Notes on J. Lave and Situated Learning Communities

Situated Learning Perspective, Ecological Theory for Learning, Networks, & Situating Learning Communities of Practice – (Barab, Lave)

Barab, S. and M.W. Roth. (2006). “Curriculum-Based Ecosystems: Supporting Knowing from an Ecological Perspective” Educational Researcher, Vo. 35, No. 5, pp.3-13. June/July.

Lave, J. (1991). Situating learning in communities of practice. In L. Resnick & S. Teasley (Eds.), Perspectives on socially shared cognition (pp. 63-82). Washington, DC: APA.

Summary of Situated Learning Perspective, Ecology Theory for Learning, Networks, and Communities of Practice:

Barab and Roth’s analysis of networks situates the environment at the center of learning. The authors demonstrate “the role of the environment in distributing cognition” (pg. 6). They breakdown the simplistic idea of applied knowledge by deconstructing networks with discussions about the ways in which agents (or learners) engage and participate within the environment; the tools they use, how resourceful they are with the tools, the ways in which agents “wax and wane” (pg. 5) within a particular network depending upon targeted goals and understanding. The network, the authors argue, “is bounded by its function” (pg. 6). That is, how agents participate and contribute to the network itself determines its overall function. The authors believe in participation over acquisition. They state, “[i]ntegrating this theoretical conviction into our argument suggests that knowledge acquisition may be overrated and that a more important role of education is to stimulate meaningful participation” (pg. 6).

Jean Lave, a social anthropologist, puts a social (and to some extent, a human) face on cognitive science. Her article on situated learning asks us to rethink the idea of learning as a “emerging property of whole persons’ legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice.” She asks the question “why is learning problematic in the modern world?” and briefly outlines a historical perspective of Marxist social theory to explain 1) alienated conditions of contemporary life, and 2) how commoditize labor diminishes possibilities for “sustained development of identities and mastery” (pg. 65). From the onset, we understand Lave takes a social and cultural approach to cognitive science. As such, she critiques two genres of situated activity theory by introducing the theory of situative learning. The first, Cognition Plus View (CPV) locates situatedness in the individual, internal business of cognitive processing, representations, memory and problem solving, and cognitive theory. (This view has a fixed Cartesian view of the world). The second, Interpretive View (IV) locates situatedness in the use of language and/or social interaction. Meaning is negotiated [and] the use of language is a social activity rather than a matter of individual transmission of information, and situated cognition is always interest-relative. Unlike CPV and IV above, situated learning, according to Lave, “claims that learning, thinking, and knowing are relations among people engaged in activity in, with, and arising from the socially and culturally structured world” (pg. 67).

Lave discusses Jordan’s 1989 ethnographic research on apprenticeship in the Yucatec Mayan Midwifery community (pg. 68). The apprentices in this community are peripheral participants, legitimate participants, and legitimately peripheral to the practice of midwifery. Community members of Yucatec Mayan Midwifery have access to broad knowledgeability of the practice of midwifery and to increasing participation in that practice (pg. 70). With this example, Lave argues against prior notions that teaching resources (in the Western sense) are necessary in order for effective apprenticeship. Though this community is impoverished, and despite a lack of identifiable teaching resources, Jordan’s ethnography shows that “learning activity is improvised” (pg. 7) and knowledgeability and an ongoing transfer of newcomers to oldtimes are established in this particular community. Lave’s discussion of Alcoholics Anonymous is also an example of a community of practice where newcomers gradually develop identities as nondrinking alcoholics—i.e. learning as legitimate peripheral participation (pg. 71). Both examples Lave mentions resonates with Jenkins’ (2006) notion of affinity spaces (pg. 9) in a participatory culture, that is, spaces where informal learning communities acquire skills and knowledge through apprenticeship. These spaces, according to Jenkins, are powerful sites of generative learning where “aesthetic experiments and innovations emerge” (pg. 9).

Though Lave initially presents a “seamless whole” (pg. 74) of communities of practice, she also acknowledges that continuity and displacement (of oldtimers) are necessary for someone to become a full practitioner in a community of practice—a complex and muddy reality.

The crux of Lave’s article comes toward the end with further analysis on what Henning (2004) discusses of Lave as the commoditization of knowledge. That is, the commoditization of knowledge and learning results in the anthropomorphizing and objectification of people (Lave, 1991). People become products within an exchange system of learning (pg. 75). As a result, the learner, or agent “has little possibility of fashioning an identity that implies mastery [since] commodification of labor implies the detachment of the value of labor from the person” (pg. 76). In other words, personal identity, a significant factor in knowledgeability according to Lave “devolves elsewhere” or is lost.

Lave’s 1991 article as well as her work mentioned in Henning’s 2004 article, “Everyday Cognition and Situated Learning“, establishes nicely the ways in which Lave puts a human face on cognitive science.

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