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Situated cognition


Finding lots of interesting ideas in papers written some years back. Getting the background seems to involve a constant moving backwards. I can’t possibly read everything ever written, but I can read a lot of stuff and get a sense of big picture.

Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989) present some useful contrasts between different types and contexts of learning in developing their ideas about situated cognition.I find their description of the learning of ‘just plain folk’ (JPF) relates to the questions I am asking about the learning of parents of children and young people with ASDs and how they learn to provide appropriate support and care for their children.

Brown, et al, start from the “distinction between mere acquisition of inert concepts and the development of useful, robust knowledge” citing Whitehead’s 1929 treatise on the aims of education. The implication is that it is possible to possess a tool, or knowledge, and not have a clue how to use it. Similarly it is possible to have good working knowledge of the use of a tool without knowing why it works as it does. In the real world, we learn how to use tools from others and through practice. The same tool may be used differently by different communities of users – example is given of chisel which is used differently by carpenters and cabinet makers, Just as we need to learn how to use physical tools, the same is necessary with conceptual tools. As with physical tools, the conceptual tools only really make sense in the context of practice. It is suggested that learners learn through enculturation or socialisation into a community of practice.

As tools are used in authentic context they gain meaning & relevance. Brown, et al, comment that “the process may appear informal, but it is nonetheless full-blooded, authentic activity that can be deeply informative – in a way that textbook examples and declarative examples are not.” This is illustrated using Lave’s example of the apprenticeship of tailors.

Brown, et al, then consider the learning of JPFs, students and practitioners. When a JPF wants to learn something they can become an apprentice or a student. As the former, they enculturate into the community of practice. As the latter they go to school where “the general strategies for intuitive reasoning, resolving issues, and negotiating meaning (…) are superseded by the precise, well-defined problems, formal definitions, and symbol manipulation of much school activity.” Brown, et al, suggest the JPF is closer to the practitioner in learning & practice than students whose learning & practice is abstracted from real life, implying that contextualisation is vital for learning to be meaningful.

The discussion can be related to the current educational policy debates where politicians are demanding more focus on vocational education in higher education. Brown, et al, suggest that it is only in post graduate study that students begin to become practitioners through an apprenticeship process embedded in the supervisory relationship with an experienced researcher. However, there is no discussion of the thinking and analytical skills developed through the education system.

They suggest more work is needed on understanding the “relationship between explicit knowledge and implicit understanding”.
Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18 (1), 32-42.


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