A respected colleague recently suggested Andy Clark’s Being There as a read to characterize the new views of cognition, so I checked it out. The book covers the new emerging views of cognition, grounded in the connectionist revolution and incorporating a wide variety of neural and robotic studies. The interesting thing to me are the implications for learning and instruction.
The book makes the case that the way we think is not only heavily tied to our contexts, but that we co-construct the world in ways that affect our thinking in profound ways. Studies across economic behavior, animal cognition, simulation studies, and more are integrated to make the point that they way we think is very different than the models of conscious minds sitting in meat vehicles. Instead, we’re very driven from below and outside, and our conscious thinking is rare, hard, and language based. Moreover, the constructs we create to think affect our thinking, making it easier. We automate much not only through learning, but we externalize. And, our representations and understanding are very much constructed ‘on the fly’ in each new situations, as opposed to existing abstract and robust.
This isn’t easy reading. Clark is a philosopher of mind, and covers much complex research and deep neuroscience. The emergent picture, however, is of a mind very different than the cognitivist model. I’m grateful that while I pursued my PhD in Cog Psych, the research going on in our co-shared lab by Rumelhart and McClelland on connectionist networks sensitized me to this viewpoint, and Hutchins work on Cognition in the Wild was similarly taking place at the same time. Despite the challenge, there are important reasons to get our minds around this way of thinking.
The notion that providing abstract knowledge will lead to any meaningful outcome has already pretty much been debunked both empirically and theoretically. What these models seem to suggest is that what can and will work is deep scaffolded practice and guided reflection, based upon a situated cognition. For other reasons, this is the model that Collins and Brown had in Cognitive Apprenticeship, and now we’ve a more solid philosophical basis for it. (I also think that there are rejoinders to Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, and Anderson, Reder, & Simon; discussing how language, including writing, is social, and that iterations between abstract models and meaningful practice is guided reflection.)
This model suggests that language is our differentiator, and that much of our higher level cognition is mediated through language. There’s a reason consciousness feels like a dialog. Much of our processing is beneath consciousness, and things we monitor and develop through language become compiled away inaccessible to language.
The point, to me, is that the activity-based learning model I’ve proposed has both bottom up grounding in new cognitive models, theoretical framing from anchored instruction and social constructivism, as well as empirical validity from apprenticeships and work-place learning. We need to start aligning our learning design to the cognitive realities.