Situated learning

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Situated learning like socio-constructivism refers either to families of learning theories or pedagogic strategies. It is closely related to socio-culturalism and distributed cognition and (probably identical) to cognitive apprenticeship.

  • Learning is situated in the activity in which it takes place. Learning is doing.
  • Meaningful learning will only take place if it is embedded in the social and physical context within which it will be used. (Brown et al 1989) according to Oliver (2000).
  • Knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used. [Therefore] learning methods that are embedded in authentic situations are not merely useful; they are essential. (Brown et al 1989).
  • Situated learning occurs when students work on authentic tasks that take place in real-world setting (Winn, 1993).

A short history

Schooling systems
  • Ironically, the Swiss educational system is situated. Over 80% of the 16-20 year olds learn through "dual mode", i.e. an apprenticeship in a business complemented by an average of 1-2 days of schooling per week in a vocational college. Similar systems exist in Germany and Danemark. However, multiple learning places are not as well integrated as they could be. See the DUAL-T project that will attempt to work on this through educational technology.
  • Husserl, Ideen (1913).
  • Heidegger publishes Sein und Zeit (Being and Time) in 1227 and equates "being" with "being there". He is a phenomenological ontologist, i.e. of "Dasein" (being-in-the-world). Hist work then inpacted not only more recent philosophers like Gadamer and Wittgenstein (turned pragmatist) but also ethnomethodology (Garfinkel)
Russian psychology and micro-sociology
Situated theories
  • Lave and Wenger in the mid 80's (or earlier for Lave ?) proposed that learning is situated and occurs by means of legitimate peripheral participation within a community of practice,
  • Lucy Suchman (1987) argues that people reason with the objects in the environment (situated action).
  • Brown, Collins and Duguid in the late 80's. formulate a "cognitive apprenticeship" strategy of instruction, since kills and strategies do not transfer well when they are not learned in situated contexts. They also relate conceptual knowledge to tools (i.e. something that only can be understood through use).
  • The March 1993 issue of the journal Educational Technology was consumed by nine articles espousing the theory of Situated Learning, followed by a critique by Stephen Tripp. In the October 1994 issue, the authors responded extensively to Tripp's critique. More discussion took place in the same journal over subsequent years.

Basically, the theoretical foundations of situated learning can be traced back to phenomenological thinking and russian thoughts on social activity and/or learning. Read more in Herrington and Oliver's (1995) Critical Characteristics of Situated Learning article.

Learning in real contexts

A longer quote from Notari (2003:16)

Situated cognition, a new paradigm of learning, emphasizes apprenticeship, coaching, collaboration, multiple practice, articulation of learning skills, stories, and technology (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). "Community of practice," a concept emerging from situated cognition, emphasizes sharing and doing, construct meaning in a social unit (Roschelle, 1995). Situated learning occurs when students work on authentic tasks that take place in real-world setting (Winn, 1993). However, the very difference between the metacognition approach to learning and the situated belief of learning is that situated learning is usually unintentional rather than purposeful. These ideas are what Lave & Wenger (1991) call the process of "legitimate peripheral participation."

For Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989) knowledge is a set of tools that need a context in order to be used and made explicit. The way in which knowledge will be used to solve a problem will be determined by the culture and the environment that encompasses an activity. "Thus in a significant way, learning is, we believe, a process of enculturation."(p.33) The cognitive apprenticeship method lies at the center of their vision of situated learning.

Barab & Roth (2006:3) also very clearly articulate what it means to adopt a situated learning perspective:

Central to the situative perspective is the belief that one should abandon the treatment of concepts as self-contained entities and instead conceive of them as tools-tools that can be fully understood only through use. The central tenets of this perspective with respect to knowing are that (a) knowing is an activity-not a thing; (b) knowing is always contextualized-not abstract; (c) knowing is reciprocally constructed in the individual-environment interaction-not objectively defined or subjectively created; and (d) knowing is a functional stance on the interaction-not a 'truth' (Barab & Duffy, 2000). Many situativity theorists have further emphasized the reciprocal character of the interaction in which individuals, as well as cognition and meaning, are considered socially and culturally constructed (Heidegger, 1996; Lave, 1993;

Lemke, 1997; Leont'ev, 1978; Walkerdine, 1997; Wenger, 1998).

Situated learning applied to instructional design

A longer quote from Notari (2003:16)

As Lave (1991) states that learning is a function of the activity, context and culture in which it occurs, which contrasts with most classroom learning which is abstract and out of context (see also chapter about 'Activity theory' further more in this paper). Education can apply the two basic principles of situated cognition into classroom practice:

  1. present in an authentic context,
  2. encourage social interaction and collaboration.
It is believed that rich contexts can reflect students' interpretation of the real world and improve the knowledge being transferred to them in different situations. Collaboration can lead to the articulation of strategies that can then be discussed, which in turn can enhance the process of generalizing that is grounded in students' situated understanding.

Here is a longer quote from Brown et al. (1989, on-line version):

Figure 3 shows how, in the terms of cognitive apprenticeship, we can represent the progress of the students from embedded activity to general principles of the culture. In this sequence, apprenticeship and coaching in a domain begin by providing modeling in situ and scaffolding for students to get started in an authentic activity. As the students gain more self-confidence and control, they move into a more autonomous phase of collaborative learning, where they begin to participate consciously in the culture. The social network within the culture helps them develop its language and the belief systems and promotes the process of enculturation. Collaboration also leads to articulation of strategies, which can then be discussed and reflected on. This, in turn, fosters generalizing, grounded in the students' situated understanding. From here, students can use their fledgling conceptual knowledge in activity, seeing that activity in a new light, which in turn leads to the further development of the conceptual knowledge.

Figure 3: Students' Progress from Embedded Activity to Generality.

 	          Apprenticeship   Collaboration 	Reflection 	 
 WORLD/ACTIVITY 				                      GENERALITY
 	          Coaching 	   Multiple practice    Articulation

Design implications for learning environments

Building upon research and theories that computer-enhanced learning environments and microworlds can effectively bring the real-world environment into the classroom, Herrington and Oliver (1995) propose a model of instruction based on situated learning to be used in the design of learning environments. They suggest that the learning environment should:

Provide authentic context
Context should reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real-life including the complexity of the real-world situation, providing purpose and the possibility for extended exploration.The
Provide authentic activities
Activities should be ill-defined demanding that learners 'find' and 'solve' problems inherent in the situation and determine how they will accomplish the task.
Provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes
Observation of expert performances allow for the accumulation of narratives and strategies that use the social environment as a resource. Video clips of experts at a task, for example, can be a rich resource.
Provide multiple roles and perspectives
Providing the learner with multiple opportunities to engage in an activity from differing perspectives will reveal different aspects of the situation.
Support collaborative construction of knowledge
Activities should encourage collaborative searches for suggestions and solutions to promote critical thinking.
Provide coaching and scaffolding at critical times
The learning environment should be available to intercept and offer hints and strategies when learners are unable to progress in the task.
Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed
The environment presentation of problems should require that the learner take the entire environment or situation into consideration when problem solving. In contrast to Mastery learning, a linear path through the content that is presented in isolated component is discouraged.
Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit
Lave and Wenger (in Herrington and Oliver, 1995) Articulation of the vocabulary and the stories of a culture of practice that is an integral part of the situation presented within the learning environment, deepens a learner's understanding of a topic.
Provide for integrated assessment of learning within the tasks.
Assessment and feedback on a learner's progress and during tasks should be offered without resorting to tests.

Critical characteristics applied to interactive design (Herrington & Oliver, 1995)

A revised framework was proposed by Herrington and Oliver (2002) under the name of instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. It includes the following nince elements:

1. Provide authentic contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real life.
2. Provide authentic activities.
3. Provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes.
4. Provide multiple roles and perspectives
5. Support collaborative construction of knowledge.
6. Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed.
7. Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit.
8. Provide coaching and scaffolding by the teacher at critical times.
9. Provide for authentic assessment of learning within the tasks.

Situated learning is also tied to the approach of Anchored instruction which "refers to instruction in which the material to be learned is presented in the context of an authentic event that serves to anchor or situate the material and, further, allows it to be examined from multiple perspectives. (Barab 2000:5).

Situated learning may use some kinds of microworlds but often these two kinds of constructivist designs are in contradiction. In 1989, Brown argued that “the progressive process of learning and enculturation perhaps argues that Increasingly Complex Microworlds can be replaced by increasing complex enculturating environments.” Since then, however there are attempts to combine the two, e.g. Barab et al. participatory learning environments.


See also some of the references !



  • Asan, A. (2003) School experience course with multimedia in teacher education. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 19 (1), 21-34. doi: 10.1046/j.0266-4909.2002.02602.x Blackwell link
  • Barab,S.A. K. E. Hay & T.M. Duffy (2000), Grounded Constructions and How Technology Can Help, CRLT Technical Report No. 12-00, The Center for Research on Learning and Technologyn, Indiana University.
  • Barab, Sasha A. ,Kenneth E. Hay, Michael Barnett and Kurt Squire (2001). Constructing Virtual Worlds: Tracing the Historical Development of Learner Practices, Cognition And Instruction, 19(1), 47-94. PDF
  • Barab, Sasha A. & Wolff-Michael Roth (2006). Curriculum-Based Ecosystems: Supporting Knowing from an Ecological Perspective, Educational Researcher, 35 (5), 3-13. PDF
  • Barab, S. A., & Duffy, T. (2000). From practice fields to communities of practice. In D. Jonassen & S. M. Land (Eds.), Theoretical foundations of learning environments (pp. 25-56). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.
  • Brown, J.S., Collins, A. and Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32-41. HTML
  • Burton, R., Brown, J. S., & Fischer, C. (1984). Skiing as a model of instruction. In B. Rogoff & J. Lave (Eds.), Everyday cognition: its development in social context (pp. 139-150). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Collins. A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1989). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing, and mathematics. In L. B. Resnick (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Hay, Kenneth E. & and Sasha A. Barab, Constructivism in Practice: A Comparison and Contrast of Apprenticeship and Constructionist Learning Environments, The Journal Of The Learning Sciences, 10(3), 281-322. PDF
  • Herrington, J. and Oliver, R. (1995) Critical Characteristics of Situated Learning: Implications for the Instructional Design of Multimedia. in Pearce, J. Ellis A. (ed) ASCILITE95 Conference Proceedings (253-262). Melbourne: University of Melbourne PDF
  • 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 Periperal Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press
  • Lave, J. and E. Wenger (1991), Situated learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge University Press.
  • Michele Notari (2003), Scripting Strategies In Computer Supported Collaborative Learning Environments, Mémoire présenté pour l'obtention du DES STAF, TECFA FAPSE, Université de Genève. [1].
  • Oliver, R. & J. Herrington (1995), Critical Characteristics of Situated Learning: Implications for the Instructional Design of Multimedia, Edith Cowan University, PDF, accessed April 20, 2006.
  • Oliver, R. & J. Herrington (2000), Using Situated Learning as Design Strategy for Web-Based Learning, in B. Abbey, Instructional and Cognitive Impacts of Web-Based Education, 178-191.
  • Pennel, Russ, Marsha Durham, Conrad Ozog and Alison Spark, Writing in Context: Situated Learning on the Web, ASCILITE '97, HTML
  • Winn, W. (1993). A constructivist critique of the assumptions of instructional design. In T. M. Duffy, J. Lowyck, & D. H. Jonassen (Eds.), Designing environments for constructive learning (pp. 189-212). Berlin: Springer-Verlag
  • Wolfson, Larry and John Willinsky (1998). What Service-Learning Can Learn from Situated Learning, The Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 5.