The concept of group cognition
Group cognition is a social, largely linguistic phenomenon whereby a small group of people produce a sequence of utterances that performs a cognitive act. That is, if a similar sequence was uttered or thought by an individual it would be considered an act of cognition or thinking.
Small groups of people can engage in activities such as mathematical problem solving and can accomplish intellectual achievements. These accomplishments often proceed by means of interactions in which ideas emerge from the discourse between multiple perspectives and cannot be credited to any one person. An utterance by one person is elicited by and responds to the previous discussion and group context in ways that would otherwise not have arisen, and the utterance is structured so as to elicit specific kinds of responses from other participants. Through a sequence of complexly and subtly interwoven interactions, cognitive results are achieved. The meaning of what was said is determined at the group level of the interactions, and is not in general attributable primarily to pre-existing mental representations of the individual participants.
Of course, group cognition relies on the ability of the participating individuals to interpret and understand the group meaning. But even this individual understanding is fundamentally situated in, and emerges out of, the interactions of the group, which are structured so as to coordinate these understandings. The philosophy of group cognition does not deny individual cognition, but calls for a re-thinking of the ontology, epistemology and methodology for exploring mind.
- "For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf,
- and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."
- Kipling, Rudyard (1894)
- The Law of Jungle.
- From The Jungle Book.
Online group cognition
Online interactions, if carefully planned for, can provide ideal data for research on group cognition. If the interaction takes place through text and persistent drawings, logs can preserve an excellent detailed record of virtually everything that took place across the network. Thus, one can analyze everything that was available to the participants and shared by them. In contrast to video analysis, there is no need to worry about camera angles, lighting, transcriptions, interview protocols, coding reliability, etc. to produce an accurate and useful record.
The data can be analyzed for evidence of the accomplishment of problem solving and other tasks (group cognition) through collaborative interaction within the online small group. This can be achieved through close analysis of how small groups of participants co-construct shared meanings and sustain joint activities through the sequentiality and relatedness of their situated contributions and their social participation. Of course, there are many questions that cannot be addressed this way, such as what goes on in individual heads and what is remembered by specific participants years later. But these issues are beyond the scope of a group cognition research agenda. The group accomplishments have been largely ignored in previous educational research, but may constitute what is unique to computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL) and most promising for the future of computer support for building collaborative knowledge.
A Research Agenda
The Virtual Math Teams (VMT) research group at Drexel University has developed a methodology for chat analysis that is tuned to the exploration of group cognition in a chat environment. This approach is inspired by ethnomethodologically-informed conversation analysis, but the domain differs in multiple significant ways from that of most conversation analysis: Chat is online so neither the participants nor their production of utterances is visible; interactions are text-based so they lack intonation, personality, accent; the topics are math problem solving, rather than socializing; the participants are primarily teenage students engaged in learning, not adult domain experts; the groups are usually 3 to 5 instead of dyads; the participants generally do not know each other or know much about each other; etc. The chat analysis looks closely, line-by-line, at how postings build upon each other sequentially; how they respond to previous postings and elicit future ones; how they establish the social order of the group interaction; how they repair problems of co-construction of shared group meanings; how they construct, reference, remember and name resources that they use in their meaning making.
The research goal is to understand how students interact in an online environment like VMT. How do they approach a given problem and make use of the affordances of their technology? How do different technical details change or mediate the interactions and the methods that students develop? Such understanding can guide the design of CSCL systems and help to attain the frustratingly elusive vision of globally-networked collaborative learning.
The research began by looking at details of how interaction moves are accomplished in brief episodes of case studies. Interaction is tightly embedded in its unique circumstances, which cannot be experimentally manipulated or simplistically generalized. Collections of case studies of a particular kind of interaction can deepen one’s sense of how people engage in such interactions. This may lead to targeted hypotheses that can be explored by quasi-experimental investigations, ethnographic observation or structured interviews. As CSCL researchers share their analyses, the community will gradually develop the expertise and conceptualizations needed to guide system design and pedagogical intervention.
The VMT research team is exploring through the use of chat analysis and other empirical methodologies such topics as: group cognition, group meaning making, the self-constitution of small groups, the nature of online co-presence, group agency, virtual deixis, the adoption of the VMT system, the virtual co-construction of math objects, bridging online discontinuities, negotiation of meaning and online group information behavior. Analyses are developed collaboratively in weekly data sessions, as well as in international workshops where findings are shared with researchers who are using the VMT environment at other institutions
The small-group unit of analysis
Group cognition focuses on the small group as the unit of analysis. In this, it contrasts with theories that are oriented to larger units like communities of practice as well as to the individual person. In this sense, the theory of group cognition complements theories like distributed cognition and cultural-historical activity theory as well as individual cultural psychology. Group cognition theory proposes that small groups are the "engines of knowledge building." The knowing that groups build up in manifold forms is what becomes internalized by their members as individual learning and externalized in their communities as certifiable knowledge. In this sense, the small-group phenomena underlie much of what takes place at the larger scale.
The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that higher-level human cognition is not a biological given aptitude. Rather, individual cognition is developed gradually through social interaction. Various adult intellectual abilities are results of internalization processes through which interpersonal interactions are transformed. For instance, speech begins with talk among people in small groups and dyads. Gradually, young children around the age of four transform speech with others into self-talk, and later into silent speech. The flow of silent speech evolves into the thought of the individual. Such a view reverses the perspective of reductionist psychology and argues for a developmental priority of group cognition. In this sense, the small-group phenomena underlie much of what takes place at the individual scale.
Prejudices against the concept of group cognition
Social psychologists have occasionally referred to group cognition. However, the discipline has generally rejected the notion for fear of conjuring up images of trans-personal "metaphysical" phenomena. Sociologists emphasized the negative possibilities of "group think" or "mass psychology", whereby members of a group are persuaded by peer pressure to forsake their own individual rationality. Psychology is focused on the individual as the unit of analysis. Twentieth century psychology reacts against popularized readings of earlier idealist philosophy and tends to reduce social phenomena to individual psychology or rational calculation.
Book on Group Cognition
The book, Group Cognition by Gerry Stahl discusses the potential of computer and network technology to promote group cognition. It reflects on the methodology for analyzing group cognition and provides some analyzed examples of small group cognitive interaction.
The book, Studying Virtual Math Teams edited by Gerry Stahl presents 28 chapters analyzing various aspects of the study of group cognition as conducted by the Virtual Math Teams Project. Chapters are written by the editor and other members of the VMT research team, visiting researchers who worked on the project and international colleagues. The VMT project was designed specifically to study group cognition in small teams of students discussing mathematics online. A scientific methodology for designing experiments, collecting data, analyzing logs and developing theory is discussed in the book. A number of case studies of excerpts from logs are included. Several chapters discuss larger implications and philosophic issues.
CSCL, Computer Supported Collaborative Learning
Augmented Group Cognition
Cultural-Historical Activity Theory
Augmented Social Cognition
- Virtual Math Teams web page contains a pre-publication version of a new book on the VMT Project -- "Studying Virtual Math Teams" by Gerry Stahl, Springer, 2009.
- Group Cognition web page contains a pre-publication version of a recent book on CSCL -- "Group Cognition: Computer Support for Building Collaborative Knowledge" by Gerry Stahl, MIT Press, 2006.
- Gerry Stahl's CSCL web page contains links to articles, books, conferences, and other resources related to CSCL. It contains videos of several presentations at CSCL conferences.
- International Journal of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning (ijCSCL) is an ISI-indexed, peer-reviewed international journal of CSCL. It is published by Springer electronically and in print. Pre-publication versions of all articles are available for free at this site.