Academic journal article Education

Situated Cognition versus Traditional Cognitive Theories of Learning

Academic journal article Education

Situated Cognition versus Traditional Cognitive Theories of Learning

Article excerpt

This paper reviews a variety of perspectives in reference to recent cognitive and situative theories as they relate to the process of becoming a learner. The context of this inquiry is seen as a creative tension between concepts of individual versus community initiatives, prerogatives, and responsibilities in learning. Dewey describes a saturation with the "spirit of service" coupled with "instruments of effective self-direction" (Dewey, 1956/1990, p. 29) as goals of education, thus targeting a supremely rational center from which the discourse today pulses asymmetrically. The center holds, however enriched by varying degrees of individual agency and social definition in the conflict between cognitive and situative theories of learning. Provocative implications concerning the direction--and possible misdirection--of emphases in theory are noted.

In the nearly indissoluble relationship between theories of cognition and attempts to understand the processes of learning there is an easy assimilation into the fray over sovereignty. Who controls knowledge? Is knowledge `beat into our heads' or are we led to discoveries? Does learning occur as a consequence of intention, or is it serendipitously assimilated in our experience? What are the goals of individual versus social theory in relation to the learner? Is the aim of the learning experience to develop more pragmatic returns, or to nurture the abstract and symbolic mind? These questions revolve on a fundamental division between ideologies that alternately place either the individual or the community as primary agents and beneficiaries of cognitive development and learning. The dialogue of dichotomies between cognitive and situative theory--individual versus community, reductionistic versus systems approaches, inductive versus deductive--lends prima facie weight to the dialectical foundation of situative theory. Is it fruitful to have the dialectic stop with situative theory, short of the fundamental rift? Is our effort to understand learning doomed to take a back seat as we battle over territorial nomenclature? Why not continue the dialogue through a more complete synthesis?

Dewey's pragmatic preoccupation with citizenship and his insistence on the context of quotidian reality to develop that citizenship are balanced by his acclamation of subjective imagination, and of voluntary and reflective attention in achieving from external custom and suggestion (Dewey, 1956/1990, pp. 144-146). Dewey values learning as a participatory and sustaining function within the society, while recognizing the individual essence and vitality of a learner's cognition. Recent theory flows from Dewey's moderate expression of social dominion through more individualistic perspectives into a Marxist view of local and global culture as integral to the very possibility of individual knowledge and identify (Lave and Wenger, 1991, p. 98-115).

Conceptions of ability

Traditional interpretations consider ability as a function of intelligence, a faculty peculiar to individuals. A 1921 consensus (Snyderman and Rothman, 1988), contemporary with Dewey's work, describes a (then) commonly accepted definition of intelligence "as mental adaptation to changing environmental stimuli ... sometimes called the capacity to learn" (p.43). The schism between cognitive and situative theories evolves as each attempts to confiscate a portion of that definition and declare it complete. It is reminiscent of the blind men and the elephant; no one of them can see the whole thing, yet each gropes about and adamantly asserts to know `what it is.' None surmises the truth.

Cognitive theory tends to assess ability where traditional psychological theory has always begun, noting it originates in individual mental processes. It is primarily Piagetian, inductive, and anchored to biology. Situative theory is more Vygotskian, deductive, and genetic; emergent through the developing relationships in which individuals play a part. …

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