Three Contexts Methodology: Strategies to Bring Reality to the Classroom

Three Contexts Methodology: Strategies to Bring Reality to the Classroom

Antonio Santos
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-782-9.ch004
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The main objective of this manuscript is to propose a methodology called the Three Contexts Methodology based in the situated learning paradigm. It attempts to integrate three contexts related to the process of learning: 1) the context of the community of professional practice that created the content; 2) the school classroom; and 3) the context in which what is learned is going to be applied. Through this the 3CM strives to improve learning transfer and the integration of technology. To give a theoretical base to the 3CM, first an analysis of how human cognition is naturally intertwined with our social activity is done and how, in this way, professional communities of practice are generated. Then, these ideas are contrasted with the type of cognition that the traditional school promotes and some learning problems are identified. Using these antecedents as a base, the Three Contexts Methodology is described and finally, a set of results are described and analyzed when this methodology was applied to a group of students from a local junior high school.
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Given our intellectual ability to reflect on how we think, as human beings we have been asking ourselves about the nature of knowledge and we have come to answers that have produced multiple and different postures. From the rationalists and empiric postures of Plato and his disciple Aristotle to the current discussion related to consider human cognition as an individual phenomenon of processing information or as something social and integrated with the context where it occurs. In fact, Ceci, Rosenblum and DeBruyn (1999) establish that the study of human cognition can be reduced to two paradigms whether we consider or not the context in which things happen.

This categorization of the human cognitive phenomenon, that is to say, individual or social, makes use of two different units of analysis to study it. On the one hand, is the approach that takes only the cognitive processes of the individual as a unit of analysis, and on the other, the approach that also includes historical, cultural, and contextual factors. A lot of the scientific work of cognitive psychology may be categorized in the first approach; that is to say, with every intension, and to simplify their work, the scientists working in this field of knowledge leave out of their analysis the emotional and cultural factors (Gardner, 1987). In contrast, the second approach establishes a larger unit of analysis to explain human cognition, because it also includes the social and objective context in which cognition occurs, and in fact, assumes that it is this same context that explains it (Baquero, 2002). Driscoll (2000) expresses it as a change of approach from the individual to the socio-cultural and to the activities of people and Baquero (2002) expresses it as a displacement of the focus toward the situation where people carry out their activities. This change of analysis unit has given rise to the paradigm that establishes that cognition is contextual and culturally situated.

In order to understand this paradigm of situated cognition better and to analyze its pedagogical implications, it is relevant to relate it to the constructivists’ concepts of human learning. As we know, various types of constructivism exist. McGregor (2007) speaks of three; the individual constructivism of Piaget, social constructivism represented by the socio-constructivist position of Vygotsky, and socio-cultural-constructivism that went beyond the ideas of the Russian author. The author, analyzing the pedagogical aspects of the three types, establishes that: 1) teaching with the constructivism of Piaget basically directs the students to develop their own meanings (schemas) in an individual way; 2) teaching with Vygotskyian socio-constructivism directs the students to build knowledge through social interaction and by means of a process of negotiation between expert and novice in the zone of proximal development; and 3) teaching with socio-cultural constructivism directs the students to build knowledge by interacting in real communities in such a way that at the beginning they are considered legitimate peripheral participants (Lave & Wenger, 1991) and little by little, interacting with other more expert members, as full participants of that community. According to this categorization, we can say that the paradigm of situated cognition belongs above all to the third type, that is to say, to socio-cultural constructivism.

In education, the perspective of socio-cultural-constructivism has produced very innovative conceptions related to learning such as situated learning, legitimate peripheral participation, and the student as apprentice (Hendricks, cited in Díaz Barriga, 2003). In situated learning, the knowledge construction process during an educational experience is intricately related to the context of practice where it takes place. For this reason, according to this approach, models have been proposed like the Atelier Model of Learning by John Seely Brown (2006), in which it models the type of learning that occurs in workshops of artists and architects, where a group of apprentices develop tasks to become experts under the strict supervision and guidance of a teacher.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Situated Learning: The paradigm of situated cognition has a socio-constructivist perspective; it claims that the knowledge construction process is intricately related to the context of practice where it takes place. This theory shifts the emphasis from the individual to the socio-cultural (Driscoll, 2000) and, in this sense; it allows us to conceptualize the teaching and learning process as a complex system of human activity. For this paradigm, learning is understood as participation in a community of practice; thus, used as the base for instructional design, it promotes the creation of complete dynamic learning environments where students are changed through engaging in complex social relations.

Contextual Indices of Use: When people gather together to solve problems they apply information that was produced by other communities of practice when they solved similar problems. During this problem solving process people add their own contextual indices, and thus their end knowledge includes original contextual indices of the other communities and their own contextual indices of use. Therefore, according to the situated learning paradigm, when a group of students in a classroom at an educational institution enters in contact with content, they should be given the opportunity to on the one hand learn the original contextual indices, but also apply that content to their own contexts to add their own contextual indices of use. In this way their built knowledge is not inert and the transfer of learning is promoted.

Shared Cognition: This is the term used to refer to group cognition. For some researchers group cognition is different from individual cognition (Hutchins, 1999) and, thus, the knowledge built during shared cognition is only possible because of the human interaction. If the same activity is lived alone, the end knowledge would be different. For Resnick, Levine and Teasley (1991) this social shared cognition is merged into the activities performed by a community of practice. This perspective of shared cognition gives an innovative base to the study of collaborative learning in the classroom because collaborative learning can be conceptualized as a cognitive ability.

Activity Theory: The theory of activity was proposed by Aleksey Leontiev, disciple and colleague of Lev. S Vygotsky. In this theory human activity is used as the unit of analysis. It basically presents a socio-cultural and socio-historical framework to comprehend complex human systems. Its aim is to analyze human beings and their social systems in their natural habitats through the study of their activities (Kaptelinin and Nardi, 2006). Human activity is here understood as a triangular relation between a subject, the object of its activity and the mediating tools, physical or psychological, employed to do the activity. This perspective gives an entirely different view to the use of technology in the learning process because here technology is not conceptualized as a mere optional object, but rather relates a subject with his end purpose.

Contextual Index: A contextual index is a contruct with which to identify those elements that exist in our knowledge that are linked to the contexts where that knowledge was built. This knowledge is intricately related to the characteristics of a particular situation where a type of activity is performed. Thus, contextual indices built in a certain situation would be different if built in another situation. This is not a quantitative concept, but rather an abstract concept to identify the presence of the context in learning. Contextual indices are classified in two categories: original contextual indices and contextual indices of use.

Original Contextual Indices: When a given community of practice engages in certain types of problem solving activities, it also makes an effort to produce information to document how they, as a group, solve problems and what tools they use. This information also includes contextual indices that are linked to the situations where that community did their professional activities. When other people come in contact with that information, they also learn part of the original contextual indices of the community of practice that produced it; and, in this way, they are enculturated by adopting part of the culture of that community.

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