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Distributed cognition and the shared knowledge model of the Mazahua: a cultural approach.

The distributed and situated character of informal and nonwestern learning practices has recently become a source of inspiration for the reform of school practices. The notion that cognition and knowledge is to be seen as situationally bound has promoted forms of learning in which responsible engagement in socially relevant activities is seen as crucial for effective learning results. To evaluate the usefulness of these nonwestern learning practices for school reform a study of the teaching-learning practices of a Native American group is presented. Their shared knowledge model of learning is based on the interconnectedness between knowledge and practice. Their ideas on knowledge and learning as well as their guidance model are compared with cognitive apprenticeship models mostly designed for school. The comparison and in particular the differences found give rise to a discussion on the cultural nature of guidance models. A view is advanced in which the distributed nature of cognition is seen as only one of t he many possible sources of inspiration to reform our teaching.


Recently, educationalists have sought inspiration from non-Western and informal teaching-learning practices to reform school learning. The distributed and situated nature of knowledge (construction) that is found to be characteristic of these informal learning situations, is a central source of inspiration in these educational reforms. The notion that knowledge is not to be seen as decontextualized and general but as situationally bound and context driven promotes an interest in "situated" forms of learning, that is, learning in which engagement and participation in socially relevant activities are of central importance as opposed to the traditional idea of the transmission of general knowledge.

In this article, how models of guidance can be inspired from a distributed cognition perspective was investigated. The questions that will be raised here are: "To what extent can we or should we use the notion of distributed cognition in order to reform school learning?," "Should we consider the distributed nature of knowledge construction as a universal insight to be applied in all teaching-learning contexts?," and "Does the distributed nature of knowledge construction have the same meaning and impact in all teaching-learning contexts?" To address these issues, a guidance model is presented that was inferred from a study of the teaching-learning practices of a Native American group, the Mazahuas. Their shared-knowledge model is based on the idea that knowledge is intertwined with practice and that expertise is shared among people. In fact, as will be pointed out, their guidance model bears clear similarities with the innovative guidance models based on the idea of distributed cognition designed for western schooling. However, closer analysis also provides proof of relevant differences. The comparison that will be presented is used to elaborate on the issue of the general usefulness of the distributed cognition metaphor for the development of guidance models. The cultural nature of models of guidance will be a major concern in addressing this issue. Departing from the thesis that models of learning are products of certain cultural assumptions or specific social situations, a critical stance is taken with respect to the possibilities to adopt the idea of distributed cognition as the principal metaphor for innovative school learning. Before presenting the Mazahua guidance model, the author briefly examines the idea of distributed cognition as a concept of the human mind and presents how this concept of the mind is necessarily related to a concept of guidance.

On Distributed Cognition: Ideas and Influences

Distributed cognition refers to the idea that cognition, knowledge, and expertise are not simply a property of individual minds or located and manifested in individual heads but are distributed among people and among people and cultural tools or artefacts (Kirshner & Whitson, 1997a; Salomon, 1993). In fact, the concept of distributed cognition refers to the idea that individual reason cannot be viewed in isolation but as inherently interwoven with its social and cultural surroundings. Individual minds rest and build upon the intelligence present in their social environments and should therefore be studied in relation with this social environment. The unit of analysis is no longer the individual's cognitive system but the interrrelatedness of a diversity of intelligent systems. This applies both to how cognition is viewed and to how it is acquired, stored, and acted out. When an individual learns a new skill, the social environment (guidance, support from others) plays an essential part in how the new skill i s accomplished. The social and artificial resources that surround the individual are made vehicles of thought and become genuine parts of the (socio-cognitive) result of this cognitive partnership (Perkins, 1993). In acting out the acquired skills the same social and artificial resources form an inherent part of our intelligent actions.

The notion of distributed cognition as described here has evolved particularly within cognitive psychology as a reaction against the one-sided focus on individual cognition and the representation of the (social) environment as merely converted in symbol structures in the head (Resnick, 1991). In fact, the debate focuses on the question as to what the nature of the human mind is and how it relates to its surrounding world. It is the issue of how the mind represents the outer world and the mind's (in)dependence from that outer world that has particularly played a mayor role in this debate (Vera & Simon, 1993; Salomon, 1993; Resnick, 1991).

Although the term distributed cognition might be more specifically used in cognitive psychology inspired theories, the very idea that knowledge is socially distributed has been an issue in many other fields or disciplines. In the past few decades the interest in social and situated forms of thinking and knowing has increased considerably. The same can be said for the corresponding educational models such as apprenticeship learning, learning through "rich contexts," learning by doing, and learning through the study of forms of "good practice" (Lave 1990; Rogoff, 1990; Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). This is also evident from the increasing interest in studying everyday knowledge construction processes (Saxe, 1991; Newman, Griffin & Cole, 1989; Carraher & Schliemann, 1985 cited in Agre, 1997).

This general interest in the social nature of cognition seems to have influenced the development of the distributed cognition thesis. Specific influences can be mentioned from ethnography, critical theory, and socio-cultural theory (Kishner & Whitson, 1997b). From her studies on every day math, Lave (1990) has argued that (mathematical) reasoning must be viewed as inherently connected to the activities within which it takes place. Knowledge is to be understood relationally, that is, as something located within the relationships and activities in which it develops. While taking a critical discourse point of view (Agre, 1997), Walkerdine (1997), from her study on the issue of context and the mathematical performance of children in and out of school, also saw (mathematical) reasoning as deeply bound to the larger activity in which it takes place and understands activity in relational terms. As far as socio-cultural/activity theory is concerned (Vygotsky, Leont'ev, & Luria), cognition is seen as fundamentally so cial and cultural. Cognition is culturally mediated, a part of whole activity systems that include culture, community, tools, and symbols (Cole & Engestrom, 1993). The idea that cognition is formed by and constantly interacts with social contexts is at the very heart of this theory (Vygotsky, 1978; Wertsch, 1985). Through the concepts of cultural mediation and the social nature of appropriation, which were original Vygotskian notions, this theory conceives psychological functions as rooted in its social and cultural history. In terms of the distributed cognition theory, one could say that cognition becomes distributed through cultural mediation.

Of course, the idea that cognition is not an isolated, context-independent, individual, matter has much older roots both in psychology as a discipline and in other fields of science. For instance, in psychology cross-cultural studies, variation in the performance was found on formal cognitive tasks as a function of cultural context (Cole, 1971; Childs & Greenfield, 1980). But the idea can be traced back to the very beginning of psychology as a discipline as Cole and Engsstrom do (Wundt, 1921 cited by Cole & Engestrom (1993)). In fact, the problem of to what extent reason and logic can be distinguished from or is related with (social) practice is even a basic philosophical one (Pinxten 1997; Walkerdine 1997; Lemke, 1997).

What Distributed Cognition Means for Models of Guidance

To see cognition as materially and socially distributed cannot be without consequences for educational models designed to foster knowledge construction. Opting for an ecological model in which the semiotic and the natural are both part of the same "system," as is the case in the distributed cognition thesis, versus opting for a Cartesian separation of both, must have consequences for a view of how people develop and learn. How one situates the self into larger meaning making systems is relevant for the question as to how the relationship between those systems and the self changes as we learn. Our models of how we learn describe how we change as subjects, how we come to control new environments, and how we appropriate parts of the social and material world.

In the case of a separation of the self and the social system, learning can be defined as a relatively autonomous process; in the case of a close relationship between them learning is interdependent with changes in the social and material environment of the learning person.

A practical example of the difference between those two positions can be found in Pinxten's (1997) description of the learning practices of Navahos compared to those in Western schooling. Pinxten described that Navahos do not have the absolutist view of truth that is dominant in most Western schooling. Truth for the Navahos is not person-independent but on the contrary, it is strongly related with the knowing person. The Navahos do not share the God's eye perspective which is so characteristic of Western culture, that is, a perspective in which the subject distances him/herself from the world and relates to it through representations of the world. He or she shows how this vision of truth is closely related to how the Navahos view learning. For Navahos, learning processes directly change the relationship between the learning person and the world instead of between the person and generally acknowledged systems of representation of the world (Pinxten & Farrer, 1994).

Lave (1990) also described these two fundamental positions and related them to a view of learning. She showed how an idea of knowledge as an accumulation of general, factual knowledge leads to a view in which learning is a process that takes place in a decontextualized setting, detached from practice so that knowledge can be generalized. In this culture of acquisition, as Lave calls it, transmission and internalisation of general, factual knowledge is the central focus. In contrast, she shows how an idea of knowledge as situated and as context bound leads to a vision in which learning is socially constituted and in which there is a relationship between what is to be learned and how it is learned. In this practice of understanding not factual knowledge but the learning activity itself is central. The focus is not on context-independent knowledge but on context-sensitive and context-related knowledge and skills.

In sum, there is a clear relationship between how cognition is viewed on the one hand, and how knowledge construction is viewed on the other. Seeing cognition as socially and materially distributed implies a view of instruction that sees learning as inherently related to the social and material context in which it takes place. The social and cultural resources become part of both the learning process and the product and are not abstracted from either of those resources or translated in general terms.

The next section discusses a concrete example of a nonWestern learning practice, that of the Mazahuas, in which knowledge is seen as distributed. This is done both in terms of their ideas on learning and knowledge and in terms of the model of guidance that is fostered so that the relationship mentioned in this section can be further illustrated. It will particularly show how the main idea of the distributed cognition thesis (that cognition is inherently interwoven with its social context) is clearly present in the shared competence guidance model of the Mazahua.

Shared Competence: A Study of Mazahua Learning Practices

The main objective of this study was to find out how Mexican Mazahua teaching and learning practices can or cannot be described in terms that would match with or differ from current descriptions and models in theories on learning and instruction. To realise this goal, extensive fieldwork was set up in a traditional Mexican Mazahua village. Presented here are only the parts that are relevant to this article (for a complete overview of the results see de Haan, 1999). Examined are: (a) their view on knowledge and learning from interviews with Mazahua community members, and (b) their guidance model on the basis of an analysis of semi-controlled learning-teaching tasks carried out by Mazahua parent-child couples.

1. A situated view on knowledge and learning: Interviews

Nineteen community members were interviewed and the main theme of the interview was the question as to how learning comes about. These issues were imbedded in general questions on children's development and activities, since Mazahua people tend not to speak of learning as an isolated phenomenon. They were also asked to reflect on the nature of knowledge (for instance, where it comes from, how it is stored, and passed on) to be able to relate this issue to the question of appropriating knowledge. They were also asked to compare their own conceptions of knowledge and learning to those of formal schooling so their views could be analysed from a comparative perspective.

With respect to their knowledge view. Mazahua people seem to advance a view on knowledge in which stored knowledge or recorded knowledge is closely related to knowledge that is "acted out." In general, the barriers between recording knowledge, possessing it, transmitting it, and acting it out seem to be minimal. Knowledge is closely related to practice and does not appear to stand on its own. Knowledge was always judged on its practical value and not as a truth in itself. Furthermore, they presented knowledge as being closely related to the "one who knows" and not as something that is generally accessible or refers to some general "independent" state of affairs or a reflection of the world. Both aspects, knowledge as related to practice and knowledge as a personal experience, indicated that knowledge does not have the "monumental" status it has in our Western society (Foucault, 1976) but is an inherent part of practice. The view Mazahua people expressed on school knowledge clearly contrasts with this view, as school knowledge was described as being located in verbal statements, in precise rules and procedures, and as being exact and general.

With respect to their view on learning. Furthermore, when Mazahua people talk about learning they did not present learning as a separate cultural activity that can be set apart from other cultural activities. For example, they translated my question about "how children learn" into "how you direct them to work." In addition, learning and teaching in particular were not presented as something troublesome or something that required effort. However, they still presented me with specific rules and principles about directing children, having something to do with how to guide and direct a child's engagement in the relevant cultural activities. "Becoming engaged" is certainly not as self-evident as it might seem since parents told me they would take all kinds of measures to direct their children's attention to some activities and keep them away from others. Parents would create all kinds of opportunities for observation and (peripheral) participation while they continue their normal activities (observation definitely being an important phase in the process as a whole). In this way they take into account the child's level of competence and state of motivation (e.g., they would stress that you should not concentrate on a child's mistakes but straightaway offer a new opportunity for successful participation). They also create a balance between the loss of products and time that the involvement of a newcomer might involve and the need to teach their youngsters new tasks. As a result, the fact that learning is not a separate "life sphere" or that no specific tools or language are developed for learning does not imply that there are no pedagogical principles being applied or that no specific measures are taken to foster learning.

In sum, in their view, knowledge or expertise is socially distributed in the sense that knowledge is embodied in knowledgeable persons and known practices (e.g., not in verbal statements, theories, or symbol systems). Appropriating knowledge is basically about becoming engaged in relevant cultural activities according to specific rules and thus takes place what could be called a situated way.

2. Their guidance model: "Shared competence": an analysis of teaching-learning activities in a semi-controlled setting.

Thirty Mazahua parent-child couples were asked to take part in a teaching-learning task that was set up specifically for this study. The tasks were related to their daily marketing activities and contained mathematical procedures they were familiar with, such as calculating and measuring. The parents were first made familiar with the tasks and then asked to teach the tasks to their child the way they would normally do. The parents were asked to organise the activity in such a way that the child would learn from it. The whole procedure was videotaped and analysed with respect to: (a) how the parents organised the activities to create learning opportunities, and (b) how their behaviour was translated into communicative patterns and roles. Two kinds of analysis were made. The first was a qualitative analysis of the organizational structure of the interactions and of the role divisions that were set up; the second was a more detailed analysis (which was partly quantified) and, which looked at the specific patter n of participation structures and control strategies with specific focus on how initiatives shown by the children and errors made by the children were dealt with. I will provide the outcomes of these analyses in general terms.

Organisation structure of the activity. From the qualitative descriptions of the videotapes it became clear that Mazahua parent-child couples organised learning opportunities while maintaining the original task structure, that is without creating a different domain or structure preserved for learning. Nevertheless, the activity was organised in such a way that the learning child could take advantage of the activity that was going on. Events would never be organised just for the sake of learning but would always be functional for the task completion. Continuity of the activity as a meaningful whole seems to be an important principle that lays behind this strategy.

A role division model in which the child takes on responsibility. Furthermore, children were not just learners but full participants responsible for their share of the activity. The parents in their turn would not withdraw from task performance (as in the classic school-informed didactic model) but were just as likely to take on a performer's role. They would even involve other family members they had brought along in the task (e.g., older or younger siblings). Generally, the parent started the task and gave the child small assignments. The child was expected to observe the parent's behaviour and gradually take on more responsibility for the task, preferably on their own initiative. They would start in the margin of the activity and gradually move more to the centre. For instance, a child would sometimes interfere with the task strategy that was set up by the parent and would criticise decisions or take over the general responsibility for the task. In other words, their role division was based on analogy and interchangeability. That is, their roles were of the same nature (they are both performer's roles) although different in status. Furthermore, their roles were assigned on a temporary basis which meant they were exchangeable between adult and child. Identification with the parent is made possible through such a role division model. (This is in contrast with role divisions in traditional schooling in which teachers and students have fundamentally different positions.)

A micro-analysis of initiatives and errors. A detailed micro-analysis based on a task-analysis of their interactional behaviour confirmed this role division model and pointed out that both parents and children would take initiatives for subtasks and that they performed relatively independently of each other. In other words, they both performed their own activities and coordinated with each other while being engaged in their own activities. This structure provided the opportunity for children to develop their own task strategy while, at the same time, being in close contact with an expert. Parents would tolerate such initiatives by children (without losing their authority towards the child and without withdrawing from the task) and would support the child when necessary (but without adopting the child's initiative into their own task strategy). This strategy seemed to contribute to a supportive but, at the same time, open learning environment in which the child was able to gain new knowledge and skills. With r espect to errors made by the child, a detailed analysis of errors made clear that the parents would not excuse the child when he or she made an error as if he/she was only learning. Children were held fully responsible for their errors (for instance, parents would be irritated when children made a mistake). However, errors made by the child were not seen as just involving the child but was related to the whole activity or the whole team (e.g., parents would state that the child was putting the task at risk). This meant that it was not necessarily the child who had to repair an error made by the child but that the parent could do this just as well. Furthermore, parents would take care to have the error "repaired" as quickly as possible to guarantee the continuity of the task. This approach to errors reflects a model of competence in which it is not so much the individual competence of the child that is the focus of attention, but rather her ability to function in a responsible way in a competent team. Competen ce is "fluid" and is resides more in the team than in individual performers.

In sum, their guidance model is based on a distributed cognition perspective in the sense that new skills are to be acquired through participating in ongoing cultural activities in a genuine and responsible way. Learning is not detached from cultural activities but is interwoven with or situated in those activities. Competencies are shared and interdependent or distributed between the participants. Children move through the different levels of competence, taking on ever more responsible roles. This fluency between competencies or the distributed character of competencies forms an important didactic principle, as it is a way through which children can augment their competence.

The results show that the notion of distributed cognition is given form in both their view on knowledge and in their model of guidance. The situatedness of the Mazahua view on knowledge and guidance clearly contrasts with most prototypical western school-inspired models of knowledge and guidance in which (the acquisition of) knowledge is a whole separate cultural and institutionalised domain. But before dealing with the question as to the extent to which such a guidance model could be used for innovative school learning programmes, let me present some examples of programmes or ideas that have already applied the notion of distributed cognition to argue for school reform or for a reformulation of our notions of learning.

Cognitive Apprenticeship Models and Distributed Cognition

Not all authors of the models discussed would necessarily claim the idea of distributed cognition as their main source of inspiration. However, all authors take similar stances when it comes to the situated or distributed nature of knowledge and learning. In addition, all models are in some way inspired by "authentic" apprenticeship situations in which relevant socio-cultural activities are the main source of learning. For practical purposes I will refer to them as cognitive apprenticeship models although not in all models or theories this term is applied.

As pointed out before, in the socio-cultural school the distributed nature of cognition is present in its focus on sociocultural artefacts. In educational models based on a socio-cultural approach one major issue of concern is how cultural support systems in which adults and children, experts and novices function, are, or can be constructed. The Zone of Proximal Development is a central concept in this respect as it focuses on that domain of action in which learners cannot function effectively as individuals but are able to with the support of more knowledgeable others. In educational practice this means that it is not just the individual learner who is considered relevant but also the nature of the interactions with other learners, teachers, and cultural tools (Cole & Engestrom, 1993). A cultural-historical educational model aims at creating an interactional system in which the activity systems of experts relate to those of novices in such a way that the former supports the latter. Many scholars have develo ped educational models that are partly inspired by these ideas. Wertsch (1985; 1998), who focuses on dyadic interaction, elaborated on these ideas explicating how responsibilities between experts and novices change as a consequence of their joint action, and thereby showing the social nature of learning processes.

Rogoff (1990; 1991), also staffing from an idea of the inseparable nature of the relationship between cognition and social context, used the metaphor of apprenticeship to argue that learning involves guided participation with more experienced others in culturally relevant activities. Guided participation in culturally relevant activities is considered essential, in contrast to other approaches that focus on didactic, school-inspired transmission of knowledge ideas. She stresses that it is relevant to consider the nature of the social participation of children, since not all joint problem-solving leads to learning. Shared thinking or shared problem-solving is one of the key processes that make learning (bridging, transfer of responsibilities, structuring) successful. Both observational, or peripheral and participational, or more central roles are relevant in this process and children's learning is a function of how their participation changes over time from more peripheral to more central roles.

Lave (1991; Lave & Wenger 1991) saw learning as a process that led to becoming a member of a community of practice. This means that, in her view, learning a skill cannot be viewed as separate from gaining a certain identity in a certain social practice. She therefore opposed a view in which learning is claimed to be effective when separated from engagement in social practice and stated that learning is inherently related to the social practice in which it takes place. This means that what is to be learned is an integral part of the forms in which it is learned. Understanding in practice is assumed to be more powerful than the pedagogic efforts of caregivers and teachers as defined by educational programmes. Making detailed recipes for teaching to produce a guaranteed learning result does not take into account the conditions of the "original" practice it is intended to refer to. Lave argued that school itself is a social practice in which specific contextually bound knowledge and skills are learned. She rejec ted the claim that school knowledge reaches beyond this context to the extent it is generally assumed. Designing curricula as specifications of practice should be replaced by designing arrangements for practice (1990).

Brown, Collins & Duguid (1989) (see also Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989) took a similar stance with respect to the situated nature of cognition, knowledge, and education when they claimed that acquired knowledge was a product of the activity in which it is learned. Learning is a process of enculturation, they claimed, and a lot of what students learn is inherently bound to the school culture in which they have learned those skills. Although they do not claim that all students can be expected to become professional mathematicians or historians, to learn those subjects they need more than abstract concepts of those practices.

"(Students)... need to be exposed to the use of a domain's conceptual tools in authentic activity, to teachers acting as practitioners and using these tools in wresting with problems of the world" (p.43). In their cognitive apprenticeship approach the focus is on the open-ended activity itself rather than on the teacher solving a preset problem. Students should learn to face the ill-defined nature of problems that apprenticeships face in authentic practice, rather than solve the well-defined exercises that are typical for traditional schooling. Collective problem-solving in which students learn to take on multiple roles is an important means for implementing this model in schools.

For Brown, Ash, Rutherford, Nakagawa, Gordon, and Campione (1993) the consequence of the situated nature of cognition meant that classrooms needed to be designed according to the principle that ways of knowing are deeply connected to the cultural artefacts of situations. In their cognitive apprenticeship model designed for school learning, the idea of a community of learners is central. The intention is to foster a community of learners in which both the teachers and the students acquire, use, and extend different domains of knowledge in an ongoing process of understanding. Through participating in the practices of scholarly research, students should be enculturated into the community of scholars during their school career. Schools should produce intelligent novices, students who know how to learn and acquire new knowledge. Students should be prepared to be inducted into the practitioner culture of their choosing, rather than being tied to the one to which they were initially indentured as in the case of tra ditional apprenticeships. The intention is to create a new kind of apprenticeship learned in school: a community of research practice in which all kinds of connections can be made with "authentic" practices. Teachers are role models of intentional learning and self-motivated scholarship, not owners of some domains of knowledge but also acquirers, users, and extenders of knowledge. The focus is not on how individual students can appropriate certain concepts but on how classrooms can be designed so that mutual appropriation takes place and expertise becomes distributed. The idea is to create a distributed network of expertise in which the differential level of expertise is taken advantage of. This means that not all participants need to have reached the same level of expertise or participate at the highest level and that students can take on different roles (teachers, editors, advisors, and mentors) depending on their expertise. By creating a supportive context, students learn to take on more responsible roles. Students are actively monitoring their own learning rather than passively consuming knowledge. The teacher is seen as first among equals for he/she has a clear instructional goal in the sense that he/she keeps the teaching goals in mind and directs the activity in that direction.

Taken as a whole, the notions of guidance as previously mentioned, all stress the importance of the participation in culturally relevant activities given the situated nature of cognition and learning. The distributed cognition perspective is clearly present in these models in the sense that they stress the importance of: (a) access to the relevant cultural activities and tools, (b) the authenticity of those activities, and (c) interaction structures in which the possibility of transfer of responsibilities or change of participation structures exists. The distributed character of cognition underlies these guidance principles as participation in social structures is seen as crucial for acquiring cognition. For instance, if cognition were to be seen as residing in the individual mind, individual learning and transfer activities as generalisation could be expected to be stressed. But how do these models relate to Mazahua learning practices with respect to the situated nature of both?


When we compare the guidance models, that is, the Mazahua shared competence model and the cognitive apprenticeship models with respect to how they relate to the idea of distributed cognition, both commonalties and differences can be observed. I will consider the cognitive apprenticeship models here as general (theoretical) models of how knowledge is to be acquired, taking into account that some have more general purposes and some aim at reforming school learning. I will take the Mazahua model as a specific theoretical account on how knowledge is to be acquired that was inferred from a nonwestern practice.


Both the Mazahua model and the cognitive apprenticeship models share a view of knowledge in which knowledge is closely related to the practice in which it is learned or employed. Learning certain social practices or "metiers" are or should, at some point, be connected to the original practice in which experts apply them. The idea of many cognitive apprenticeship models is that students should learn from experts being engaged in "authentic" problem-solving situations rather than being exposed to prestructured teacher-controlled and prethought procedures. This idea corresponds well with the principle in the Mazahua model where children learn through their responsible participation in relevant cultural activities (although the way this is achieved is fundamentally different in both models). Furthermore, in both cases the role of the learner is not one of a passive receiver of knowledge but of an active participant who is to be a part of a "net of expertise." The collective group learning Ann Brown talked of and in which it is not required that all learners have the same level of competence certainly has traits in common with the Mazahua model. In the Mazahua model it is not the individual competence of the child that is focused on but the fluidity between the different competencies in the team. It is about the ability to function in a competence team rather than about being able to expose individual skills and knowledge. In both cases, children or novices are supposed to learn through their involvement in collective problem-solving activities. The collective group learning and the focus on shared problem-solving in the cognitive apprenticeship models is similar to the collective approach of the Mazahua model in which no one is excluded and all participants are supposed to be involved at one level or another. In addition, the development from more marginal participation to more central participation in the Mazahua model relates to the idea of "learning through changing participation," a notion developed by Rogoff (1 990). The possibility of engaging in different roles (e.g., observational roles, roles that imply different levels of participation) is crucial in both the cognitive apprenticeship models and the Mazahua model.


Not surprisingly perhaps, differences between the Mazahua model and cognitive apprenticeship models applied to school learning become more salient as the practical application of these models to school practice becomes more concrete (Brown, Collins, & Duguid's models and Ann Brown's model). One important difference between the Mazahua model and the cognitive apprenticeship models designed for school learning is that in the Mazahua model, the original task structure remained intact and learning opportunities were shaped in such a way that the activity continues. Learning always takes place as a part of other cultural activities and never is fostered as an activity as such. This means that learners never learn from tasks that are not relevant for some other purpose and that they learn while being responsible for the activity they are involved in. Learning takes place through being responsible rather than being freed of that responsibility, as is the case in school contexts. Moreover, activities in cognitive ap prenticeship practices are designed for learning, and thereby lose their "authentic" state. Ann Brown partly solves this "problem" when she considered schooling a genuine academic practice in which students learn to become schoolers (writers, researcher, academics).

Another major difference between these cognitive apprenticeship models and the Mazahua model involves the role of the tutor or adult with respect to the tutee or child. In the Mazahua model both the parent and the child take on the same kind of role, that is, both are performers. Although there is a clear status difference between the parent and the child, both are involved in the same problem-solving situation in the same way. This situation is important to create the opportunity to identify with the parent as a means for learning. In the cognitive apprenticeship models the teacher is supposed to create opportunities for students to be involved in the teacher's "wrestling with problems of the world." However, teachers are still supposed to be supervisors who guard the learning goals and direct the activities with those goals in mind. The process of identification with the expert is thus of a fundamentally different nature in school settings compared with the process as conducted in the Mazahua model.

It can therefore be argued that the idea of the situatedness of learning does not mean the same thing in the cognitive apprenticeship models and in the Mazahua model. Although they share the basic principle of how learning should be accomplished (e.g., through active participation in culturally relevant activities), the comparison shows that the means through which this is accomplished differ considerably.


The comparison shows that although certain principles of guidance inspired by nonwestern and informal learning can be adopted in western teaching, they seem to undergo certain changes when applied in western classrooms. For instance, authenticity and "real" responsibility are difficult to recreate in an institutional setting as the institutional objective of school is to design and reconstruct learning experiences for students. One could say that the principles of guidance change as a consequence of the fact that they are adopted in a specific cultural context in which specific rules and practices, which are not easily replaced, have already been established. This is to be understood as one realises that broader cultural patterns and/or institutional rules underpin the micro-patterns of interactions. Models of guidance do not stand "themselves" but originate and develop in specific cultural historical and cultural settings, and do not maintain the same structure when they are "extracted" from that situation and applied to another. In other words, models of guidance are of a cultural nature. But what does this mean for the relevance of the distributed character of cognition and learning for reforming school learning?

First, let me state that I think that, analytically, cognition and the development of cognition is principally situational in the sense that (the acquisition of) cognitive skills depend(s) directly on the social means and socio-cultural practices in which they function. Taking a socio-cultural approach, I take cognition as the result of a constant interaction with (and (re) construction of) the socio-cultural tools (social and material) in which it develops. Additionally, I take guidance models, considered as more or less standardised procedures for the acquisition of skills or knowledge, as situated or culturally grounded (for a more extensive argument see De Haan, 1999). This means that different socio-cultural settings (can) create different procedures, models, or metaphors for guidance which, in a certain sense, pertain to the socio-cultural practices in which they were originally created.

With respect to the situatedness of models of guidance, this means that although principally all guidance is situated that is, in the sense that it is inherently dependent on the socio-cultural context in which it takes place, situatedness does not mean the same thing for all models of guidance. The previous analysis has shown that involvement in, or "being situated in," relevant cultural practices was not the same for a Mazahua learning situation as for school learning. Taking a wider perspective, one could say that in some cultures or societies, knowledge and guidance has a more distributed character than in others. By this I mean that the whole idea of guidance as transmitting particular selected domains of knowledge in a structured and institutionalised form is perhaps typical of specialized, hierarchical societies in which knowledge is not equally and collectively shared (Maier & Valsiner, 1996). This notion of guidance is less likely to be found in more unspecialised, egalitarian societies with no inte llectual elite, in which knowledge is more equally distributed (of which traditional Mazahua communities could be considered as an example). Therefore, the distributed or situated character of guidance in the sense that it is interwoven with other cultural practices and paths for learning are not "singled out" is perhaps related to certain types of societies and ways of distributing knowledge. Certain cultural norms on the nature of knowledge acquisition might also play a role since in certain societies, as in the hierarchical Phonpei society (Falgout, 1992), learning is not seen as collective engagement in cultural activities but as a means for personal growth and gaining status.

If we look at (the history of) schooling in western societies one could argue that this is precisely the context in which guidance as transmitting specialised knowledge and skills detached from practice has been fostered. I think we should not underestimate the impact of this detached, individualised guidance model on our notions of learning in general and on school learning in particular. To implement a cognitive apprenticeship model as a general metaphor of school learning, one will have to deal with a historical and deeply rooted tradition in the West in which reason has been seen as fundamentally separated from everyday social action (Walkerdine, 1997) and which corresponds with widespread commonsense beliefs on the nature of thinking (Chaildin, 1993).

At the same time, notions inferred from nonwestern apprenticeship situations such as developing possibilities for identification with experts, making students responsible for their own learning activities, the opportunity for involvement in multiple roles with increasing levels of responsibility, can be considered relevant aspects of powerful learning environments and of potential use in innovative teaching. However, one could ask whether apprenticeship situations should be seen as the principle source of inspiration for reforming school learning since in our postmodern society there is a wide variety of knowledge acquisition practices and norms on learning to inspire school learning.

Given the diversity and multiplicity of practices, institutions, and social groups an our postmodern society, an idea of cognition as distributed and situated is perhaps not the only relevant aspect that we need to take account of when developing our conception of learning. A concept of knowledge and learning should account for this diversity. It should also account for people's ability to learn in different learning situations or models of guidance (Rogoff & Toma, 1997 where they demonstrate that people do have this capacity). I would argue in favour of an awareness of cultural differences in learning models both in our theorising and in our design of curricula. Each learning model is a product of specific, historical teaching-learning practices (De Haan, 1999). The study of cultural differences and multiple learning practices helps us understand the assumptions of learning models and how they do or do not "fit" into certain cultural practices. Also, an historical analysis of the development of learning mod els contributes to this understanding. The question if apprenticeship learning is relevant for the innovation of school programs can only be answered when the culture-historical nature of learning is considered and taken into account in the development of educational programmes.


I would like to thank my colleagues from the department of communication for their comments on an earlier version of this article, in particular Jaap Bos and Geeske Hoogenboezem.


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Author:Haan, Mariette De
Publication:Journal of Interactive Learning Research
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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