Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (Brown, Collins, Duguid)

Brown, J.S., Collins, A. and Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher. v18 n1, pp. 32-42.

Knowledge is situated, a product of the activity, context, and culture of the community in which it is being used. Conventional schooling often ignores this view of knowledge, as well as the influence that “school culture” has on what students learn. The authors also discuss cognitive apprenticeship as an improved model for learning.

Brown, Collins, and Duguid use vocabulary teaching to illustrate how situations structure cognition. All words are at least partly indexical, and so it is essential that learners have access to the “extralinguistic props that would structure, constrain, and ultimately allow interpretation in normal communication…Because it is dependent on situations and negotiations, the meaning of a word cannot, in principle, be captured by a definition, even when the definition is supported by a couple of exemplary sentences.”

“All knowledge is, we believe, like language. Its constituent parts index the world and so are inextricably a product of the activity and situations in which they are produced. A concept, for example, will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in a new, more densely textured form. So a concept, like the meaning of a word, is always under construction.”

To explore this further, the authors recommend considering conceptual knowledge as similar to a set of tools: “They can only be fully understood through use, and using them entails both changing the user’s view of the world and adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used.”

“It is quite possible to acquire a tool but to be unable to use it. Similarly, it is common for students to acquire algorithms, routines, and decontextualized definitions that they cannot use and that, therefore, lie inert…People who use tools actively rather than just acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and of the tools themselves. The understanding, both of the world and of the tool, continually changes as a result of their interaction. Learning and acting are interestingly indistinct, learning being a continuous, life-long process resulting from acting in situations.”

“Conceptual tools similarly reflect the cumulative wisdom of the culture in which they are used and the insights and experience of individuals. Their meaning is not invariant but a product of negotiation within the community. Again, appropriate use is not simply a function of the abstract concept alone. It is a function of the culture and the activities in which the concept has been developed. Just as carpenters and cabinet makers use chisels differently, so physicists and engineers use mathematical formulae differently. Activity, concept, and culture are interdependent. No one can be totally understood without the other two. Learning must involve all three.”

However, “teaching methods often try to impart abstracted concepts as fixed, well-defined, independent entities that can be explored in prototypical examples and textbook exercises. But such exemplification cannot provide the important insights into either the culture or the authentic activities of members of that culture that learners need.”

The authors feel that academic disciplines, professions, and manual trades are really communities of practitioners, who are “connected by more than their ostensible tasks. They are bound by intricate, socially constructed webs of belief [great phrase!], which are essential to understanding what they do (Geertz, 1983). The activities of many communities are unfathomable, unless they are viewed from within the culture. The culture and the use of a tool act together to determine the way practitioners see the world; and the way the world appears to them determines the culture’s understanding of the world and of the tools. Unfortunately, students are too often asked to use the tools of a discipline without being able to adopt its culture. To learn to use tools as practitioners use them, a student, like an apprentice, must enter that community and its culture. Thus, in a significant way, learning is, we believe, a process of enculturation.”

Enculturating is “what people do in learning to speak, read, and write, or becoming school children, office workers, researchers, and so on. From a very early age and throughout their lives, people, consciously or unconsciously, adopt the behavior and belief systems of new social groups…The ease and success with which people do this (as opposed to the intricacy of describing what it entails) belie the immense importance of the process and obscures the fact that what they pick up is a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.”

“Although students are shown the tools of many academic cultures in the course of a school career, the pervasive cultures that they observe, in which they participate, and which some enter quite effectively are the cultures of school life itself. These cultures can be unintentionally antithetical to useful domain learning. The ways schools use dictionaries, or math formulae, or historical analysis are very different from the ways practitioners use them. Thus, students may pass exams (a distinctive part of school cultures) but still not be able to use a domain’s conceptual tools in authentic practice.

“[Students] need to be exposed to the use of a domain’s conceptual tools in authentic activity — to teachers acting as practitioners and using these tools in wrestling with problems of the world. Such activity can tease out the way a mathematician or historian looks at the world and solves emergent problems.”

Authentic activities are defined as the ordinary (expert and non-expert) practices of the culture. “Archetypal school activity is very different from…authentic activity, because it is very different from what authentic practitioners do. When authentic activities are transferred to the classroom, their context is inevitably transmuted; they become classroom tasks and part of the school culture.”

“In the creation of classroom tasks, apparently peripheral features of authentic tasks — like the extralinguistic supports involved in the interpretation of communication — are often dismissed as “noise” from which salient features can be abstracted for the purpose of teaching. But the context of activity is an extraordinarily complex network from which practitioners draw essential support. The source of such support is often only tacitly recognized by practitioners, or even by teachers or designers of simulations. Classroom tasks, therefore, can completely fail to provide the contextual features that allow authentic activity. At the same time, students may come to rely, in important but little noticed ways, on features of the classroom context, in which the task is now embedded, that are wholly absent from and alien to authentic activity. Thus, much of what is learned in school may apply only to the ersatz activity, if it was learned through such activity.”

The authors next discuss the activities of students, practitioners, and just plain folks (JPF). When JPFs aspire to learn a particular set of practices, they can (1) enculturate through apprenticeship; or (2) enter a school as a student. The second option, however, will require a qualitative change in behavior. “The general strategies for intuitive reasoning, resolving issues, and negotiating meaning that people develop through everyday activity are superseded by the precise, well-defined problems, formal definitions, and symbol manipulation of much school activity.”

JPF, Practicioner, and Student Activity

(*note the dissimilarity btw JPFs/practitioners and students)

JPFs Students Practioners
reasoning with: casual stories laws casual models
acting on: situations symbols conceptual situations
resolving: emergent problems and dilemmas well-defined problems ill-defined problems
producing: negotiable meaning & socially constructed understanding fixed meaning & immutable concepts negotiable meaning & socially constructed understanding

The importance of situations/environment:

“Hutchins’ (in press) study of intricate collaborative naval navigation records the way people distribute the burden across the environment and the group as well. The resulting cognitive activity can then only be explained in relation to its context. ”[W]hen the context of cognition is ignored,” Hutchins observes, “it is impossible to see the contribution of structure in the environment, in artifacts, and in other people to the organization of mental processes.”

“Authentic activity…is important for learners, because it is the only way they gain access to the standpoint that enables practitioners to act meaningfully and purposefully…The perceptions resulting from actions are a central feature in both learning and activity. How a person perceives activity may be determined by tools and their appropriated use. What they perceive, however, contributes to how they act and learn. Different activities produce different indexicalized representations not equivalent, universal ones. And, thus, the activity that led to those representations plays a central role in learning.”

“Knowledge, we suggest, similarly indexes the situation in which it arises and is used. The embedding circumstances efficiently provide essential parts of its structure and meaning. So knowledge, which comes coded by and connected to the activity and environment in which it is developed, is spread across its component parts, some of which are in the mind and some in the world much as the final picture on a jigsaw is spread across its component pieces.” [Related to Perkins' "person-plus"]

“As Hutchins (in press), Pea (1988), and others point out, the structure of cognition is widely distributed across the environment, both social and physical. And we suggest that the environment, therefore, contributes importantly to indexical representations people form in activity. These representations, in turn, contribute to future activity. Indexical representations developed through engagement in a task may greatly increase the efficiency with which subsequent tasks can be done, if part of the environment that structures the representations remains invariant. This is evident in the ability to perform tasks that cannot be described or remembered in the absence of the situation. Recurring features of the environment may thus afford recurrent sequences of actions. Memory and subsequent actions, as knots in handkerchiefs and other aides memoires reveal, are not context-independent processes. Routines (Agre, 1985) may well be a product of this sort of indexicalization. Thus, authentic activity becomes a central component of learning.”

“One of the key points of the concept of indexicality is that it indicates that knowledge, and not just learning, is situated. A corollary of this is that learning methods that are embedded in authentic situations are not merely useful; they are essential.”

Cognitive apprenticeship:

“Cognitive apprenticeship methods try to enculturate students into authentic practices through activity and social interaction in a way similar to that evident — and evidently successful — in craft apprenticeship.”

“Cognitive apprenticeship supports learning in a domain by enabling students to acquire, develop, and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity…the term apprenticeship helps to emphasize the centrality of activity in learning and knowledge and highlights the inherently context-dependent, situated, and enculturating nature of learning. And apprenticeship also suggests the paradigm of situated modeling, coaching, and fading, whereby teachers or coaches promote learning, first by making explicit their tacit knowledge or by modeling their strategies for students in authentic activity. Then, teachers and colleagues support students’ attempts at doing the task. And finally they empower the students to continue independently.”

Characteristics of cognitive apprenticeship within an exemplary classroom lesson:

  • By beginning with a task embedded in a familiar activity, it shows the students the legitimacy of their implicit knowledge and its availability as scaffolding in apparently unfamiliar tasks.
  • By pointing to different decompositions, it stresses that heuristics are not absolute, but assessed with respect to a particular task — and that even algorithms can be assessed in this way.
  • By allowing students to generate their own solution paths, it helps make them conscious, creative members of the culture of problem-solving mathematicians. And, in enculturating through this activity, they acquire some of the culture’s tools — a shared vocabulary and the means to discuss, reflect upon, evaluate, and validate community procedures in a collaborative process.

“In the terms of cognitive apprenticeship, we can represent the progress of the students from embedded activity to general principles of the culture. In this sequence, apprenticeship and coaching in a domain begin by providing modeling in situ and scaffolding for students to get started in an authentic activity. As the students gain more self-confidence and control, they move into a more autonomous phase of collaborative learning, where they begin to participate consciously in the culture. The social network within the culture helps them develop its language and the belief systems and promotes the process of enculturation. Collaboration also leads to articulation of strategies, which can then be discussed and reflected on. This, in turn, fosters generalizing, grounded in the students’ situated understanding. From here, students can use their fledgling conceptual knowledge in activity, seeing that activity in a new light, which in turn leads to the further development of the conceptual knowledge.”

For example, “advanced graduate students in the humanities, the social sciences, and the physical sciences acquire their extremely refined research skills through the apprenticeships they serve with senior researchers. It is then that they, like all apprentices, must recognize and resolve the ill-defined problems that issue out of authentic activity, in contrast to the well-defined exercises that are typically given to them in text books and on exams throughout their earlier schooling. It is at this stage, in short, that students no longer behave as students, but as practitioners, and develop their conceptual understanding through social interaction and collaboration in the culture of the domain, not of the school.”

Social interaction:

Within a culture, ideas are exchanged and modified and belief systems developed and appropriated through conversation and narratives, so these must be promoted, not inhibited. Though they are often anathema to traditional schooling, they are an essential component of social interaction and, thus, of learning. They provide access to much of the distributed knowledge and elaborate support of the social matrix (Orr, 1987). So learning environments must allow narratives to circulate and “war stories” to be added to the collective wisdom of the community.

A great description of the process: “In language learning, for instance, the original frail understanding of a word is developed and extended through subsequent use and social negotiation, though each use is obviously situated. Miller and Gildea (1978) describe two stages of this process. The first, in which people learn the word and assign it a semantic category (e.g., the word olive is first assigned to the general category of color words), is quickly done. The second, in which distinctions within this semantic category (e.g., between olive and other colors) are explored as the word occurs again and again, is a far more gradual process, which “may never be completely finished” (p. 95). This second phase of word learning corresponds to the development through activity of all conceptual knowledge. The threadbare concepts that initially develop out of activity are gradually given texture as they are deployed in different situations.”

It is only within groups that social interaction and conversation — and thus learning — can take place. Salient features of group learning include:

  • Collective problem solving. Groups accumulate the individual knowledge of their members and give rise synergistically to insights and solutions
  • Displaying multiple roles. Successful execution of most individual tasks requires students to understand the many different roles needed for carrying out any cognitive task. Getting one person to be able to play all the roles entailed by authentic activity and to reflect productively upon his or her performance is one of the monumental tasks of education. The group, however, permits different roles to be displayed and engenders reflective narratives and discussions about the aptness of those roles.
  • Confronting ineffective strategies and misconceptions. Students have many misconceptions about qualitative phenomena in physics. Teachers rarely have the opportunity to hear enough of what students think to recognize when the information that is offered back by students is only a surface retelling for school purposes that may mask deep misconceptions about the physical world and problem solving strategies. Groups however, can be efficient in drawing out, confronting and discussing both misconceptions and ineffective strategies.
  • Providing collaborative work skills. Students who are taught individually rather than collaboratively can fail to develop skills needed for collaborative work.

Considerations for future research:

One of the particularly difficult challenges for research is determining what should be made explicit in teaching and what should be left implicit. A common strategy in trying to overcome difficult pedagogic problems is to make as much as possible explicit. Thus, we have ended up with wholly inappropriate methods of teaching. Whatever the domain, explication often lifts implicit and possibly even nonconceptual constraints (Cussins, 1988) out of the embedding world and tries to make them explicit or conceptual. These now take a place in our ontology and become something more to learn about rather than simply something useful in learning. But indexical representations gain their efficiency by leaving much of the context underrepresented or implicit. Future work into situated cognition, from which educational practices will benefit, must, among other things, try to frame a convincing account of the relationship between explicit knowledge and implicit understanding.”

Also, “there remains major theoretical work to shift the traditional focus of education. For centuries, the epistemology that has guided educational practice has concentrated primarily on conceptual representation and made its relation to objects in the world problematic by assuming that, cognitively, representation is prior to all else. A theory of situated cognition suggests that activity and perception are importantly and epistemologically prior — at a nonconceptual level — to conceptualization and that it is on them that more attention needs to be focused. An epistemology that begins with activity and perception, which are first and foremost embedded in the world, may simply bypass the classical problem of reference — of mediating conceptual representations.”

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