Distributed Cognition

Distributed Cognition


Willy Renandya, 18 Jan 2023

Distributed cognition is a theory that says our ability to think and learn is not just in our own heads, but also in the people and things around us. It means that we use tools and technology, as well as other people’s knowledge, to help us think and understand. (ChatGPT, 18 Jan 2023)

The concept of distributed cognition is not new. Indeed for many years we have been using collaborative learning (CL) activities to help students to learn together with their peers in order to co-construct knowledge. Today, most if not all educators believe that two (or three) heads are better than one and CL enables students to learn more than what they each can learn alone.

So cognition or thinking is not just an individual process where people think and learn using their own mental faculty, but it is also a social process where they think and learn with others so as to enhance both the quantity and quality of their learning.

The second part of the definition distributed cognition above points to the importance of objects (e.g., tools, technologies) that can also support and strenghthen human thinking and learning.

Our thinking is greatly enhanced when we work in contexts where we interact with objects, artifacts, tools etc. For example, when we write it down or when we use a tech tool to represent our problem in a visual format, we find that we understand the problem better and are more likely to find a solution.

Recent advances in generative artificial intelligence system, I think, will make the distributed cognition idea more relevant in education. A generative AI system such as ChatGPT for example can substantially enhance learning by providing students with better and more powerful ways of thinking and learning.

Here is an example of how an intelligent tech tool, e.g., ChatGPT3, can be utilized to enhance learning.

  1. Students read a 30-page long article on green energy, which they understand pretty well. But the article contains too many details and students are not sure which details are worth retaining.
  2. Students ask ChatGPT to give them a one or two page synopsis. If this is not good enough for them, they can continue with the next step below.
  3. Ask ChatGPT to give a shorter summary of no more than 5 points presented in bullet form.
  4. Use another AI tool to put the 5 points synopsis above in a video format for future reference.

Once students have developed good understanding of a concept, the teacher can then engage them in a deeper discussion on how the learned concept can be applied in diverse contexts to solve real-world problems.

Related readings

Student-centred learning in ELT

Good language teachers know how to engage their students

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