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Cognitive grain size

November 19, 2012

L. Collins, A. Gupta, and D. Hammer (2010), Framing and resource activation: Bridging the cognitive-situative divide using a dynamic unit of cognitive analysis, Proceedings from 32nd Annual Conference of Cognitive Science Society.

This short article proposes that theoretical perspectives that differ in where “the mind” or “knowing” is located can be thought of as different points along a continuum. At one end of the continuum is the cognitivist perspective in which cognition is thought to reside within individual brains. At the other end of the continuum is distributed cognition in which cognition is thought to be spread amongst multiple individuals as well as the tools to which they have access. Situated cognition (in which, I believe, cognition resides within an individual’s brain but is linked to various aspects of the situation at hand) would exist somewhere in the middle.

The authors argue that researchers need not ascribe to a single theoretical perspective a prior. They suggest that by considering evidence of clustering, persistence, resistance, and transitions that researchers can choose a productive theoretical perspective for their study based on empirical evidence. Rather than competing theories of cognition, the authors propose that these theories represent different choices as to the “grain size” for analysis. In this paper, the authors focus on the idea of clustering. They first give an example of group work in which students’ physical behaviors (gestures, gaze, posture, etc.) cluster together   The authors suggest that such collective (clustered) behavior suggests the adoption of a grain size larger than the individual.  The authors then given an example of group work in which different students exhibit different physical behaviors. In this case the behaviors do not cluster and a smaller grain size may be more productive for the analysis.

The authors argue that researchers can choose their theoretical perspective and “grain size” based on data rather than a priori alignment with a given theory of learning. Really the authors are arguing that researchers should be ready to adopt a variety of theoretical perspectives as needed. The authors propose the use of things like clustering and resistance as “markers” that researchers could look for to decide when a different theoretical perspective might be productive.

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