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A Vision of Vygotsky
What Are Funds of Knowledge?

The following excerpt is taken from chapter four, The Zone of Proximal Development.

Funds of knowledge are the cultural artifacts and bodies of knowledge that underlie household activities (Moll, 2000). They are the inherent cultural resources found in communities surrounding schools. Funds of knowledge are grounded in the networking that communities do in order to make the best use of those resources. Moll (1990, 2000) and other colleagues have demonstrated the importance of communities of learners within large cultural and familial networks. Within these networks, the zone of proximal development is manifested in different ways. These zones are knowledge-based and authentic.

Funds of knowledge can be situated within a household, in a Vygotskian notion of the individual. For example, in Joan’s household when she lived on the ranch in Arizona, the funds of knowledge were evident as her kids performed well beyond their “assumed” developmental level because the context of the ranch encouraged risk taking and problem solving. In addition, each person in the household had individual knowledge that collectively ran the family-centered funds of knowledge.

Funds of knowledge are also situated, in a Vygotskian notion of the collective, from one household to another or to a greater community. For example, Joan realized that the performance before competence that her children displayed on the ranch needed to be extended to enrich the pedagogy of her classroom. It was the connections and interactions from these rural funds of knowledge to the student-centered learning that created the collective.

Another example of the collective nature of the funds of knowledge can be seen in a one-room schoolhouse in rural South Dakota. The following experience is a small sample of data collected in a study of this particular school. As in many qualitative research experiences, the researcher went into the project with one set of questions and came out with answers to surprisingly new questions. In this case, Joan went to study rural and urban education and left the study with data demonstrating a new and unexpected fund of knowledge. Following is one of the stories that happened on an extremely cold day in January. In the following, Tracey is a thirteen-year-old girl who lives in a very isolated area and needs to cross the frozen Cheyenne River daily in order to get to the school, which is several miles from the ranch where she lives. She is sharing her individual funds of knowledge with Joan, and we now share with you to establish the collective funds of knowledge.

“Tracey, how in the world are we going to get across the river?” I asked, looking down at the ice on that cold January day.”Walk,” she replied as she took off with determined thirteen-year-old strides across one-hundred yards of the frozen (I hoped) river. “Come on,” she called to me as I hesitated on the bank of snow.I headed onto the ice; I stood as tall as I could; I swung my arms; I kept my head up; I did all of this to try to hide my terror from Tracey.

Tracey has been crossing this river every day since kindergarten to get to her one-room schoolhouse, which lies two miles south of the river. She is now in the eighth grade, and next year she will have to drive twenty miles on a gravel road and forty miles on blacktop to get to high school.

I had come to visit this little school of seven students as I wanted to articulate the differences and similarities between rural and urban education. I thought I would ask Tracey leading questions like: “So, tell me what you are reading at school? Do you have a school library? What do you get to do during science? Do you and your classmates work together on projects?” Instead, I asked: “What in the world do you do in the spring when the ice starts to melt?”

“Sometimes, we use the four-wheeler. Other times, we take the Argo (a little open vehicle that resembles a tub with six wheels). Or, we use the 4X4 pickup, the tractor, the john-boat (a small oblong boat that resembles a floating block of wood), and sometimes we have to ride horses. But, a lot of the year we can wade across except when we have to use planks to cover the ice and water,” she matter-of-factly listed her means of transportation as she scrambled up the bank of snow on the south side of the frozen river.

“What? Planks?” I asked as I hurried to catch up with her.

“Yes, planks to connect the pieces of ice. Don’t worry, we have life jackets that we hang on that tree when we get to the other side. Sometimes we have to use a rope to tie my sister and me together. Dad usually goes ahead to check where the river is safest. But, the worst time was when we were on horseback, and my horse fell into a hole in the river, and I had to swim. There was water coming over the saddle,” she explained to me.

Tracey, definitely the more capable peer in frozen-river-crossing, was sharing her funds of knowledge as she and Joan made their way to school. Later that afternoon, Joan would experience for herself Vygotsky’s concept of performance before competence, as she would be returning alone.

“The zone of proximal development today will be the actual developmental level tomorrow-that is, what a child can do with assistance today she will be able to do by herself tomorrow … the only ‘good learning’ is that which is in advance of development” (Vygotsky, 1978, pp. 87-89).

However, in this case, the child was Joan, and she didn’t have until tomorrow. She had to do this later the same day. Joan spent the morning at school and, at midday, Tracey and her classmates drove twenty miles in another direction for their once-a-week extracurricular activities. This meant two things: First, Joan would have to cross that frozen river alone this time, and, second, that Tracey would be crossing it alone at 10 P.M. in the darkness. Joan wrote:

I was alone on the riverbank. There was not a person within miles. And, there was the frozen ribbon of ice. I looked at it and thought about the fast-moving currents underneath. I had heard how deceiving ice can be. I thought about Tracey, who has done (or attempted to do it) this every day of her K-8 school experience. I remember thinking that, if the ice should crack or break, there was not a soul who could hear me, much less help me.

I stepped out on the ice, each step forward was a victory in courage for me. I worried that the weight of my fear would make me heavier. It didn’t, and the picture in my mind of Tracey, marching boldly ahead earlier in the day, instructing me in how to cross the ice, was what kept me going until I arrived safely on the other side and felt jubilant. Later that night, I thought of Tracey, who would be crossing that frozen river at about 10 P.m. in the bitter cold darkness. (See Endnote 1.)

At first Joan had been concerned for Tracey’s safety, given her own terror in accomplishing that feat earlier. For Joan, the fund of knowledge for crossing the river was still new and developing; it was still part of her potential development. However, for Tracey, the very same knowledge was her actual level of development. She had experienced this problem-solving activity every winter of her life. She had received the assistance of her more capable peers, her dad, and older sister. Her dad had gone to school the same way; her older sister went to school in the same way. This fund of knowledge, crossing the river, had become second nature for Tracey.

As noted by Moll (2000), normative research often does not capture all of the diversity of life, especially how families need to strategize to deal with the concrete and changing conditions of their lives. Vygotsky argued that

psychology cannot limit itself to direct evidence…. Psychological inquiry is investigation, and like the criminal investigator, the psychologist must take into account indirect evidence and circumstantial clues–which in practice means that works of art, philosophical arguments and anthropological data are no less important for psychology than direct evidence (Vygotsky, 1986, pp. xv-xvi).

Funds of knowledge include all of the knowledge of families. It is the situatedness of what a family must do to live and even thrive in a particular location. The same is true in classrooms; communities of learners generate their own situated knowledge when they are allowed to.