How to tell the real thing

Distributed Cognitions - Cognitive Psychology In and Out of the Laboratory
May 19, 1995

Kathleen M. Galotti has produced a textbook aiming to relate such topics as perception, memory, knowledge representation and reasoning to aspects of everyday experience. The author places particular emphasis on developmental psychology, cross-cultural studies and individual differences.

The first section is an overview with a historical survey and brief sketch of current methods and paradigms in cognitive psychology. This is followed by a section on the core topics of perception, attention and memory. The third section is a group of chapters on knowledge representation including concepts and visual imagery. The fourth concentrates on language and the use and manipulation of information including chapters on language, thought, reasoning and decision-making. The final part of the book covers cognitive development, individual differences, gender differences, cross-cultural cognition and everyday situated cognition. It is this section that comprises the "out of the laboratory" part of the title.

These chapters integrate some of the data discussed earlier in the book with aspects of "real life''. The suggestions for further reading that follow each chapter are particularly useful because the chapters tend to be wide ranging but relatively brief and Galotti expresses a preference for selectivity coupled with further reading rather than comprehensiveness.

The book is clearly introductory in nature though the author recommends that it be used after a general introduction to psychology. The chapters provide clear, wide ranging accounts of the phenomena of cognitive psychology without giving much theoretical context. This is certainly a good idea for the first part of an introductory text as long as it is supplemented later on with a description of how theoretical frameworks view the data in different ways. Apart from her chapters on individual differences and cross-cultural psychology, Galotti does not include much theoretical integration. I particularly missed any serious account of computational modelling, neural networks and cognitive neuropsychology. These can be difficult topics but are of such crucial importance in modern cognitive psychology that they deserve discussion at greater length, even in an introductory text book. The inclusion of some pictures from functional brain imaging studies, the new techniques that allow visualisation of which parts of the brain are active during particular tasks, would have also added interest.

Despite these criticisms, the book is thorough and clear with usefully wide coverage of the main areas of the field. It is a good introduction of the phenomena that cognitive psychology deals with but it would need to be followed up with treatments of how modern psychological theories and models account for these data.

A somewhat different view of cognition is given in Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations, edited by Gavriel Salomon of Haifa University, Israel, and part of a series on situated learning published by Cambridge University Press. The book's use of the term "distributed'' has nothing to do with neural networks or parallel processing. Here it means that cognition resides as much in the interaction between people and between people and artifacts as in one person's head. The challenge to laboratory-based cognitive psychology is that thinking in the real world is embedded in social interaction in a cultural context and so explanations of cognition need to take this distributed nature into account.

These ideas are relatively uncontroversial. Psychologists of language would readily agree that good communication requires implicit assumptions of what the other person knows about language and the world. The study of cognition distributed between people and "cultural artifacts'' is an area of active research in such domains as reading, human-computer interaction or computer aided instruction. The contributors have a variety of opinions on the precise status of distributed cognition in relation to individual cognition. The book's examples of the application of distributed cognitive theory are often classroom teaching situations. The authors stress the importance of social interactions and technology such as computers in educational contexts. The themes in the first chapter give a good idea of the flavour of the collection as a whole, combining a historical survey, theoretical discussion from a somewhat radical viewpoint and case studies. Michael Cole and Yrjo Engestrom survey some of the past work by psychologists that relates to distributed cognition, particularly in the Russian cultural-historical approach of Alexei Leont'ev, Alexander Luria and Lev Vygotsky, which emphasises the importance of past and current culture on thought processes.

Cole and Engestrom apply their cultural-historical perspective of distributed cognition to two case studies. They describe a course of group sessions in a remedial reading class where several children and adults combine their skills to perform different sub-tasks related to reading a short passage. Then they describe how their theoretical analysis of work practices in a Finnish primary health care centre led to a reorganisation where patients received long-term attention from a single doctor rather than seeing whichever doctor happened to be available. The next three chapters of the book are mainly theoretical. Roy Pea discusses a distributed view of general intelligence and the consequences of this for educational practice. His arguments touch on the use of computing technology and peer collaboration in classrooms, a theme that is repeated in other chapters of the book.

D. N. Perkins discusses knowledge representation and the conditions under which knowledge can be distributed between different people and artifacts. In Chapter 4, Salomon describes how solo and distributed cognitions interact particularly in cognitive development and education. The theoretical chapters are followed by three chapters that discuss theoretical issues with reference to examples from case studies in education.

The emphasis is on how learning is a social phenomenon and that education needs to take account of this. For example, Ann L. Brown and her associates describe how classroom learning is facilitated by allowing the interaction of the individual expertise of different students. Like several of the authors, Cole and Engestrom take the radical view that cognition as a whole should be redefined as a distributed phenomenon. I was more convinced by other contributors who stressed the distinctiveness of solo and distributed cognition but the need to investigate how the two modes of thought might interact.

In the final chapter, Raymond S. Nickerson gives a rather sceptical review of the notions of distributed cognition discussed earlier in the book. He points out that it is sometimes difficult to decide whether the theoretical conclusions made are novel and profound or simply common sense. His chapter misses an opportunity to make any integrative conclusions but does make some interesting points on the potential of some of the ideas in the book for educational practice.

Joe Levy is a research fellow at the Human Communication Research Centre, University of Edinburgh.

Distributed Cognitions: Psychological and Educational Considerations

Editor - Gavriel Salomon
ISBN - 0 521 41406 7
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 286pp

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