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

Author - Anne Murphy

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Cognitive, social and emotional situatedness

Illeris (2001 and 2003) further develops the notion of the social situatedness of learning by including the dimension of ‘emotion’. His argument has been developing, not so much as a general contribution to theories of learning per se, but as a direct critical response to current trends towards competence-based learning which he describes as ‘international and societal development expressed in terms such as “late modernity”, “globalisation” and the “knowledge society”’ (Illeris, 2003).

For Illeris an understanding of learning implies an understanding of the human and psychological mechanisms involved in the process, an understanding of the external conditions, and an understanding of the adequacy of these conditions:

The point of departure for my concept of learning is that learning must be understood as all processes leading to permanent capacity change – whether they be physical, cognitive, emotional or social in nature – that do not exclusively have to do with biological maturation or aging. This means that the learning concept also extends to such functions as personal development, socialisation, qualification and competence development, as the difference between these terms is mainly the point of view towards learning which is adopted. (ibid.)

Figure 2 Source: Illeris, K. (2003)

Illeris proposed that there are three interrelated dimensions of learning – cognitive, emotional and social. Through the cognitive dimension, knowledge, skills, understanding, meaning and functionality are developed. Through the emotional dimension, patterns of emotion and motivation, attitudes, sensitivity and mental balance are developed. Through the social-societal dimension, potentials for empathy, communication, co-operation and sociality are developed.

Two processes operate within the three dimensions. These are interaction processes between the learner and the surroundings, and inner mental acquisition and elaboration processes by which new interactions are linked to earlier learning. For Illeris these interaction processes are social and cultural in nature, while the acquisition processes are psychological in nature. The acquisition processes, furthermore, involve an integration of the cognitive with the emotional and, even with maturation, they are never entirely separate.

Illeris maps the development of his theories around influential theorists, not chronologically as does Shepard but relative to their emphasis on the three dimensions of learning: cognitive, social and emotional. For Illeris there has not necessarily been a paradigm shift evident in recent decades, as Shepard argues. Rather, twentieth-century theorists can be placed in terms of their relative ‘positions in the tension field’ in four broad categories of:

• developmental psychology
• activity theory
• socialisation theory
• societally and socially oriented theory

Consequently, there are inevitable tensions within institutionalised learning where there are tensions between competing perspectives.

Figure 3 Source: Illeris, K. (2001)

So, do academics need to know?

Essentially, then, what is significant about ‘situative’ learning and about ‘distributed cognition’ in third-level learning and teaching? The direct answer is that ideas such as these represent approaches to the management of teaching, learning and assessment which shift practice from a behaviourist-cognitivist approach to a cognitive-constructivist approach.

Driscoll (2000) illustrates it as follows: Figure 4

In Driscoll’s first diagram, the behaviourist-cognitivist approach to learning is primarily about internal processing of ‘input’ at the individual level. In the community of practice-situative learning context, in the second diagram, learning is a joint enterprise among learners and ‘teachers’. It could be remarked that by representing learning processes in this way there is a suggestion that Driscoll has a value-laden preference for a particular paradigmatic approach to education. However, Driscoll’s analysis of currently emerging situative learning theories does not lead her to conclude that there will be a significant revolution in thinking about learning, or that such theories will yield sufficiently robust educational models to make a sustainable impact.

If we contest Driscoll’s conclusion we will perhaps be obliged to articulate and defend the learning theories underpinning new forms of knowledge production through the use of artificial intelligence and information technology. We will also have difficulties in accommodating the unfolding impact of a knowledge-based society, and the inevitability of varying forms of lifelong learning.

If we accept Driscoll’s position that there is unlikely to be a major shift in favour of situated learning and teaching strategies however, then there just might be some merit in the wise conclusion attributed to Goethe, that everything has been thought of before: the task is to think of it again in ways that are appropriate in one’s current circumstances!

So, as academics, when it comes to evaluating contemporary theories of learning, teaching and assessment, perhaps there is merit in taking time to think about what appear to be ‘emerging’ theories, to assess the degree of ‘robustness’ in them, and to consider both their sustainability and their appropriateness, before deciding to apply them.


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