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An Analysis of

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s


Situated Learning:
Legitimate Peripheral
Participation

Charmi Patel
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR OF THE ORIGINAL WORK
Born in 1939 in the United States, Jean Lave is an anthropologist
and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Most of her
career has been focused on social aspects of the learning process, and
she continues to write and teach.
Her collaborator Etienne Wenger was born in Switzerland in 1952.
He holds a doctorate in artificial intelligence, and teamed up with
Lave when both were at the Institute for Research on Learning in
Palo Alto, California. Wenger is now an independent consultant
helping organizations establish “communities of practice,” a term the
pair coined for groups organized around a common interest, and in
which individuals learn from each other through active participation.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS OF THE ANALYSIS


Dr Charmi Patel is an associate professor at the Henley Business
School at the University of Reading. She holds a PhD in Organisational
Behaviour and an MSc in Human Resource Management from the
Aston Business School, Aston University, and has taught at the
University of Edinburgh Business School. There she was also the
Programme Director, for Edinburgh’s MSc in International Human
Resource management, having designed and launched the MSc
programme from its inception until 2016. Her research uses the
concepts of resource management and organizational behavior to
examine the ways in which individuals relate to their work and to the
organizations that employ them.
ABOUT THIS BOOK
This book is part of a series of unique academic explorations of seminal
works in the humanities and social sciences – books and papers that
have had a significant and widely recognised impact on their disciplines.
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lies between the covers of a great book. It illuminates and explores the
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deeper understanding of important ideas.
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They are: Influences, Ideas, and Impact.
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asterisk [*] throughout) – as well as a list of works cited.
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CRITICAL THINKING AND SITUATED LEARNING

Primary critical thinking skill: CREATIVE THINKING


Secondary critical thinking skill: ANALYSIS

Social anthropologist Jean Lave and computer scientist Etienne Wenger’s


seminal Situated Learning helped change the fields of cognitive science and
pedagogy by approaching learning from a novel angle.Traditionally, theories of
learning and education had focused on processes of cognition – the mental
processes of knowledge formation that occur within an individual. Lave and
Wenger chose to look at learning not as an individual process, but a social one.

As so often with the creative thinking process, a small, simple shift in emphasis
was all that was required to show things in an entirely different light.What
Situated Learning illustrated – and emphasized – was that learning is dependent
on its social situation. Even though the most effective way to learn is through
interaction with experts and peers in a community organized around a
common interest, the traditional cognitive learning model failed to account for
the way in which learners interact with their ‘community of practice.’The new
hypothesis that Lave and Wenger developed was that learning can be seen as a
continuously evolving set of relationships situated within a social context.This
allowed Lave and Wenger to place discussions of apprenticeship and workplace
learning on a new footing – and led in turn to the book’s impressive impact in
business and management scholarship.

Macat has worked with the University of Cambridge to identify the elements
of critical thinking and understand the ways in which six different skills
combine to enable effective thinking. Three allow us to fully understand a
problem; three more give us the tools to solve it. Together, these six skills
make up the PACIER model of critical thinking. They are:

ANALYSIS – understanding how an argument is built


EVALUATION – exploring the strengths and weaknesses of an argument
INTERPRETATION – understanding issues of meaning
CREATIVE THINKING – coming up with new ideas and fresh connections
PROBLEM-SOLVING – producing strong solutions
REASONING – creating strong arguments

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CONTENTS

WAYS IN TO THE TEXT


Who Are Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger? 9
What Does Situated Learning Say? 11
Why Does Situated Learning Matter? 12

SECTION 1: INFLUENCES
Module 1:The Author and the Historical Context 15
Module 2: Academic Context 19
Module 3:The Problem 23
Module 4:The Author’s Contribution 27

SECTION 2: IDEAS
Module 5: Main Ideas 32
Module 6: Secondary Ideas 35
Module 7: Achievement 39
Module 8: Place in the Author’s Work 43

SECTION 3: IMPACT
Module 9:The First Responses 48
Module 10:The Evolving Debate 53
Module 11: Impact and Influence Today 57
Module 12:Where Next? 61

Glossary of Terms 66
People Mentioned in the Text 70
Works Cited 76
WAYS IN TO THE TEXT
KEY POINTS
• The social anthropologist* Jean Lave and the computer
scientist Etienne Wenger coauthored Situated Learning
(1991) while at the Californian not-for-profit Institute for
Research on Learning* (social anthropology is a discipline
looking at the ways in which our social institutions
and behavior reflect the defining characteristics of our
species).
• By focusing on the social aspects of learning, the book
gives a new dimension to the concept of apprenticeship*
(on-the-job training).
• Situated Learning considers theories of meaning, practice,
learning, and identity* (the characteristics understood
to determine who we are); it is relevant to the fields of
psychology* (the study of the human mind and behavior),
linguistics* (the study of the nature and functioning of
language), anthropology* (the study of human culture,
belief, and practices), and educational science.

Who Are Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger?


Born in the United States in 1939, Jean Lave, the coauthor of Situated
Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, is a social anthropologist
based at the University of California, Berkeley, with an interest in

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Macat Analysis of Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning

social theory. Much of her research concentrates on learning, learners,


and everyday life as it is understood in the context of society. In
addition to Situated Learning, Lave has written three books with this
focus: Everyday Cognition: Its Development in Social Context (coedited
with Barbara Rogoff, 1984), Cognition in Practice (1988), and
Understanding Practice (coauthored with the social scientist Seth
Chaiklin, 1993).1
Born in Switzerland in 1952, Etienne Wenger received his bachelor’s
degree in computer science from the University of Geneva, his master’s
in information and computer science in 1984, and a doctorate in
artificial intelligence in 1990, both from the University of California,
Irvine. He then joined the Institute for Research on Learning in Palo
Alto, California, an institute dedicated to research in the field of learning.
He considers himself a social learning* theorist (one who studies
theories of how knowledge is transmitted through social processes) as
his work focuses on learning that takes place at the social or group level,
and not just within an individual mind. Wenger is now an independent
consultant specializing in helping organizations develop “communities
of practice”*—a term coined by the authors to describe a group of
people (“practitioners”) organized around a similar interest, with access
to a similar body of knowledge on the topic.
In addition to Situated Learning,Wenger has written and coauthored
several books in the field of social learning, including Communities of
Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (1998), in which he lays out a
theory of learning; Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to
Managing Knowledge (2002), coauthored with the social scientists
Richard McDermott and William M. Snyder and addressed to those
who want to develop communities of practice in their own
organizations; and Digital Habitats (2009), with Nancy White and John
D. Smith, which focuses on issues related to the use of technology.
Wenger’s contributions extend beyond education studies to address
the importance of the concept of communities of practice in public

10
Ways In to the Text

and private organizations in areas including business, government,


international development, healthcare, and education.
According to Infed, the education community website, Lave and
Wenger’s Situated Learning provided “path-breaking analysis” and “set
the scene for some significant innovations in practice within
organizations, and more recently within some schools.”2

What Does Situated Learning Say?


Situated Learning is a pioneering book on social theories of learning. In
contrast to previous schools of thought in education studies that
focused on cognition*—the processing of information to form
knowledge in the mind of the individual3—the work emphasizes
learning in the context of a social situation.
By proposing a social account of learning, Situated Learning
contributes to the intellectual debates of its time by questioning the
significance of individual psychology throughout the learning process.
It does so by arguing that learning is largely the function of its social
context, which is affected by historical and political forces. As such,
learning is situated because it depends on the situation in which it takes
place. In Lave and Wenger’s work, the mind as an independent factor,
stripped of its context, has no power in explaining learning activities.4
The authors describe a variety of communities of practice, and
through case histories and examples they show how newcomers learn
from others as they move towards full participation in the social and
cultural practices of a community.5 The learning process in those
communities can be generalized and applied to other social groups.
By focusing on the social context of learning, Situated Learning is
an attempt to clarify the concept of apprenticeship—the centuries-
old practice of learning a trade or profession through on-the-job
training, under the supervision of an experienced practitioner or
master. Prior to the book’s publication, the term “apprenticeship” had
been broadly used in learning studies without any solid theoretical

11
Macat Analysis of Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning

understanding of what it meant, how it affected learning, and in what


ways it differed from cognitive forms of learning. The authors sought
to develop a coherent theory of apprenticeship, beyond the basic
master–apprentice relationship.
Although the book was directed at an audience interested in
apprenticeship theories, it touched off discussions among learning
scholars from other disciplines, ranging from management theory to
healthcare and public sector research. The book was found to be more
broadly relevant than the authors anticipated.6

Why Does Situated Learning Matter?


Lave and Wenger’s book introduces a new way of looking at how
people acquire knowledge. Their pioneering work stresses the
importance of social relationships, and broadens the concept of
learning beyond the focus on cognitive processes and the theories of
knowledge that then defined the field.
Lave and Wenger describe their apprenticeship theory by observing
different kinds of communities, among them: midwives, tailors, US
Navy quartermasters* (who supervise supplies), meat cutters, and
non-drinking alcoholics. People learn by joining these communities
and participating in activities, at first as fringe players. To begin with,
they perform real tasks, but generally are not responsible for the more
important or difficult activities. As they learn the skills necessary to
carry out basic tasks, they become more involved in the processes of
the community, moving from the “legitimate peripheral
participation”* of the book’s subtitle into “full participation.” The
main argument is that learning should not be seen as an individual’s
acquisition of knowledge, but as a process of social participation. The
nature of the situation significantly affects the process.
The focus is on the ways in which learning is “an evolving,
continuously renewed set of relations.”7 In general, the book seeks to
answer the broad question of what is learning and what are its parts. It

12
Ways In to the Text

advances beyond the conventional concept of learning as a process


that occurs in the mind, where all learning depends on the individual’s
ability to acquire and master knowledge. The book also departs from
the usual idea that knowledge is just a body of facts. It criticizes the
assumption that knowledge can be thought of as a question of facts,
and that the learner is simply an individual who works with,
memorizes, and applies those facts.8

NOTES
1 Jean Lave, “Biography,” accessed November 20, 2015, http://www.ischool.
berkeley.edu/people/faculty/jeanlave.
2 “Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and Communities of Practice,” Infed.org,
accessed November 20, 2015, http://infed.org/mobi/jean-lave-etienne-
wenger-and-communities-of-practice/.
3 Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral
Participation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
4 Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning, 20.
5 Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning, 24.
6 Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning, 27.
7 Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning, 53.
8 Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning, 32.

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