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How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School
sociologists, and psychologists (e.g., Lave, 1988; Rogoff, 1990). One major contrast between everyday settings and school environments is that the latter place much more emphasis on individual work than most other environments (Resnick, 1987). A study of navigation on U.S. ships found that no individual can pilot the ship alone; people must work collaboratively and share their expertise. More recent studies of collaboration confirm its importance. For example, many scientific discoveries in several genetics laboratories involve in-depth collaboration (Dunbar, 1996). Similarly, decision making in hospital emergency rooms is distributed among many different members of the medical team (Patel et al., 1996).
A second major contrast between schools and everyday settings is the heavy use of tools to solve problems in everyday settings, compared with “mental work” in school settings (Resnick, 1987). The use of tools in practical environments helps people work almost error free (e.g., Cohen, 1983; Schliemann and Acioly, 1989; Simon, 1972; see also Norman, 1993). New technologies make it possible for students in schools to use tools very much like those used by professionals in workplaces (see Chapter 8). Proficiency with relevant tools may provide a way to enhance transfer across domains.
A third contrast between schools and everyday environments is that abstract reasoning is often emphasized in school, whereas contextualized reasoning is often used in everyday settings (Resnick, 1987). Reasoning can be improved when abstract logical arguments are embodied in concrete contexts (see Wason and Johnson-Laird, 1972). A well-known study of people in a Weight Watchers program provides similar insights into everyday problem solving (see Lave et al., 1984). One example is of a man who needed three-fourths of two-thirds of a cup of cottage cheese to create a dish he was cooking. He did not attempt to multiply the fractions as students would do in a school context. Instead, he measured two-thirds of a cup of cottage cheese, removed that amount from the measuring cup and then patted the cheese into a round shape, divided it into quarters, and used three of the quarters; see Box 3.10. Abstract arithmetic was never used. In similar examples of contextualized reasoning, dairy workers use knowledge, such as the size of milk cases, to make their computational work more efficient (Scribner, 1984); grocery store shoppers use nonschool mathematics under standard supermarket and simulated conditions (Lave, 1988); see Box 3.11.
There are potential problems with contextualized reasoning, which are similar to those associated with overly contextualized knowledge in general. The “pat it out” strategy used for cottage cheese works in only a narrow range of situations; the man would have difficulty if he were trying to measure molasses or other liquids rather than cottage cheese (Wineburg, 1989a, b; see also Bereiter, 1997). Could he generate a new strategy for molasses or other liquids? The answer to this question depends on the degree to which he can relate his procedure to more general sets of solution strategies.