Thursday, April 23, 2015


I like to think that I have a pretty good working knowledge of the main learning theories - behaviorism, cognitivism, situativity - but it's always good to get a little refresher on them. James Greeno's excellent synthesis of the situative research perspective in the Cambridge Handbook of Learning Sciences made me think about my classroom environment and how students might be interacting within it.

My big take away from Greeno's piece was that "[s]ituativity is a general scientific perspective and as such does not say what educational practices should be adopted". I thought that Greeno was implying throughout the piece that you cannot create a situative classroom or situative learning environment. Rather, situativity is an analytical framework that researchers in the learning sciences can use to try to understand how people interact and learn within some kind of system. That system could be a classroom or a school, but it does not have to be either of those.* 

However, since I work in a school and teach classes in that school, I started to wonder about how my classroom environment, or any classroom environment, could be analyzed or examined through a situative lens. It seems to me that the classroom is a kind of activity system and that what students learn about content of the class is intricately linked to the learning environment. How students interact with mathematical concepts, with each other, with the teacher in my classroom might be is almost certainly different than how students are expected to to behave in other classrooms. Can differences in the classroom system explain or account for differences in student achievement? I think Greeno might say yes. 

Furthermore, classroom activity systems exist within the larger school activity systems. What happens when a single classroom system rejects the prevailing norms of the larger school system? Is that a sustainable situation for the teacher and the students? What will students learn about the content of the class? Will students be able to participate within the systems authentically? I guess I'm thinking about how many teachers design their instruction in such a way that students are positioned as passive recipients of knowledge where other teachers expect students to actively make sense of the subject matter. Do students find it difficult to switch between these environments?

A situative analysis could also helpful in framing the short article on the Scratch programming language. The activity system has been constructed in such a way that participants can interact with the language individually or they can make their creations public to garner feedback from a wider audience. The threefold goals of tinkerability, meaningfulness, and social interaction can be viewed as providing learners opportunities to engage in authentic problem solving and inquiry in much the same way that professionals do. Even if programming is not a career goal, making sense of problems and persevering in solving them is a goal most educators can support.

As an aside, I believe strongly that we teach much too much computation in high school mathematics classes. We expect students to be able to do algebra that a computer can do much better. As such, we never get to the analysis and problem solving that (it seems) everyone values more than mathematical facts. Programming has felt to me (for a long time) like a nearly perfect way to incorporate critical thinking and problem solving into math class. The real mathematics is in developing the algorithm to solve a family of problem not from executing the algorithm flawlessly on a contrived assessment. I'm not sure that I can get enough student buy-in but I want to try. 

*Greeno passingly referred to Lave and Wenger's work. They studied some apprentice-like situations (butchering, midwifery) and posited the existence of a construct they called "legitimate peripheral participation". This means that novices to a system perform roles that are outside the core practices of the system but are necessary for the system to run effectively. The novices gradually take on more responsibility as they become full members of the activity. 

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