Edev_502 wk8

The focus this week moved over to the social aspects of learning. The traditional view that learning occurs in the mind of an individual only has been fundamentally challenged by social learning theories that posit that the environment not only helps shape internal learning but that learning can be a dialogue with the environment. Vygotsky’s example of memories being located in cards questions the internalist position of cognition. I found this week to be a pivotal one in my own development in understanding the processes involved in learning theories.

This essay discusses the question: What influence does the environment play in the creation of knowledge? in approaching the topic question prompt: “Is learning best done in collaboration?”

Collaboration here requires clarification. Its Latin root is cum+labore, i.e. with and to work. The focus is on the working with no specifications about the target of the work. This compares with co-operation, which derives from cum+opus, i.e. with and work. Here the focus is on the object of the work, i.e. its target. Springer, Stanne, and Donovan (1999) reinforce this distinction in their study on STEM. Collaboration, they maintain, is open-ended, process focussed and more able to “produce socially constructed knowledge in small groups” (p. 24) than is product-oriented co-operation.

This distinction is crucial as it speaks to the purpose of natural communication. Mercier and Sperber (2011) argue from the evolutionary psychological perspective that the biological function of reason “is best understood within the framework of the evolution of human communication” (p. 60). The dominant mode of group reasoning aims to uncover truth, which has clear evolutionary advantages, and according to Sperber and colleagues (2010), humans’ ability in epistemic vigilance, i.e. judging truth, is highly developed in everyday communication. This is important because it contains negative implications about artificially imposed learning environments, top down beliefs of knowledge transmission and the difficulty of contextualising knowledge and meaning creation outside of collaborative settings. In other words, the decontextualising of education (Sperber/ Pollack, 2015) inhibits humans’ ability to utilise natural cognitive structures when attempting to generate higher cognitive abilities.

Vytgosky’s title is illuminating: Mind in society (1978, emphasis added). Humans are social creatures our cognitive structures derive from our environment. Three elements of personal (i.e. cognitive), the environment and the behaviour of the individual form a “triadic reciprocal causation” (Bandura, 1989, p. 23) whose interplay psychosocially shapes us. External pressures influence cognitive development, and ecologically affective factors are paramount, as evidenced in the naturalistic legitimate peripheral participative and community of practice theories of Lave and Wenger (1991) and supported by studies in education (e.g. Alt, 2015; Jaleel & Verghis, 2015; Stacey, 1999).

Social constructivism occupies a dominant position in educational theory. The prevailing narrative recognises the challenge between old-world positivist views of knowledge and modern “self-generated networks of fluid meaning” (Kop & Bouchard, 2011, p. 61). Accordingly, constructivist theories are being utilised to parallel internal cognitivist processes with external knowledge creation systems (Ryberg & Larsen, 2008). However, any serious attempt at promoting collaborative social constructivist methodologies in a structured learning environment must answer Kirschner, Sweller and Clarke’s (2006) criticism of minimally guided models of instruction. They point to a half-century of empirical research that shows that unguided instruction is “less effective” than directed instruction and “that it may have negative results” (p. 84). Their argument rests on the role of  memory in human cognitive architecture and centres on excessive pressures on cognitive load because learners “lack proper schemas to integrate the new information with their prior knowledge” (p. 80). Medical education that utilises problem based learning returns learners with weaker exam scores, more hours of study and no better residency placements (Kirschner et al., 2006).  Furthermore, cognitive schema building is impaired, and weaknesses continue after graduation (ibid.). Constructivist learning, they contend, is founded on a categorical error: confusing epistemology with pedagogy. Having learners mimic their future occupation’s actions and experts’ thought processes should not be prioritised over the acquisition of discrete knowledge required in that profession.

In this view, collaboration does not compete with declarative knowledge creation. Cognitive load issues inhibit dual processing so collaborative activities are utilised to promote integrated skills after declarative knowledge is obtained. (However, see Vogel-Walcutt, Gebrim, Bowers, Carper, & Nicholson, 2011 who demonstrate that integrated knowledge is better retained following guided instruction). Collaboration, therefore, is seen as a technique not as a methodology.


Alt, D. (2015). Assessing the contribution of a constructivist learning environment to academic self-efficacy in higher education. Learning Environments Research, 18(1), 47–67. http://doi.org/10.1007/s10984-015-9174-5

Bandura, A. (1989). Social cognitive theory. Annal of Child Development, 6(Six theories of child development), 1–60.

Jaleel, S., & Verghis, A. M. (2015). Knowledge Creation in Constructivist Learning. Universal Journal of Educational Research, 3(1), 8–12. http://doi.org/10.13189/ujer.2015.030102

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching. Educational Psychologist.

Kop, R., & Bouchard, P. (2011). The Role of Adult Educators in the Age of Social Media. In M. Thomas (Ed.), Digital education: Opportunities for social collaboration (pp. 61–80). London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Learning in doing (Vol. 95). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2011). Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 34(2), 57–74.

Pollak, B. (2015). [Audio podcast]. RS141: Dan Sperber on “The Argumentative Theory of reason”. Retrieved Aug 28 2015 from http://rationallyspeakingpodcast.org/

Ryberg, T., & Larsen, M. C. (2008). Networked identities: Understanding relationships between strong and weak ties in networked environments. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 24(2), 103–115. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2729.2007.00272.x

Sperber, D., Clement, F., Heintz, C., Mascaro, O., Mercier, H., Origgi, G., & Wilson, D. (2010). Epistemic Vigilance. Mind and Language, 25(4), 359–393.

Springer, L., Stanne, M. E., & Donovan, S. S. (1999). Effects of Small-Group Learning on Undergraduates in Science, Mathematics, Engineering, and Technology: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69(1), 21–51.

Stacey, E. (1999). Collaborative learning in an online environment. Canadian Journal of Distance Education, 14(2), 14–43.

Vogel-Walcutt, J. J., Gebrim, J. B., Bowers, C., Carper, T. M., & Nicholson, D. (2011). Cognitive load theory vs. constructivist approaches: Which best leads to efficient, deep learning? Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(2), 133–145. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00381.x

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA, USA: Harvard University Press.

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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