Situated Cognition and Problem-Based Learning: Implications for Learning and Instruction with Technology

Article excerpt

The aims of this article are three-fold. First, this article reviews the foundational premises of situated cognition and attempts to substantiate its theoretical underpinnings with the transactional worldview supported by the works of John Dewey, the later Lugwid Wittgenstein, Michael Polanyi, and others. Second, having reviewed the literature, we attempt to draw connections between situated cognition and Problem-Based Learning (PBL) as an instructional process. From these implications, we argue that PBL is fundamentally congruent to situated cognition. Third, from the previous discussion, we draw implications from situated cognition and PBL to learning and instruction with technology. We argue that instruction and the use of technology should focus on the historical and social process of learning centered on authentic problems and tasks.


The principal idea behind problem-based learning is...that the starting point for learning should be a problem, a query or a puzzle that the learner wishes to solve. (Boud, 1995, p. 13)

Problem-based learning starts primarily with a focus on problems, that is, real-life problems and activities, rather than intense disciplinary knowledge. The approach attempts to move students towards the acquisition of knowledge and skills through a staged sequence (serving as a scaffolding process) of problems presented in context, together with associated learning materials and support from necessary sources, for example, teachers and experts.

The argument of a PBL approach is contrary to the Lockean model of the mind that has plagued education for centuries, the mind as a tabula rasa waiting for the teacher to write on it. Such a conception of teaching implies that learning is nothing other than the transmission of information from active teacher to passive learner. Popper (1979) has disparaged as "the bucket theory of the mind," the theory which regards the mind as an empty bucket which has to be filled with information before it can know anything.

In the same vein, situated cognition is described and the author argues that its fundamental theoretical underpinnings are congruent to PBL approaches. While situated cognition arose out of research in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and cognitive psychology, and PBL from the perspective of instructional design, we perceive a congruency in both fields. We attempt to ground PBL with the notions of situated cognition and draw implications for students' learning within problem-based learning approaches.


The theoretical framework, which in the author's opinion encapsulates the beliefs about knowledge and learning, which underpins the PBL approach is situated cognition. Situated cognition emphasizes the contextual dimensions of knowledge where meanings are considered inseparable from its relations among situations and verbal or gestural actions (Bredo, 1994; Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Clancey, 1992; Coulter, 1991; Greeno, 1991; Prawat, 1996; Rowe, 1991). In other words, meanings are perceived as inseparable from interpretation, and knowledge is linked to the relations of which it is a product (Clancey & Roschelle, 1991; Dewey, 1910/1981; Reese, 1991; Roschelle, 1989; Still & Costall, 1991; Tyler, 1978). According to Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989), knowing, and not just learning is inextricably situated in the physical and social context of its acquisition and use. It cannot be extracted from these without being irretrievably transformed.

In other words, knowledge is fundamentally a coproduction of the mind and world, which like a woof and wrap need each other to produce and to complete an otherwise incoherent pattern. It is impossible to capture the densely interwoven nature of conceptual knowledge completely in explicit, abstract accounts. In the same vein, Dewey (1910/1985) expressed that knowledge is not just a mental state; rather, "it is an experienced relation of things, and it has no meaning outside of such relations" (Dewey, 1910/1981, p. …