Situated Cognition: Theory & Definition

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the theory of situated cognition, which is an approach to learning that emphasizes the importance of the social and cultural context in which learning occurs.

Situated Cognition

How do we learn things? This is a big question, and one that cognitive and educational psychologists spend a lot of time trying to unpack. In this lesson, we'll talk about one approach to learning known as situated cognition. This theory suggests that knowledge cannot be separated from the context or situation in which it was acquired. What we mean here by situated is that learning is connected to a culture, place, activity, or social situation. In other words, learning doesn't happen in isolation from other people or our environment. We learn in and from specific places and interactions.

In a very highly cited journal article, the psychologists John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid propose that for education to be as effective as possible, we need to take into consideration the broader context and culture where knowledge is formed. School is, of course, a crucial institution for learning, but often the learning that takes place here is very abstract. To help students use and fully synthesize new knowledge, we need to situate the learning process in everyday life.

We need to practice what we learn in school out in the real world
school; bus; students

If we fail to do this, then we aren't educating students in a way that allows them to use knowledge. Instead, students are just storing the things they learn, often forgetting.The authors use a metaphor that suggests knowledge is a lot like a tool. When we acquire new tools, they can help shape our worldview. But, if we don't know how to use the tool, it doesn't matter. Let's say you're taught a complicated formula to solve equations. This equation is like a tool. This could be a very useful tool but if you don't understand how to plug in numbers into this equation to get an answer it won't be. But, if you practice with it and learn from someone who already knows how to use this tool, it will eventually become useful.

Here's another way to put it: When we gain knowledge and use it frequently, we will be better at using it. Sort of like practice makes perfect.

The key to this idea is the importance of the viewpoint of a community for learning. Different people and communities have different ideas about how the world works. When we situate ourselves in different communities, we learn how they use knowledge, and this enriches our understanding of the world.

Remember the adage, street smarts versus book smarts? Situated cognition is referring to street smarts, in a way. This is the kind of knowledge that we gain by being in a particular situation, and it's different than what we learn via formal education. Let's talk a little bit more about what this theory looks like in action.

Cognitive Apprenticeship

Say you're trying to learn French. You have checked out some language books from your local library, and you have made some vocabulary flashcards to memorize. You'll learn some French. But according to the theory of situated cognition, you'll probably learn more if you go to France or if you hire a tutor who is a native French speaker to help you learn. In both of these situations, you'll be totally immersed in the language and able to learn far more.

An idea known as cognitive apprenticeship is important to situated cognition. Think of this as a kind of social interaction between someone who is an expert at something and a person who is trying to learn something for the first time.

So, when you work with a native French speaker, think of yourself as her apprentice. She is helping you learn in a much more authentic way than if you simply read a textbook. This kind of authentic learning is key to situated cognition as it takes into consideration our everyday lives, often a more natural learning environment than the classroom. Authentic learning values a multitude of approaches to gaining knowledge rather than simply an approved or standardized approach.

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