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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
issues as the laws governing stimulus-response associations in learning. Beginning in the 1960s, advances in fields as diverse as linguistics, computer science, and neuroscience offered provocative new perspectives on human development and powerful new technologies for observing behavior and brain functions.
The result during the past 40 years has been an outpouring of scientific research on the mind and the brain—a “cognitive revolution,” as some have termed it. With richer and more varied evidence in hand, researchers have refined earlier theories or developed new ones to explain the nature of knowing and learning. Three theoretical perspectives of the nature of the human mind have been particularly influential in the study of learning and consequently in education: behaviorist, cognitive, and sociocultural. The relative influence of these perspectives over time has changed. Each emphasizes different aspects of knowing and learning with differing implications for educational practice and research (see, e.g., Greeno, Collins, and Resnick, in press).
Behaviorism describes knowledge as the organized accumulation of stimulus-response associations that serve as components of skills (Thorndike, 1931). People learn by acquiring simple skills which combine to produce more complex behaviors. Rewards, punishments, and other (mainly extrinsic) factors orient people to attend to relevant aspects of a situation and support the formation of new associations and skills. Cognitive theories, in contrast, focus on how people develop, transform, and apply structures of knowledge in relation to lived experience, including the concepts associated with a subject matter discipline (or domain of knowledge) and procedures for reasoning and solving problems. One major tenet of cognitive theory is that learners actively construct their understanding by trying to connect new information with their prior knowledge. This theoretical approach generally focuses on individual thinking and learning. Sociocultural theory builds on cognitive perspectives, but emphasizes the cultural origins of human development and explores how individuals develop through their involvement in cultural practices (e.g., Cole, 1996; Heath, 1983; Rogoff, 2003). In this view, individuals develop specific skills, commitments, knowledge, and identity as they become proficient in practices that are valued in specific communities.
From the perspective of educational practice, there are complementarities between cognitive and sociocultural accounts. The cognitive perspective, with its interest in characterizing an individual’s knowledge structures, can help educators identify what a learner understands about a particular domain. This can be important for gauging where and how to initially engage a learner and what aspects of understanding require instructional support. Meanwhile, the sociocultural perspective can orient educators to patterns of participation and associated value systems that are important to learning. These may include analyses of expert practice in a particular domain such as how scientists communicate ideas to one another or forms of participation that are comfortable