Understanding knowledge and learning

Did you know?

Social learning theories are not especially new. Plato, for example, opposed...

All meaningful discussions of pedagogy flow from theories of knowledge and theories of learning. How can we know how to teach, either face-to-face or in the classroom, if we don't understand the nature of knowledge (epistemology) or the nature of learning?

As discussed earlier in the course, contemporary pedagogical approaches universally recognise that knowledge is in some way socially constructed and that learning is a social process. When we discuss online teaching, long feared to be isolating, the social dimensions of learning become even more urgent.

The social nature of learning

Social constructivist theories argue that learning is essentially social in nature and involves interactions amongst people on some level. These interactions may be direct or may occur through a medium (a book, the internet), or might simply be remembered. Many learning theories that are distinctively social have been developed. Although these vary considerably, for our purposes three crucial common themes can be identified:

Foundations

Dewey: John Dewey was a Pragmatist philosopher who is perhaps most...

  • Situated cognition/learning: the concept that learning is situated in particular social contexts
  • Distributed cognition: the concept that knowing is distributed across groups
  • Learning communities: the concept that learning takes place in communities.

Let's look at the three dimensions in greater depth, beginning with situated cognition/learning.

In the following activity, read the questions about situated cognition/learning, then note down your ideas before using the 'View feedback' button to see our thoughts. Use the 'Next' and 'Back' buttons to move between questions.
Consider the following questions on situated cognition/learning and think about your response to each, before continuing on to get our thoughts.

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Mastering Online Pedagogy
UNIT | 2 : A deeper dive: Theories for learner-centred online pedagogy
PAGE TITLE | Learning theory drives pedagogy

Question 1 of 3:

What is situated cognition/learning and why is it relevant to my teaching?

Our thoughts:

The term 'situated cognition/learning' (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989; Lave & Wenger; 1991; McLellan, 1996) refers to the belief that learning is located in the particular physical and social contexts in which it takes place.

This perspective argues that the activities in which knowledge is developed and used are neither separable from, nor secondary to, authentic, meaningful learning. It asserts that the physical and social circumstances are an integral part of what is learned. Within this framework, knowledge and cognitive skills are learned through:

  • Observation
  • Coaching
  • Practice
  • Feedback from experienced practitioners in real-life contexts.

This approach is sometimes called Cognitive Apprenticeship.


Question 2 of 3:

What does situated cognition/learning look like in practice?

Our thoughts:

Tailors learn to repair clothes, bakers learn to bake, and woodworkers learn to carve in specific apprenticed social relationships. These relationships help them to understand the conventions, standards, processes, and models that define their trade.

Similarly, in online environments we can strive to simulate various online processes in order to encourage students to experiment with new identities. For example, we might encourage them to become writers by giving them audiences of readers through blogging. We might also encourage them to take on identities of scientists or historians, perhaps by allowing them to participate in online citizen science and history.


Question 3 of 3:

What are the implications of situated cognition/learning for pedagogy?

Our thoughts:

Advocates of situated theories of learning suggest pedagogical approaches that embed learning in meaningful activities that make deliberate use of their social and physical contexts. They suggest that students often fail to learn in traditional classrooms because traditional teaching activities are so far removed from actual practice (Bruner, 1986; Collins, Brown, & Newman; 1989; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1990). In particular, they highlight that traditional classroom work is rarely social in ways that support learning. Cognitive Apprenticeship and Anchored Instruction are the two main pedagogical approaches developed through work on situated learning.

Situated cognition/learning in online learning

Useful links

Situated cognition/learning: Brown, Collins & Duguid's 1989 paper 'Situated...

How does the notion of situated cognition/learning apply to online learning environments? The most common pedagogical approach that reflects situated cognition/learning takes its cues from apprenticeship models. These approaches see the teacher as an expert who coaches, models, articulates processes, scaffolds learning, and promotes exploration. Online courses that are guided by a more expert teacher and developed around a set of materials, with which the learners interact, belong to this model.

The knowledge spread

The second important thread asserted by social learning theories is distributed cognition. The basic idea is that not all cognition (thinking) resides inside the mind of the individual thinker, but rather that cognition is spread (distributed) across people, tools, and contexts. The notion of distributed cognition may sound familiar if you have heard of connectivism (the 'Key terms' pod on the 'Constructivism' screen has more on connectivism).

The second important thread asserted by social learning theories is distributed cognition. The basic idea is that not all cognition (thinking) resides inside the mind of the individual thinker, but rather that cognition is spread (distributed) across people, tools, and contexts. The notion of distributed cognition may sound familiar if you have heard of connectivism (the 'Key terms' pod in the section on 'Constructivism' has more on connectivism).

In an age of networked computing, the idea that knowledge is distributed should not be hard to understand. But distributed cognition as a theory predates the widespread networked learning that exists today.

In the following activity, read the questions about situated cognition/learning, then note down your ideas before using the 'View feedback' button to see our thoughts. Use the 'Next' and 'Back' buttons to move between questions.
Consider the following questions on distributed cognition and think about your response to each, before continuing on to get our thoughts.
Interactivity icon

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Mastering Online Pedagogy
UNIT | 2 : A deeper dive: Theories for learner-centred online pedagogy
PAGE TITLE | Learning theory drives pedagogy

Question 1 of 3:

How is distributed cognition defined?

Our thoughts:

Whilst situated cognition/learning focuses on learning activities and contexts, distributed cognition foregrounds learning interactions and cognitive tools. Theories of distributed cognition argue that knowing is distributed between the individual, others, and artefacts (Hutchins, 1995; Salomon, 1997). Advocates of distributed cognition say that our understandings develop not in isolation but rather through our interactions with other people and the cognitive tools that make such interaction possible. The implication is that knowing, therefore, resides in these interactions and not only in the individual.


Question 2 of 3:

What does distributed cognition look like in practice?

Our thoughts:

A simple way to understand distributed cognition is to imagine solving a problem with the help of a friend using paper and pencil. The discussion with the friend distributes part of the thinking (cognition) between individuals. The use of paper and pencil (tools) further extends cognition outside the mind. More complex examples of distributed cognition include the functioning of larger systems. The shared cognition required to fly a plane may be distributed between a pilot, co-pilot, and air traffic controllers (people), while also offloading some of the cognition on to onboard controls (e.g. an autopilot) and navigational systems.


Question 3 of 3:

What are the implications of distributed cognition for pedagogy?

Our thoughts:

Distributed cognition suggests distributed learning: if knowing is distributed across individuals, others, and tools, then learning must be as well. Distributed cognition regards learning as embedded in these interactions. It relies on pedagogies that provide opportunities for meaningful interaction both between teachers and learners, and between learners with support from cognitive tools.

The distribution of cognition can be sharing (supportive interactions between individuals) or offloading (e.g. using applications or tools to perform some of the cognition). It should be understood that effective online learning is predicated on intellectual sharing and, at its best, on leveraging emerging tools to aid thought processes.

It is clear that online environments are pretty much the embodiment of distributed learning, with teachers and learners physically distributed across space and time and connected through a technology tool. However, it is also clear that designers and teachers can take advantage of this environment to enhance shared cognition, or not.

Learning communities online

Key terms

Community of Inquiry: A social constructivist model of the processes which...

The final theme in social learning theory that will be discussed here is the concept of learning communities. This notion is especially relevant to this course and to other courses in the Teaching Online programme as they all reference the Community of Inquiry model as a common theme.

Community of Inquiry (CoI)

A social constructivist model of the processes that support learning in an online environment.

For now, however, let's focus on how situated learning and distributed cognition logically connect to (online) learning communities.

In the following activity, read the questions about situated cognition/learning, then note down your ideas before using the 'View feedback' button to see our thoughts. Use the 'Next' and 'Back' buttons to move between questions.
Consider the following questions about learning communities and think about your response to each, before continuing on to get our thoughts.
Interactivity icon

Practical tip

As you review the theoretical models covered in this screen, keep in...

PROGRAMME | Teaching Online
COURSE | Mastering Online Pedagogy
UNIT | 2 : A deeper dive: Theories for learner-centred online pedagogy
PAGE TITLE | Learning theory drives pedagogy

Question 1 of 3:

How are learning communities defined?

Our thoughts:

Knowledge and learning are a natural part of the life of communities that share values, beliefs, languages, and ways of doing things (Bransford, Brown & Cocking, 2000). Knowledge, in this view, is inseparable from practice, and practice is inseparable from the communities in which it occurs. Proponents of learning communities argue that authentic learning environments share characteristics such as:

  • Mutual engagement
  • Joint enterprise
  • Shared repertoire
  • Negotiated meaning (Wenger, 1998)

They believe that learning environments should work to develop these qualities. An important part of Lave and Wenger's (1991; Wenger, 1998) notions of communities of practice is the idea that all learning is situated in practice and that all practice is essentially social in nature.


Question 2 of 3:

What do learning communities look like in practice?

Our thoughts:

One of the more famous examples of communities of practice that influence the notion of learning community comes from the seemingly mundane world of copy repair technicians. Workers at Xerox were noted to share tips and solve problems over informal breakfast and lunch discussions. Eventually, higher management saw the value in supporting these authentic learning communities and created the Eureka database to capture this knowledge, saving the company an estimated $100 million or more.

In common, authentic communities of practice share purposes, values, conventions, and knowledge (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in ways that inform the design of (online) learning communities.


Question 3 of 3:

What are the implications of learning communities for pedagogy?

Our thoughts:

The basic implication of communities of practice and learning for online pedagogy is in the intentional design of learning environments characterised by mutual engagement, joint enterprise, shared repertoire, and negotiated meaning amongst learners. The Community of Inquiry model is one pedagogical framework that fully articulates the components for online learning. We will return to the concept of online learning communities again and again in this and other courses in the Teaching Online programme.

Source: Material on mutual engagement, joint enterprise, shared repertoire, and negotiated meaning: Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press.
Used with permission.

If you are not familiar with them, the ideas behind situated cognition/learning, distributed cognition, and learning communities are quite a lot to think about. Nonetheless, they are worth exploring. Take a moment to reflect on how these theories might inform your current practice and what they might suggest for the design and teaching of online courses. Save your thoughts to your portfolio where you can revisit (and revise) them throughout the course.


Did you know?

Social learning theories are not especially new. Plato, for example, opposed the invention of writing because it replaced essential social interactions between teachers and learners. Dewey (1933) argued strongly for a social view of learning, as did Lev Vygotsky (1966), whose theories are foundational to much of the ongoing emphasis on the social dimensions of learning in nearly all areas of educational research.

Foundations

Useful links

Key terms

Community of Inquiry

A social constructivist model of the processes which support learning in an online environment. Featuring:

  • Social presence – the degree to which participants in online environments feel affectively connected to one another.
  • Cognitive presence – the extent to which learners are able to construct and confirm meaning in online courses.
  • Teaching presence – the design and organisation of course materials and activities, facilitation of learning, and direction and leadership in online courses.

Practical tip

As you review the theoretical models covered in this section, keep in mind that different theories may resonate with different aspects of the course you teach. As you think through what these theories mean, think as well about where and how they may apply to specific aspects of your course. Make a note of the idea or approach when you have one, in order to refine the various dimensions of your course. In the end, you may have to decide which modification or refinement will bring the most value to your students but at least you will have a list to draw upon.