The view that learning is highly analoguous to the information processing concepts of storage and retrieval from memory is distressingly common; much of the literature in several different fields implicitly embraces such a model, including classical learning theory in psychology and its applications to education. A different view is suggested here, combining principles from recent research in cognitive science, especially integration and distribution, with older principles of activity, cultural historical development, material mediation, and chains of translation in networks of agents and mediators. The use of network models places UCT within the purview of the social networks branch of complex systems theory, though it differs from other work in that area in several ways.
Following this introduction, some of the contributing key ideas are sketched, and then our approach to learning is outlined, including brief discussions of values, perception, mathematical models, and case studies; some readers may wish to read the last section first, and to skip the next to last section.
What is most novel about UCT comes from recent research in cognitive linguistics on conceptual integration networks and their role in cognition, due to Fauconnier, Turner, and others, building on prior work of Lakoff on metaphor and Rosch on concepts. My own algebraic formalization of conceptual integration, using also some ideas from semiotics, plays a role here, as does my experience applying these ideas, along with ANT and ethnomethodology, to the design of computer-based systems, particularly user interfaces, and requirements analysis for systems that must function in complex social environments. The semiotic ideas include Peirce's emphasis on the triadic nature of denotation, as necessarily including an interpretant in addition to a signifier and a signified, and Saussure's ideas that signs may have complex structure, and that they should be studied as members of families of related signs, rather than individually. The interpretant provides for the interpretation of signifiers, taking account of context.
Fauconnier and Turner propose that human understanding is the integration of networks of conceptual spaces (or mental spaces), each of which contains information relevant to some aspect of the current situation, selected out of larger conceptual domains of general knowledge, and from preliminary understandings of immediate perception. These "spaces" consist of individual concepts and relations among them (not just simple concepts), and the network consists not just of the spaces, but also of conceptual mappings which establish connections among the constituents of spaces. The result of understanding is then a blend space that coherently integrates information from all components of the network. Fauconnier and Turner have proposed a number of optimality principles that constrain the choice of blend spaces and the process of integration. Their theory is often called blending theory, here abbreviated BT.
My extension of BT includes a mathematical language in which it can be more precisely expressed and studied, and two major additions. The first adds types and functions to the constants (for concepts) and relations of the (original BT) spaces; this allows consideration of complex structured signs, such as appear in user interfaces. The second addition replaces spaces by frames, which include not just signifiers in a formal language, but also perceptual representations, in the form of geometrical or topological models, in roughly the sense of Gardenfors, but extended with activity, e.g., motion, and action that can induce change, together with an interpretant between them. In this way, the image schemas of Lakoff and the prototypes of Rosch are naturally included in UCT. Integration or blending is then extended to frames, rather than just their formal linguistic components. When a single perceptual space is shared among frames of multiple individuals or groups, we have what Star calls a boundary object, and when the perceptual component is of primary interest (but not necessarily shared), we have the material anchors of Hutchins.
In such situations, integration need not be either unconscious or apparently instantaneous, since conscious effort over extended periods can in fact be observed. Note also that the frames involved in acquisition may be different from those involved in application, although there should be a common core frame if we are to talk about applying what has previously been learned. Moreover, the frames outside this core will in general be different in acquisitions that occurs in different times and situations. The core may evolve, adding new emergent structure, and old structures may also be modified or even deleted. Such modifications can also occur in situations of application, to such an extent that we can now regard the distinction between acquisition and application as rather artificial, being imposed by an outside observer for particular analytical purposes, rather than being intrinsic to the learning process itself. Of course, there should be mechanisms whereby frames that are used more often and/or that apply to more important situations, become easier to access. However, such mechanisms are different at the different levels of individuals, small groups, and large organizations; moreover, these mechanisms may fail, and in general, can be very complex. Hence we consider that they lie outside the cope of the formal aspects of UCT, although their study can be enriched by using ideas from UCT.
This approach applies to group learning processes, and to the sociotechnical networks of human and non-human "actants" (i.e., agents and mediators) that are studied in ANT. Moreover, it provides a natural framework for the evolution of conceptual systems, and the development of individuals, groups and organizations, as the process and result of successive integrations involving an identifiably shared (but evolving) core frame. Thus UCT calls for significantly expanding the networks envisioned by BT, to distribution over individuals and artifacts, as well as over space and time, rather than being confined to the minds of particular individuals at particular times. However, the explicit construction of integrated (blend) frames occurs (mainly) in individuals, and is (mainly) virtual for groups and organizations (an exception is if a small group writes a report, e.g. summarizing a meeting). Portions of the group blend are always instantiated by individuals, but individuals can also be entirely unaware of portions of the group blend that are distant from their concerns.
Although this approach to values arose from attempts to apply BT and semiotics to problems in user interface design, they also fit very well with the "continuous chains of translation" from ANT, since what is translated along paths in an ANT network are the values of the actants involved; ANT postulates that the existence of such chains of translation is precisely what makes a network (such as that supporteing Pasteur's "germ theory" and practice of pasteurization) viable. UCT extends this insight to distributed frame networks in general, and to BT cognitive networks in paticular. In effect, this extension of ANT provides a very general theory of the sustainability of networks, such as large distributed collaborative research centers.
Recent work shows how to use this mathematical language to describe complex blends, such as the Buddhist monk blend of Fauconnier and Turner, and to explore their properties, especially the sometimes surprising consequences of various otherwise implicit assumptions. The language has also been used to explore properties of metaphors of time as space.
In addition to contemporary formal logic, the very abstract language and tools of category theory have been used to formalize other key concepts, including: mappings between conceptual spaces; mappings between frames; networks of spaces; networks of frames; blending of spaces; and blending of frames. Many general theorems can be stated and proved, offering further insights into BT, UCT, and their applications to learning.
Let us imagine a child learning the word "chair" and its associated concepts. The first experience might be something like its mother saying "Now we sit in our highchair", in a rich context that includes the actions of being seated in the chair by the mother, the mother's vocal tone and facial expression, visual and tactile perception of the chair, and what happens before and after the seating. Other encounters might have verbal tags such as "Now this is our potty chair", or "This is mommy's chair", again, all richly contextualized, but now also linked to the frames of prior encounters with this word, and eleciting integration with those frames, and a gradually evolving core frame.
Clearly, there is much more going on here than acquiring, storing, and retrieving a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for some real world object to count as a chair. There is the material mediation of the mother and of the various (and very different) chairs, as well as the spoken words themselves and the rich sensory-motor interactions with the environment. Moreover, the cognition involved is distributed, as is particularly clear when the child's understanding is initially only very partial, so that the mother's role in dominant. Values also play a key role in coordinating the actions in frames; these values include love for the mother, the necessities of the biological processes of eating and excreting, and the particular normative forms in which these are practiced in our culture. At some later stage, the child will be able to use the word "chair" more or less correctly, and will be able to execute the actions associated with the various kinds of chair with less and less assistance.
While this example is speculative, I think it does suggest that the various ingredients suggested in this note are indeed necessary for a comprehensive theory of what learning is and how it occurs. Moreover, our UCT approach to learning has significant implications for educational theory and practice, though this is not the place to explicate those. In addition, it suggests hypotheses and experiments to test them. But for the moment, I prefer to emphasize its potential as a stimulus to interdisciplinary discussion and building "chains of translation" among the various approaches to learning that it tries to unify.