Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Hutchins on Learning

For some reason, I’ve spent some time thinking about Hutchins’s definition of learning, that it is “adaptive reorganization in a complex system.” I think what really got me was his explanation of how it works; he states that this definition “works well for learning situated in the socio-material world, and it works equally well for private discoveries made in moments of reflective thought” (289). It is interesting that he should make that statement because it brings together the reading we’ve been doing up until now. Whereas we began working with the learning that occurs in “the socio-material world” we’ve moved on to discussing how learning occurs in the “mind” (whatever that is). And now, with Hutchins, we are back to group learning, and he suggests that his theory can account for both.

Coincidentally, while I am writing this a work crew is in my apartment replacing my smoke detectors. As I type, two men are boring holes in my asbestos-filled ceiling. The first man is short, so he is using small step ladder. He is also doing most of the work: measuring, cutting the holes, hanging the smoke detector. (I’m told the new detector is better than my previous model, and that it will not go off every time I cook frozen pizzas or make coffee. This will a huge time saver for me, since I won’t have to spend a few minutes wildly fanning the smoke detector with my phonebook every time I eat. Perhaps my shoulders won’t be as strong, but I will be more serene.) The second man is taller and can easily reach the short ceiling of my hallway. He helps the first man by giving instructions, but does little of the actual “work.” Here is a portion of their conversation I overheard while the first man was measuring and then preparing the area where my new smoke detector will go:

2nd man: “You can’t cut your hole too deep because the screw has to go in there.”

[The 1st man apparently incorrectly measured the spots where he was going to cut.]

2nd man: “Take a look at this.”

1st man: “Oh.”

2nd man: “Right, you see how you aren’t lined up there.”

2nd man: “Did you use a marker or a pencil?”

1st man: “Marker.”

2nd man: “Next time you need to use a pencil.”

Listening to them, I began to be annoyed by the 2nd man’s constant interruptions of the 1st man’s work. However, it soon became apparent that the 2nd man was training the 1st, and that as I observed the process, it was fascinating to see how quickly the 1st man caught on. The constant interruptions were made to prevent the 1st man from making mistakes that would have lasting consequences. Suppose he mis-measured his holes and cut one that was too wide. The hole would have to be re-cut, and there would be an extra hole in the ceiling. That would mean that every time I had to fan the smoke detector with my phonebook, I would be freeing tiny bits of asbestos to float around my apartment, where they could eventually work their way into my lungs. Though this would be a spectacular bonanza for my lawyers, it would be bad for me and my health. The 2nd man was aware of both of these factors and was working to make sure that the holes were cut correctly. In retrospect, his instructions, though perhaps annoying in another situation, were appropriate for the job at hand. The 1st man learned quickly and for the last 30 minutes that they worked, the two said very little to each other. It would seem in their case that both “socio-cultural” and individual learning had occurred. The 1st man reorganized his activities by following the instructions of the 2nd man until he eventually “knew” how to do the job without constant feedback.


Blogger Jim said...

This is the best post of the year, and anyone who disagrees is just wrong. Smart, funny, a useful application of Hutchins' theory. Seriously, any post that talks about asbestos AND frozen pizza is a winner in my book.

On a more serious note, what struck me was this part:

"The constant interruptions were made to prevent the 1st man from making mistakes that would have lasting consequences."

This seems to be a perfect example of a person acting as a "buffer."

Nice work john...sorry that your shoulders are going to be all wimpy now.

9:40 PM  
Blogger asw said...

Your post was such a great example of taking Hutchins into the real world. I second Jim's comment - it has to be one of the best posts this semester.

You really captured the learning between the novice and expert in this situation and showed how much the learning was constantly changing and reorganizing itself as the interaction and task was accomplished by the two work crew members.

Your post made me think back to a learning situation I was in a few weeks back as a novice and my sister as an expert. I was babysitting my 1 year old nephews and learning from my sister (the expert) how to feed them without it becoming a catastrophe.:) My learning was constantly changing as she was showing me with my nephews there as the demo :) how to do each spoonful and the nephews response would impact how I would move forward and feed them. I can't imagine learning now how to feed them without going through that experience.

Your post was very inspiring JMJ - so often I get into the examples in the books that we read that I forget how we can pull out the concepts and apply them in our daily lives. Glad to see you have a better smoke detector now!:)


8:00 PM  
Blogger gfp said...

Wow. Sorry I didn't add your name to Jim's and Eileen's for deep, provocative posts. This one was really good!

12:19 PM  
Blogger IB said...

jmj, you have really taken cognition into the wild! What a great example of how Hutchins can be applied to everyday life!

3:13 PM  
Blogger Alison said...

Gotta love on the job training and just in time blogging. Thanks for the example but you can keep your asbestos!

4:25 PM  
Blogger mdl said...

hilarious. I think you should put together a blog of these kinds of grad school and reading-related observations and anecdotes for the delight of your fellow students.

9:12 AM  

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