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General: 22 April 2005

Thoughts on Jean Lave's visit
Today I sat in on a student luncheon with Jean Lave and a small scattering of students interested in cognitive science. I think I have recognized two main components of a valuable learning experience:
  1. Apprenticeship: Only through actually doing things will we learn to do them. Western education takes as a founding principle that it is better to learn the general and the abstract first and then one will be able to transfer general knowledge to myriad different situations. Thus, transfer is a key problem for such an approach to learning. Lave would argue that we begin and end with the particular, concrete situation in which we want to participate. I would guess, but I didn't get a chance to ask, that for Lave there is no transfer; that is, we learn the particulars of participating in a certain community (tailors, electrical engineers, etc) and that is that. To participate in a different community we need to learn different skills (which are, of course, learned by participation in that community). I have an intuition, however, that one can learn some sort of general skills that make it easier to adapt to participation in other communities (for example, becoming an expert in the community of mathematicians should make one more apt to become an expert in the community of engineers). I am uncertain how Lave would address this intuition that people seem to have, or if she would say that it is not valid.
  2. Taking on multiple roles: We discussed for a while the importance of recognizing everyone's part in a particular community. For example, an administrative assistant at a university may feel like he is taking part in the education of university students because without him the school could not function. However, our cultural climate values some occupations more than others. A university professor, then, is considered to be a more integral part to the university than an administrative assistant. I was reminded of Hutchins' observations of naval navigation: by the time someone gets into the control room in which navigation decisions are being made, she has participated in each of the roles involved in the navigation, from the person that uses the adilade to the navigator. We consider this a movement upward in the hierarchy of roles. Lave would argue that this is not the correct way to envision this, but rather that each role is equally important, and any movement in roles is lateral.
    Aside from fostering the knowledge of the interdependence of people and roles in a community, taking on multiple roles has another function when those other roles are outside the community. Architects, Lave said, should be required to go to the homes designed by famous architects and clean them over a period of time. In this way they become more aware of the ways architectural details affect the lives of those who will be living in their designs. I am reminded of the importance Jeff placed on ESP engineers having toolbags and being willing to get into the control panels and fiddle about intelligently. By so doing we understood that the drawings we made for the electricians needed to be readable, and we learned how to do so when we couldn't wire up a switch by looking at our own drawings.

Last modified 22 April 2005 at 1:07 pm by Jason Williams