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History & Theory


The Fifth Dimension in Whittier, California, USA, near Los Angeles, is one in a network of Fifth Dimension sites that extends across the USA and around the world. Founded in 1993, Whittier's is now the oldest, continuously running Fifth Dimension site. It is sustained by a partnership of Whittier College, the Boys & Girls Club of Whittier, and the BCM Foundation (formerly the B. C. McCabe Foundation).

As other Fifth Dimensions do, Whittier's meets during after-school hours and serves children from the local schools. Its primary goals are (1) to extend children's cognitive and social development through computer-mediated activity; (2) to build children's mentoring relationships with Whittier College students; and simultaneously (3) to serve as a learning laboratory for college students and faculty interested in education, human development, and community action.


Despite constant evolution and innovation over the years, the Whittier Fifth Dimension remains faithful to all the core design principles of the prototype Fifth Dimension model initially developed during the 1980's at the University of California, San Diego's Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition (LCHC). These design principles are based in a family of theoretical perspectives including cultural-historical activity theory and sociocultural psychology. In line with these perspectives, the Fifth Dimension motivates children's participation and situates their learning in everyday cultural activities, especially play.


Whittier Fifth Dimension play and learning unfold through educational computer games, telecommunications tasks, and Internet investigations that require reading, writing, mathematics, and logical problem solving. All are set in a fanciful activity system overseen by the Wizard, a mythical figurehead said to be the Fifth Dimension's founder and patron. The Wizard corresponds with children regularly, complimenting their progress, responding to their personal stories, offering hints and encouragement, and arbitrating Fifth Dimension rules.



The Fifth Dimension instantiates principles of a family of theoretical perspectives that view learning and thinking as socially distributed, contextual, and dependent upon participation in cultural activity. These include the cultural-historical activity theory initiated by L. S. Vygotsky, A. N. Leont'ev, and A. R. Luria and developed by M. Cole and Y. Engestrom. They also include sociocultural perspectives on cognition and learning developed by scholars such as B. Rogoff, J. Lave, and E. Wenger.

These perspectives inform the Fifth Dimension's core design principles, which include those listed below. (For a thorough discussion, see Michael Cole and the Distributed Literacy Consortium, The Fifth Dimension: An After-School Program Built on Diversity. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006.)


  • The Fifth Dimension motivates participation and situates learning in everyday cultural activities --especially for children, play.

  • Intergenerational collaboration is a central feature of the Fifth Dimension. At each site, students from a local college or university (in Whittier, undergraduates from Whittier College) play alongside children as partners throughout every activity. In these partnerships, the roles of learner and teacher are flexibly shared by undergraduates and children. While undergraduates and may know more about the academic content of activities, the children frequently know more about game procedures and Fifth Dimension culture. Moreover, undergraduate partners are encouraged to follow the principle, "Help as little as possible -- but as much as necessary for the children to make progress and have fun."

  • The Fifth Dimension encourages participants to formulate personal goals through recurrent choices, including the choices of whether or not to participate, what activities to do, and at what level of expertise to attempt them.

  • The Fifth Dimension promotes use of a wide range of communicative practices and artifacts --including culturally valued "psychological tools" and material tools such as computers -- as mediating means for satisfying participants' diverse motives and personal goals.

  • The Fifth Dimension system honors local contexts and privileges human diversity in site development. Thus, while all Fifth Dimension sites have common theoretical roots and instantiate the general design principles described here, each has a unique culture shaped by its history and context.

In addition, each Fifth Dimension is operated in partnership by a community organization and a nearby university or college. In most locations, the community organization (e.g., Boys & Girls Club, community center, school, church) provides space and other resources for the program. The college or university maintains a Fifth Dimension-affiliated course through which students serve in the Fifth Dimension. The courses are located in various departments, such as child development, education, or communication. Undergraduates in the affiliated course participate at the community site once or twice each week as a field-based learning experience. University faculty conduct research at the Fifth Dimension.



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