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June 9-15: Theories of Situativity

Hi all,

a bit of a detour from previous topics:

Situativity theory: A perspective on how participants and the environment can interact:  AMEE Guide no. 52 (STEVEN J. DURNING & ANTHONY R. ARTINO, 2011). Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, USA

This is an introductory paper on Theories of Situativity, a series of theoretical frameworks focusing on the fact that knowledge, thinking, and learning, are situated in experience and happen through participation. Although this paper is contextualised in a clinical environment, it is a great introduction to the main theories in this category, namely: Situated Cognition, Situated Learning (depending on who you read, this is considered part of the former), Ecological Psychology, and Distributed Cognition. It also compares Situativity and Information Processing theory and discusses some implications for instructional design.

The main task for this week is discussion of the paper. We are also trying to meet synchronously to discuss the paper and other organisational matters for the group. Keep an eye on comments if you want to join in. 

Task Discussion

  • Stian Haklev   June 16, 2012, 8:06 p.m.

    Hey guys,

    I actually read this paper last week, but somehow I never got around to taking high-level notes, nor of posting in this group. I'm feeling a bit stretched, so I'll just post the thing that was churning around in my head as I was walking home from the subway (I read the paper on the subway) last week - I would like to check out some of the other links and points made in this conversation when I get some more headspace. 

    Basically the thing that kept frustrating me about this paper, and about a lot of papers I've read in education and learning sciences, is the lack of distinguishing between different kinds of learning and knowledge. Learning is a word that covers an incredibly diverse set of actions, Hoadley notes the following examples here :

    • learning as changed behavior
    • developmental changes
    • changed mental representations
    • changed social practices

    and he also notes that learning isn't always positive for education, for example he cites "learned helplessness", or even "learning from criminals in prison".

    But even just thinking about our own day-to-day lives, learning to drive a car, learning to build websites in Ruby, learning French, learning calculus, learning about the French revolution, learning to be a better sales manager through mentorship and experience, learning wilderness survival, learning to write academic articles - these are all very different things. I often see articles bombastically announce that "all learning is social", "learning can only happen in this way" etc, without discussing at all what kind of learning we are talking about, which doesn't make much sense to me. 

    The article is talking about medical students, and I can easily believe that much of what they learn needs to be very situated. However, if I am learning about the history of the Second World War, what would it mean for that knowledge to be "situated"? What would "transfer" mean? (That I am able to apply historiographical principles to other historical events, or come up with historical parallels etc?) 

    I would love to read articles were people are actually looking at the various requirements and properties of different subject areas and learning settings... One common challenge is that so much of the computer-supported collaborative learning research is about math and science for K12 students, which I think works quite differently to for example learning about history. (of course in this context, the discussions above about the role of memory etc are very interesting, it's something I'd love to get more into).

    I'm going to close here, but here's a short rant about this from en e-mail I sent to my supervisor - I'd love to do a  bit more thinking about this and develop it into something longer.


    I think there is something fundamentally different about the knowledge structure in fields like hard science, and humanities/social sciences... (this isn't a revolutionary insight, I know)... a lot of the literature in learning physics etc, and a lot of what we do, looks at "conceptual change", modifying people's internal models of the world, etc... When you finally understand how matter works, it's not very important to you where you read it, which sources you consulted etc... They are just guides - if you can figure it out yourself from first principles or experimentation - great! Whereas in sociology, you need to keep multiple models in your head at the same time. You need to understand that Max Weber had one way of explaining capitalist societies, and Adam Smith a second, and Marx a third. AND you need to understand how the three are related, and in what historical context those ideas surfaces... You need to keep all of this in your mind + a lot more, to be considered even a base-line "educated person"... I wonder if this difference is why I am so interested in systems that interact with source material (taking notes, highlighting, reorganizing notes, creating time lines and concept maps, organizing ideas etc)...



  • Jos   June 17, 2012, 7:12 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Stian Haklev   June 16, 2012, 8:06 p.m.


    Hey Stian,
    I see your point but I am not sure it is all that different. Your example of capitalist societies is very applicable to computer science. I can come up with two different algorithms, one recursive and one iterative. I need to understand the power and limitations of both versions and make an informed design decision to use one or the other. In fact, I need to take a lot more into account because someone else will have to maintain this piece of code in the future. The recursive algorithm might be easier to read for others, but might bring the computer to a halt if you feed too much data into it. In fact there is another consideration that would apply to certain languages only: a good compiler will translate your recursive code into an iterative algorithm. So to be considered an "educated person" in CS I need to keep all these models in mind when I'm designing a solution.
    It's the same with maths or matter; if no one challenges those 'conceptual changes' you talk about then there would be no innovation. And it is important to know where you learnt those theories from; it might not be important to pass a physics exam, but it definitely is important to understand the history of physics if you are going to be considered an "educated person" in the field.
    Also think about learning history through a video game like Civilization, or through physically enacting some historical event. It provides a contextualised experience that the participant will live in a different way to listening to someone preaching.
    Transferring and applicability are very similar here; it is not about learning facts to spit out in an exam, but how to synthetise the information you have (or how to look for information, so it's not all about memory either), in order to come up with an informed solution. The problem being 'similarities on how the two world wars started' or "which algorithm to use" is rather irrelevant.
  • Jessy Kate Schingler   June 17, 2012, 7:41 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Stian Haklev   June 16, 2012, 8:06 p.m.

    Hey guys, 

    Fascinating discussion i love it! :) i actually hven't read the paper yet, but lately i've been feeling similarly to stian. i've been asking myself what is the line between learning and just... being. I mean. When does something become learning? Especially in open learning. there isn't as much of a (artificially enforced) line desgnating the beginning and end of "learning."

    Of course, really it's a spectrum. There are degrees of learning. An activity is not JUST learning or JUST not-learning. It is not binary. And the way that learning emerges is also not just that some switch is flipped and you are or are not in learning mode. A spectrum in space, and in time. 

    So with respect to P2PU, is the goal (or should it be) to provide a place "for learning"? By designing our community around courses and study groups and challenges, are we drawing (and accidentially enforcing) artificial boundaries, reinforcing old notions of learning as a discrete activity, separate from Everything Else?  What does "a place for learning" even mean, when often we don't even know to what extent a given activity will involve learning or not!
    Going back to the notion of a "reflective practice" from Minds on Fire, perhaps a different way of looking at peer-based learning would be a space for reflection amongst peers, when and as learning does occur. A place where we are not trying to define and capture the structure of a learning activity, which happens everywhere and anywhere, but instead a place to get and give feedback, advice and perspective on whatever the learning activity is. What would that look like, what features would it have?
    I dont know if Philipp or Alison are reading this, but an example I keep coming back to in my mind is, why doesn't Philipp have a mustard makers group on p2pu? why doesn't alison have a coffee group? These are both activities that they have pursued, learning techniques and cultivating expertise. What would it look like to have a space online where those activities could naturally and organically translate to a reflective learning practice. Not to atificially introduce a bunch of overhead in the form of social interaction, but to provide real value-add for Philipp and Alison (and in turn others who want to be mustard makers and coffee brewers). 
    Thanks for the thought provoking ideas!
  • Stian Haklev   June 17, 2012, 12:34 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jessy Kate Schingler   June 17, 2012, 7:41 a.m.

    I think there is absolutely a space for concentrated team effort to learn a specific topic. I've picked up a bunch of ideas about Human-computer interaction through reading articles, thinking about design etc, but taking the HCI-class at Stanford has been really useful to clarify key concepts and approaches etc. And of course even this light-weight course - even as a PhD student I just don't sit around discussing theoretical papers with my friends very often :) 

    I think there are many interesting communities on the Internet for the kind of informal learning that you mention, things we might call community of practice (although I'm kind of tired of that term, since it's applied so uncritically and doesn't really tell us all that much in the end). StackOverflow is an obvious example, some of the subreddits on Reddit is another. For example, I've found /r/fitness to be quite an interesting community - of course there is a lot of humor, and you have to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, but there's also a lot of really good advice, peer-tutoring etc. For their community, the model of posting an entry, which is voted up or down, and having people comment, seems to work very well. It's also an example of learning by lurking - I've barely ever posted anything there myself, but still follow many of the discussions, and have learnt quite a lot. 

    Although I absolutely think P2PU should experiment with different approaches, I also don't think we can ever be everything to everyone, and it might be useful to focus on what we can do really well. Together with many other approaches, there is no doubt in my mind that structured courses can be really useful, and right now, there just isn't much competition out there for venues where people can run, or find, such courses. 


  • Stian Haklev   June 17, 2012, 12:39 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jos   June 17, 2012, 7:12 a.m.

    Hi Jos,

    thanks for pushing back on my idea. In my defence, much of the research on computer-supported collaborative learning etc happens in K12, especially primary and secondary school, and many of the articles that I have read specifically talk about learning as conceptual change, etc. I can absolutely see that as you become further entrenched in a subject at for example university level, the style of learning might become more similar. (Although I think there is still quite a large difference in how you are learning even at undergrad level - remembering my course in soil science as opposed to my course in social theory for example). At a doctoral level you need citations no matter what field you're in, but that's a pretty tiny sliver of human learning experience :)

    But I would love to see more work on this, fleshing it out - what is the knowledge structure that we are hoping an undergraduate in economics "acquire"? The skills, the ideas, the insights, the methods, the understanding, the "appreciation"... I'd love an approach that is more general than just being discipline-specific ("Learning in history", "Learning in mathematics"), but more specific than "all learning requires..."...

    If anyone have come across good papers on this, let me know!

  • Jennifer Claro   June 13, 2012, 5:11 p.m.

    I finished reading Young’s (2004) Ecological psychology of instructional design and found it very interesting. I think he did a much better job of explaining ecological psychology than the authors of our paper this week.

    The most useful parts of this theory for me are:

    1) Affordances: “Possibilities for action.” These are detected by the agent as it moves around its information field. The goal of the instructional designer is to highlight important distinctions and help students notice things in the environment that may aid in the learning task. This is what I am doing now with my 2nd year English students, who are now checking out English-learning websites with the goal of detecting the affordances within each website and choosing the most interesting and useful ones to point out to their peers.

    2) How affordances are used depends on the goals of the learner. If the learner has educational goals, the task is to design environments that help the learner to meet these goals. However, if the learner has less than-optimal goals (e.g. to get a good grade), the task is to first reorient the learner’s goals. This is very interesting and important. I read a good blog post recently titled “Are students really unteachable?”  in which the class teacher, on the first day of class, takes great care to first ensure that students understand WHY they are taking his class and how what they learn in his class may have to offer them in the future. In other words, he first tried to ensure that students have learning-oriented goals when the class begins. So I like ecopsych’s emphasis on aligning student goals with instructional goals.

    3) I also like the focus of motivation as “an ongoing momentary personal assessment of the match between the adopted goals for this occasion and the affordances of the environment”. In other words, you can increase students’ motivation by providing them with an environment that helps them progress towards filling their goals. I see motivation as having more than just this temporary aspect, there are more- and less-motivated students in general. But I agree that motivation increases and decreases as temporary goals are or aren’t being met.

    I also liked Young’s reinterpretation of Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. “Flow could be thought of as the ultimate level of motivation as ecologically defined, an ideal match of goals and affordances with clear and continuous opportunities for feedback.” This is part of what Csikszentmihalyi said himself, but it places an interesting emphasis on the environment and its affordances, and how they help an agent to achieve goals. Cool.

    So I have a new appreciation for ecological psychology. The main drawback, for me, is the insistence that memory is not involved with learning as much as perception is. I disagree, I think memory and learners’ prior experiences have an integral part to play in any learning activity, and it will take a lot of evidence to convince me otherwise. But as a practical kind of working theory on the importance of the learning environment, ecopsych works. Thanks to Jos for introducing me to this.

  • Jos   June 15, 2012, 6:17 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Jennifer Claro   June 13, 2012, 5:11 p.m.


    Hey Jennifer, great to hear you enjoyed it.
    It sure is a better reference but keep in mind that you are comparing a full paper to a small introductory section in another one. But anyway, regarding memory, I'm a bit in two minds about it. I think memory plays a bigger role when the student is going for grades as opposed to having learning goals, and in any case, memory can only get you that far, as you cannot really just plainly memorise everything. It's a great way to get you started, or a bit of a head start, but we need more than that to get things done, and that's when the environment can help.
    I need to read that blog post you link to, sounds really interesting.
    PS: isn't it great when you read something in a paper that you have been doing for a while without knowing it has a name or anything!!!? :D
  • Thieme Hennis   June 15, 2012, 8:15 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Jennifer Claro   June 13, 2012, 5:11 p.m.

    hi Jennifer, thanks for sharing this. I wonder how the authors define 'affordances'. Could you explain that?

    I recognize the fact that it is crucial to let students understand the relevance of a course or at least the reasoning behind it, and that if their learning goals (in my case; motivation) is not at a level that is adequate for a good learning experience, that needs to be solved first. We have built in an inspiration process in the beginning of the (autonomous, self-guided) learning activity we try to promote. The students then assemble interesting artifacts, pictures, videos, or anything that relates to them and make a nice blog, collage, or pinterest from it. We show TED talks and other stuff to increase the motivation before starting the process (which is difficult and sometimes disappointing). Maintaining motivation is also very important as well as understanding the social structure of the class (how they influence each other).

  • Jennifer Claro   June 15, 2012, 4:15 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Thieme Hennis   June 15, 2012, 8:15 a.m.

    Hi Thieme,

    In Young (2004), we read that Gibson (1986) coined the term “affordances,” stating, “the affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill”. So affordances are things in the environment that have some kind of use for the animal, or agent. Like when you go to a new website and try to find out "what can I do here, what's this button for?"

    Autonomous, self-guided learning is something that has come up in our discussions before, and I know that several of us are interested in finding some good articles on it. I hope that we can discuss this topic in the coming weeks. Motivation is another good topic.

    So, who is making a task for us this week? Stian, would you like to make a task on the article you mentioned before (below) or choose an article on self-guided learning?

    Hoadley, C. M., & Kilner, P. G. (2005). Using technology to transform communities of practice into knowledge-building communities. ACM SIGGROUP Bulletin, 25(1), 31–40. ACM.

    This is a problem we'll face from time to time, that our self-organization process is a bit chaotic. Maybe we shoud decide articles a week or two ahead of time so that there is no rush at the end of the week?

  • Jennifer Claro   June 11, 2012, 2:46 a.m.

    I'm going to read this paper in an attempt to understand ecological psychology better.

    Young, M. (2004). An ecological psychology of instructional design: Learning and thinking by perceiving-acting systems.

  • Jessy Kate Schingler   June 10, 2012, 8:16 p.m.

    hey guys, 

    jFYI i will be traveling a lot of this week so might have a hard time finding time to post but have downloaded the paper for the airplane tomorrow and will see how far i get! :) thanks jennifer for the motivating summary :)


  • Jennifer Claro   June 10, 2012, 10:26 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jessy Kate Schingler   June 10, 2012, 8:16 p.m.

    Hi Jessy,

    Bon voyage! Have a great trip! Please try to post some highlights in here if you get time, so we can participate vicariously... smiley


  • Jennifer Claro   June 10, 2012, 8:10 p.m.

    Just a short note to get things started. Here's a quote from the abstract:

    "Some implications of situativity theory include: a new way of approaching knowledge and how experience and the environment impact knowledge, thinking, and learning; recognizing that the situativity framework can be a useful tool to ‘‘diagnose’’ the teaching or clinical event; the notion that increasing individual responsibility and participation in a community (i.e., increasing ‘‘belonging’’) is essential to learning; understanding that the teaching and clinical environment can be complex (i.e., non-linear and multi-level); recognizing that explicit attention to how participants in a group interact with each other (not only with the teacher) and how the associated learning artifacts, such as computers, can meaningfully impact learning."

    These seem to be their main points, and I agree with all of them. In general, I agree with the authors that situativity theory has a lot to offer educators (and their students) and that educators would benefit from familiarity with situativity theory and practice. But I disagree with some things they say and examples they make (see comments in the Crocdoc) and I do not see an explicit need for ecological psychology. For the authors, ecopsych seems to fill some kind of void left unfilled by sit cog and dist cog. I see no such void and don't see what ecopsych adds. (Please tell me if you do.)

    As well, I don't know why they choose information processing theory to contrast with situativity theory. On p. 188, they write, "the typical medical educator is familiar with (and often embraces) information processing theory" but there is no reference for this, no examples, no explanation even. I doubt that many (any?) medical educators would think of themselves as following information processing theory in their methodology. It is not a theory that has a connection with education these days (and hasn't for decades, at least) so why focus on it? They also seem to confuse information processing theory with cognitivism, which doesn't help.

    So for me it's good in its general premise of promoting situativity within educational contexts, but their case is weakened by too much focus on ecopsych and information processing theory. Why not compare situativity with cognitivism? That would be far more interesting, for me.

    Oops, not so short after all. Looking forward to hearing your comments,


  • Jos   June 11, 2012, 9:59 a.m.
    In Reply To:   Jennifer Claro   June 10, 2012, 8:10 p.m.


    Hey Jennifer,
    we disagree again! :D hahaha, only messing.
    I am a big fan of ecopsych and I think this also relates to our different views on encouraging participation last week. That 'inexistent' void you are talking about, I see it as an instructional design opportunity. I consider any community an organic and unplanned chaos; any attempts to measure, guide, encourage participation, and so on might work, but only might. We don't really know how it works or why it works. You can guess or infer from larger studies but it's only an indication. There is no formulae to deal with humans. 
    I see the role of facilitating (or leading) as a goal towards making discovery (perceiving) easier for learners. This can be controversial but I do not see a responsibility in that role. To me, learners are always responsible for their own learning (especially in adult education). And I think that P2PU (sorry for bringing it up again!) is a very good example of mixing affordances theory and discovery to create an environment that makes easier for the learner to discover learning opportunities. Think of this group for instance. We reuse existing papers, packed in tasks for others to consume, and through participation we create more content, also ready for others to discover. It's like a little handle into all that chaos that allows a facilitator to make an already existing opportunity for learning more visible (discoverable). After all, the paper already existed, it is not that the facilitator is creating the base content.
    I haven't read the paper in a while, and I agree with you that some parts are too generalised and weaker and will not go into defending it (no point on doing that). And I have just discovered another tool, that crocodoc thing is awesome! Will have to go back through your comments there (and start using it!).
  • Jennifer Claro   June 15, 2012, 4:32 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jos   June 11, 2012, 9:59 a.m.

    Hi Jos,

    You wrote, “Learners are always responsible for their own learning, especially in adult ed.” Yes, I agree. The problem, as I see it, is that we learn in school in ways that are not conducive to building responsibility for one’s own learning. You learn what you have to learn to pass the test, then forget it (well, you might retain some of it). With standardized testing it gets even worse, as learning activities may focus on the information a student needs to know for the test, rather than on any actual integration of new and intriguing ideas into an already inquisitive mind. Passive vs. active learning, external vs. internal motivation, these are big problems in schooling.

    How can we expect adults to be lifelong, autonomous learners when the whole schooling process is so demotivating and unnatural? (At least, it was for me.) Thieme’s post also highlights some of the problems that students face in learning autonomously. I’m really interested in this topic. Anyone else? 

  • Jessy Kate Schingler   June 10, 2012, 11:28 a.m.

    hi guys,

    i also added the paper to the mendeley group:

  • Jos   June 10, 2012, 1:59 p.m.
    In Reply To:   Jessy Kate Schingler   June 10, 2012, 11:28 a.m.

    Just joined the group and downloaded the app... will have to figure out how to use it now! :)