In 1991 education theorists Lave and Wegner developed situated learning theory (SLT). The theory argues that knowledge should be learned in the same place as it it used.
For learners, this means:
- We should learn like apprentices from a “community of practice”.
- Knowledge needs to be applied in realistic contexts in order for it to be useful.
- We start our learning as “legitimate peripheral participants”. We learn mainly through observation and guided practice in the early stages.
- As we build confidence we become full and competent members of our community of practice.
Situated learning theory argues that learning occurs best when it takes place in the context in which it is applied. Students should act in an apprentice capacity within communities of practice where learning opportunities arise situationally. As students gain experience and competence they gradually move from an apprenticeship role to full participants in their community of practice.
Here are some scholarly definitions that you could use in an essay on this topic:
- Besar (2018, p. 49) argues that SLT “holds that effective education requires learning that is embedded in authentic contexts of practice, wherein students engage in increasingly more complex tasks within social communities.”
- Farmer & Hughes (2005, p. 4) argue that, in SLT, learning is seen as a “process or function of activity within a community of practice.” The later argue that SLT believes in: “the primacy of participation in authentic social interaction in order for learning to occur.”
- Handley et al. (2006, p. 3) explain that SLT holds learning to be “integral to everyday practice in workplace, family and other social settings. The focus shifts from decontextualised ‘objective’ knowledge to the accomplishment of knowing in action and in practice.”
Key Features of Situated Learning
1. It is based on Sociocultural Theory
Situated learning theory embraces a sociocultural view of learning. It sees knowledge as being defined and agreed upon by a society or community.
- If you want to learn how to be a doctor, learn from doctors! You’ll never learn on your own…
- If you want to learn how to fix cars, spend time with a mechanic!
This view of learning as ‘social’ is juxtaposed to cognitive-constructivist theory, which believes knowledge can be learned from logic and discovery alone. Cognitive constructivism doesn’t think much about the importance of social interaction in learning.
According to SLT, to become an effective practitioner, you need to know how your community uses knowledge.
2. Learning should take Place in Communities of Practice
Because knowledge is socially co-constructed by a community, the only way to learn is to learn from others. Talking and listening to others can help you learn what information is important to society and how society views certain topics!
Lave and Wegner (1991) say that there are some “communities of practice” who all share the same knowledge. The typical community of practice is a group of professionals who share a craft.
Some examples of communities of practice are:
- Lawyers: Lawyers will know how to navigate legal issues, what things to say in the court of law, how to initiate and settle court cases, etc. This is knowledge shared by their community of practice.
- Carpenters: Carpenters will know what tools to use in which situations, which woods are best for which purposes, strategies for accurately cutting wood to size, etc. This is knowledge shared by their community of practice and would need to be learned from that CoP via an apprenticeship.
- Educators: As an educator, this is my community of practice. Things we know about include pedagogy, identifying learning disabilities, how to get the best out of students, and how to develop a curriculum.
3. Learners start out as Legitimate Peripheral Participants
Lave and Wegner argue that learning should take place through an apprenticeship model.
In their teaching method, students are embedded in real-world contexts. They follow actual practitioners around to observe their practice and learn from them through ‘guided practice’ or what Barbara Rogoff calls ‘cognitive apprenticeships’.
The apprentices are what Lave and Wegner call “legitimate peripheral participants”. This term shows that, when you start out, you’re in the outside of the community of practice. You’re not a central member of the community.
When you’re starting out you might do low risk, easy, achievable tasks that are valuable to the community but not the most complex or difficult tasks.
As you gain experience and competence, you’ll start assuming more and more responsibility and becoming a more and more central member of the community of practice.
Some things you might focus on as an apprentice include:
- Tasks: Doing tasks for the group that are doable and will help build skills and competence.
- Vocabulary: Learning the language of the community of practice. We sometimes call the specific ways of speaking of the CoP a “discourse community“. For example, doctors have many medical terms that need to be learned by an apprentice.
- Organizing principles: Each CoP has different ways of organizing themselves. Some communities have very strict ways of organizing their members. For example, the military has strict ranks like private, major, sergeant and lieutenant.
4. Learners Slowly Become Full Members of the Community of Practice
Each community of practice has its own rules or structures for progressing from peripheral to full participation.
In a traditional apprentice-mentor relationship, it is the mentor who has control over the gradual release of responsibility to the apprentice. The mentor controls the level of participation and the pace of progression.
In more formal contexts, progression may be structured through formal testing, accumulation of time such as number of hours practicing, or age.
Implications for Classroom Practice
SLT may seem like a learning theory best suited for adults, apprentices, or cultures where learning takes place outside of the classroom.
However, teachers who like this approach may be able to use some of its ideas to develop their own classroom teaching strategies.
Some ways educators can use SLT include:
- School Excursions: Encouraging students to take internships or mentorship roles in the local community to make the most of experiential learning contexts. Students should be given opportunities to shadow practitioners as they complete their daily tasks.
- School Incursions: Having community members come into the classroom to share how they do things and vocabulary from their profession.
- Learning through Doing: Focus on project or phenomenon based learning where students learn by doing real-world problem solving tasks rather than learning from books.
- Act as Mentors: Educators can take on a mentorship role in which the students become apprentices in their practice. For example, students can come along to attend adult meetings and listen in on how the meetings are conducted and decisions are made. Here, the students become ‘legitimate peripheral participants’.
Benefits and Limitations
Situated learning theory has the following advantages:
- A focus on social learning: SLT has at its core the belief that learning must be social. An educator who uses SLT in the classroom will therefore bring community members into the classroom, have students learning in groups, provide opportunities for communication, and set up the classroom layout in table groups rather than rows.
- Links learning to life: Students are shown how the knowledge they’re learning is relevant to their real lives. When assessed, the assessment is more authentic because it takes place in a situated setting rather than on a standardized test.
- Learning must be active: Students learn through active approaches such as project-based learning. This allows students to make important neural connections and develop their knowledge through trial-and-error.
- Prepares students for the 21st Century: Students learn skills required in the workforce, and in particular, are prepared for 21st Century workforces which require strong collaboration and communication skills.
While there are many advantages of this theory, there are also several weaknesses:
- Failure to Acknowledge Objectivity: Unlike cognitive constructivism, SLT does not acknowledge that people can learn objective knowledge through independent study. Clearly people can learn without social interaction, so this theory does not fully account for how learning happens.
- Failure to Acknowledge Creative Individuality: Creativity requires thinking in ways that are new and not normal within social groups, whereas SLT encourages learning socially agreed upon information and processes. Creativity and individuality are driving forces behind social progress. Creative people come up with alternative ways of completing tasks or new technologies that make life more efficient and prosperous.
- Impractical for Western Education Systems: Western education is designed around learning in classrooms rather than in situated contexts. It seems almost impossible to implement SLT in a large scale in western education systems.
Glossary of Key Terms
Co-construction of Knowledge: This term highlights that knowledge is constructed by a group of people rather than existing in an objective state. Something is only true if we all agree that it is true. See also: situated cognition.
Social Practice: To define something as a social practice is to note that it is a way of acting, behaving or thinking that is shared by a group of people.
Situated Cognition: Thinking processes and knowledges that are shared by a group of people within a specific context or ‘situation’. This term highlights that knowledge is not objective; rather, facts are negotiated and agreed upon by communities.
Community of Practice: A collection of people who share the same set of knowledge, ways of speaking and ways of thinking about topics. They collectively define knowledge in a similar way, and often define who is and is not a member of their community. Examples include professions as CoPs (medicine, legal, education, engineering), and cultural or religious groups as CoPs (Christians, Hindus, Pacific Islanders, etc.).
Legitimate Peripheral Participant: The act of being an apprentice member of a community of practice who participates in low-risk introductory activities within the CoP. The apprentice’s participation increases as they gain competence with the knowledge and vocabulary of the CoP.
Situated learning theory makes us reflect on the importance of learning in authentic contexts. It argues that learning should be social, interactive, and involve building relationships with more proficient practitioners.
While SLT is best applied in adult learning and workplace learning contexts, it also has some value to classroom teachers. Classroom educators might use this theory to justify bringing experts into the classroom and encouraging students to go out into their community to learn in authentic environments.
If you’re writing an essay about SLT, make sure you reference scholarly sources and use a proper scholarly referencing format. Here are some scholarly sources, listed in APA format, that you might like to use:
Besar, P. (2018). SLT: the key to effective classroom teaching? In: HONAI: International Journal for Educational, Social, Political & Cultural Studies, 1(1): 49-60.
Farmer, R. and Hughes, B. (2005). A situated learning perspective on learning object design. In: Proceedings of 5th IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies. Kaohsiung, Taiwan.
Handley, K., Clark, T., Fincham, R., and Sturdy, A. (2006). Researching Situated Learning: Participation, Identity and Practices in Management Consultancy. Durham, UK: Durham University.
Kakavelakis, K., & Edwards, T. (2012). SLT and agentic orientation: A relational sociology approach. Management Learning, 43(5), 475-494.
Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1990). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
McLellan, H. (1995). Situated learning perspectives. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications.
Suchman, L. (1988). Plans and situated actions: the problem of human/machine communication. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.