Where We End And I Begin – A Question About Learning Sciences & Learning As A Social Event

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by marsmet543

(This is part of the work I am doing for my Masters course “Conceptualizing the Learning Sciences” at the University of Calgary as part of my Design Learning program. I am planning on posting my work here, as well as on the site that my course is based on. This may not interest anyone beyond me, but when it comes to reflections, I like to post mine on my blog regardless of whether they are simply for me, for my PLN, or for another purpose like my Masters coursework.)

We started this course with a reading from Knud Illeris’s book Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words which is a collection of writings from himself and 15 other authors. In the first chapter, which he writes, he spoke about how learning happens on two fronts:

…learning implies the integration of two very different processes, namely an external interaction process between the learner and his or her social, cultural or material environment, and an internal psychological process of elaboration and acquisition.

This represents a break from earlier behaviourist and cognitive theories that focused on learning as happening only inside the learner.

In an article we studied in the next set of readings, a similar message came from Sawyer (2009)

“Situated” means that knowledge is not just a static mental structure inside the learner’s head; instead, knowing is a process that involves the person, the tools and other people in the environment, and the activities in which the knowledge is being applied

As the week went on, we would learn more and more about theories that seemed to develop on the idea, and maybe even the magnitude and impact, of the outside world on learning. Whether it was the impact of our interactions on our learning or thinking (Kegan & Engestrom) or the impact of the context/situation in which we are learning (Lave & Wenger), the social component of learning was introduced more and more.

As this duality of spaces where learning occurs was investigated, I found myself thinking about a line, or barrier, where one set of processes stopped and the other started. Was the idea that my senses took everything in, and then once in, it was all about me? That made sense to me, seemed simple enough, learning is a process where I take in my environment, which includes my interactions, and then I process and organize it inside my head.

It is simple, and when I read more, my assumption was of course challenged and had to be reformed. In our project for this course I am working with two classmates on a way to change the instruction in a undergrad first year science class and we are reading a lot about ideas including cognitive apprenticeship and situated learning. In the same Sawyer paper (2009) that I read for class earlier in the week, these points came out as clearly useful for our project:

Factual and procedural knowledge is only useful when a person knows which situations to apply it in, and exactly how to modify it for each new situation.

When students gain a deeper conceptual understanding, they learn facts and procedures in a much more useful and profound way that transfers to real-world settings.

So it comes down to how the learning is organized, or conceptualized, for the learner. What started to emerge, or what I started to understand, was that a lot of our readings spoke to how “experts” aren’t necessarily so much better at recall of knowledge, but are far better at organizing and accessing the information, and making connections in a new learning situation. This quote from Bransford, Brown and Cocking’s book How People Learn illustrates the point well:

Experts’ knowledge is connected and organized around important concepts (e.g., Newton’s second law of motion); it is “conditionalized” to specify the contexts in which it is applicable; it supports understanding and transfer (to other contexts) rather than only the ability to remember.

So, how the information is organized is important, and by the sounds of it, far more important than just attending to it or remembering it. And in our last set of readings for the week from Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, which were on Communities of Practice mostly, a lot was said for the impact that these communities have on learning. This quote from Wenger’s chapter put it nicely:

My assumptions as to what matters about learning and as to the nature of knowledge, knowing, and knowers can be succinctly summarized as follows. I start with four premises: We are social beings. Far from being trivially true, this fact is a central aspect of learning. Knowledge is a matter of competence with respect to valued enterprises – such as singing in tune, discovering scientific facts, fixing machines, writing poetry, being convivial, growing up as a boy or a girl, and so forth. Knowing is a matter of participating in the pursuit of such enterprises, that is, of active engagement in the world. Meaning – our ability to experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful – is ultimately what learning is to produce.

But it was this line that has brought me to my big question:

Participating in a playground clique or in a work team, for instance, is both a kind of action and a form of belonging. Such participation shapes not only what we do, but also who we are and how we interpret what we do.

So if, as Sawyer says,

  • that we conceptualize the information more effectively when we know how to use the information in authentic situation,

and, as Wenger says,

  • our interactions effect how we interpret what we do,

and finally, from Bransford, Brown and Cocking,

  • that an expert’s real advantage in learning is how the knowledge is conceptualized

Then aren’t we seeing the outside world, our interactions with others, the models provided by authentic learning having an effect on how we conceptualize the knowledge in our heads? Isn’t what is outside shaping how we handle things on the inside? If that is the case then is there a line to separate the learning outside our heads and the learning going on inside our heads?

I’m glad I have another week to read, to listen and to hopefully gain a better understanding.


Illeris, K. (Ed.). (2008). Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…In Their Own Words. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge.

Sawyer, R. K. (2009).  Optimising learning: Implications of Learning Sciences research. Paris, FR: Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school (Expanded edition). Washington, DC: National Research Council.


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