The theories of Conceptual Blending and Distributed Cognition are useful models for interpreting the cognitive processes that occur in the course of student interactions during collaborative learning activities in the Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Laboratory (SMALLab)—a hybrid digital-physical space. When both experts and “Just Plain Folks” (Brown et al.) engage in routine problem solving, they call upon an array of resources, both mental and physical. They may identify and list relevant features of the problem space, make drawings or diagrams, perform calculations using a calculator or spreadsheet, and activate memories of similar problems they have encountered that might serve as a useful guide. Often they call upon a friend, relative or colleague and for help.
This collection of resources transcends the bounds of the individual skull and in order to study cognition in this context, we must employ a theoretical model and unit of analysis that allows for the inclusion of tools, artifacts, representations and other people in addition to a single individual’s mental models. The Theory of Distributed Cognition (Hollan et al.) provides an apt description of this group dynamic.
Conceptual Blending (Fauconnier and Turner) has proven to be a useful framework for understanding the reasoning processes that take place within such units of analysis (Megowan and Zandieh). These researchers describe what takes place in three phases: (1) mapping thoughts from input spaces into a blended space which may include anchoring the concepts using words, pictures, diagrams or other tools, (2) filling in details and coordinating elements from the two input spaces in order to complete the new knowledge structure in a blended space, and finally (3) elaborating or manipulating the newly assembled concept to see what new insights it reveals. They call this last step “running the blend”.
This approach to problem solving is seen less often in the typical K-12 classroom setting where most of the discourse is between teacher and individual student, but in classrooms where collaborative problem solving is routinely practiced, students learning gains are significantly greater than those of students in traditional classrooms (Modeling Instruction Findings).
SMALLab is a learning environment where Distributed Cognition and Conceptual Blending provide good descriptions of student reasoning in cooperation with one another. We illustrate this with transcript excerpts from high school science and language arts classes, and explore the potential advantages of embodiment that are designed into this cutting edge learning environment.