Roger Säljö

Roger SäljöProfessor of education and educational psychology
at the Department of Education, University of Gothenburg, Sweden
Director of The Linnaeus Centre for Research on Learning, Interaction and Mediated Communication in Contemporary Society (LinCS)


Hybrid minds and symbolic technologies: Evolving practices of learning

Through history, humans have invented tools and technologies to support their activities. This seems to be a characteristic of our species: we are tool-makers and tool-users, and when we face obstacles we try to cope with them through cultural innovation; we design artifacts. Some of these tools/artifacts add to our physical capacities (knives, hammers, bicycles), others transform (and dramatically amplify) our cognitive capacities and practices. Symbolic technologies – alphabets, number systems, books, maps, calculators, computers – reorganize the manners in which we think, learn and communicate. Such technologies always have a material basis, and they operate in symbiosis with people attuned to their affordances. This implies that our cognitive activities often, as it were, take detours outside our minds: we remember by making notes, we solve problems by consulting documents, we navigate by using maps or GPS navigators and we calculate by using various cognitive crutches, all the way from paper and pencil via slide rules to digital calculators.

Owing to its grounding in a dualist and Cartesian world view, research on learning, and cognition more generally, has had, and still has, considerable difficulties to adapt to this co-evolution of minds and symbolic technologies. In much research in these areas, people are drained of the cognitive tools they rely on in everyday practices when learning and development are studied. One consequence of this is that the unit of analysis used in most research does not reflect how thinking is organized when seen as distributed between minds and artifacts (and between people). In this presentation, it will be argued that learning must be understood as a historically and culturally situated phenomenon, and that the practices involved in learning – inside and outside institutions – are currently undergoing significant changes.