Person-plus: a distributed view of thinking and learning (Perkins)

Perkins, D.N. (1993). Person-plus: A distributed view of thinking and learning. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp.88-110).

Perkins introduces something he refers to as the “equivalent access hypothesis” — because thinking and learning involves not only the person but also her surround, the ability to think and learn ably depends more on the “access characteristics” (kind, representation, retrieval, constructability) of important information, as opposed to where it is stored (i.e. in a brain or a book).

This hypothesis relates to Roy Pea’s concept of “distributed intelligence,” which is the idea that we should reconsider human cognition as distributed beyond the person, that it can also include other persons, symbolic media, environment and artifacts (p.89).

It also relates to Salomon, Perkins, & Globerson’s distinction btw effects with and of technology… In this particular case, Perkins is focusing on effects with technology — but technology in this case being not only the computer, but also things like pencil and paper, even the act of leaving a folder at the front door.

He summarizes this as follows: (p.90)

  1. The surround — the immediate physical and social resources outside the person — participates in cognition, not just as a source of input and a receiver of output, but as a vehicle of thought.
  2. The residue left by thinking — what is learned — lingers not just in the mind of the learner, but in the arrangement of the surround as well, and it is just as genuinely learning for all that. [Perhaps related to successful learning strategies — i.e., metacognition]

“Equivalent access hypothesis: thinking and learning for the person-plus depend only on what might be called the “access characteristics” of relevant knowledge — what kind of knowledge is represented, how it is represented, how readily it is retrieved, and related matters — and not whether the knowledge is located in the person or the surround” (p.90)

Next, Perkins asks us to consider a “knowledge-processing system,” along with four access characteristics of the system. “The four together comprise the access characteristics of the system — what knowledge it includes access to, via representations that afford what access to information, by way of what retrieval paths for accessing the information, and with what access to further constructions based on that knowledge” (p.91)

**The entire perspective is called the access framework. Related to what might be called an “information flow” analysis.

Below is Perkins’ summary of the four general categories that comprise the major aspects of his framework and how they relate to what is known about conditions for good learning:

  1. Knowledge — what kinds of knowledge are available, including declarative, procedural, facts, strategies, skilled routines, etc. Understanding a discipline involves content-level knowledge (facts and procedures) as well as higher-order knowledge (problem-solving strategies, styles of justification, explanation, inquiry). In many learning situations, neither the learner or surround contains much of this higher-order knowledge.
  2. Representation — how the knowledge is represented — whether in ways that make it easily picked up, transported in the system, and recoded. Visual mental models aid in our understanding of complex and novel concepts. Able learners may construct such  models themselves, but less-able learners benefit more when models are provided.
  3. Retrieval — whether the system can find the knowledge representations in question, and how efficiently. Typical patterns of learning can lead to “inert knowledge” — not retrievable under authentic conditions of use. Problem-based learning can help.
  4. Construction — the system’s capacity to assemble the pieces of knowledge retrieved into new knowledge structures. Limitations in short-term memory create a processing bottleneck…however a well-designed surround can provide a surrogate short-term memory to support learners.

“We do not have to know how the mind does what it does to profile the access characteristics of a person-plus. We only need to recognize the “black box” operating characteristics of the system and to ask whether the hoped-for pattern of information flow can occur… interesting strengths and shortfalls of thinking and learning settings emerge at that level of analysis” (p.92-3)

In contrast to real-world environments, “typical psychological and educational practices treat the person in a way that is much closer to person-solo” (p.94). And Perkins feels this is misguided, for two reasons: (1) person-nearly-solo is not “lifelike”; and (2) distributing cognition is an art and needs practice, something schools should provide. (Especially since the “fingertip effect,” the notion that if a support system is available, people will more or less automatically take advantage of the opportunities that it affords, is a fallacy. [Of course, this is not the only reason why schools tend to promote person-solo learning.])

Next, Perkins discusses the distribution of the executive function in the person-plus environment. This distribution happens in classrooms all the time (ex: when teacher makes a decision that students follow; the instructions at the top of a workbook) — however, the quality of the support depends on whether or not it provides support while also allowing the learner to develop the required executive functioning skills.

We often cede the executive function to the surround — instructions for assembly; contracts and laws. However, learners do not automatically know how to handle distributed executives (p.98). Students, especially weaker ones, often display inadequate executive function — they don’t know or figure out what to do, and the surround doesn’t provide enough help. “This is commonly the case in open-ended learning situations, such as the use of Logo when teachers are not skilled in the art of scaffolding students’ activities. The implication is not that such environments should involve a strong executive function in the surround, telling learners what to do, but rather that such environments should involve enough support specifically for the executive function that students can find their way into worthwhile activities” (p.98).

Higher-order knowledge (discipline-appropriate problem-solving strategies and patterns of justification, explanation, inquiry characteristic of the discipline) helps the construction of content-level knowledge, but is also necessary for executive function. “Lacking this higher-order structure, the executive is limited in its choices to the retrieval of content knowledge and the execution of routine procedures, such as the algorithms of arithmetic. It is the higher-order aspects of a domain that infuse domain-related activities with significance” (p.101).

Despite its importance, “in many person-plus situations, there is no appreciable representation of higher-order knowledge either in the person or in the surround. For example, many textbooks in science simply do not touch, in any but the most superficial ways, upon the processes and commitments of science” (p.102) [Great point!]

“In general, cognitive opportunities are not in themselves cognitive scaffolds. Thoughtful, innovative technological resources that afford great opportunity for higher-order kinds of thinking and learning in a domain do not in themselves necessarily provide cognitive scaffolding” (p.103).

Perkins makes clear a special exception regarding the locus of higher-order knowledge; he feels that HOK should be in the person rather than in the surround. Since it is continuously referenced by the executive function, is fairly stable and relatively compact, “it might as well sit in long-term memory” (p.104).

Very interesting implication of distributed cognition: “A Vygotskian perspective would highlight the learner’s assimilation from the social surround of patterns of cognition. The notion of distributed cognition would also mark the person’s modifying influence on the social surround. Moreover, it would emphasize the importance of the physical surround alongside the social as a major factor in the cognition of the person-plus system” (p.106).

2 Responses to “Person-plus: a distributed view of thinking and learning (Perkins)”
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  1. […] post I was pointed to reviews a chapter distributed thinking, a topic I like from my days getting to […]

  2. […] Some additional information on person-plus and Perkins’ investigations can be found here… […]

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