Context and Cognition: Ways of Learning and Knowing

Context and Cognition: Ways of Learning and Knowing

Context and Cognition: Ways of Learning and Knowing

Context and Cognition: Ways of Learning and Knowing


Originally published in 1993, the study of cognitive development in children had moved from a focus on the intellectual processes of the individual studied in relative isolation, as in the classic work of Piaget, to a concern in the 1970s and 1980s with social cognition characterized by Vygotsky's views. In the years following, the trend toward an understanding of the situated nature of cognition had evolved even further and the extent to which thinking and knowing are inextricably linked to contextual constraints was at last being defined.

Experts of international repute, the authors of this important book examine the recent literature on situated cognition in children. They explain contextual sensitivity in relation to ecological theories of cognition, and contrast intuitive reasoning in mathematical and other scientific domains with the failure of such reasoning in formal school contexts. Centrally concerned with the question of generalizability and transfer of knowledge from one situation to another, the contributors point to practical implications for understanding how intellectual competence can be made to generalize between "informal" and "formal" situations.


George Butterworth, University of Sussex

The study of cognitive development in children has moved through three identifiable phases in the last twenty years. First, there was a shift from a focus on intellectual processes within the individual child, as in the classic research of Piaget, to a concern with social cognition in the 1970s and 1980s very much influenced by the resurgence of interest in Vygotsky. This shift reflects a move away from attempting to explain cognition as a process located solely within the individual, towards an understanding of the interpersonal context of cognitive growth. The shift from 'cold blooded' to 'warm blooded' cognition drew attention to the ways in which thought processes and cognitive growth are socially situated but contextual factors were for the most part seen only as moderators of cognitive growth. Work on cognitive development has recently entered a third phase, in which theorists are beginning to stress an inextricable link between contextual constraints and the acquisition of knowledge. Moreover, the physical context is being reunited with the social, within the thought process. The contemporary view tends to be that cognition is typically situated in a social and physical context and is rarely, if ever, decontextualized.

How can we explain this movement towards an analysis in terms of situated cognition? Two important trends may be discerned in the recent literature. First, work on the relation between perception and cognition in young children has drawn our attention to the extent to which perception enters into the development of thought. Second, work on language and thought, especially in relation to the social foundations of knowledge, has drawn our attention to the child's need to understand what adults mean when they pose questions designed to reveal children's reasoning capacities.

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