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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Envisioning Competence: Learning, Problem Solving, and Children at Work in the Exploratory Bicycle Shop

  • Author(s): Hammond, Charles Florian
  • Advisor(s): Gifford, Bernard R.
  • et al.

This study examines the conceptual learning and cognitive processes of schoolchildren engaged in problem solving activities in a non-school, workplace setting known as the exploratory bicycle shop. The exploratory bike shop is a commercial bicycle shop: a) that has been adapted for combined retail and educational purposes and b) where middle-school and high-school age students participate as bicycle mechanics explorers or, more formally, as apprentices. It provides a multi-generational, economically productive and learning environment where young participants engage in culturally meaningful activities at deep levels of cognitive and affective involvement. In such a setting, students encounter, frame, and solve mechanical, mathematical, and interpersonal problem situations as an authentic part of the normal, daily operation of the shop.

To help reveal how apprentices access that intelligence through thinking and discursive practices, I employ a visual anthropology (VA) methodology. VA was designed to collect and analyze ethnographic data in ways that more effectively capture and reveal informants' true motives and practices by subordinating the verbal data stream and focusing instead on the visually available aspects of what informants do. Specifically, I videotape apprentices' actions during bike repair activity in order to create a visual record of their actions over the course of interaction with the bicycle and other bike shop participants. Through in situ dialogue and clinical interviews I then try to determine how changes in apprentices' actions relate to changes in both their conceptual development and technical competencies.

In a VA analysis, findings emerge in a manner different from that of more traditional studies since the very idea of studying a culture is subjected to a critical self-examination about the motives for the research and the degree to which the study faithfully represents that culture's voices rather than imposing its own voice, intentionally or not. One methodological finding of this study was that the entire process of inquiry--from literature search to theoretical analysis to data collection and data analysis--constitutes a finding in itself. That process showed, for example, that the quality of problems students encounter in learning experiences can determine the extent of learning. The authentic, naturally occurring problems encountered in the shop appears to provide students with a quality of problem solving competence higher than that gained from solving prefabricated problems.

A closely related finding was that competence in bicycle repair tended to correlate positively with the ability to judge which type of knowing--abstract or concrete--is appropriate for any given problem solving situation. The study also found that problem solving competence relies on a student's problem framing competence, an observation that corroborates findings by Hutchins and Lave. Another methodological finding is that VA can open up new ways of conceiving competence that were previously unavailable using more traditional analytic methods. The VA ethic aims to understand the informants' attitudes and beliefs at an emic level, the level of the informant, rather than trying to understand verbal data collected from the informant through a series of direct or indirect interventions.

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