Cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on group cognition: Can the two be reconciled?

Posted: June 13, 2011 in CSCL course at P2PU
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In a recent blog post (Ode to Piaget), I tried to explain the source of my frustration with a quote from Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006, p. 9), who write, “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads.” I wrote that in the cognitive constructivist view of learning, the locus of cognition is indeed in individuals’ heads and to ignore this is unlikely to produce anything of value in understanding how any kind of cognition works, group cognition included. Individuals have brains and cognitive models which represent and structure our individual knowledge. These structures are constantly changing as we learn new things. Assimilation and accommodation are constantly occurring, and any theory of cognition, including group cognition, must acknowledge these cognitive processes. However, events are also occurring at a group level that cannot be explained by investigation at the individual level (Gureckis & Goldstone, 2006; Thompson & Fine, 1999). It seems that there are two levels of activity, one at the individual level, and one at the group level. Doesn’t an account of group cognition need to take both of these levels of activity into account?

I needed to do some more reading on these topics, as I was finding Stahl et al (2006) were not explaining group cognition in a way that was useful to me. I found several articles that have been of immense help, and so this blog post is to summarize the main points of one main article (I had hoped to include more in this post, but instead will do so in later posts) and integrate them into my own thinking.

The first and extremely helpful and insightful paper has clarified the issue of cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on learning in an objective way. The article titled, “Reconsidering group cognition: From conceptual confusion to a boundary area between cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives?” by Akkerman, Van den Bossche, Admiraal, Gijselaers, Segers, Simons & Kirschner (2007) is a review of all the major studies of empirical studies of group cognition. The articles they review run from pre-1994 to 2002, so more recent studies of group cognition have not been included, but the 22 studies out of a total of 167 represent well the body of research that has been done on group cognition until 2002.

Akkerman et al (2007, p. 42) explain in detail the two “socio-genic views” (Valsiner & Van der Veer, 2000): cognitive and socio-cultural. I will include only a brief extract here:

“[T]here is the axiomatic preference for fusion (of person and the social environment) or inclusive separation (i.e., the person is viewed as distinguished from the environment, yet interdependent with it) bases for socio-genetic models” (Valsiner & Van der Veer, 2000, p. 6). Whereas the former socio-genetic view perceives the person and the social environment as one whole and relies on terms like participation and adaptation, the latter socio-genetic view perceives the person and the social environment as separate units that are related to each other and uses terms such as internalization and externalization.

The former, fusion, represents the socio-cultural perspective on learning. This has also been associated with the participation metaphor (Sfard, 1998) and a focus on learning within social interaction. The inclusive separation model represents the cognitive perspective, aligned with the acquisition metaphor (Sfard, 1998), with its focus on learning within the mind. Both of these perspectives are represented well in the empirical studies of group cognition reviewed by Akkerman et al (2007). In their review, 11 studies represented cognitive perspectives and 5 studies represented socio-cultural perspectives. 4 represented both, and 3 of these are considered to be “boundary crossing studies” as they “were able to pursue a mixed discourse of both cognitive as well as socio-cultural perspectives on mind throughout the whole study” (p. 48).

Here are summaries of the reviews made by Akkerman et al (2007). Please see tables 1 and 4 below for a more detailed perspective.

Cognitive perspectives: Studies reviewed by Akkerman et al (2007) refer to the knowledge of the individual team members as it is constructed in mental models. In this perspective, it is assumed that individual people “organize knowledge into structured, meaningful patterns and store them in their memory” (p. 45). Group cognition is conceptualized by these cognitive studies as “a similarity or overlap between individual mental structures” (p. 49). Group cognition occurs at the group level but relies heavily on the individual as entity. There is a focus on “similarity” in the methodologies of all the cognitive studies, “with the underlying hypothesis that the more similarity in the identified knowledge structures of the individuals, the better the team functions” (p. 49).1

Socio-cultural perspectives: All studies focused solely on group cognition and did not determine the cognition of individual members. Instead they focused on the whole of contributions made during the interactions. The question was “how group participants acted on, and thereby defined the specific domain or object of activity” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 47). Socio-cultural perspectives as described by Akkerman et al (2007, p. 50) perceive group cognition as something “constituted by the group as an entity in itself. As such, cognition resides in the active mind, as a phenomenon situated in the group interaction. The concept [of] group cognition is then defined as a process of coordination of participants’ contributions in joint activity (Matusov, 1996)”. In this view, Akkerman et al (2007, p. 50) write, “using similar modes of thinking is argued to lead to reproductive processes, with the danger of group think narrowness, while disruptions resulting from different views of participants and socio-cultural subgroups are perceived as offering potential for productive, creative processes and group development2 (Homan, 2001; Matusov, 1996)”.

In addition to cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives, Akkerman et al (2007) discovered a third group of studies which they label “boundary crossing” literature because of the integration of both cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives throughout the study. They focus both on “stable mental model forms with information stored in memory and mental model states that are active and situated in the group collaboration” (p. 51). In these studies, shared information is considered to be distributed. “What they were able to do was to decompose subsystems within the whole complex system of a team and reveal their inherent properties, while simultaneously revealing the intrinsic nature of the complex system itself, separately from the subsystems. On the one hand, they identified individual subjectivities in terms of stable cognitive maps, and on the other hand they identified group processes in terms of the individual mental states situated in the interaction. So in a very precise and clear way they integrated in their focus the intrinsic nature of decomposable subsystems and the intrinsic nature of the whole system.” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 53).

These boundary crossing studies would seem to be what I have been looking for: an integrated system that allows for two intersecting levels of activity, one at the individual level and one at the group level. However, while these studies do incorporate cognitive perspectives, they do not fully represent the socio-cultural perspective because they treat cognition as decomposable. Cognition in these studies is treated as happening at two levels and is seen as separable and analyzable at the two levels, whereas this kind of separation or decomposing is anathema to the socio-cultural perspective. The socio-cultural perspective does recognize the individual mind, but sees it as non-extractable from its situated perspective. “Socio-cultural perspectives do not deny the existence of an individuals’ mind, nor its agency, but they understand this mind as situated in the participation processes in systems of socially organized activity that are themselves evolving” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 43).

When we look closer at the ontological assumptions underlying the two perspectives, we get to the root of the problem. According to Packer and Goicoechea (2000, cited in Akkerman, 2007, p. 54), “Cognitive perspectives imply a dualist ontological approach, in which construction is viewed only as a cognitive activity in which subjectivity structures and shapes data that comes from a distinct and separate objective world. As opposed to that, socio-cultural perspectives bring forward a non-dualistic ontological approach, in which subjectivities and the objects themselves are constructed and mutually define each other…. Cognitive perspectives seem to assume that things (e.g., individuals or mental models) can exist independently, although it can change by its relations. Socio-cultural perspectives seem to assume an ontology in which things only exist in relation to other things (individuals are participants; minds are situated in social action).”

Akkerman et al (2007) conclude their review with their vital question, “Is it advisable to strive for a coherent theory on group cognition, or is it better to have the two perspectives, as the differences are insurmountable?” One answer to this question is that the two perspectives could possibly be reconciled through dialogical engagement. In this view, each of the two perspectives reaches towards the other and tries to incorporate its views into its own views. This was done to some extent by the boundary-crossing studies identified in this review. As well, “Valsiner and Van der Veer (2000) and Hermans and Kempen (1993) … [consider] the individual as a dialogical system by itself. Cognition is then defined as an individual property, but the individual itself is an inherently social entity, constituted through its social relations with others” (Akkerman et al, 2007, p. 55). While these studies represent attempts to reconcile the two perspectives, the underlying problems of ontology and locus of learning remain unsolved.

The other two possible answers are essentially yes, they can be reconciled, and no, they cannot, and it is this latter answer that Akkerman et al agree with, and so do I. The two perspectives cannot be reconciled because of the very different ontological views and where each places the locus of learning. However, I have not yet read Valsiner and Van der Veer (2000) nor Hermans and Kempen (1993), and to me these offer the most hope of reconciliation. I will read these in the near future and hope for new insight. But the central questions keep returning. Can we ignore the disparate ontologies underlying the two perspectives? How can we combine two perspectives into one when they are so fundamentally different?

Finally, we can ask here the critical socio-genetic question posed by Valsiner and Van der Veer (2000, p. 6), and asked by Akkerman et al as well (p. 56): “How to construe persons as being social without abandoning their obvious personal autonomy, separateness from any social unit (group, crowd, community), while being members of such units?”

So now my frustration with the statement made by Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006, p. 9), “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads” has been explained. I am a cognitivist who situates learning within the heads of individuals, who are themselves situated in society and various groups. I see cognition happening at two levels, one at the individual level and one at the group level. I see these as necessarily connected but separable for the purposes of analyzing what is happening at each level. In contrast, Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006) have a socio-cultural perspective and as such see cognition as inseparable from the context in which it is happening. Our fundamental views of group cognition differ, and now at least I understand the differences more clearly.

I hope this summary is useful to anyone who is trying to understand group cognition and the various views of it. If you have any articles to share that would help to illuminate this discussion further, please do post a comment below. This is a mighty adventure for me and intensely interesting. Here we are in late spring of 2011, considering whether the two main perspectives of learning can be reconciled into one theory. In my previous post, I wrote that cognitive constructivism and social constructivism are mutually compatible. I wonder now if I will have to revisit that post and do some rethinking. I may also have to do some rethinking of my future in CSCL research if indeed CSCL requires a socio-cultural perspective, as Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006) indicate above.

In any case, thank you for reading and please do leave a comment below if this kind of exploration is interesting to you.


Akkerman, S., Van den Bossche, P., Admiraal, W., Gijselaers, W., Segers, M., Simons, R.-J., & Kirschner (2007). Reconsidering group cognition: From conceptual confusion to a boundary area between cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives? Educational Research Review, 2(1), 39-63. Available at

Banks, A. P., & Millward, L. J. (2000). Running shared mental models as a distributed cognitive process. British Journal of Psychology, 91, 513–531.

Derry, S. J., DuRussel, L. A., & O’Donnell, A. M. (1998). Individual and distributed cognitions in interdisciplinary teamwork: A developing case study and emerging theory. Educational Psychology Review, 10, 25–56. Available at

Gureckis, T.M., and Goldstone, R.L. (2006). Thinking in Groups. Pragmatics and Cognition, 14: 293–311. Reprinted as Gureckis, T.M. and Goldstone, R.L. (2008) Thinking in Groups. In Cognition Distributed: How Cognitive Technology Extends our Minds, Edited by Dror, I.E. and Harnad, S., John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Hermans, H. J. M., & Kempen, H. J. G. (1993). The dialogical self: Meaning as movement. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.

Homan, T. (2001). Teamleren. Theorie en facilitatie. [Teamlearning. Theory and facilitation]. Schoonhoven, the Netherlands: Academic Services.

Matusov, E. (1996). Intersubjectivity without agreement. Mind, Culture and Activity, 3, 25–45.

Packer, M. J., & Goicoechea, J. (2000). Sociocultural and constructivist theories of learning: Ontology, not just epistemology. Educational Psychologist, 35, 227–241. Available at

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. (2006). Computer-supported collaborative learning. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 409–426). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Sfard, A. (1998). On two metaphors for learning and the danger of choosing just one. Educational Researcher, 27, 4–13.

Thompson, L., & Fine, G. A. (1999). Socially shared cognition, affect, and behavior: A review and integration. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 3, 278–302.

Valsiner, J., & Van der Veer, R. (2000). The social mind. Construction of the idea. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Yoo, Y., & Kanawattanachai, P. (2001). Developments of transactive memory systems and collective mind in virtual teams. The International Journal of Organizational Analysis, 9, 187–208. Available at

1 This hypothesis contrasts with Gureckis and Goldstone (2006) who found that less information-sharing benefited the group in small world networks.

2 This is more in line with Gureckis and Goldstone (2006), and my own way of thinking. Diversity within groups is an asset. I had planned to incorporate Gureckis and Goldstone (2006) into this summary but was unable to because of number of issues raised by Akkerman et al. I’ll return to Gureckis and Goldstone in the near future.

3 Please note that I have read only Akkerman et al (2007), Gureckis and Goldstone (2006), and Stahl, Koschmann, & Suthers (2006) thus far. All other references were referred to within the text of Akkerman et al (2007).

  1. Monica says:

    Jen – thanks for a really great summary. Lit reviews are SO helpful. My head is spinning with thoughts, but none that I would want to articulate yet without reading some of the articles first. I must say though that it just doesn’t sit well with me that there exists two non-compatible ontologies, so that to devote oneself to work aligned with one approach might mean to ignore the ideas that characterize the other.
    I haven’t read this article yet either (am planning to), but I wonder if you might find it interesting: Koschmann (1999) Toward a Dialogic Theory of Learning: Bakhtin’s Contribution to Understanding Learning in Settings of Collaboration.

  2. Hi Monica,

    I agree 100%! I was not expecting that at the end of the analysis made by Akkerman et al (2007), that their seemingly unavoidable conclusion would be that the two main perspectives on constructivism are irreconcilable!

    I’d even like to say that maybe we could ignore ontology and maybe all the two perspectives have to do is try a little harder to incorporate each other. But honestly, the ontological assumptions underlying any theory are impossible to ignore, as they form the foundation of the whole theory. And to incorporate them both (cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on learning) into one theory means that one or the other has to give up its raison d’etre, and this will not happen, nor should it.

    So they are incompatible as they are, but I’d say for practical purposes they can happily reside alongside each other, intertwined as they are. As long as we acknowledge both the cognitive and the social aspects of learning, I think we are in good shape. What do scientists do about Newton’s laws of thermodynamic vs. Einstein’s theory of relativity? They are both true, but irreconcilable. This may be a bit of a stretch for a metaphor, but I think we have so much to learn from both cognitive and social constructivist ways of learning that we have to accept both as true and applicable, and ignore their respective ontologies as long as that doesn’t get us into trouble. I guess I think that if I have to choose, I’m more on the cognitive constructivist side, but since social learning is accounted for by cognitive theory, I’m not going to worry too much about an ontological incompatibility. I can live happily with both Piaget and Vygotsky and other theorists informing my own theories and thoughts, and my own teaching as well.

    Thanks Monica for reading, and for your comments. I agree, lit reviews are so useful, and I plan to write more, so let’s keep in touch! ☺


  3. […] Cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on group cognition: Can the two be reconciled? […]

  4. When you read my words on the screen, you understand that the meaning is not in the pixels. Why should it be different when you consider the neurons ? Whatever happens in our brains at the neural level is similar to making a mark on a paper with a pen. The meaning is not kept there either. The meaning is not kept in matter, it is immaterial. And is it a group process. It has always been and it will always be. Individuals don’t have to be «absorbed by the social» to have access to group cognition. They do it all the time, even the loneliest of individual draws whatever meaning he or she can think of from the group.

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