Reflections on Situated Learning

I just finished reading Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Lave and Wenger. It’s a fascinating piece of scholarship published in 1991 that approaches learning from a situated, social perspective. An overview of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP) can be found on Wikipedia. Many ideas came to mind as I read this book, but before I go any further, I should mention that this is still relatively far afield from my usual research areas, so I welcome correction if I am missing the nuances or even just plain wrong on my interpretations.

Communities of Practice

The authors describe learning as happening in a community of practice. To establish this point, they leverage a variety of examples of apprenticeship. One of the core contradictions the authors use is that of community regeneration, that newcomers become old-timers. Tying this into higher education, it makes me concerned that much of higher education is designed to propogate professorship. This is almost too easy an explanation for why motivation to study is generally low among college students: the intention of the teacher and the perspective of the student (assuming the student is not intending on an career in academia) are completely different.

Masters such as these

A quotation from p85, in the context of discussing how learning occurs in communities of practice despite the absence of didactics:

If masters don’t teach, they embody practice at its fullest in the community of practice. Becoming a “master such as these” is an embodied telos too complex to be discussed in the narrower and simpler language of goals, tasks, and knowledge acquisition.

This captures some of my frustration in teaching. I reference my working with two students on Confluence as one of my most positive learning experiences, and I feel strongly that we all learned substantially from this experience. Borrowing from Lave and Wenger, my students were legitimate peripheral participants, and I was the master—not the “teacher”. This is in stark contrast to my experience with 345/545 this semester. With 33 students spread across seven teams, I am left barely involved in their processes. I am a master in abstentia, but I can see no other way to organize so many people with one course load.

The other course I have this semester is on history education game design, and I am team-teaching it with my esteemed colleague Ronald Morris. We have eleven students who are working on the design for a game that will teach fourth-graders about Indiana’s Civil War history. While the class has some forward momentum now, there have been several points where I have felt that the students were either not putting in the right amount of effort, or that they were not putting effort in the right direction. I have tried to guide this as a mentor, but looking at it from the LPP perspective, not as a master. I cannot help but wonder what would have been different if I had been the game designer, and the students had legitimate peripheral roles: would that have been a better learning experience for them, with less of the frustration that comes from masterless apprenticeship? I am going to need more time to think about this, but I offer it here for consideration and commentary. (EDIT: I should add that I don’t actually consider myself a master game designer, but rather someone who is learning along with the students. However, my “mentoring” actually separates me from being a legitimate peripheral participant. Weird.)

Lave and Wenger do not explore the structural changes that would be necessary in formal education in order to leverage LPP, but I do not blame them for avoiding that minefield in this work.

Teaching a craft

One of the more interesting case studies referenced in the book is that of the apprenticeship of tailors. An apprentice starts by learning to finish a garment: sewing buttons, hems, etc. The apprentice then learns the production process backward, so the last thing the apprentice learns is how to cut the material. This way, while working peripherally yet legitimately in the community of practice, the apprentice is learning not just the feel of the material, the repeating patterns of tailoring, but also the social interaction and the personal identity of tailorship. The authors claim that this outside-in pattern of learning a craft is common across times and cultures.

I agree with Alistair Cockburn that software development is largely a craft. Are we guilty of teaching students inside-out, from cutting to polishing? Given that students rarely ever truly ship anything, I would answer affirmatively. Understanding this model of learning a craft, and the theory of LPP, has given me a new perspective on an old frustration, but again, I’m going to need more time to digest it.


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