Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Volk review of Lave and Wenger)

Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (New York: Cambridge University Press), 1991.

Reviewed by Steven Volk, Department of History, Director of Center for Teaching Innovation and Excellence, Oberlin College

More than 25 years old now, Lave and Wenger’s influential study is still a good starting point for faculty considering fundamental questions about how one creates an environment in which significant learning can take place. Conventional explanations have long argued that learning is largely an internal, cerebral practice that takes place in the individual learner and that constructs the individual as a non-problematic unit of analysis. The authors counter that learning occurs by increasing participation of learners in “communities of practice.” Rather than an individual or dyatic process, learning concerns the whole person acting in the world; there is an interdependency of activity, meaning, cognition, learning, and knowing. Social practice, therefore, is privileged as the source of learning. The authors dissolve the dichotomy between intellectual and embodied learning by focusing on the “person-in-the-world” as a member of a sociocultural community. Lave and Wenger call our attention to the fact that there is a continuum of actors in the learning community between “newcomers” (novices) and “old timers” (experts), including those who are old-timers vis-à-vis new newcomers. Each plays a different role in this community of practice. As the authors point out, legitimate peripheral participation – the way by which newcomers to any particular learning community are brought into engagement with (learning in) a community of practice – is not a pedagogical strategy or a teaching technique, but rather a way to think about learning itself and how it occurs. Situated Learning is both broadly analytic and empirically located, including studies of five different apprenticeship situations (midwives, tailors, etc.) which the authors examine to understand how learning occurs in a context of practice. The authors’ conclusions have become part of a movement to decenter the educational process, shaped around the notion that “mastery” doesn’t lie in the teacher but “in the organization of the community of practice” of which the teacher is one part.