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Boundary crossing

April 9, 2007

My research in science learning domain has moved towards ideas of translation and semiosis between partially untranslatable systems (e.g. everyday situations and scientific models of these situations in various abstract and visual forms), which bring in the conditions for learning and creating new knowledge structures. The topic of boundaries is a key concept in translation and semiosis. For instance in the works of J. Lotman he assumes that there must exist semiotic boundaries within the system that are constantly in move and cause the semiosis as a process to happen between the common and align contexts.

The book, which i refer here considers the questions of transfer and boundary crossing from the activity theory and situated learning perspectives. It is somewhat different from semiosis ideas, but it also conveys similar message.

For instance in the ideas of boundary zone and boundary objects are very similar to the ideas of Lotman of two partially overlapping cultures or systems which enable translations in the overlapping zone and beyond. I like the idea that ‘What is transferred is not packages of knowledge and skills that remain intact; instead the very process of such transfer involves active interpreting, modifying and reconstructing the skills and knowldge to be transferred’.
This suggests semiosis to take place although it is not referred to explicitly.

There are also some aspcets that i don’t agree completely: ‘Transfer depends on an ability to perceive the affordances for the practice that are present in a changed situation (Greeno, Smith, Moore, 1993). It seems Greeno et al. suggest that the affordances are sort of embedded in the situations. Can it be that he means situations are ativity systems? If he used the term evoked by situations i would have liked it more. In another sentence they suggest: ‘We call the support for particular activities created by relevant properties of things and materials in the situation affordances. For practice learned in one situation to transfer into another situation, the second situation has to afford that practice and the agent has to perceive the affordance. Also this interpretation seems to attribute affordances to the situations even if there are no agents at present. My understanding is that affordances exist only because of activities people do in a certain situation, they are constraints of the activity system which emerge in the interaction of the people, tools, artifacts, rules, norms and objectives of that activity system.

Soma ideas related to horisontal transfer evoked me the thoughts of bidirectional scaffolding conception (King, 1999) which occurs in networked systems. But the elaboration of horisontal transfer seemed somewhat weak and disappointing. It seems the book considers the vertical transfer to happen within the community and the horisontal between the communities. Is there actually a transfer or translation or semiosis?

Book:
Between School and Work. New perspectives on transfer and boundary-crossing
Ed. Tuomi-Gröhn, T., Engeström, Y.
Pergamon
2003

Boundary-crossing studies in creative thinking emphasise the potential embedded in transporting ideas, concepts and instruments from seemingly unrelated domains into the domain of focal inquiry.

Boundary crossing requires significant cognitive retooling (changing cognitive tools).
Brockers (Wenger, 1998) are able to make new connections across communities of practice, faciltate coordination and open new possibilities for new meanings. The idea of boundary-crossing puts great emphasis on the new intellectual and practical tools that boundary-crossers or brokers bring into processes of change.

Boundary zone (Konkola, 2001) is a sphere which resembles no man land, free from prearranged routines or rigid patterns. Boundary zone is the place where each activity system reflects its own structure, attitudes, beliefs, norms and roles. This means that elements from both sides are always present in the boundary zone. It is a hybrid, polycontextual, multi-voiced and multi-scripted context, a place where it is possible to extend the object of each activity system and to create shared object between them.

Boundary objects (in this context object is understood as objective, intention to do something, but object can also be understood as artifact or tool, or it can be a shared mental model) (Star, 1989; Star and Griesemer, 1989) are objects that inhabit several intersecting social worlds and satisfy informational requirements of each of them. They are both plastic enough to adapt local needs and constraints of several parties employing them, and robust enough to maintain a common identity across sites. Boundary objects develop from the problems that emerge in the collision of different classifications, they emerge over time from the interaction between different communities.

A concept boundary object is useful in denoting a tool used to join activities together (Bowker and Star, 1999). Boundary object gives common meaning across the settings where the activities take place. At the collective level the object is weakly structured, for individual actors strongly structured. Tensions in regard to the meaning of the boundary object are part of what actors have to take into account in their attempts to coordinate their different interests.

Wenger (1998) introduces the concept boundary practice by referring the overlappig activities of the participating activity systems.

Dominant approaces to cognition share a narrow and vertical view of expertise in which some have more knowledge than others. Characteristically they distinguish between stages and levels of knowledge and skill. In recent research (Engeström, Engeström, Kärkkäinen, 1995) an argument for a broader, multi-dimensional view of expertise has been put forward. While vertical master-novice dimension remains important, a horisontal dimension is rapidly becoming increasingly relevant for the understanding of expertise. In this research, experts are viewed as operating in, and move between, multiple parallel activity contexts. These multiple contexts demand and afford different, complementary but also conflicting cognitive tools, rules, and patterns of social interaction.

Central features of this newly emerging landscape of expertise may be designated as polycotextuality and boundary-crossing between communities of practice. Polycontextuality means that experts are engaged not only in multiple simulatenous tasks and task-specific participation frameworks within one and the same activity and are also increasingly involved in multiple communities of practice.

Sociocultural approach conceptualizes transfer as consequential transitions between different organisations (Beach, 1999) and the approaches based on the activity theory and expansive learning (Davydov, 1990; Engeström, 1987).

Beach (1999) introduces the concept of consequential transitions to reconceptualize transfer. For Beach generalization is located at the interface of persons and activities, embodied in systems of artifacts, and symbolic objects that are created with human intent. Transition involves consequential change in relation between the individual and one or more social activities across time. All forms of transition involve the construction of knowledge and skills understood as transformation rather than as the mere application or use of something that has been acquired elsewhere.

Activity-theoretical view of learning (Engeström, 1987, Leontjev, 1977) redefines the unit of analysis of cognition and learning as a collective activity system. In this view, meaningful transfer of learning takes place through interaction between collective activity systems (eg. school activity system is in interaction with workplace activity system and both learn from each other). What is transferred is not packages of knowledge and skills that remain intact; instead the very process of such transfer involves active interpreting, modifying and reconstructing the skills and knowldge to be transferred.

Bereiter (1995) distinguishes between two kinds of transfer in individual learning and teaching: transfer of principles and transfer of diaposition (whether students apply the principle acquired in a real situation). Bereiter conceptualizes transfer of situations rather than transfer across situations.

Situated cognition research (Greeno 1997, 1998; Greeno, Moore and Smith, 1993) have emphasised the critical importance of the affordances that learning contexts and activities provide for participants.
Greeno (1996) proposed situated view of transfer. He draws on Gibson’s (1986) notion of affordances to explain the mechanisms of underlying situated cognition: We call the support for particular activities created by relevant properties of things and materials in the situation affordances. For practice learned in one situation to transfer into another situation, the second situation has to afford that practice and the agent has to perceive the affordance.Transfer depends on an ability to perceive the affordances for the practice that are present in a changed situation (Greeno, Smith, Moore, 1993). The range of situations that provide affordances for an activity constitutes an important aspect of the socially constructed meanings of the properties of those situations, so that the potential for transfer between situations is shaped by social practices in which people learn activities.

According to Van Oers (1998, 1999) contexts have two functions in learning: they support the particularization of meanings by constraining cognitive processes and elmininating some meanings as not relevant (specification function of context); they bring about the coherence with the larger whole (provide meaning in the sense of putting things in context) (connective function of context). Van Oers suggests that in order to overcome the constraints of thinking that are imposed by specific contexts, people have to access new contexts in which they can develop new alterantive ideas and visions about their current situation. Activity development refers to the processes through which people free themselves from constraints that specific situations might impose upon them. For van Oers recontextualization involves seeing an original activity from the new perspective rather than trying to extract it from its original context.

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One comment

  1. Very nice overview. You might be interested in
    Akkerman, S. F., & Bakker, A. (2011). Boundary crossing and boundary objects. Review of Educational Research, 81, 132-169.



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