruner, J. S. and et al. (1966).
Studies in Cognitive Growth: A Collaboration at the Center for Cognitive
Studies. New York, NY, John Wiley & Sons.
Michael Cole is University Professor of Communication and Psychology at the University of California, San Diego. His work focuses on the elaboration of a mediational theory of mind. He has conducted cross-cultural research on cognitive development, especially as it relates to the role of literacy and schooling. His recent research has been devoted to a longitudinal study of individual and organizational change within educational activities specially designed for afterschool hours. These systems link universities and local communities and allow a study of the dynamics of appropriation and use of new technologies and cultural-historical approaches to human development. According to Cole's methodology, mind is created and must be studied in communication.
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