How School Learning Differs from Other Learning
- Individual cognition in school versus shared cognition outside.
- Pure mentation in school versus tool manipulation outside.
- Symbol manipulation in school versus contextualized reasoning outside school.
- Generalized learning in school versus situation-specific competencies outside.
- The dominant form of school learning and performance is individual.
- Work, personal life, and recreation take place within social systems, and each person's ability to function successfully depends on what others do and how several individuals' mental and physical performances mesh. (Example: piloting ships in and out of harbors)
- In school, the greatest premium is placed upon "pure thought activities - what individuals can do without the external support of books and notes, calculators, or other complex instruments.
- In contrast, most mental activities outside school are engaged intimately with tools (calculators, compasses, tables), and the resultant cognitive activity is shaped by and dependent upon the kinds of tools available.
- Tool use is not only a way for people of limited education to participate in cognitively complex activity systems; it is also a way of enhancing the capacity of highly educated people well beyond what they could do independently.
- Outside school, actions are intimately connected with objects and events; people often use the objects and events directly in their reasoning, without necessarily using symbols to represent them. (e.g., Scribner: the use of mathematics knowledge by dairy workers who assemble and price orders and take inventory in the warehouse)
- School learning, by contrast, is mostly symbol-based; indeed, connections to the events and objects symbolized are often lost.
- Part of the reason for this isolation may be that schools aim to teach general, widely usable skills and theoretical principles.
- On the other hand, situation-specific learning by itself is very limiting. Some of these studies also document the limits of highly situated skills acquired in the workplace. Several demonstrate that when familiar aspects of a task change in certain ways-for example, when construction foremen are asked to work with scales not used in their culture (Carraher, 1986), or when bookies are asked to accept bets that cannot be calculated from their tables (Schliemann & Acioly, in press)-unschooled individuals have considerable difficulty and may fail entirely. Schooled people do better, although they rarely use the supposedly general algorithms taught in school. Instead, they invent new methods specific to the situation at hand.
- Briefly, schooling focuses on the individual's performance, whereas out-of-school mental work is often socially shared.
- Schooling aims to foster unaided thought, whereas mental work outside school usually involves cognitive tools.
- School cultivates symbolic thinking, whereas mental activity outside school engages directly with objects and situations.
- Finally, schooling aims to teach general skills and knowledge, whereas situation-specific competencies dominate outside.
What Role for Schooling Then? - And What Kind of Schooling?
Three points of view:
- the role of schooling in directly preparing people for economic participation
- its role in preparing people to learn effectively over the long course of their work lives, and
- its role in preparing people for civic and cultural participation.
Skills for learning outside school: modern economic conditions also call for education aimed at helping people develop skills for learning even when optimal instruction is not available; schooling seems to play a role in helping people adapt to breakdowns, new and unexpected situations.
What we require now are studies of the development of competence in people who are becoming experts in their fields. We also must mount detailed examinations of people coping with situations of breakdown or transition in their work.
School is not only a place to prepare people for the world of work and everyday practical problems. It is also a place in which a particular kind of work is done-intellectual work that engages reflection and reasoning.
Resnick (1987) undertook an examination of a number of programs claiming to teach thinking skills, learning skills, or higher order cognitive abilities. She looked for elements common to the successful programs that could point cumulatively toward a theory of how learning and thinking skills are acquired. She found three key features.
- First, most of the effective programs have features characteristic of out-of-school cognitive performances. They involve socially shared intellectual work, and they are organized around joint accomplishment of tasks, so that elements of the skill take on meaning in the context of the whole.
- Second, many of the programs have elements of apprenticeship. That is, they make usually hidden processes overt, and they encourage student observation and commentary. They also allow skill to build up bit by bit, yet permit participation even for the relatively unskilled, often as a result of the social sharing of tasks.
- Finally, the most successful programs are organized around bodies of knowledge and interpretation-subject matters, if you will-rather than general abilities.