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Research Sampler 2.1: Critique of Situated Cognition

A CRITIQUE OF SITUATED COGNITION

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Addendum to Research Sampler 2

Anderson, et al, have listed what they see as the four central claims of a situated learning perspective and have argued each is flawed:

  • Action is grounded in the concrete situation in which it occurs. Objection: It is true that Brazilian street sellers, who correctly calculate the cost of items which they sell in the streets, are unable to answer similar questions at school. But this is a demonstration that skills practiced outside of schools do not generalize to schools, not that arithmetic procedures taught in the classroom cannot be used by shop keepers. Indeed, skills like reading clearly transfer from one context to another.

  • Knowledge does not transfer between tasks. Objection: The psychological literature contains both success and failures to achieve transfer. Transfer between tasks depends on the amount of practice in the initial domain and the degree of shared cognitive elements. For example, subjects who learned one text editor learned subsequent editors more rapidly, with the number of procedural elements shared by two text editors predicting the amount of transfer.

  • Training in abstraction is of little use. Objection: This, Anderson, et al, say has been extended into an advocacy for apprenticeship training by those taking a situated perspective. In contrast, Anderson, et al, advocate a combination of abstract instruction and concrete examples. When they introduced real-world-like problems to situate high school algebra, they felt much class time was wasted on such clerical tasks as tabling and graphing, while relatively little time was spent relating algebraic expressions to the real-world situations. [Koedinger, et al, "Intelligent tutoring goes to school in the big city," in Proceedings of the 7th World Conference on Artificial Intelligence in Education, AACE, 1995, pp. 421-428.] We wonder whether their observation was due to the kinds of problems used or the teaching.

  • Instruction must be done in complex, social environments. Objection: Research in psychology shows training is often more effective when nearly independent parts are practiced first, before combining them. In team sports and orchestras, more time is spent on individual practice than group practice, although both are necessary. (Shouldn't the kind of knowledge, whether procedural or conceptual, matter? Learning how to factor and understanding the nature and uses of functions seem quite different.) Anderson, et al, also question the efficacy of cooperative learning when applied without requisite structuring or scripting.

[Cf. Anderson, Reder, and Simon, "Situated Learning and Education," Educational Researcher, May 1996, pp. 5-11.]

A RESPONSE FROM THE SITUATED VIEW

The thrust of Greeno's response is, not so much to take issue with the objections of Anderson, et al, as to note that the purported claims are not those of situated cognition. Their critique seems to have missed the point about what adherents of situated cognition are actually studying and claiming -- they present a straw man, or caricature, which they knock down.

Whereas the cognitive perspective attempts to explain processes and structures at the level of individuals, the situated perspective focuses on interactive systems and the resulting "trajectories" of individual participation. It borrows research methods and conceptual frameworks from ethnography, discourse analysis, symbolic interactionism, and sociocultural psychology. Greeno sees the significance of studies like that of the Brazilian street sellers who can successfully make change, but do not use the algorithms taught in school, as showing that reasoning is adaptive in ways that are not well explained by current cognitive theory.

Knowledge is not just "in the head," if it is to be found there at all, rather knowledge consists in the ways a person interacts with other people and situations. The situated perspective does not say that group learning will always be productive, regardless of how it is organized, or that individual practice cannot contribute to a person's becoming a more successful participant in social practices. It does call for more varied learning situations. For mathematics, this means more than collective watching and listening, doing exercises individually, and displaying individual knowledge on tests. Students need opportunities to participate actively by formulating and evaluating problems, questions, conjectures, conclusions, arguments, and examples.

>From the situative perspective, successful transfer means improved participation. Whether transfer occurs depends on how the situation is transformed. Whether it is difficult or easy for the learner depends on how the learner was "attuned to the constraints and affordances" in the initial learning activity. For example, when students are given instruction about refraction prior to shooting targets under water, they are more likely to become attuned to the apparent angular disparity of a projectile's trajectory before and after entering the water, and hence, perform better. Greeno also distinguishes between abstraction and generality using an example from mathematics. If students learn correct rules for manipulating symbols without learning that mathematical expressions represent concepts and relationships, what they learn may be abstract, but it is not general (i.e., cannot be widely used).

What is needed, according to Greeno, is an integration of the cognitive and situative research perspectives that, until recently, have developed quite separately.

[Cf. Greeno, "On Claims that Answer the Wrong Questions," Educational Researcher, January/February 1997, pp. 5-17. Anderson, et al's response follows on pp. 18-21.]


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