Distributed Cognition


Agents incorporating physical and social worlds in extended cognitive systems

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … repertoire of possibilities ((((of an agent) in a social corpus) in the body politic) in the physical world)
  • Knowing is … appropriate acting
  • Learner is … individual-with-tools-for-thinking
  • Learning is … expanding/elaborating possibilities (in part through extending into and engaging with social and material resources available in one’s environment)
  • Teaching is … co-participating in learning




Distributed Cognition is a framework for studying the ways that humans use social and technological means to off-load some of their thinking. It is evident is something as simple as writing out a shopping list. In this frame, “cognition” is understood to extend across members of a social group and to be invested in physical artefacts and environments. That is, the social and material worlds that humans structure around themselves – comprising relationships, symbol systems, tools, and so on – are not just the products of their cognition; they are aspects of their cognition. Associated notions include:
  • Cognitive Artifacts (Donald Norman, 1990s) – collectively developed tools/technologies that enable thinking, such as language and mathematics. Along with Physical Artifacts, they are seen as both products of and amplifiers of intelligence.
  • Physical Artifacts (Donald Norman, 1990s) – material objects and technologies that enable thinking, such as counters, crayons, and computers. Along with Cognitive Artifacts, they are seen as both products of and amplifiers of intelligence.
  • Technology – derived from the Greek tekhe “art, craft, skill,” Technology encompasses the ideas, practices, artifacts, and sensibilities that define a culture


Distributed Cognition has been subject to surprisingly few criticisms. The most common ones tend to be launched from critics lodged in Folk Theories who cannot interrupt a naïve conviction that cognition is brain-based and bounded by the skin, much less that cognition might involve other cognitive systems.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

L.S. Vygotsky

Status as a Theory of Learning

Distributed Cognition is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Distributed Cognition is not a theory of teaching, but it is does serve as a powerful and useful interruption of many troublesome assumptions and practices that are rooted in the belief that cognition happens entirely in the head. The disruptive realization that technologies are a component of cognition prompts attentions to the sorts of vocabularies and artefacts that should be made available to enable possibility – as opposed to, for example, the sorts and extents of rote practice that will lodge necessary understandings in the agent’s head.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Distributed Cognition can be appropriately described a scientific means of studying the complex and situated dynamics of learning. It is supported by methodologically robust research and has a substantial evidence base.


  • Cognitive Artifacts
  • Physical Artifacts
  • Technology

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Distributed Cognition” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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