Situated Cognition and Learning

Situated cognition and learning is the study of cognition within its natural context. This perspective emphasizes that individual minds usually operate within environments that structure, direct, and support cognitive processes. "Context" can be defined as physical or task-based (including artifacts and external representations of information), environmental or ecological (such as workplace and marketplace), and social or interactional (as in educational instruction or clinical settings). This emphasis on the physical, environmental, and social contexts for cognition was termed SITUATEDNESS/ EMBEDDEDNESS by Lucy Suchman (1987).

As Roy Pea and John Seeley Brown (1987) note, "It may appear obvious that human minds develop in social situations, and that they use the tools and representational media that culture provides to support, extend, and reorganize mental functioning. But cognitive theories of knowledge representation and educational practice, in school and in the workplace, have not been sufficiently responsive to questions about these relationships." As evidence, Jean Lave (1988) cites laboratory studies of cognition that report extremely poor performance by adults on simple arithmetic problems. She argued that asking the same questions in the context of grocery shopping at a supermarket reveals people's competence, and the strategies (e.g., "get best price per unit") used to solve familiar problems. Ceci and Roazzi (1994) also demonstrate the importance of context by showing that child street vendors can solve sophisticated arithmetic problems only when posed as familiar vending decisions. But though related to the ECOLOGICAL PSYCHOLOGY movement, the situated perspective goes beyond arguing for realistic settings and problem content.

Instead, this situated cognition approach argues that the nature of cognitive processing is uniquely determined within its context, and that it cannot be studied in isolation without destroying its defining properties. Consider this example: Imagine the myriad devices and agents that play critical roles in cognition while flying a plane. Edwin Hutchins (1995a) conceptualizes this circumstance as a cognitive system extending beyond the physical boundary of the pilot's head, and distributed over the people and objects within the environment. The control panel on a 747 can be taken into a lab and studied; however, important features of its use by the pilot may only arise when she is functioning within a team of crew members, during a complete flight sequence, talking to flight controllers in her nonnative English, under darkness, in an airplane with a history of hydraulic indicator failures, for the second time. Hutchins (1995a) argues it is impossible to understand the cognition involved in flying a plane apart from this distributed system in which it is embedded.

Mind and environment interact not only in highly technical tasks, but also in everyday tasks where COGNITIVE ARTIFACTS represent needed information, support decisions, and potentially even interfere with performance (Norman 1987). For example, the mental artifact of the columnar format for arithmetic provides a structure to keep track of information when short-term memory would otherwise be overwhelmed. As Agre and Chapman (1987) suggest, the physical setting can greatly lighten the processing load of the thinker by providing external cues about what to do next and when goals are accomplished (such as giving feedback through elevator buttons that light up when activated). This relationship of cognition to environmental structure is also used in HUMAN-COMPUTER INTERACTION to design artifacts that can exploit cognitive processes while supporting difficult tasks (Winograd and Flores 1986).

The social environment also influences cognition through the presence of other minds to influence, assist, mislead, demonstrate, question, and raise other perspectives. The interactionist method (Cicourel 1987; Jordan and Henderson 1995) examines communication between participants as an externalized measure of cognition. The social context may also provide a method for LEARNING through the demonstration and assistance of others in a "socially constituted world" (Chaiklin and Lave 1993). For example, novices often learn through apprenticeships, where they spend many hours observing and interacting with more experienced team members as they learn to perform tasks on the job (Seifert and Hutchins 1992; Lave and Wenger 1991). Lev Semenovich VYGOTSKY's activity theory (c.f. Wertsch 1985) proposes that cognitive development even occurs through the witnessing of acts within a social context that are later internalized by the individual. For example, a child may first participate in a class where questions are asked and answered aloud during reading; later, the child may internalize these social interaction processes as the self-monitoring of comprehension during reading (Palincsar 1987).

This social mediation approach to the development of cognitive skills has had a tremendous impact on theories of learning and EDUCATION. For example, Tomasello, Kruger, and Ratner (1993) have theorized that underlying sociocognitive concepts and processes give rise to a developmental ordering of learning strategies, from imitative to instructed and finally to collaborative learning. Much recent work in education has focused on identifying the role of social interaction in classroom learning, and proposing ways of facilitating its effects (McDermott 1993; Brown 1989). The notion that a learner's progress can be understood only in the context of the social classroom directs educational interventions toward altering the social context (Cole 1991), rather than the individual. Many of these interventions are aimed at changing social context through new technology-based activities (Pea 1985; Tripp 1993; Wood 1995) that can expand the learning environment far beyond the time and space delimited by classroom walls.

The situated cognition perspective argues that our goal as cognitive scientists must be to understand the mind as it operates within a natural context. Our theories must account for "cognition in the wild" (Hutchins 1995b) because that is where cognition usually occurs, and where it demonstrates its true capabilities and limitations. The benefits of achieving this goal are not only theoretical, but may also provide many benefits for the structuring of cognition in our daily lives. As this example from Norman (1980) demonstrates, there is much at stake in this enterprise: "In March of 1977, two Boeing 747 airliners collided on a runway at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, and the crash killed 582 people. What caused the accident? No single factor. The crash resulted from a complex interaction of events, including problems of attentional focus, the effects of expectation upon language understanding . . . a technically limited communication . . . the subtle effects of differences of social structure among the participants, the effects of stress, economic responsibilities and social and cultural factors upon decision making. All in all, it is a fascinating -- if horrifying -- story for Cognitive Science (pp. 4-5)."

See also

Additional links

-- Colleen M. Seifert


Agre, P., and D. Chapman. (1987). Pengi: An implementation of a theory of activity. In The Proceedings of the Sixth National Conference on Artificial Intelligence, American Association for Artificial Intelligence. Seattle: Kaufmann, pp. 268-272.

Brown, J. S. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher 18(1):32-42.

Ceci, S. J., and A. Roazzi. (1994). The effects of context on cognition: Postcards from Brazil. In R. J. Sternberg and R. K. Wagner, Eds., Mind in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 74-101.

Chaiklin, S., and J. Lave. (1993). Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cicourel, A. V. (1987). The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. Special issue: Language and social interaction. Social Psychology Quarterly 50(2):217-226.

Cole, M. (1991). A cultural theory of development: What does it imply about the application of scientific research? Special issue: Culture and learning. Learning and Instruction 1(3):187-200.

Hutchins, E. (1995a). How a cockpit remembers its speeds. Cognitive Science 19(3):265-288.

Hutchins, E. (1995b). Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Jordan, B., and A. Henderson. (1995). Interaction analysis: Foundations and practice. Journal of the Learning Sciences 4(1):39-103.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in Practice: Mind, Mathematics and Culture in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J., and E. Wenger. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McDermott, R. P. (1993). The acquisition of a child by a learning disability. In S. Chaiklin and J. Lave, Eds., Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 179-211.

Norman, D. A. (1980). Twelve issues for Cognitive Science. Cognitive Science 4:1-33.

Norman, D. A. (1987) The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York: Basic Books.

Palincsar, A. (1987). Reciprocal teaching: Can student discussion boost comprehension? Instructor 96(5):56-58, 60.

Pea, R. (1985). Beyond amplification: Using computers to reorganize human mental functioning. Educational Psychologist 20:167-182.

Pea, R., and J. Seeley Brown. (1987). Series foreword. In L. A. Suchman, Ed., Plans and Situated Action. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. xiii - xiv.

Seifert, C. M., and E. Hutchins. (1992). Error as opportunity: Learning in a cooperative task. Human-Computer Interaction 7(4):409-435.

Suchman, L. A. (1987). Plans and Situated Action. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tomasello, M., A. C. Kruger, and H. H. Ratner. (1993). Cultural learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 16(3):495-552.

Tripp, S. D. (1993). Theories, traditions and situated learning. Educational Technology 33(3):71-77.

Wertsch, J. V. (1985). Vygotsky and the Social Formation of Mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Winograd, T., and F. Flores. (1986). Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design. Norwood, NJ: Ablex.

Wood, D. (1995). Theory, training and technology: Part 1. Educa tion and Training 37(1):12-16.

Further Readings

Button, G. (1993). Technology in Working Order: Studies in Work, Interaction and Technology. London: Rutledge.

Clancey, W. J. (1997). Situated Cognition: On Human Knowledge and Computer Representations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Engestrom, Y., and D. Middleton. (1996). Cognition and Communication at Work. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Goodwin, C., and M. H. Goodwin. (1996). Seeing as situated activity: Formulating planes. In Y. Engestrom and D. Middleton, Eds., Cognition and Communication at Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 61-95.

Greeno, J. G. (1989). A perspective on thinking. American Psychologist 44(2):134-141.

Heath, C. C., and P. K. Luff. (1992). Crisis and control: Collaborative work in London underground control rooms. Journal of Computer Supported Cooperative Work 1(10):24-48.

Perrow, C. (1984). Normal Accidents. New York: Basic Books.

Resnick, L. B., J. M. Levine, and S. D. Teasley. (1991). Perspectives on Socially-Shared Cognition. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Rogoff, B., and J. Lave. (1984). Everyday Cognition: Its Development in Social Context. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Sternberg, R. J., and R. K. Wagner. (1994). Mind in Context. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Vera, J., and H. Simon. (1993). Situated action: A symbolic interpretation. Cognitive Science 17(1):7-48.

Wertsch, J. V., and L. J. Rupert. (1993). The authority of cultural tools in a sociocultural approach to mediated agency. Cognition and Instruction 11(3-4):227-239.