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

Author - Anne Murphy

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Co-habiting twentieth-century paradigms of learning

The development of the new academic disciplines of cognitive psychology, developmental psychology, computer science, anthropology, linguistics and neuroscience has advanced our understanding of how learning happens and how knowledge is constructed and transmitted. The notions of ‘communities of practice’ learning through ‘legitimate peripheral participation’, and the re-discovery of Vygotsky’s ‘zone of proximal development’, have generated renewed thinking about how formal educational curricula are constructed, how learning is supported and how learning is assessed (Brown, Collins and Duguid, 1989; Wenger, 2003).

Throughout the twentieth century there were phases when specific learning paradigms were relatively dominant. Pellegrino, Chudowsky and Glaser (2001) argue that the educational researchers of the early twentieth century were concerned predominantly with differential intellectual ability and its distribution. Associated with this interest was scholarly-scientific research into stimulus-response association in learning, followed by a growing interest in linguists, computer science and neuroscience, offering new perspectives and new technology to observe and measure human behaviour and human brain function.

Greeno, Pearson and Schoenfeld (1999) suggested that four perspectives on learning and mind can be identified as illustrative of the chronological development of theories about learning over the last century: ‘differential’, ‘behaviourist’, ‘cognitive’ and ‘situative’. They further suggest that all current approaches to learning, teaching and assessing can be broadly located within these four perspectives.

A similar idea has been illustrated by Shepard (2001) in a diagrammatic chronology of twentieth-century learning theory. This model indicates a shift in dominant paradigms over the century. In the model the predominant paradigms are viewed in relation to the predominant philosophical perspective on the role of the educational curricula, the predominant theoretical perspective on the learning process, and the predominant modes of assessment.

Figure 1 Source: Desforges, C. and Fox, R. (2002)

In this model the predominant view of the purpose of the curriculum throughout the twentieth century is social efficiency, the potential to learn is regarded mostly as hereditary, approaches to teaching are mostly behaviourist, and approaches to assessment mostly as scientific measurement at the level of the individual. The predominant theorists informing this paradigm are listed by Shepard as [initials?] Thorndike, [B.F.?] Skinner and [Robert?] Gagne.

Shepard argues that throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, the paradigm shifted towards more constructivist theories regarding the nature of learning, and towards more ‘situative’ approaches to curriculum design, teaching approaches and assessment strategies. In this ‘reformed’ paradigm the predominant theorists are not necessarily only from the latter decades of the century, however, but theorists, such as [Lev?] Vygotsky, whose ideas span the decades.

The principles underpinning this contemporary cognitivist-constructivist learning paradigm include the following beliefs:

a. intellectual abilities are socially and culturally developed
b. learners construct knowledge and understandings within a social context
c. new learning is shaped by prior knowledge and cultural perspectives
d. intelligent thought involves ‘metacognition’ or self monitoring of learning a and thinking
e. deep understanding is principled and supports transfer
f. cognitive performance depends on disposition and personal identity
(ibid page 237)


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