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Entering New Worlds of Human Learning

Sheldon H. White
Harvard University


This book by Robert Lawler and Kathleen Carley discusses some powerful new approaches to human learning and development at a time when there is a significant need for new forms of inquiry. Systematic scientific inquiries into human learning and development came to life with the growth of research universities at the beginning of this century. People asked theoretical questions about the evolutionary organization of the human mind and practical questions about teaching, training, rehabilitation, and schools. Our contemporary research traditions were invented in this turn-of- the-century era and they carry with them, still, constraints imposed by the simple technologies and the rudimentary evolutionary speculations used by psychology of that time.

The chapters in this volume set forth the brilliant exploratory efforts of two investigators who are trying to widen the windows through which we conventionally look at human learning and development. Their work grows out of a rich, productive M.I.T. tradition of Leibnitzian inquiry into the problems of mind that has involved such people as Norbert Wiener, Warren McCulloch, Humberto Maturana, Jerome Lettvin, Marvin Minsky, Oliver Selfridge, and Seymour Papert. Important ideas have been diffused into American psychology from the unfrocked mental scientists of M.I.T. — mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists — and those ideas have been accepted into psychology, a trifle awkwardly. The ideas come out of a constructive approach to research work that juxtaposes awkwardly with psychology’s tradition of hypothesis-testing research. Marvin Minsky has characterized the M.I.T. approach to science as pragmatic rather than dialogical. Instead of trying to predict the future it is important to try to invent it.

How do you look at something as complicated as a child’s intellectual growth? Lawler takes from Charles Sanders Peirce the observation that “Science mainly advances by leaps, and the impulse for each leap is either some new observational resource, or some novel way of reasoning about the observations.” (p. 48) So Lawler approached the study of children’s cognitive development by taking the case study method to a new level of complexity and detail.

The case study — the study of lives, the “idiographic method” — haunts American psychologists. Psychologists generally prefer group-comparison studies (the “nomothetic method”) for scientific work but the awkward fact is that a number of the most illuminating, influential, and memorable studies in psychology’s history have been done with case studies. An articulate minority regularly argues that Psychology somewhere, somehow, sometime has to turn towards using more of them. Anyone who has ever done a serious case study has been drawn by the power of the method. The strength and the weakness of case studies is that they throw the investigator into a rich, complex, many-stranded body of observations, teeming with possibilities. But case studies do not sort themselves out. They do not deliver the (seemingly) simple, straightforward declarations of group-comparison studies. Often, case studies leave one swimming in suggestive information and half-seen phenomena. Lawler feels that a way must be found to harness their potential. He says:

There are epistemological and psychological reasons to believe that a case-based approach is better suited than lab-based methods for gathering information about developmental issues, such as the character of learning. Specifically, if one sees learning as an adaptive developmental mechanism, then one should look at learning where it happens in the everyday world. Furthermore, if learning is a process of changing one state of a cognitive system to another, then representations of that process in computing terms should be expected to be more apt than in other schemes where the procedural element of representation might be less important.

Case studies capture individuals moving through contexts, activities, and transitions. They yield story like accounts of people in movement and, as stories will, such accounts make suggestions about the goals, purposes, and personalities of their subjects. Drawing his philosophy of science from the psychologist Kurt Lewin and the physicist Richard Feynman, Lawler seeks to establish a psychology of the particular.

The careful analysis of particular cases — more in the style of ethological observation than laboratory experiment — can better focus our work on the issues and the appropriate grain of detail for understanding human behavior and the character and role of learning in it. Such studies will not, themselves, produce theory, but they will help us identify clearly those issues that must be confronted in the construction of an improved theory.

The point of such case studies is to fully confront the adaptive tasks and environments that must be dealt with by a young child and the orchestrated learnings through which the child copes with them.

At the heart of Lawler’s analysis of cognitive development are his extended case studies of his children: Miriam, Robby, and now just being worked up, Peggy. Imagine that the growing child contains a number of cognitive subsystems. Each subsystem undergoes its own sequence of cognitive development — sets forth serial systems of thought and things, built upon one another. These small mentalities create parallel universes of understanding:

I assume the representations of mind remain profoundly affected by the modality of experienced interactions through which each was developed. One implication is that the representations built through experience will involve different objects and relations, among themselves and with externals of the world. (p. 30)

The child has not one but a number of microviews of the world … perceptions, knowledges, knowledge systems. Cognitive development is a process of developing and coordinating such microviews, and the representations of objects and relations envisioned within them. Lawler’s work reaffirms a classic vision of the human mind. One hundred years ago, William James argued that our minds maintain alternative or contradictory views of the world, and that we all recognize a number of realities.

Every object we think of gets at last referred to one world or another of this or of some similar list. It settles into our belief as a common-sense object, a scientific object, an abstract object, a mythological object, an object of someone’s mistaken conception, or a madman’s object; and it reaches this state sometimes immediately … The various worlds themselves, however, appear … to most men’s minds in no very defintely conceived relation to each other, and our attention, when it turns to one, is apt to drop the others for the time being out of its account.

In his second chapter, Lawler looks at the massive volumes of data yielded by case studies from the perspective of someone who, in an earlier life, had been a database and telecommunications engineer. He discusses the possibility that two methodological stepchildren, case studies and hypertext, might be brought together to form the foundation of a new methodology of case study research. His inventive science marches forward.

Kathleen Carley’s work takes a step further into the complex world in which human learning occurs by recognizing the fact that much human learning is social. People live in social networks in which individuals share facts, knowledge, biases, frames of reference, and maps. As they learn, other learn around them, and the social relationships among the individuals in the network change. Carley writes from a theoretical perspective of constructuralism.

Constructuralism is the theory that the sociocultural world and the individual’s cognitive world continuously co-evolve in a reflexive fashion. The individual’s knowledge base, his or her propensity to interact with other individuals, the semantic content of his or her language, social knowledge, social structure, culture, social meaning, are all being continuously constructed in a reflexive, recursive fashion as the individuals in the society interact during the process of moving through the series of tasks that constitute their daily life. (p. 10)

The microviews that we psychologists maintain in our multiparadigmatic discipline regularly produce the basic terms of a coevolutionary vision of human development. Learning psychologists and developmental psychologists document the fact that children learn from the environment around them while, at the same time, social psychologists, and organizational psychologists, among others, regularly document the fact people in a modern society regularly change the behavior settings we live in in small and larger ways. There must be a dynamic relationship between the changes in the individual and changes in the group in which the individual has membership. Carley’s contribution is to address that coevolutionary process directly. She looks at individuals absorbing, or re-inventing, knowledge from the cultural psychology of those around them. In this process, she says, there are reciprocating and coordinative processes:

  • Individuals re-create internal meanings by constructing them from the information gathered as they interact and communicate with others.
  • Internal meanings across individuals are similar due to this communication-construction process. Consequently, they appear as social scripts dictating future behavior.
  • As individuals construct similar internal meanings social or shared meaning is constructed. ([p. 7)

  • Carley offers an AI model of this reciprocating, coordinative constructural process. The potential of this kind of model is considerable for the beginning of an understanding of education, communication, the diffusion of knowledge, consensus-formation and the myriad ways in which individuals in a modern society put together what epistemological sociologists have called the social construction of reality.

    The inventive sciences of Lawler and Carley have much to offer to the contemporary study of cognition and cognitive development. We need to move beyond the constraints imposed by our older traditions of inquiry into learning and cognitive development. We need more powerful paradigms of inquiry into cognitive development and the social organization of children’s thought. In an age of rapidly emerging technological capabilities it is intriguing to see the enlarged visions of human development that come into view as they are deployed as research instruments.

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