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The formal setting as context for cognitive activities. An empirical study of arithmetic operations under conflicting premisses for communication

  • Roger Säljö
  • Jan Wyndhamn
Article

Abstract

The general concern of the present article is to contribute to an understanding of the contextual determination of cognitive activities. More specifically, the focus of the empirical research reported has been to study how pupils define and deal with cognitive tasks in situations that are recognised as pedagogical in character. Within the context of their everyday mathematics teaching, 206 twelve year old primary school pupils were given work sheets containing elementary arithmetic problems. The experimental treatment consisted of introducing (through headings and instructions) pedagogical definitions of problems that were in conflict with the nature of the problems themselves. The results indicate that the predefinitions of cognitive activities typical of educational contexts have a strong impact on the way problems are dealt with. Clear differences could be discerned between groups at different achievement levels in the extent to which the cues present in pedagogical contexts were used in defining the problem. A crucial aspect of what are conventionally conceived as differences in mathematical ability seems, judging from the present results, to have more to do with the capacity to decipher ambiguous communicative situations than with the mastery of a mathematical algorithm per se.

Key words

Learning Learning of arithmetic Cognitive activity Learning in school Contextual effects on learning 

La situation pédagogique comme contexte pour des activités cognitives. Une étude empirique sur la manière d’effectuer des opérations arithmétiques dans une situation de communication ambigue

Résumé

D’un point de vue général, le but du présent article est de contribuer à la réflexion sur la manière dont les activités cognitives sont déterminées par le contexte même dans lequel elles ont lieu. Plus spécifiquement, notre recherche empirique porte sur le problème de savoir comment les élèves définissent et traitent des tâches cognitives qui leur sont présentées dans des situations à caractère pédagogique. Dans le cadre ordinaire de leurs cours de mathématiques, 206 élèves, âges de 12 ans, eurent à résoudre par écrit des problèmes d’arithmétique élémentaire. La démarche expérimentale consistait à introduire pour ces problèmes (par le biais de titres et d’instructions) des définitions pédagogiques qui étaient en contradiction avec la nature même des problèmes. Les résultats révèlent que ces directives préalables, caractéristiques du contexte scolaire, influencent considérablement la manière dont les élèves envisagent le problème. Il est apparu nettement que, pour la définition des problèmes, le degré d’utilisation des indications fournies par le contexte pédagogique varie en fonction du niveau de réussite scolaire des élèves. Ce qui est conventionellement conçu comme des divergences d’aptitude en mathématiques, serait donc, à en juger par les résultats présentés, plus en rapport avec la capacité de s’orienter dans une situation communicative ambiguë qu’avec la maîtrise d’un algorithme mathématique en soi.

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Copyright information

© Instituto Superior de Psicologia Aplicada, Lisbon, Portugal/ Springer Netherlands 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • Roger Säljö
    • 1
  • Jan Wyndhamn
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Communicaton StudiesUniversity of LinköpingLinköpingSweden
  2. 2.School of EducationUniversity of LinköpingLinköpingSweden

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