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‘Situated learning’, ‘distributed cognition’: Do academics really need to know?

Author - Anne Murphy


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‘Situated learning’, ‘distributed cognition’: do academics really need to know?

The dominant approach to the study of learning throughout most of the twentieth century was to view learning as cognitive only, as if it were a process contained in the mind of the learner, decontextualised from the lived-in world. There is now, however, a growing interest in the study of learning as <i>situated</i> in a specific time, place and social activity – as ‘situated learning’ – and to view the locus of learning not as in the brain of the single individual (person-solo) but as ‘distributed’ among person, language, artefacts, activities and environment (person-plus) (see Lave and Wenger, 1999; Salomon, 1993; Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989).

What have been emerging in the last twenty years are ideas about learning which conceptualise the relationships between person, activity, situation and artefacts in a process of learning without necessarily encompassing each concept in a theoretical entity. What is being sough, rather, is a more inclusive, intensive development of the socially situated character of learning activity in theoretically consistent terms (Chaklin and Lave, 2003).

In these new ideas it may not be sufficient to say that designated cognitive theories of learning can be ‘amended’ by adding a dimension of ‘situatedness’ or ‘distribution’, for instance, and by forcing a connection between theories from psychology and theories from sociology. The emergent theories of situated learning and distributed cognition essentially do not separate action, thought, feelings and values ‘from their collective, cultural, historical forms of located, interested, conflictual, meaningful activity’ (ibid.), but in doing so are both a synthesis of some existing ideas about the nature of learning together with new ways of conceptualising it.

If we follow the logic of this argument we might, then, doubt the definition of learning as cognitive acquisition alone – whether of facts, knowledge, problem-solving strategies or metacognitive skills – and we might regard learning more as a construction of present versions of past experiences for several persons acting together. We might also, then, reconceptualise notions about ‘bodies of knowledge’ and about the transmission of such bodies of knowledge in formal learning settings. We might furthermore concede that knowledge always undergoes construction and transformation in use, and that learning is always complexly problematic. Thinkers about education such as Rogoff (1990) and Salomon (1993) have given us new conceptualisations and a revised language to express these concepts. Lave and Wenger (1991), for example, hold that knowledge and learning will be found through the complex structures of person-acting-in-settings: therefore learning cannot be pinned down to the head of the individual, or to assigned tasks, to external tools or to environment, but lies instead in the distributed relations among them.

Essentially then, in this new conceptualisation of learning, the physical and social experiences and situations in which learners find themselves and the tools they use in that experience are integral to the entire learning process (Merriam and Cafferella, 1999).

 



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