Distributed Cognition and the Shared Knowledge Model of the Mazahua: A Cultural Approach

By Haan, Mariette De | Journal of Interactive Learning Research, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Distributed Cognition and the Shared Knowledge Model of the Mazahua: A Cultural Approach


Haan, Mariette De, Journal of Interactive Learning Research


The distributed and situated character of informal and nonwestern learning practices has recently become a source of inspiration for the reform of school practices. The notion that cognition and knowledge is to be seen as situationally bound has promoted forms of learning in which responsible engagement in socially relevant activities is seen as crucial for effective learning results. To evaluate the usefulness of these nonwestern learning practices for school reform a study of the teaching-learning practices of a Native American group is presented. Their shared knowledge model of learning is based on the interconnectedness between knowledge and practice. Their ideas on knowledge and learning as well as their guidance model are compared with cognitive apprenticeship models mostly designed for school. The comparison and in particular the differences found give rise to a discussion on the cultural nature of guidance models. A view is advanced in which the distributed nature of cognition is seen as only one of t he many possible sources of inspiration to reform our teaching.

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Recently, educationalists have sought inspiration from non-Western and informal teaching-learning practices to reform school learning. The distributed and situated nature of knowledge (construction) that is found to be characteristic of these informal learning situations, is a central source of inspiration in these educational reforms. The notion that knowledge is not to be seen as decontextualized and general but as situationally bound and context driven promotes an interest in "situated" forms of learning, that is, learning in which engagement and participation in socially relevant activities are of central importance as opposed to the traditional idea of the transmission of general knowledge.

In this article, how models of guidance can be inspired from a distributed cognition perspective was investigated. The questions that will be raised here are: "To what extent can we or should we use the notion of distributed cognition in order to reform school learning?," "Should we consider the distributed nature of knowledge construction as a universal insight to be applied in all teaching-learning contexts?," and "Does the distributed nature of knowledge construction have the same meaning and impact in all teaching-learning contexts?" To address these issues, a guidance model is presented that was inferred from a study of the teaching-learning practices of a Native American group, the Mazahuas. Their shared-knowledge model is based on the idea that knowledge is intertwined with practice and that expertise is shared among people. In fact, as will be pointed out, their guidance model bears clear similarities with the innovative guidance models based on the idea of distributed cognition designed for western schooling. However, closer analysis also provides proof of relevant differences. The comparison that will be presented is used to elaborate on the issue of the general usefulness of the distributed cognition metaphor for the development of guidance models. The cultural nature of models of guidance will be a major concern in addressing this issue. Departing from the thesis that models of learning are products of certain cultural assumptions or specific social situations, a critical stance is taken with respect to the possibilities to adopt the idea of distributed cognition as the principal metaphor for innovative school learning. Before presenting the Mazahua guidance model, the author briefly examines the idea of distributed cognition as a concept of the human mind and presents how this concept of the mind is necessarily related to a concept of guidance.

On Distributed Cognition: Ideas and Influences

Distributed cognition refers to the idea that cognition, knowledge, and expertise are not simply a property of individual minds or located and manifested in individual heads but are distributed among people and among people and cultural tools or artefacts (Kirshner & Whitson, 1997a; Salomon, 1993). …

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