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Learning in cultural context: developing destinies.

Over more than three decades spent researching cultural aspects of how children learn, I have had the opportunity to learn about how individuals and cultural communities change and continue. My students and colleagues and 1 have identified an important learning model that occurs everywhere, but appears to be especially prevalent in Indigenous communities of the Americas: learning by observing and "pitching in" to ongoing activities of importance in the community. We have dubbed this approach "Learning through Intent Community Participation" (Rogoff et al., 2007; Rogoff, Paradise, Mejia-Arauz, Correa-Chavez, & Angelillo, 2013).

The way that everyone learns their first language can serve As an example of learning by observing and "pitching in." We listen and watch; when we have something to say, we "pitch in" to the ongoing interactions. Children who are included in the wide range of activities of their communities have many opportunities to learn in this way. But children who spend much of their day in segregated settings, away from the productive activities of their communities (such as in school), have fewer such opportunities.

Although schooling usually employs other approaches, some innovative schools are organized in ways that involve observing and "pitching in" to activities of importance in the' Community. In a public elementary school in Utah where 1 have worked, the children help to develop the curriculum, working together with parents and the teacher to create learning activities of interest to children and adults alike, for instance, a 1st/2nd-grade class noticed that there were few places in the neighborhood of the school for birds to nest. They wrote a small grant proposal to acquire the materials to build birdhouses--a writing project the)' were highly motivated to do--and then incorporated lessons from a math unit on measurement to measure and build the birdhouses. In such schooling, the purpose of activities is known and of importance to the children, and the children are accustomed to working together with each other and with the adults. Children have many opportunities to learn from observing how others think about the ideas and solve problems, as they learn through "pitching in" in a school setting where children and adults collaborate in developing learning activities (Rogotf, Goodman Turkanis, & Harriett, 2001).

During my research on children's learning by observing and "pitching in" in a Mayan community in Guatemala, I learned a great deal from interviewing a leading midwife--an expert on pregnancy, birth, and early childhood. Chona Perez was born to be a midwife, marked with a sign of her calling at her birth (with a piece of the amniotic sac over her head like a veil), I have been talking with her for over three decades about her remarkable work and life. Twenty years ago. she and I decided to write a book, called Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town (2011). about how she learned her work from her birth destiny, her childhood, and being divinely selected and prepared for this calling.

Although Chona docs not read or write, she was eager for her knowledge about childbirth and development to be written down. Her knowledge and skills carry forward Mavan cultural practices that have been used for more than 500 years, such as skilled manipulation of the fetus into position through therapeutic massage ("external version"). This is a practice that Western doctors formerly were very critical of; now, the)' are trying to learn from traditional midwives how to do it.

At the same time that Chona carries forward ancient practices, she incorporates new practices developed by successive generations--including herself--and changes based on contact with Western medicine. For example, prior generations of midwives used to scold and urge the laboring mother to push early on in the labor process, but Chona has contributed to changing this practice. She tells the mother to carry on with her everyday activities until labor is advanced, then gently encourages her to wait until the baby is ready before pushing. Chona developed new approaches for the care of pregnant women, newborns, and mothers based on her own experience and ideas. Thus, Chona has contributed to both cultural continuities and cultural changes of her town over decades.


Developing Destinies illuminates human development as a cultural process by recounting the life and work of this Mayan sacred midwife, as well as the changes and continuities of children's and families' ways of life in Chona's Guatemalan Mayan town. The book shows how individuals build on cultural heritage from prior generations while also creating new ways of living.

Throughout Chona Perez's long life (she is in her 80s), her Guatemalan town has continued to use longstanding Mayan childrearing practices, such as including children in the wide range of community activities and encouraging them to learn by observing and contributing. But the town also has transformed dramatically since the days of Chona's childhood. Accompanying many other changes, the role of schooling has grown and children have fewer opportunities to learn by observing and "pitching in" to ongoing family and community endeavors. Although Chona's upbringing included no formal schooling (like most women of her generation), some of her grandchildren have gone on to attend university and earn scholarly degrees (not uncommon in their generation). The life of Chona and the life of her town show the kind of changes in learning contexts and schooling that characterize many regions of the world.

Developing Destinies expands on my book The Cultural Nature of Human Development (Rogoff, 2003), in which I argued that to get beyond thinking of culture as static ethnic categories, we can instead focus on people's participation in cultural practices--their ways of living. Cultural communities engage in coordinated constellations of related practices. For example, in the Mayan community of San Pedro, a common constellation of practices has included children "pitching in" with initiative in community endeavors; observing keenly and being encouraged to do so; engaging collaboratively with the children and adults of the extended family by means of articulate, nonverbal conversation as well as frugal talk in the Mayan language; and being part of many other practices of their extended families, such as spiritual practices, occupations, and sibling care. Looking at culture in terms of cultural practices--how people live--helps us to understand the changes and continuities that occur across generations, as well as the mutual roles of individuals and their cultural communities.

Developing Destinies documents changes and continuities across decades and centuries, with historical photographs as well as first-person accounts and research on birth, childrearing, and learning. As Professor Susan Gelman (2011) wrote in a review of the book,

The book is particularly engaging in its discussion of childbearing, childhood, and development. It provides rich discussion of changing attitudes toward schooling, taking care of younger siblings, attitudes toward childhood mortality, children's play, children's work, beliefs about pregnancy and reproduction, and changing birth practices. ... It has very broad reach, illuminating some of the most profound themes of human development. The book truly is a must read for all with interests in development or culture.

More information on learning through intent community participation can be found in English and Spanish at

Photos, interviews, and reviews of Developing Destinies can be found at: and at: dp/0195319907/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1299795633&sr=l-l


Gelman, S. (2011). Stability and change in individual and culrure. A review of Developing Destinies: A Mayan Midwife and Town by Barbara Rogoff, with Chona Perez Gonzalez, Chonita Chavajay Quiacain, and Josue Chavajay Quiacain. PsycCRITIQUES Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 56, Release 38, Article 9. usable-construct.html

Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rogoff, B. (2011). Developing destinies: A Mayan midwife and town. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rogoff, B., Goodman Turkanis, C, & Barden, L. (2001). Learning together: Children and adults in a school community. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rogoff, B., Moore, L., Najafi, B., Dexter, A., Correa-Chavez, M., & Solis, J. (2007). Children's development of cultural repertoires through participation in everyday routines and practices. In J. E. Grusec & R D. Hastings (Eds.), Handbook of socialization (pp. 490-515). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Rogoff, B., Paradise, R., Mejia-Arauz, R, Correa-Chavez, M., & Angelillo, C. (2003). Firsthand learning through intent participation. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 175-203.

by Barbara Rogoff, UCSC Foundation Distinguished Professor, Psychology Department, University of California Santa Cruz

Author royalties from Developing Destinies are donated to the Learning Center and other projects in this Mayan town. A precis of Developing Destinies, with historical film clips and photos from 1941 onward, is available in a 6-minute YouTube video:
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Author:Rogoff, Barbara
Publication:Childhood Education
Geographic Code:2GUAT
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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