Many practices of conventional schooling consider knowledge and skill as discrete structures of cognition that can be adequately transferred from teachers to students in classrooms and studied in laboratories. Knowing and thinking, in this view, are assumed to go on in individual minds isolated from the complexity of the world outside, from which abstract knowledge can be successfully distilled. However, a growing body of research that considers cognition and learning in activities outside specialized learning environments is undermining the plausibility of these presuppositions (e.g., Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Engeström, 2001; Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996; Hutchins, 1995a; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Nerses-sian et al., 2003; Rogoff, 1990; Rogoff & Lave, 1984). This research supports the view that knowing and learning by individuals are inextricably situated in the physical and social contexts of their acquisition and use. It is a mistake to think that classrooms or laboratory experiments produce knowledge or follow principles of learning that are somehow context-free. Cognition and learning by individuals always occur in a context; the issue has to be what the context is, not whether there is one.
For most of time between 1950 and the early 2000s, active research programs have been studying structures and processes of social interaction, as well as cognitive processes of representing and transforming information. But these research programs have been largely separate from each other. Situative research and theorizing attempts to unify the two perspectives of individual cognitive theory and the analysis of interactional structures and processes. The primary level of a situative analysis is an activity system, in which one or more individuals participate along with material and informational resources in the environment. Cognitive processes are understood as aspects of the practices of a community or group. Studies include analyses of perceiving (Goodwin, 1996), remembering (Hutchins, 1995b), reasoning and understanding (Greeno & Van de Sande, 2007; Ochs, Gonzales, & Jacoby, 1996), and learning (Bowers, Cobb, & McClain, 1999; Engeström, 2001; Engle, 2006; Stenning et al., 2002). In these analyses, successful cognitive performances are considered as part of an interactive system, and analyses focus on how the multiple participants coordinate their contributions. Information structures, which the individual cognitive perspective attributes to individual minds, are attributed in the situative perspective to the interacting group as achievements of communication that enter the group's common ground (cf. Clark, 1996). Such analyses do not preclude also having analyses of the same events that focus on one or more individual participants, identifying their respective contributions to the interactions and explaining these in terms of their individual capabilities, and with other participants and systems considered as the context (cf. Bowers, Cobb & McClain, 1999; Hatano & Inagaki, 2003).
If knowing is understood as successful situated participation, then many conventional assumptions must be questioned. In particular, a situative theory of knowing challenges the widely held belief that abstraction of knowledge from situations is the key to transferability. An examination of the role of situations in structuring knowledge suggests that abstraction and explication provide an inherently impoverished and often misleading view of knowing. Knowing by an individual is fundamentally a capability of the person to interact in the world. In this view, hypotheses or assessments of an individual's or group's knowing are about their capabilities for interacting in situations. Hypotheses that represent knowledge only as abstract propositions do not capture the densely interwoven nature of knowing.
The situative perspective views knowing as distributed among people and their environments, including the objects, artifacts, tools, books, and the communities of which they are a part. Analyses of activity focus on processes of interaction of individuals with other people and with physical and technological systems. Several research traditions have contributed to the situative perspective. The best established of these is ethnography, including the study of cultural practices and patterns of social interactions, as well as discourse analysis and conversation analysis in activity theory, sociolinguistics, anthropology, and sociology. Another research tradition is ecological psychology, which studies behavior as physical interaction in which animals, including people, participate in physical and technological systems. A third research tradition is situation theory in logic and philosophy, which analyzes meaning and action as relational systems and is developing a reformulation of logic to support these relational analyses. Knowing in this perspective is both an attribute of groups that carry out cooperative activities and an attribute of individuals who participate in the groups. Learning by a group or individual involves becoming attuned to constraints and affor-dances of the material and social systems with which they interact. Discussions of motivation in this perspective often emphasize engagement of individuals with the functions and goals of the community, including interpersonal commitments and ways in which individuals' identities are enhanced or diminished by their participation.
When knowing is viewed as practices of communities and of the abilities of individuals to participate in those practices, then learning is the strengthening of those practices and participatory abilities. Systems in which individuals learn to participate in social practices are very common and include apprenticeship and other forms of being initiated into the practices of a group. Lave and Wenger (1991) reviewed several studies of learning by newcomers to communities of practice and concluded that a crucial factor in the success of such a system is that learners must be afforded legitimate peripheral participation, which involves access to the practices that they are expected to learn and genuine participation in the activities and concerns of the group.
Lave and Wenger characterized learning of practices as processes of participation in which beginners are relatively peripheral in the activities of a community, and as they become more experienced and adept, they progress toward fuller participation. A crucial issue in the nature of learning is whether, and in what ways, the peripheral participation of beginners is legitimate. They described four cases of learning by newcomers and emphasized how learners' identities derive from being part of the community as they become more fully participating members in the community. They also noted that an apprenticeship relationship can be unproductive for learning, as in a case of meat cutters they cited, where the apprentices worked in a separate room and were isolated from the working community. For an environment of apprenticeship to be a productive environment of learning, learners need to have opportunities to observe and practice activities in order to progress toward more full participation.
The degree to which people participate fully and are respected by other members of a community determines their sense of identity (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). The fully participative roles are those that most directly contribute to the collective activities and knowledge of the community. The motivation to participate more fully in a community of practice can provide a powerful incentive for learning. Smith (1988) argued that children learn to read and write if the people they admire read and write. That is, they will want to join the “literacy club” and will work hard to become members. Learning to read is part of becoming the kind of person they want to become. Identity is central to deep learning.
An important aspect of learners' identities are the ways that they are positioned in the participant structures (Phillips, 1972) of learning activities. An important distinction by Pickering (1995) involves different kinds of agency, called conceptual and disciplinary. Students who are positioned with disciplinary agency only participate as receivers and reproducers of the established meanings and procedures of the discipline, and their learning is evaluated only by whether they can perform procedures and explanations correctly. Students who are positioned with conceptual agency are expected to question and adapt concepts and methods of the discipline. For example, they might construct understandings that utilize disciplinary concepts in novel ways or consider alternatives to standard definitions of concepts. As an example, research by Boaler (2002) compared learning of mathematics in two English secondary schools and found that students who learned primarily through investigations understood mathematics as a general resource for understanding and problem solving, whereas students whose learning was primarily mastery of set procedures understood mathematics as a set of rules to be followed.
Wenger (1998) argued that people participate in a variety of communities—at home, at work, at school, and in hobbies. In his view a community of practice is a group of people participating together to carry out different activities, such as garage bands, ham-radio operators, recovering alcoholics, and research scientists. Wenger stated: “For individuals, it means that learning is an issue of engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities. For communities, it means that learning is an issue of refining their practice and ensuring new generations of members. For organizations, it means that learning is an issue of sustaining the interconnected communities of practice through which an organization knows what it knows and thus becomes effective and valuable as an organization.” (pp. 7–8).
The view that learning occurs through participation is at the root of the practices of apprenticeship, where apprentices are guided and supervised by masters. In successful apprenticeship learning, masters teach by showing apprentices how to do a task (modeling), and then helping them as they try to do it on their own (coaching and fading). Lave and Wenger (1991) emphasized how an apprentice's identity derives from becoming part of the community of practitioners. The motive for becoming a more full participant in a community of practice can provide a powerful motivation for learning. Of course, what is learned in apprenticeship may not generalize easily to other contexts. Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989) attempted to characterize how the modeling, coaching, and fading paradigm of apprenticeship might be applied to learning the cognitive subjects of school in an approach they called “cognitive apprenticeship.”
A major goal of educational reform is to have students participate more actively and legitimately in learning communities, including participation in formulating and evaluating questions and problems, and constructing and evaluating hypotheses, evidence, arguments, and conclusions (Brown & Campione, 1996). Abilities for participating in these activities have to be learned, and the research literature on that kind of learning is sparse. Several projects have been focused on creating classroom practices of discussion and inquiry, and the investigators in those projects have discussed some aspects of the process of establishing norms and expectations by the students that support productive collaborative learning (Cohen, 1986; Lampert, 1990; Slavin, 1983).
In the view of learning as coming to participate more fully in a community of practice, transfer is often thought to be a problematic issue (e.g., Anderson, Reder & Simon, 1996). Viewed in the situative perspective, transfer can occur when learning leads to better performance or learning of new practices within a community (e.g., for school communities this might mean working new problems or accomplishing new kinds of tasks) or outside the community (e.g., for school these might be work environments such as those studied by Beach, 1995, and Saxe, 1990). Many of the resources and supports that occur within a community of practice do not carry over to a different community, and so the problem of transfer becomes one of marshalling the resources needed to be successful in a new environment. Doing so requires sophisticated social and information-processing skills, which are the kinds of skills that businesses think they will need in the future.
In a view of transfer in the situative perspective proposed by Greeno, Smith, and Moore (1993), transfer depends on constraints and/or affordances that are invariant under the transformations that change the learning situation into the transfer situation. For transfer to occur, learners must become attuned to those invariants in their initial learning. One of the ways to be attuned is to have an abstract representation that can apply in the new situation, but this is only one possible way for attune-ment to occur and may not be the typical way for many learned activities to generalize (Greeno, 1997).
Although the situative view insists that all cognition and learning are situated, learning designers who take a situative perspective generally attend to the activity settings in which learning is to occur. For example, in goal-based scenarios (Schank et al., 1994; Nowakowski et al., 1994) learners are given real-world tasks and the scaffolding they need to carry out such tasks. They can be set either in computer-based environments or naturalistic environments. In one computerized goal-based scenario, learners are asked to advise married couples as to whether their children are likely to have sickle-cell anemia, a genetically linked disease. In order to advise the couples, learners must use the facilities in the system to find out how different genetic combinations lead to the disease and run tests to determine the parents' genetic makeup. There are scaffolds in the system to support the learners, such as various recorded experts who offer advice. Other goal-based scenarios support learners in a wide variety of challenging tasks, such as putting together a news broadcast, solving an environmental problem, or developing a computer-reservation system. Goal-based scenarios make it possible to embed cognitive skills and knowledge in the kinds of contexts where they are to be used. So people learn the basic competencies they will need and also when and how to apply these competencies.
Video and computer technology has enhanced the ability to create simulation environments in which students are learning skills in context. A novel use of video technology is the Jasper series developed by the Cognition and Technology Group (1997) at Vanderbilt University to teach middle-school mathematics. In a series of 15 to 20 minute videos students are put into various problem-solving contexts, for example, deciding on a business plan for a school fair or a rescue plan for a wounded eagle. The problems are quite difficult to solve and reflect the complex problem solving and planning that occurs in real life. Middle-school students work in groups for several days to solve each problem. Solving the problems develops a much richer understanding of the underlying mathematical concepts than the traditional school-mathematics problems.
Another novel use of technology is the curriculum developed by the Middle-school Mathematics through Applications Project (MMAP) at the Institute for Research on Learning (Goldman & Moschkovich, 1995; Greeno et al., 1999). The leading activities in the MMAP curriculum are design problems, supported by software that provide computer-aided design environments in which students design floor plans of buildings, models of population growth and decline, lexicographic codes, or geographical analyses of environmental quality. Mathematical reasoning and problem solving involving topics such as proportional reasoning, linear and exponential functions, and geometrical properties of geographical space are required for successful progress in the design activities. Printed curriculum materials are provided to support teachers in organizing activities for students to encounter, recognize, and learn important mathematical concepts and methods.
These kinds of learning tasks are different from most school tasks because the contexts of most school tasks lack characteristics of practices that occur outside of school. Traditionally, academic material has been taught abstractly without practical real-world context; the equivalent to which might be learning tennis by being told the rules and practicing the forehand, backhand, and serve without ever playing or seeing a tennis match. If tennis were taught that way, it would be hard to see the point of what the students were learning. Yet in school, students are taught algebra and the works of Shakespeare without being given any idea of how they might be useful in their lives. That is not how a coach would teach students to play tennis. A coach might first show them how to grip and swing the racket, but very soon they would be hitting the ball and playing games. A good coach would have the students go back and forth between playing games and working on particular skills—combining global learning with focused local knowledge. The essential idea in the situative view of cognition is to consider learning and cognition as participation in an activity system. This view supports designers' and educators' efforts to tightly couple a focus on accomplishing authentic tasks with a focus on the underlying competencies needed to carry out the tasks.
For centuries, the epistemology that has guided educational practice has concentrated on abstract representations of concepts, assuming that knowing abstract concepts is a condition for acting and perceiving effectively in a broad range of situations. A situative theory of cognition suggests that conceptualization is embedded in activity and perception and that more attention needs to be focused on them. Learning through legitimate peripheral participation, enables learners to acquire and develop tools and skills, including conceptualizations, through authentic work and membership in communities of practice. Through this process, novices enter the culture of practice. So the concept of learning through legitimate participation helps to emphasize the centrality of activity in learning and knowledge and highlights the inherently content-dependent and enculturating nature of learning.
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