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Historical Review of Situated Cognition Published

An introductory review chapter, “The Scientific Antecedents of Situated Cognition,” by Bill Clancey (Chief Scientist, Human-Centered Computing) has appeared in the Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. The article explains how research in cognitive science has adopted a “systems thinking” approach that relates neural, psychological, social, and environmental processes in complex settings, such as spaceflight operations.

In the twentieth century, the concepts of dynamical systems, self-regulation, and complexity were pioneered in a variety of scientific fields including ethology, anthropology, and cybernetics. However, psychologists’ reaction to behaviorism in the 1950s and the adoption of the von Neumann data–program distinction for computational modeling led to a reductionist theory of cognition, equating data with information, computer models with human knowledge, logical deduction with judgment, word “semantic” networks with conceptual systems, and problem solving with all human activity.

During the 1970s and 1980s, computer and social scientists began to work together in schools and work settings, leading to radically different theories about the nature of human memory, knowledge, and learning. In the 1990s this new perspective was often called “situated cognition,” emphasizing that knowledge and performance are always adapted and improvised in action. Put another way, concepts, skills, and plans develop in our experience as we behave, rather than being stored and applied by rote like computer programs. In particular, information is created by the perceiver, meaning is conceived dynamically as people are looking and acting in the world, and activities are always socially framed by a person’s understanding of roles, norms, and values.

Situated cognition has significant implications for the design of operations and training, particularly in how tools (such as written procedures, automated systems, and robots) affect and are used by human teams in practice. In the past decade, NASA has adopted these ideas under the rubric of “human-centered computing,” bringing the methods of ethnography and “participatory design” to the creation of model-based tools for human spaceflight and interplanetary missions.

NASA PROGRAM FUNDING: This project was funded in part by a NASA Research Announcement (NRA), “Intelligent Systems” (2001-2006). Funding was also provided by the Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) within NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate (ESMD) in 2006: Program 12B, “Human System Interaction.”

Contact: Bill Clancey


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