If School Elements - 102 – Distributed Cognition

There are very few moments in our lives where we are truly faced with working on tasks entirely on our own, without any digital aids or apparatus beyond our own mind. 

 However, we regularly approach scholastic aptitude as an entirely individual phenomena. So what happens to the student who can bring a team together, help others work out challenging problems, and yet when it comes to exam time they consistently look like a failure. What is the deal? 

If using the distributed cognition framework, it is impossible to look at an individual, and instead look at the complex web of relationships between individuals and their tools as the unit of analysis. The framework allows educators to look beyond individual performance, and focus on a group of learners as a system, functioning together to perform a task. 

Rather than a theory we at If School can base our curriculum around, this concept provides us with a constant reminder that each individual can play a unique role, and that standardization is a counter intuitive measure all to readily employed in many schools.  

The Fundamentals:

It is important to recognize that distributed cognition is a framework rather than a true form of cognition at this stage.  Edwin Hutchins brought forward a cohesive theory of distributed cognition in 1995, which has been adapted and built upon by people the world over. Fundamental to it are:


  • cognitive processes may be distributed across members in a social group
  • cognitive processes may involve material agents (eg. computers) as well
  • processes can be distributed through time so that early processes influence other processes as well. 

The emphasis on finding and describing “knowledge structures” that are somewhere “inside” the individual encourages us to overlook the fact that human cognition is always situated in a complex sociocultural world and cannot be unaffected by it.

Edwin Hutchins

Key Resources:

Here is some media for you if you want to explore the concept of Situated Learning further: