Original Research

The unavoidable need for distributed cognition in teaching literacy

Catherine Elizabeth Snow
South African Journal of Childhood Education | Vol 1, No 2 | a81 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajce.v1i2.81 | © 2011 Catherine Elizabeth Snow | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 29 May 2014 | Published: 31 December 2011

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Catherine Elizabeth Snow, Graduate School of Education

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Certain tasks are more likely to be solved by groups than by individuals, even when the individuals are highly skilled at aspects of the task. These are tasks such as filling out income tax forms or performing surgical operations, for which inputs from several individuals who have complementary domains of knowledge and skill are needed. I refer to such tasks as those that require ‘distributed cognition’, and argue that teaching
children to read is a prime example of such a task. Teaching children to read requires distributed cognition because so much knowledge about language, about pedagogy, about child development, and about literacy development is needed to do it well. Expecting that individuals acquire all that knowledge in a relatively brief pre-service teacher education programme is unrealistic. I suggest that a model in which teachers work in teams, or in which novice teachers can call on experts for advice, would serve both students and teachers better. Such a model presupposes a career trajectory for teachers, in which greater experience and knowledge generates greater responsibility and higher status. We need to replace the apprenticeship of personal experience with professional learning communities that can nurture the development of every novice teacher. Teaching literacy also requires unlearning a long list of commonsense beliefs that are incorrect and that can disrupt optimal teaching. I suggest that, while stereotypes and group-based expectations are very difficult to eliminate, behaviours
based on those beliefs can be changed – and are more likely to be modified if work is undertaken collaboratively. Finally, distributed cognition is needed to compensate for the many difficult conditions under which teaching goes on. Overlarge classes, inadequate materials, poorly designed curricula, unsupportive school leaders, and many other challenges are faced regularly by teachers. Teachers should not be in
the position of facing these challenges alone. In this article, I sketch out the kinds of knowledge that are required in teaching literacy, the kinds of widespread and common sense beliefs that need to be overcome in order t


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