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Entretien avec David Wood pour le numéro spécial « L’aide en contexte numérique d’apprentissage »

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  • 1 Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Chi (...)
  • 2 Wood, H., & Wood, D. (1999). Help seeking, learning and contingent tutoring. Computers & Education, (...)

Pour compléter ce numéro spécial sur l’aide en contexte numérique d’apprentissage, nous avons eu le privilège de pouvoir nous entretenir avec David Wood, professeur émérite à l’université de Nottingham et éminent spécialiste de ce domaine : il a notamment travaillé sur le tutorat avec Jérôme Bruner1 dès les années 1970 puis il a publié, en 2009, l’un des tout premiers articles sur le tutorat et la demande d’aide médiatisée par ordinateur2. Francophile, David Wood a répondu en anglais à nos questions posées en français ! L’intégralité de cet entretien exceptionnel se trouve ci-dessous.

Minna Puustinen et Chrysta Pélissier : Pourriez-vous commencer par nous rappeler les grandes étapes de votre parcours professionnel, long et riche en rencontres ?

David Wood: I graduated in psychology at the University of Nottingham in 1966 and completed my doctorate there in 1969. For my PhD, I had developed computer programs to simulate adult problem solving and learning in the context of verbal reasoning problems. The models represented not only people’s initial processes of reasoning but changes in the nature of their reasoning strategies with experience. Where did their powers of reasoning originate ? How could one understand the processes of reflection and abstraction that underpinned the changes that took place in people’s reasoning with experience ? I read Piaget (Vygotsky came to me much later) and became hooked on the ontogenetic dimension of such questions !

With a Fellowship from our Science Research Council and NATO, I went on to a post-doc at Harvard to work with Jerome Bruner in 1969/70. There, with Gail Ross, we started our work on tutoring and assisted problem solving. When “Jerry” moved to Oxford in 1971/2, I joined him as a post-doc member of the Oxford Preschool Research Group where I first developed my interest in the study of teaching and learning in classrooms, working alongside teachers. At the same time, I started to direct a 13 year programme of research funded by our Medical Research Council on the social and intellectual development of deaf children ; research also mainly based in classrooms. This was located in Nottingham where I became a lecturer and then a professor of psychology.

Later, my colleagues and I gained funding for a 10 year inter-disciplinary research centre from our Economic and Social Research Council. This brought together researchers from the fields of computer science, psychology and education for research on learning, with one strand of the work focused on the design and evaluation of principles to support computer-mediated learning. Its research agenda also included classroom-based evaluations of the impacts of technology on teaching and learning, computational models of cognition and learning, and knowledge representation and the design of learning environments. This programme of research led eventually to the formation of the LSRI (Learning Sciences Research Institute). I founded the Institute at Nottingham a few years before retiring from my academic post.

Minna Puustinen et Chrysta Pélissier : Ce numéro spécial porte sur l’aide en contexte numérique d’apprentissage. Or vous êtes un éminent spécialiste de ce domaine : vous avez notamment travaillé sur le tutorat avec Jérôme Bruner puis publié l’un des tout premiers articles sur le tutorat et la demande d’aide médiatisée par ordinateur. Nous nous sommes rendues compte, en travaillant sur ce sujet, que la notion d’aide est complexe ; les définitions varient selon les disciplines et les cadres théoriques utilisés. Quelle est votre définition de l’aide ?

David Wood: We have never used the term “aid” in our work though we have investigated what we termed “help seeking”. Our definition of “helping” is specific and easy to state though difficult to achieve in practice. It involves the provision of hints, suggestions, illustrations or demonstrations that are contingent upon the diagnosed information needs of the learner. This holds both when aid is being provided at the request of the learner and when it is based on decisions made by a tutor. If “help” is not contingent or sufficiently succinct and to the point, then efforts to “aid” risk becoming a source of interference, distraction and irritation.

The underlying concept of contingency is a dynamic one - for example, if the help offered never or rarely leads immediately to learner success this serves as a sign that the demands being made are too far beyond the current capability of the learner, or that the help being provided lacks sufficient specificity (or that the learner does not really want to be helped!). Conversely, where tasks are too easy for the learner, any help offered will always predate learner success, serving as a signal that the learner should be prompted to move on to more challenging, rewarding and/or more autonomous activities. In this way, contingent helping can serve as a means of ‘dynamic assessment’ whereby the successes and seeming failures that follow on attempts to provide help may help the tutor to refine their own theories about learner capabilities and/or about the epistemic and pedagogical nature of the learning activity they are trying to mediate.

Minna Puustinen et Chrysta Pélissier : Vous avez beaucoup travaillé sur les deux thématiques clés de la revue DMS : l’enseignement-apprentissage à distance et la médiation des savoirs. Pourriez-vous nous dire quels enseignements principaux vous tirez sur les recherches que vous avez menées dans ces 2 domaines ?

David Wood: In the 1990’s the UK mounted a wide-ranging series of investigations designed to assess the impact of the then contemporary digital learning resources on pupil’s achievement in schools. I was asked to evaluate and reflect on the findings of these studies. The results were disappointing. Despite the fact that at least one of the tutoring systems assessed was theoretically well motivated and had undergone extensive and positive field trials (in the USA), we could find no compelling evidence for any positive, cumulative impacts on pupil achievement.

The more informal findings suggested strongly (though did not prove) that the impact of technology on learning was being mediated by the way in which that technology was assimilated into wider teaching and learning practices. Moreover, these practices, we suggested, were being constrained, in turn, by school organisation, curriculum goals and systems of assessment and examination. If all of these constraints are not well aligned and pulling in the same direction, then any potential benefits of the technology will prove elusive - even if that technology is well designed and is a potential mediator of knowledge and understanding.

Following on this work, I spent several years on collaborative projects with colleagues from eight European countries funded by the EU. Each of my colleagues was an expert on IT and education/training in their country. I think this was one of the most interesting and thought-provoking investigations I have undertaken, although its impact on policy and practice seems to have been minimal. Basically, the range of projects looked at aspirations for, and innovations in, the uses of digital learning resources in the partner countries. Together, we identified factors likely to act on and constrain successful introduction and exploitation. This included the integration alongside other teaching-learning practices, demands on teachers’ professional development and skill, the design of learning places and spaces, curricula development, systems of assessment and examination. Technical brilliance and proven potential for the technology were far from sufficient to underpin its successful exploitation. It seemed to me that of all the partners involved, Finland had gone furthest in developing a system with the scope needed for success. They were bringing together teachers, IT specialists, policy makers, university researchers and colleagues from Finnish TV and radio to collaborate in the design and delivery of networked learning resources in order to achieve national goals for education.

Question 3 also asks asked about key lessons (for me) from our work viewed from the perspective of knowledge mediation.

I think our decision to begin investigating learner help seeking in the context of tutorial interaction has proved a good one. Although we and others have established predictable, causal links between contingent tutoring and learning outcomes, our investigations do not account for the ontogenesis of the contingencies found in interactions. Common observation tells us that some learners are easy to help ; others less so. Easy-to-help learners may create a more contingent and enabling learning environment for themselves by signalling when they believe they are at the limits of their own understanding and skill, by responding readily to attempts to help, and signalling by deed or word that they do or not understand any help offered. When we worked with deaf children, for example, we documented many ways in which the learner’s disability created a range of secondary handicapping conditions by disrupting the contingencies found in teacher-learner interactions. The decision to look at help seeking and contingent tutoring in the context of computer-based systems was motivated by such observations. These have, I believe, helped in some small way to enhance our understanding of the processes of knowledge mediation ; if not by extensive findings, then by indicating the potential payoff of such work.

A second focus, feeding a long-term interest of mine, has been to gain theoretical understanding of how tutoring actually mediates its impact on learning. Without a good theoretical understanding of this mediation, our empirical observations, though of some practical value perhaps, will never prove to be truly generative. When I read of the work of John Anderson and his colleagues in the USA, I was intrigued by the principles of effective instructional support he was drawing from his (computationally implemented) theory of learning. He and his colleagues were exploiting this theory to constrain and deliver effective, digital tutoring systems. I was struck by the close similarity between the principles he had adduced and those we have derived from observational research into scaffolding and contingent face-to-face tutoring. I would like to see a much greater focus in our theorising about knowledge mediation on attempts to specify and test specific hypotheses about the actual processes – cognitive and communicative – that are supposed to realise that mediation. But that is an awful lot to ask !

Minna Puustinen et Chrysta Pélissier : Les contextes numériques d’apprentissage évoluent rapidement (cf. développement récent des MOOC par ex.). Quels sont selon vous les enjeux les plus importants de la recherche sur l’aide en contexte numérique d’apprentissage pour les 5-10 années à venir ?

David Wood: What a question! The challenges are so great, and the opportunities for investigation so numerous that it’s hard to establish priorities for oneself let alone to advise others.

I would like to believe the field could make progress in helping to enhance our children’s and citizen’s ability to seek on-line help and information intelligently, discovering, for example, how to triangulate different sources of information to assess its honesty, reliability and utility. We might also make major social contributions by exploiting technology to help our ageing populations to a richer and more inclusive life-style. I believe technology has and will have the potential to contribute. I’m less optimistic that the socio-political backing needed to mount the scale of effort that would be needed to realise such potential.

Having said this, I think some key questions are ripe for research and promise theoretical rewards even if they may not be scaled up to create effective social policy. When and why does an individual seek to find help or search for information ? When and why do some individual’s not seek help ? When and why do some seem to profit from help sought or help offered whilst others do not ? Does help received in a digital context generalise to support successful activity in other contexts ? How can we exploit the greater understanding answers to such questions would provide to enhance the design and impact of systems of tutorial support ?

Will the answers to such questions be found to reside simply in the quality of system design? Will meta-cognitive failure on a user’s part prove important ? Does the socio-cultural context in which help is sought or offered place major constraints on its reception and impact ? Can knowledge underpinning skills involved in decisions about of when and how to recognise a need to look for help and information, be learned and, if so, how, when and by what means ?

I believe that we have the tools and enough knowledge to make real progress in finding answers to these questions.

Minna Puustinen et Chrysta Pélissier : Quels conseils auriez-vous à donner aux professionnels (concepteurs, enseignants…) chargés de la mise en place des aides en contexte numérique d’apprentissage aujourd’hui ?

David Wood: Again, I’ll try to restrict my crystal ball gazing to topics closest to my work - which occupies such a small space in the scope of this question.

It’s not always possible to diagnose a user’s knowledge and skill in order to provide contingent support. In many digital activity contexts this is not feasible for a variety of reasons. So, how, then, might one design on-line help (digital or human) where this is the case ? One practical suggestion is to organise help provided as a progression : Start general, always keeping communication as succinct as possible. If the general fails, then progressively offer more specific guidance until meaning is demonstrated.

Secondly, I would try to leave as much responsibility for decisions to seek help to the learner as feasible - until experience dictates otherwise. I would monitor the impact of these design decisions on any relevant indicator of actual user performance. So, I would treat design decisions as hypotheses about how best to supply help and assistance and try to think creatively about how any evidence of impact on the activities of the intended users might be obtained.

Of course, factors such as the context of use and the availability of other resources will constrain how well and by what means decisions about design, implementation and assessment might be made. Where are there other sources of support then, where feasible, I would seek collaboration. Where, for instance, there are teachers or tutors involved in supporting users, I would seek to consult or collaborate with them as members of a design, development and evaluation team. A range of authoring tools already exist to be exploited and further developed to support such collaborative D and R (Development and Research).

I would also stress the fact that evidence derived from the use and impact of such resources not only promises to help with assessment of the user’s performance and their needs but also gives us a means of assessing hypotheses about how to identify and meet such needs - a practical form of experimental pedagogy. Perhaps it will be possible to grow a community of developer/researchers who can enhance our understanding of what Bruner called the “pedagogy of subject-matter knowledge” : A marriage of learning theory, semiotics and pedagogics.

Minna Puustinen et Chrysta Pélissier : Nous avons appris avec beaucoup d’émotion la disparition de Jérôme Bruner l’année dernière. Pourriez-vous nous raconter un souvenir lié aux recherches que vous avez menées ensemble ?

David Wood: At Harvard, Jerry organised weekly, early morning ‘doughnut seminars’. These brought together Centre fellows and provided an opportunity for informal discussions around ideas being raised from work in progress. I remember outlining preliminary findings from our first study of tutoring and their possible implications for charting developmental changes in the ability to learn with help. As the meeting closed and we were all en route to our various offices, Jerry said something along the lines of – “this is the first time I can see clear empirical connections between two of my great interests – the nature of adult cognition and the ontogenesis of knowing”. I was, of course, pleased because my own interest had started with studies of adult reasoning and moved on to the ontogenesis of knowing. Jerry, of course, went on to encapsulate such ideas in far more poetical and accessible language ; in his terms one might say that the processes of cultural mediation by his “vicars of culture” often come about through processes involving a “loan of consciousness” by expert to novice members of that culture.

A second memorable moment comes from the same time period - perhaps I was more impressionable then! I was presenting the first detailed analysis from our tutoring work in a more formal seminar and suggested we might consider the experimenter-cum-tutor as the “interface” between a learner’s knowledge of the task and a more expert knowledge - functions such as highlighting, simplifying, removing distractions, reminding, showing and telling being functions performed at that interface. Jerry didn’t like the term ‘interface’ at all. We considered terms like “framework”, “supporting structure” and several other terms that I have now forgotten. Eventually, we decided that the term “scaffolding” might be suitable.

1Minna Puustinen et Chrysta Pélissier : Merci infiniment d’avoir accepté de répondre à nos questions !

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1 Wood, D., Bruner, J. S., & Ross, G. (1976). The role of tutoring in problem solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17, 89-100. Traduit en français dans : Bruner, J. S. (1983). Le développement de l’enfant : savoir faire, savoir dire. Paris : PUF.

2 Wood, H., & Wood, D. (1999). Help seeking, learning and contingent tutoring. Computers & Education, 33, 153-169.

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« Entretien avec David Wood pour le numéro spécial « L’aide en contexte numérique d’apprentissage » »Distances et médiations des savoirs [En ligne], 19 | octobre 2017, mis en ligne le 19 octobre 2017, consulté le 05 décembre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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