Australian home education_and_vygotskian_learning_theory
AUSTRALIAN HOME EDUCATION AND VYGOTSKIAN LEARNING THEORY
An analysis of ‘Australian home education and Vygotskian learning theory’
investigates the practices of Australian home educators in light of Vygotskian
learning theory. Australian home education research began in 1978 when a young
teacher used his home to offer an education program based on progressive ideals
(Ennis 1978). Since that time, research on Australian home education has continued
and a theoretical framework based on Lave’s ‘community of practice’ concept has
been developed by Barratt-Peacock. A review of available Australian home
education research literature indicates that the practices used in home educating
families generally reflect many of the best practices for learning as expounded by
Vygotskian theorists such as Vygotsky, the Neo-Vygotskians, as well as Rogoff, Lave
and Wenger. A review of the literature on Vygotskian theories of learning and the
connections to known Australian home education practices might usefully inform
mainstream practice and theory.
Sociocultural Theory, Home Education, Learning
Many of the practices and understandings of education found among home educators
appear to reflect the principles of Vygotsky’s work. A central tenet of Vygotsky’s work
holds that learning and cognitive development occur within a sociocultural context.
Australian home education is set in a very different sociocultural context to traditional
school education and could benefit from being interpreted through Vygotskian theory.
Further research is needed to better understand cognitive development in home education
as practiced in Australia because this offers significant areas for challenge of, and
reflection on, current understandings of cognitive development and education. This
paper considers the theories developed by Vygotsky and Neo-Vygotskians. An outline of
Australian home education research then opens the way for the development of a number
of key questions which could inform further research in this area.
VYGOTSKY’S HISTORICAL SOCIOCULTURAL THEORY
Vygotsky was a Russian Jew who fulfilled the role of a literary critic at fifteen, formally
trained as a lawyer and then worked as a senior psychologist for about ten years between
1925 and 1934 before he died. He grew up during times of enormous social upheaval
and political change and was actively supportive of the communist revolution. Although
Vygotsky was an ardent Marxist, with similar understandings to those of the Frankfurt
School (Bruner, 1987), his interpretations of Marx were not appreciated by the Stalinist
regime. As a result his work was lost to the west, and to many Russians, for much of the
twentieth century. Recently, scholars from around the world have become aware of his
work and have been challenged by the breadth and depth of his understandings and
There are a number of key features to Vygotsky’s work. He taught that it was only
possible to conduct research using a theory, and that it was important to acknowledge
what one’s theory was. There were two key philosophical influences in his life. Spinoza
used a dialectic approach to analysis and taught that the body and mind were not separate
entities. Marx described the historical and material nature of the world, and emphasised
the significance of tools for human advancement and betterment (Bruner, 1987).
Vygotsky used Marx’s principle that human development occurs best with the use of
tools such as ‘different signs, symbols, writing, formulae, and graphic organizers’
(Kozulin, 2003, p.24). He viewed speech as the key tool of the mind. Contact with
symbolic mediators or tools provide stimulation and experience for learners. Kozulin
Cognitive development and learning, according to Vygotsky, essentially depend on the
child’s mastery of symbolic mediators, their appropriation and internalization in the form
of inner psychological tools (Kozulin, 2003, p.23-24)
These cultural tools are best learnt through interactions with human mediators (Kozulin,
2003). Parents or carers give speech and communicative signs meaning for young
children (intermental process). As children internalize speech through imitation, they
process what they have learnt from these interactions to make meaning for themselves
(intramental process) (Vygotsky, 1987). Knowledge is thus constructed through social
interaction (Egan & Gajdamaschko, 2003).
A conceptualization of the ‘whole’ person within the sociocultural contexts in which
individuals are embedded was central to Vygotskian thought (Bruner, 1987, Chaiklin,
2003, Vygotsky, 1997). Decontextualising learning from its historical and social culture
leads to ill-founded conclusions about learning and human cognitive development
(Vygotsky, 1987). The study of connections and the continual process of change are as
important to study as are any given phenomenon of cognitive development (Minick,
1987, Vygotsky, 1987).
Mediation through more informed adults and other humans is essential for children to
learn to use tools which in turn mediate cognitive development. This mediated cognitive
development is not a fixed and clearly defined stage (Bruner, 1987). This process of
mediation contributes to the development of ‘reflective consciousness’ (Karpov, 2003,
p.66), ‘independent learning’ (Kozulin, 1995, p.121), and ‘theoretical’ thinking (Karpov,
2003, p.69). Parent mediation, especially in the form of verbal guidance empowers
children to become better learners than those who do not receive this form of mediation
(Kozulin, 2003, Portes & Vadeboncoeur, 2003). Parents generally provide better
spontaneous mediation than teachers, and they also provide more mediation when they
view themselves as the primary mediator (Kozulin, 2003). Although peer mediation is
important for extending understanding of scientific concepts (Zuckerman, 2003), parent
mediation is noted to be more effective than that of peers in many situations (Portes and
According to Karpov (2003), children initially develop empirical, everyday or
spontaneous concepts which they form through experience during their pre-school years.
As children enter school they learn more generalized and abstracted or ‘scientific
concepts’ through what Vygotsky (1987) understood as the specific instruction of
teachers. The existence of these two types of conceptual development was used by
Vygotsky to show how cognitive development and movement into abstracted and more
logical thought processes occurred (Karpov, 2003). Vygotsky and later Russian
Vygotskian researchers (Karpov, 2003, p.151) specify that there are challenging or
‘leading activities’ which stimulate children’s curiosity to think about concepts in a
deeper and more abstracted way at each level of development. It was after examining the
process of change between these two types of concepts that Vygotsky developed one of
his most well known hypotheses—the zone of proximal development—ZPD (Bruner,
The ZPD has two different functions when being used for analysing psychological
development through transitions between age periods. The first is known as the
‘objective’ ZPD (Chaiklin, 2003, p.49) and is used to identify the general features
associated with transitions between age periods. The second is known as the ‘subjective’
ZPD and best identified by ‘[a] person’s ability to imitate’ (Chaiklin, 2003, p.51). Lidz
and Gindis (2003) noted that there needs to be appropriate mediation for effective
imitation to occur.
Although the main focus of this paper is on the relevance of Vygotskian learning theory
to home education, his theory has much to offer a general discussion of education. It is
worth noting that there are disabled children in the home education population. Vygotsky
(1993) worked with children with disabilities and thought that school inclusion and
instruction is important for these children. He recognised that they learn most effectively
when treated respectfully and when taught to develop their strengths (Knox & Stevens,
1993). In recent times, it has been recognised (Gindis, 2003) that special needs children
require an exclusive environment where adult mentors can carefully guide and mediate
their learning opportunities by specially tailoring learning opportunities. However, these
mediations need to be directed by ‘mainstreamed social and cultural goals’ (Gindis, 2003,
p.213). Learning activities are provided to encourage a child to achieve their potential
skill levels, move to scientific concepts and encourage the child to be an independent
student who initiates self-change through a process of introspection and reflection
Zuckerman (2003). Zuckerman (2003) noted Lave and Wenger’s call for ‘situated
learning’ but felt that there needs to be partial separation from everyday practice to allow
children to develop cognitive maps for learning to occur beyond ‘immediate utility’
(Zuckerman, 2003, p.179). Vygotsky’s theory provided an explanation for the
development of cognition through both human and symbolic mediation, imagination,
emotion, consciousness and agency, but tragically he did not live long enough to fully
develop these concepts.
Ageyev (2003) argued that individualistic culture, as found in the United States of
America, is very different from the collective nature of Russian culture and something
Vygotsky would not have understood. Quoting Yoshida he explains that:
A society that values collectivism will obviously place a higher value on harmony and
good interpersonal relationship while an individualistic society is likely to encourage
behavior that brings merit to specific people (Ageyev 2003, p445)
A variety of practices found in traditional schools have been identified by Vygotsky and
neo-Vygotskians as contributing to the poor development of scientific concepts, the
ability to critically question, and the ability to use initiative to change one’s self. It was
also found that some teachers teach decontextualised subjects and generally demonstrate
poor mediation skills (Egan & Gajdamaschko, 2003, Hedegaard & Chaiklin, 2005,
Karpov, 2003, Kozulin, 2003, Zuckerman, 2003). In contrast, Zuckerman expresses hope
that learning activities will lead students to develop a ‘life-span’ attitude to learning
(Zuckerman, 2003, p.197).
Other sociocultural theorists (Lave & Wenger, 1991, Rogoff, 2003) have also
investigated cognitive development. Key concepts central to all these theorists include
the necessity of studying cognition as part of the ‘whole’ person, the importance of
historical, social and cultural contexts, learning through social participation and
mediation, and the significance of process and change. Vygotsky assumed that a
‘school/instructional’ education is central to cognitive development, while Lave and
Wenger (1991) explored learning in apprenticeship situations where instructional
learning is minimalised. Both Lave and Wenger (1991), and Rogoff (2003) investigated
learning in different cultures with little abstract instruction. Home education is one such
‘different’ culture of learning.
AUSTRALIAN HOME EDUCATION RESEARCH
Vygotskian theory values the importance of mediation and guided instruction by more
informed persons. Cognitive development is seen to be the result of good social
interaction and mediation whether through a direct teaching role or through informed
guidance. A review of Australian home education research literature indicates that many
of the theoretical findings of Vygotskian theory are practised by Australian home
Home education is defined here as education provided or directed by parents who use
their home as a base to organise their children’s learning, but which may include the
services of tutors or attendance at specialist classes run by various professionals
(Education and Community Services, ACT (2001) and includes the use of community
resources. In contrast, traditional schooling is defined as education offered in formally
registered institutions: primary and secondary schools whether owned by the state or by
private institutions and includes state provided distance education.
Two questions commonly asked of home educators relate to academic possibilities and
social opportunities for home educated students. Research on the academic success of
Australian home educated students is limited but the indications are that these students
are successfully entering traditional school, tertiary institutions and the workforce with
ease (Harding, 2006, Jackson, 2007, Thomas, 1998). School socialisation is often viewed
by home educating parents as same age interaction ‘en masse’ (Thomas, 1998) while
vertical social interaction is valued by home educating parents because the children are
encouraged to mix with people of all ages (Clery, 1998). Socialisation is a significant
concern of home educating parents who use such things as home education support
groups, clubs, volunteer groups of all kinds and church activities to ensure that their
children have social experiences with peers and others in their communities (BarrattPeacock, 1997, Harding, 2006).
Home educated students’ views of their social experiences are very similar. A few
children find the change from school too great when they try home education (Thomas,
1998) but generally students find the experience worthwhile and fulfilling (Broadhurst,
1999, Clery, 1998, Jackson, 2007, Reilly 2004, Thomas, 1998). The quiet times on their
own are not usually viewed as a significant disadvantage. Socialisation as experienced
by home educated students is particularly beneficial to students who have had problems
with this aspect of schooling (Jackson, 2007, Reilly, 2004, Thomas, 1998). Children’s
satisfaction with their social experiences and autonomy was found to be directly related
to parent attitudes and practices (Krivanek, 1988).
Parental reasons for choosing to home educate their children generally fall into two major
categories (Patrick, 1999, Thomas, 1998). Negative features of traditional school as
viewed by parents include things such as lower academic standards, curriculum
weaknesses, the teaching of unacceptable values, social problems such as bullying,
negative peer pressure, special needs poorly met and student low self-worth. Positive
features of home education are seen to include academic rigour, broader curriculum,
flexible learning, one-on-one teacher/student ratios, holistic learning connected to the
‘real world’ with life-long learning opportunities, stronger social experiences with a wide
age range of people unlike same age socialisation provided in traditional schools,
acceptable values teaching and stronger family relationships.
The main contributors to the development of a theory of home education in Australia
have been Barratt-Peacock (1997, 2003), and Thomas (1998). The findings of others
(Jacob, Barratt-Peacock, Carins, Holderness-Roddam, Home, & Shipway, 1991, Simich
1998) have supported the main concepts of this theory. Three basic forms of home
education practice have been observed. These are: (1) ‘The Natural Learning or Holistic
Approach’, (2) ‘A Structured Learning Approach’ and (3) ‘The Eclectic Approach’
(Barratt-Peacock, 1997, p.35-36). These forms of practice have wide variations between
families. Thomas (1998) used similar descriptors to differentiate between various home
educating styles—‘The School Model’, ‘Becoming Less Formal’ and ‘Informal Learning’
(p.vi). Most parents shift from formal school type teaching arrangements to various less
structured approaches over time and as they gain experience (Barratt-Peacock, 1997,
Honeybone, 2000, Simich, 1998, Thomas, 1998). The degree to which they move toward
natural or informal teaching varies.
Home education as a ‘super model of a community of practice’ was described by BarrattPeacock (2003). There are four key concepts to this community of practice: ‘domestic
occupation’, ‘parents as tutor/guides to fields of authentic adult practice’, ‘family
conversation as a forum’; and ‘role modeling’. This ‘super community of learning
practice’ allows a child to interact with other ‘communities of practice’ while parents act
as ‘mentor guides’ (Barratt-Peacock, 2003, p.106-108). Family conversation is a very
significant aspect of this enculturation process (Barratt-Peacock, personal
communication, 2006, Thomas, 1998).
Informal learning in home education is viewed as an extension of the efficient learning
styles of early childhood (Thomas, 1998). Conversation between child and adult allows
children the ability ‘to hone their thinking skills’ (Thomas, 1998, p128). Contextualised
learning also contributes to the efficiency of home learning. Children have mentors and
guides to help them through their learning experiences. Sequential and incremental
learning as provided in most traditional institutions is not the norm in informal learning.
Children often become engrossed in topics for extended periods of time, an approach
difficult in the organized timetables of formal education. Thomas (1998) found that
children learn in their own sequences and steps and sometimes this learning is quite
staggered and at times can occur in leaps. A good illustration of this is the fact that about
one quarter of all the children in his study learnt to read quite late without any detrimental
effect to their future educational opportunities. Findings like these offer challenges to
many of the practices found in traditional institutional education such as that generally
offered by the Australian government school system.
Student views on and experiences of home education have been explored by a number of
studies. Braodhurst, (1999), Clery, 1998, and Jackson, (2007), suggest that students like
home education for its flexibility, the scope it offers to make decisions about their own
learning, receiving prompt attention when needing help, learning without the pressure to
keep up with a class, and more personal time because they can finish their work earlier
Some children enjoy having more time with family members (Clery, 1998, Jackson,
2007). Long term interests are important to students, as are their learner friendly and
casual home environments (Jackson, 2007). Students also appreciate their autonomy.
They choose how they plan their day, what they learn, when they learn, how they learn,
when they finish their schoolwork, and even the opportunity to make a decision to return
to school (Carins, 2002, Clery, 1998, Jackson, 2007). Several students commented that
home education gave them personal time and this strengthened their sense of self-worth
(Broadhurst, 1999, Carins, 2002, Clery, 1998, Honeybone, 2000, Jackson, 2007, McColl,
Aspects of school that home educated students miss are school friendships (but this is not
viewed as sufficient reason for returning to school), lack of access to experts in a
particular subject and class, and periods of boredom (also not seen as a reason to return to
school) (Broadhurst, 1999, Clery, 1998, Jackson, 2007). Students surveyed recognise the
weaknesses of schools they attended. These include waiting for teachers, boring work,
insufficient time to learn concepts, noisy classrooms, inflexible timetables, and
limitations on their use of time. Older children, who enter school at the high school level,
find it easy to adjust and achieve well academically. They appreciate help from specialist
teachers, class discussions, friendly and helpful teachers, contact with peers and ‘muck
around’ time in breaks (Broadhurst, 1999, Clery, 1998, Jackson, 2007).
VYGOTSKIAN THEORY CONNECTIONS TO AUSTRALIAN HOME
Home educators have actively or inadvertently contextualised their children’s learning
opportunities in real life contexts (Barratt-Peacock, 1997, Bruner, 1987, Hedegaard &
Chaiklin 2005, Lave & Wenger, 1991, Rogoff, 2003, Thomas, 1998, Vygotsky, 1997).
The significance of conversation as noted by Barratt-Peacock (1997) and Thomas (1998)
indicates that speech is an important part of family mediating interactions—the most
important tool for cognitive development (Kozulin, 2003, Vygotsky, 1987). Parents and
family members are the main mediators of students—a practice found to be of the
greatest benefit for psychological development and future school success in Vygotskian
and Neo-Vygotskian studies (Barratt-Peacock, 1997, 2003, Kozulin, 2003, Portes &
Vadebouncoeur, 2003, Rogoff, 2003, Thomas, 1998, Vygotsky, 1987). Students are
encouraged to exercise initiative, agency, and are often free to develop without many of
the restrictions found in traditional schools (Broadhurst, 1999, Clery, 1998, Jackson,
2007, Panofsky, 2003, Zuckerman, 2003). They have time to explore topics in detail,
freedom to imagine and develop concepts of the world around them, and to make
meaning of what they are learning (Barratt-Peacock, 1997, 2003, Clery, 1998, Egan &
Gajdamaschko, 2003, Hedegaard & Chaiklin, 2005, Jackson, 2007, Thomas, 1998).
There is time to reflect on who they are and what they are studying (Jackson, 2007,
Zuckerman, 2003). Social interactions are broad, deep and varied (Barratt-Peacock,
1997, 2003, Panofsky, 2003, Thomas, 1998). Children’s satisfaction with their social
experiences and autonomy was found to be directly related to parent attitudes and
practices (Krivanek, 1988). This suggests support for the importance of family mediation
in sociocultural theory (Kozulin, 2003). Special needs students appear to benefit from
home learning because it allows them to learn in a warm and personal environment with
their parents as active mediators (Gindis, 2003, Reilly, 2004). The family unit means that
children are learning, not as individuals among other individuals in large groups, but in
warm personal relationships within a community (Ageyev, 2003, Barratt-Peacock, 2003,
Rogoff, 2003, Thomas, 1998). Parents also value life-long learning (Thomas, 1998) as
hoped for by Zuckerman (2003).
Further research in a number of areas of home education may add to our understanding of
cognition. Karpov (2003) found that scientific concepts need specific instruction so that
students do not develop misconceptions. It is worth asking how such direct, informed
concepts are developed in home education settings. Likewise studies of mediation
(Kozulin, 2003) by parents, siblings and community members in home education
(Barratt-Peacock, 1997, 2003, Thomas, 1998), could inform our understanding of the
impact of mediation on student cognitive development and learning. Portes and
Vadebounceour (2003) found that students need peers to challenge and extend the
boundaries of their understanding of scientific concepts. How do parents act as
appropriate peers for home educated children? Learning activities in classroom situations
(Zuckerman, 2003) have been evaluated as very successful, but how do learning activities
in the various types of home education styles (Barratt-Peacock, 1997, Thomas, 1998)
impact conceptual development and how might these understandings inform traditional
school instruction or better practice among home educators?
Cognitive development of home educated students is a poorly researched topic. Two
aspects of learning in home education (Thomas, 1998) suggest possibilities for further
study. Students appear to learn in leaps and bounds (Mahn, 2003, Thomas, 1998) and
approximately twenty-five percent of home educated students read late (Thomas, 1998)
without any detrimental effect to their educational opportunities and learning. Does this
suggest that scientific concepts might be learnt without literacy? Does the sociocultural
environment of the modern day home educating family encourage logical thought
formation without the literacy reliance on reading and writing found in schools (Thomas,
1998)? Studies, noted by Kozulin (2003), of parent-child interactions compared teachers
with parents of either younger pre-school children or with parents who had delegated the
teaching role to professionals. Would findings be different for parents who had retained
the role of ‘teacher’ (Barratt-Peacock, 1997, 2003, Thomas, 1998)? How might the
social practices of home educators (Barratt-Peacock, 1997, 2003, Thomas, 1998)
contribute to understandings of social mediation (Panofsky, 2003)? Are there grounds
for parental concerns about traditional schools in light of comments made by Vygotsky
and Neo-Vygotskians (Egan & Gajdamaschko, 2003, Karpov, 2003, Kozulin, 2003,
Zuckerman, 2003) about formal education and does home education provide a viable
alternative (Barratt-Peacock, 1997, 2003, Thomas, 1998)?
Just as one learns to understand one’s own culture more clearly after experiencing a
different culture, so education research, which has so often treated mainstream schooling
as the only form of education, could be more informed about the strengths and
weaknesses of traditional schooling by examining how education is practiced and
experienced in home education. Home education appears to provide a successful
learning environment which is different from the learning environments found in
traditional schools. While the match between Vygotskian learning theory and Australian
home education theory is not perfect, this paper has argued that there are common
themes. We need to consider the ways in which a better understanding of sociocultural
theory could further empower home educators. Australian home education and
Vygotskian learning theory appear to have a great deal to offer each other.
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Developmental Path Toward Reflection. In A. E. Kozulin, J. S. Brown, S. M. Miller, C.
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Glenda Jackson, PhD candidate, Faculty of Education, Monash University, Clayton 3168.
Specialisations: Home education, transition,
Special thanks are owed to Dr. John Barratt-Peacock and Dr. Jill Brown and Professor
Marilyn Fleer for their interest, suggestions and support.