Distributed Cognition and Educational Practice

Article excerpt

The objective of this article is to present a brief historical overview of ideas related to the distribution of cognition, offer a critical appraisal, and outline some of the implications for the teaching and learning practice. First, the article provides a description of the mind as disembodied and disembedded, an image that has come to dominate western psychological thought. Second, the article focuses on a set of ideas that challenge this notion of the mind as the locus of all cognition and intelligence: distributed cognition. The main tenets of distributed cognition in two psychological traditions, cognitive science and educational psychology, are presented. Third, the article considers another influential tradition that has significantly influenced the development of conceptions of distributed cognition: cultural-historical psychology. Fourth, distributed cognition ideas in cognitive science and educational psychology are critically appraised, so that similarities and differences are highlighted. The art icle concludes with a discussion of some of the implications of distributed cognition ideas for the teaching and learning practice.


Socrates: What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Meno: Yes, they were all his own.

Plato, Meno

In one of the first recorded texts ever to address questions about the mind and the nature of knowledge, the Platonic dialogue Meno, Socrates invites Meno to observe his interaction with a young slave to decide on whether the slave is learning something from Socrates or is simply remembering known facts. Socrates makes a clear distinction between teaching and telling, considering, asking questions as distinct from teaching ("I am not teaching the boy anything, but only asking him questions"). In the course of the interaction, Socrates elicits certain knowledge of geometry from the slave. Meno is compelled to agree on that all the answers the slave gave were "given out of his own head" and further accepts this "spontaneous recovery of knowledge" on the part of the slave as "recollection." Even though Socrates merely aimed to show that recollection is a main source of knowledge, the dialogue is interesting in two main respects. First, it portrays a certain image of knowledge that is basically seen as being prio r to existence. Second, it delineates roles for the teacher and the learner, thereby providing a model of cognition that can be utilized for instruction: teaching is presented as a process of eliciting knowledge from rather than presenting knowledge to the leaner.

The present article focuses on the notion of cognition as distributed, a notion which is largely incompatible with Socrates's interpretation that the answers the slave gave were "given out of his own head," an interpretation that eventually has come to dominate western philosophical and psychological thought. By presenting and discussing views that support the notion of cognition as distributed, we will cast doubt on Socrates' account that the slave was unassisted in arriving at the respective understanding of a geometrical fact.


Descartes carried forward this Platonic image of knowledge, thereby separating the mind from the body and treating the mind as a self-standing, independently operating entity (Haugeland, 1998). While for the first few decades of psychology as a scientific discipline the mind was a legitimate object of study through introspection (cf. Cole's, 1996, account of the second psychology), ushering in the behaviorist rein shifted the focus from the mind to objective behavior. Finally, the cognitive revolution of the '50s restored the emphasis on the mind (Gardner, 1987). This evolution helps understand why the mind has been treated as disembodied and disembedded, cognition being "in the head" as a property of the individual mind. …