Contemporary Developments in Situated Cognition Research Paper

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Situate analyses of cognition that draw on the substantive aspects of Vygotsky’s and Leont’ev’s work did not become prominent in Western Europe and North America until the 1980s. Contemporary situated perspectives on cognition can be divided into two broad groups. One of these, cultural historical activity theory (CHAT), has developed largely independently of mainstream Western psychology by drawing inspiration directly from the writings of Vygotsky and Leont’ev. The other group, which I will call distributed cognition, has developed in reaction to mainstream cognitive science and incorporates aspects of the Soviet work.

1. Cultural Historical Activity Theory

It is important to clarify that the term ‘activity’ in the acronym in CHAT refers to cultural activity or, in other words, to cultural practice. The reference to history indicates a focus on both the evolution of the cultural practices in which people participate and the development of their thinking as they participate in them. Olson’s (1995) analysis of the historical development of writing systems is paradigmatic of investigations that focus on the evolution of cultural practices at what might be termed the macrolevel of history writ large. Olsen’s goal was not merely to document the first appearance of and subsequent changes in writing systems. Instead, he sought to demonstrate that changes in writing systems precipitated changes in thought that in turn made possible further developments in both writing and thinking. In doing so, he elaborated Vygotsky’s claim that it was not until reasonably sophisticated writing systems had emerged that people became consciously aware of language as a means of monitoring and regulating thought. As Olsen has made clear, the findings of his analysis have significant implications for children’s induction into literacy practices in school.

Saxe’s (1991) investigation of the body parts counting system of the Oksapmin people of Papua New Guinea provides a useful point of contrast in that it was concerned with cultural change at a more local level. As Saxe reports, the Oksapmin’s counting system has no base structure and no distinct terms for numbers. Instead, the Oksapmin count collections of items (e.g., sweet potatoes) by beginning with the left index finger and naming various body parts as they move up the left arm, across the head and shoulders, and down the right arm, ending with the right index finger.

At the time that Saxe conducted his fieldwork, a new technology was being introduced, a base-10 currency system. Saxe documents that the Oksapmin with the greatest experience in using the currency, the owners of indigenous trade stores, had developed relatively sophisticated reasoning strategies that were based on the body parts system but that privileged 10 (e.g., transforming the task of adding nine and seven into that of adding ten and six by ‘moving’ a body part). Saxe’s finding is significant in that it illustrates a general claim made by adherents of CHAT, namely that changes in the artifacts people use, and thus the cultural practices in which they participate, serve to reorganize their reasoning.

The two CHAT studies discussed thus far, those of Olsen and Saxe, investigated the evolution of cultural practices. A second body of CHAT research is exemplified by investigations that have compared mathematical reasoning in school with that in various out-of-school settings. Following both Vygotsky and Leont’ev, these investigations can be interpreted as documenting the fusion of the forms of reasoning that people develop with the cultural practices in which they participate. A third line of CHAT research has focused on the changes that occur in people’s reasoning as they move from relatively peripheral participation to increasingly substantial participation in the practices of particular communities. In their overview of this type of research, Lave and Wenger (1991) clarify that the cultural tools used by community members are viewed as carrying a substantial portion of a practice’s intellectual heritage. As Lave and Wenger note, this implies that novices’ opportunities for learning depend crucially on their access to these tools as they are used by the community’s old-timers. Lave and Wenger also make it clear that in equating learning with increasingly substantial participation, they propose to dispense with traditional cognitive analyses entirely. In their view, someone’s failure to learn should be explained in terms of the organization of the community and the person’s opportunities for access to increasingly substantial forms of participation rather than in terms of cognitive deficits that are attributed to the person. This is clearly a relatively strong claim in that it equates an analysis of the conditions for the possibility of learning with an analysis of learning.

It should be apparent from this overview that CHAT research spans a wide range of problems and issues. One theme that cuts across the three lines of work is a focus on groups of people’s reasoning, whether they be people using different writing systems in different historical epochs, Oksapmin trade store owners compared to Oksapmin who have less experience with the new currency, the mathematical reasoning of people in school and nonschool settings, or novices versus old-timers in a community of practice. Differences in the reasoning of people as they participate in the same practices are therefore accounted for in terms of either (a) experience in participating in the practice, (b) access to more substantial forms of participation, or (c) differences in the history of their participation in other practices. Each of these types of explanations instantiates Leont’ev’s dictum that the individual-in-cultural-practice rather than the individual per se is the appropriate unit of analysis.

2. Distributed Cognition

Whereas CHAT research often involves comparisons of groups of people’s reasoning, work conducted within the distributed cognition tradition typically focuses on the reasoning of individuals or small groups of people as they solve specific problems or complete specific tasks. Empirical studies conducted within this tradition therefore tend to involve detailed microanalysis of either an individual’s or a small group’s activity. Further, whereas CHAT researchers often frame people’s reasoning as acts of participation in relatively broad systems of cultural practices, distributed cognition theorists typically restrict their focus to the immediate physical, social, and symbolic environment. This circumscription of analyses to people’s reasoning in their immediate environments is one indication that this tradition has evolved from mainstream cognitive science. Several of the leading scholars in this tradition, such as John Seeley Brown, Alan Collins, and James Greeno, initially achieved prominence within the cognitive science community before substantially modifying their theoretical commitments, in the process contributing to the emergence of a distributed perspective on cognition.

The term ‘distributed intelligence’ or ‘distributed cognition’ is most closely associated with Roy Pea (1993). Pea coined this term to emphasize that, in his view, cognition is distributed across minds, persons, and symbolic and physical environments. As he and other distributed cognition theorists make clear in their writings, this perspective directly challenges a foundational assumption of mainstream cognitive science. This is the assumption that cognition is bounded by the skin or by the skull and can be adequately accounted for solely in terms of people’s construction of internal mental models of an external world. Distributed cognition theorists instead see cognition as extending out into the immediate environment such that the environment becomes a resource for reasoning.

In coming to this conclusion, distributed cognition theorists have been influenced by a number of studies conducted by CHAT researchers, one of the most frequently cited investigations being that of Scribner (1984). In this investigation, Scribner analyzed the reasoning of workers in a dairy as they filled orders by packing products into crates of different sizes. Her analysis revealed that the loaders did not perform purely mental calculations but instead used the structure of the crates as a resource in their reasoning. For example, if an order called for 10 units of a particular product and six units were already in a crate that held 12 units, experienced loaders rarely subtracted six from 10 to find how many additional units they needed. Instead, they might realize that an order of 10 units would leave two slots in the crate empty and just know immediately from looking at the partially filled crate that four additional units are needed. As part of her analysis, Scribner convincingly demonstrated that the loaders developed strategies of this type in situ as they went about their daily business of filling orders. For distributed cognition theorists, this indicated that the system that did the thinking was the loader in interaction with a crate. From the distributed perspective, the loaders’ ways of knowing are therefore treated as emergent relations between them and the immediate environment in which they worked.

Part of the reason that distributed cognition theorists attribute such significance to Scribner’s study and to other investigations conducted by CHAT researchers is that they capture what Hutchins (1995) refers to as ‘cognition in the wild.’ This focus on people’s reasoning as they engage in both everyday and workplace activities contrasts sharply with the traditional school-like tasks that are often used in mainstream cognitive science investigations. In addition to questioning whether people’s reasoning on school-like tasks constitutes a viable set of cases from which to develop general models of cognition, several distributed cognition theorists have also critiqued current school instruction. In doing so, they have broadened their focus beyond cognitive science’s traditional emphasis on the structure of particular tasks by drawing attention to the nature of the classroom activities within which the tasks take on meaning and significance for students.

Brown et al. (1989) developed one such critique by observing that school instruction typically aims to teach students abstract concepts and general skills on the assumption that students will be able to apply them directly in a wide range of settings. In challenging this assumption, Brown et al. argue that the appropriate use of a concept or skill requires engagement in activities similar to those in which the concept or skill was developed and is actually used. In their view, the well-documented finding that most students do not develop widely applicable concepts and skills in school is attributable to the radical differences between classroom activities and those of both the disciplines and of everyday, out-of-school settings. They contend that successful students learn to meet the teacher’s expectations by relying on specific features of classroom activities that are alien to activities in the other settings. In developing this explanation, Brown et al. treat the concepts and skills that students actually develop in school as relations between students and the material, social, and symbolic resources of the classroom environment.

It might be concluded from the two examples given thus far, those of the dairy workers and of students relying on what might be termed superficial cues in the classroom, that distributed cognition theorists do not address more sophisticated types of reasoning. Researchers working in this tradition have in fact analyzed a number of highly technical, work-related activities. The most noteworthy of these studies is, perhaps, Hutchins’s (1995) analysis of the navigation team of a naval vessel as they brought their ship into San Diego harbor. In line with other investigations of this type, Hutchins argues that the entire navigation team and the artifacts it used constitutes the appropriate unit for a cognitive analysis. From the distributed perspective, it is this system of people and artifacts that did the navigating and over which cognition was distributed. In developing his analysis, Hutchins pays particular attention to the role of the artifacts as elements of this cognitive system. He argues, for example, that the cartographer has done much of the reasoning for the navigator who uses a map. This observation is characteristic of distributed analyses and implies that to understand a cognitive process, it is essential to understand how parts of that process have, in effect, been sedimented in tools and artifacts. Distributed cognition theorists therefore contend that the environments of human thinking are thoroughly artificial. In their view, it is by creating environments populated with cognitive resources that humans create the cognitive powers that they exercise in those environments. As a consequence, the claim that artifacts do not merely serve to amplify cognitive process but instead reorganize them is a core tenet of the distributed cognition perspective.

3. Current Issues And Future Directions

It is apparent that CHAT and distributed cognition share a number of common assumptions. For example, both situate people’s reasoning within encompassing activities and both emphasize the crucial role of tools and artifacts in cognitive development. However, the illustrations presented in the preceding paragraphs also indicate that there are a number of subtle differences between the two traditions. One concerns the purview of the researcher in that distributed cognition theorists tend to focus on social, material, and symbolic resources within the immediate local environment whereas CHAT theorists frequently locate an individual’s activity within a more encompassing system of cultural practices. A second difference concerns the way in which researchers working in the two traditions address the historical dimension of cognition. Distributed cognition theorists tend to focus on tools and artifacts per se, which are viewed as carrying the reasoning of their developers from prior generations. In contrast, CHAT theorists treat artifacts as one aspect of a cultural practice, albeit an important one. Consequently, they situate cognition historically by analyzing how systems of cultural practices have evolved. Thus, whereas distributed cognition theorists focus on the history of the cognitive resources available in the immediate environment, CHAT theorists contend that this environment is defined by a historically contingent system of cultural practices. Despite these differences, it is possible to identify several current issues that cut across the two traditions. The two issues I will focus on are those of transfer and of participation in multiple communities of practice.

3.1 Transfer

The notion that knowledge is acquired in one setting and then transferred to other settings is central to the cognition plus view as well as to mainstream cognitive science. To avoid confusion, it is useful to differentiate between this notion of transfer as a theoretical idea and what might be termed the phenomenon called transfer. This term refers to specific instances of behavior that a cognition plus theorist would account for in terms of the transfer of knowledge from one situation to another. As will become clear, CHAT and distributed cognition theorists both readily acknowledge the phenomenon of transfer but propose different ways of accounting for it. An analysis developed by Bransford and Schwartz (1999) serves to summarize concerns about the traditional idea of transfer that underpins many cognitive science investigations.

Writing from within the cognition plus view, Bransford and Schwartz (1999) observe that the theory underlying much cognitive science research characterizes transfer as the ability to apply previous learning directly to a new setting or problem. As they note, transfer investigations are designed to ensure that subjects do not have the opportunity to learn to solve new problems either by getting feedback or by using texts and colleagues as resources. Although Bransford and Schwartz indicate that they consider this traditional perspective valid, they also argue for a broader conception of transfer that includes a focus on whether people are prepared to learn to solve new problems. In making this proposal, they attempt to bring the active nature of transfer to the fore. As part of their rationale, they give numerous examples to illustrate that people often learn to operate in a new setting by actively changing the setting rather than by mapping previously acquired understandings directly on to it. This leads them to argue that cognitive scientists should change their focus by looking for evidence of useful future learning rather than of direct application.

Bransford and Schwartz’s proposal deals primarily with issues of method in that it does not challenge transfer as a theoretical idea. Nonetheless, their emphasis on preparation for future learning is evident in Greeno and MMAP’s (1998) distributed analysis of the phenomenon of transfer. Greeno and MMAP contend that the ways of knowing that people develop in particular settings emerge as relations between them and the immediate environment. This necessarily implies that transfer involves active adaptation to new circumstances. As part of their theoretical approach, Greeno and MMAP analyze specific environments in terms of the affordances and constraints that they provide for reasoning. In the case of a traditional mathematics classroom, for example, the affordances might include the organization of lessons and of the textbook. The constraints might include the need to produce correct answers, the limited time available to complete sets of exercises, and the lack of access to peers and other resources. Greeno and MMAP would characterize the process of learning to be a successful student in such a classroom as one of becoming attuned to these affordances and constraints. From this distributed perspective, the phenomenon called transfer is then explained in terms of the similarity of the constraints and affordances of different settings rather than in terms of the transportation of knowledge from one setting to another.

The focus on preparation for future learning advocated by Bransford and Schwartz (1999) is quite explicit in Beach’s (1995) investigation of the transition between work and school in a Nepal village where formal schooling had been introduced during the last 20 years of the twentieth century. Beach worked within the CHAT tradition when he compared the arithmetical reasoning of high school students who were apprentice shopkeepers with the reasoning of shopkeepers who were attending adult education classes. His analysis revealed that the shopkeepers’ arithmetical reasoning was more closely related in the two situations than was that of the students. In line with the basic tenets of CHAT, Beach accounted for this finding by framing the shopkeepers’ and students’ reasoning as acts of participation in relatively global cultural practices, those of shop keeping and of studying arithmetic in school. His explanation hinges on the observation that the students making the school-to-work transition initially defined themselves as students but subsequently defined themselves as shopkeepers when they worked in a shop. In contrast, the shopkeepers continued to define themselves as shopkeepers even when they participated in the adult education classes. Their goal was to develop arithmetical competencies that would enable them to increase the profits of their shops. In Beach’s view, it is this relatively strong relationship between the shopkeepers’ participation in the practices of schooling and shop-keeping that explains the close relationship between their arithmetical reasoning in the two settings. Thus, whereas Greeno and MMAP account for instances of the phenomenon called transfer in terms of similarities in the affordances and constraints of immediate environments, Beach does so in terms of the experienced commensurability of certain forms of participation. In the case at hand, the phenomenon called transfer occurred to a greater extent with the shopkeepers because they experienced participating in the practice of shop-keeping and schooling as more commensurable than did the students.

The contrast between Beach’s and Greeno and MMAP’s analyses illustrates how general differences between the distributed cognition and CHAT traditions can play out in explanations of the phenomenon called transfer. However, attempts to reconceptualize transfer within these two are still in their early stages and there is every indication that this will continue to be a major focus of CHAT and distributed cognition research in the coming years.

3.2 Participating In Multiple Communities Of Practice

To date, the bulk of CHAT research has focused on the forms of reasoning that people develop as they participate in particular cultural practices. For their part, distributed cognition theorists have been primarily concerned with the forms of reasoning that emerge as people use the cognitive resources of the immediate environment. In both cases, the focus has been on participation in well-circumscribed communities of practice or engagement in local systems of activity. An issue that appears to be emerging as a major research question is that of understanding how people deal with the tensions they experience when the practices of the different communities in which they participate are in conflict. The potential significance of this issue is illustrated by an example taken from education.

A number of studies reveal that students’ home communities can involve differing norms of participation, language, and communication, some of which might be in conflict with those that the teacher seeks to establish in the classroom. Pragmatically, these studies lead directly to concerns for equity and indicate the importance of viewing the diversity of the practices of students’ home communities as an instructional resource rather than an obstacle to be overcome. Theoretically, these studies indicate the importance of coming to understand how students attempt to resolve ongoing tensions between home and school practices. The challenge is therefore to develop analytical approaches that treat students’ activity in the classroom as situated not merely with respect to the immediate learning environment, but with the respect to their history of participation in the practices of particular out-of-school communities. The classroom would then be viewed as the immediate arena in which the students’ participation in multiple communities of practice play out in face-to-face interaction. This same general orientation is also relevant when attempting to understand people’s activity in a number of other specific settings. As this is very much an emerging issue, CHAT and distributed cognition research on participation in multiple communities of practice is still in its infancy. The most comprehensive theoretical exposition to date is perhaps that of Wenger (1998). There is every reason to predict that this issue will become an increasingly prominent focus of future research in both traditions.

4. Concluding Comments

It should be apparent from this overview of contemporary developments in situated cognition that whereas CHAT researchers draw directly on Vygotsky’s and Leont’ev’s theoretical insights, the relationship to the Soviet scholarship is less direct in the case of distributed cognition research. Inspired in large measure by the findings of CHAT researchers, this latter tradition has emerged as a reaction to perceived limitations of mainstream cognitive science. As a consequence, distributed cognition theorists tend to maintain a dialog with their mainstream colleagues. In contrast, the problems that CHAT researchers view as significant are typically far less influenced by mainstream considerations.

The issue addressed in the previous section of this overview was that of the possible future directions for the two research traditions. It is important to note that the focus on just two issues—transfer and participation in multiple communities—was necessarily selective. It would have been possible to highlight a number of other issues that include the learning of the core ideas of academic disciplines and the design of tools as cognitive resources. In both cases, it can legitimately be argued that the CHAT and distributed cognition traditions each have the potential to make significant contributions. More generally, it can legitimately be argued that both research traditions are in progressive phases at the present time.


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