A case study in situated cognition

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D. Scott Smith
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia

A Case Study in Situated Learning

Robert has just graduated from high school. Although it took him a year longer than most to finish school, he graduated with a decent average that will allow him to attend a community college in his area. Robert's academic successes have always been hindered by a bevy of life factors including: having to provide care for his younger sister and brother, holding down a 20 hour a week part-time job, the influence his peer group had on his commitment to academic work, and finally, the lack of value his parents placed on education. While this is not an exhaustive list, it is apparent that these primary factors have affected Robert's past academic performance. They are also good indicators that unless major changes are made to overcome these acculturated life factors, the traditional classroom education that he has been exposed to for 12+ years will continue to disappoint him in his pursuit of further learning.

Realizing that a high school diploma is just not enough to be competitive in today's job market, Robert trudged his way over to his local community college positive that he was destined for two to three more years of the same non-stimulating, materials-based, classroom learning that he just endured. To his surprise however, he discovered that the program which awaited him was much more than he expected.

At his community college on the first day of class, Robert didn't immediately notice any departures from the learning environments he was used to in high school. Robert was seated in a 25 person classroom in what appeared to be a work group configured classroom with 5 people in each group. From where Robert was seated, he was able to see the faces of all of the other students seated with him. There was ample work space both at the center of the work table and towards the outer edges to facilitate working with a partner or as a small group.

No lectern existed in the classroom and Robert wondered where the teacher would stand to deliver lectures. He also notice that no matter where the teacher stood, he or she would be lecturing to some poor student's back and he hoped that he would not have to continually strain to see the teacher.

The door to the classroom opened and in came four older adults, anyone of which could be the instructor. The students were not quite able to tell what was going to happen next.

The door closed, and one of the older adults introduced himself. The speaker introduced himself as Dr. Jim Wood, the student's Physics Instructor for the term. The other three instructors introduced themselves as well. Dr. Lynn Mack taught Math, Dr. Kit Adkins taught Business Communications, and Tim Peterson taught Chemistry.

Dr. Wood went on to explain that the educational setting they had grown used to was about to change. He announced that there would be no lectures in the coming months, a notion that seemed to please most of the students in the class. Dr. Wood explained that the students in this room comprised this term's cohort, and that this set of students would be taking all of their courses together. Additionally, he continued to explain that the four instructors had co-planed the instructional activities which had: 1) real world and real workplace foci, 2) authentic learning tasks using the tools and resources that they will find in the workplaces being simulated, and 3) a team-building and professional group communications emphasis which will help develop students into well-rounded employees that can adapt easily to new work environments.

Continuing, Dr. Wood explained that there would be very little (or no) direct teacher lead instruction. Rather, students would be asked to overcome and solve six global workplace problems that will bring into action, the skills that employers wanted from students that graduated from this community college.

He further explained that Robert, and all of the students, were now participants in a learning community. It would be up to them to get involved and work together as a team to solve problems and learn together, all the while doing so under the auspices of a real work environment.

After fielding a few questions, Dr. Wood passed out an introductory team building activity for the groups to consider. The activity was specifically designed to give the students a concrete experience that would set the stage for the rest of their learning in this program designed around situated cognition. (see Figure 1)

Robert, after completing his new program, benefited greatly from the situated cognition approach the community college took in offering their courses. He benefited by understanding how he might apply his current knowledge to tackle new problems. He was given the opportunity to learn in new and diverse situations and settings. He was also able to see the implications of his new knowledge. Finally, he was able to use his new and existing knowledge within a specific context which further developed his knowledge and skill base. The benefits Robert received through his experiences associated with the application of situated cognition theory within his learning environment have been described in detail in the research of A. Collins (1988).

Additionally, social interaction plays a critical role in situated learning environments. As students become accustomed to working within groups, they benefit from the familiarity the group provides over time. This enhances the students learning and provides Robert with an ideal foundation to take with him as he enters the workforce.

Figure 1. A non-linear, idiosyncratic process occurs as an individual learns in a situated cognition model. Real experiences help the individual learn advanced abstract concepts. The experiences might result in paths, which allow the individual to actively collect information to learn and become a member of the community of practice. Perhaps critical thinking and reflection may refine ideas or lead the individual to consider alternate possibilities. Each phase potentially leads to another and builds upon the former. In a situated cognition setting, learners should feel empowered to traverse these learning phases to garner new knowledge that ultimately leads to deep and thorough understanding. (This is the Experiential Learning Model described in this book.) By Frank LaBanca (2008).
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