This chapter reviews some contributions that we believe shed light on the emergence of a perspective – we refer to it as a situative perspective (Greeno & Engeström, 2014) – that has been a significant influence in the learning sciences during its first quarter of a century since it emerged as an interdisciplinary field in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The situative approach arose in response to perceived weaknesses in the cognitive theory of information processing, which had been the dominant theory of learning and cognition in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, the situative approach and the cognitivist approach both continue to remain influential in learning sciences research, although we believe the situative approach is more powerful and is now more widely used by learning scientists than a purely cognitivist approach.
The Cognitive Theory of Information Processing
In the mid-1980s, a cognitive theory of information processing was the leading perspective in the scientific study of cognition and learning. The scope of cognitive information processing theory is broad, as documented by Barsalou (1992), Lindsay and Norman (1977), Neisser (1967), and many others. The cognitive theory of information processing emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, and by the 1980s most scholars studying education and learning had acknowledged that it was a significant advance beyond the previously prevalent approaches of associationist theory and behaviorism. One significant advantage was the capability of modeling general patterns of information to represent schemata that students could acquire for solving problems and understanding concepts in much more detail than had been possible previously (cf. Greeno et al., 1978). For example, when Mayer and Greeno compared the learning outcomes of two kinds of instruction of the binomial formula – one more conceptual and the other more procedural – their explanation was limited to a hypothesis that an associative structure was less strongly connected internally in the procedural version and more strongly connected externally (that is, with other concepts) in the conceptual version. Hypotheses such as this one could be represented much more specifically with the theoretical methods and concepts of information-processing cognitive science (examples were reported and discussed in Greeno, 1983).
Two strands of the cognitivist research program are especially relevant to the development of a situative perspective: the theory of problem solving and the theory of language understanding.