This article is based on talks by anthropologists Jean Lave, professor emerita from the Department of Geography, and Rosemary Joyce, professor in the Department of Anthropology, for the GSI Center’s How Students Learn series in Spring 2011.

On this page:
Key Learning Principles
Research Fundamentals
Applications to Teaching
Further Reading

Also available:
Video and summary of Jean Lave’s talk
Video and summary of Rosemary Joyce’s talk

Key Learning Principles

  • Only learners can learn; teachers can’t learn for them.
  • Learning is a complex social phenomenon dependent on context; it is well described as “situated cognition.”
  • In their time in the academy, students are exposed to various disciplines that constitute “communities of practice.” They begin learning how people participate in these communities.
  • Apprenticeship learning takes place through “authentic“ assignments and “legitimate” participation in the norms of the community of practice.

Research Fundamentals

Only learners can learn: Most often, when we start out to discuss how students learn we quickly shift to how we teach. It would be most useful to focus on the conditions and processes under which students learn, because teachers can’t make students learn or do their learning for them. Students learn through practice (the things they do) as learners.

A complex social phenomenon dependent on context: “Situated cognition’ is a theory of apprenticeship learning that emphasizes the social and contextual nature of the learning experience. Situated cognition theorists argue that the content of knowledge cannot be abstracted from the context in which both learning and practice take place.

Further discussion of social constructivist theory appears on the Social Constructivism page of the Teaching Guide.

Academic communities of practice: Situated cognition theory understands academic disciplines as communities of practice. That is, students learn how to participate in a disciplinary culture in the same way they become conditioned in the norms and practices of other types of communities, such as soccer teams and knitting circles. Even if students do not intend to pursue your discipline professionally, situated learning theory suggests that, in order to learn effectively, they need to perceive your discipline (whether structural engineering or art practice or history) as a culture and to participate in that culture as apprentices. If they do not treat the discipline as the culture in which they are participating, then “school” itself, as an artificial community of practice, may displace the discipline. This is what happens when students “just want to know how to get an A”; they are participating in the culture of the schoolroom, but not in the culture of the discipline. However, if a student perceives that she is becoming part of the medical community, for example, then group work in her biochem class takes on social and practical importance for her own goals as a future professional.

Authentic and legitimate: In order to take advantage of situated cognition, learning activities and assignments should be authentic and legitimate. “Authenticity” in this context means that the activities and assignments should be part, if even a small part, of the normal academic and professional practices of the discipline. Schoolish assignments unrelated to any skills a professional in the field would engage in are, in this sense, inauthentic. “Legitimacy” has to do with the scope and scale of an assignment or activity: it should be scaled to students’ immediate skills and capacities, as well as to the resources and time frame of the course.

An example of an illegitimate assignment is to have students construct a museum exhibit on an archaeological topic. It’s illegitimate for a semester-length course because professional curators may take two years to research and assemble an exhibit. A legitimate variation of the assignment would be to research key objects that should appear in the exhibit and write a grant proposal to support construction of the exhibit.

Applications to Teaching

Communities of Practice from the nonprofit Informal Education Homepage (scroll to the bottom for “Conclusion — issues and implications for educators and animateurs”).

Further Reading

Please note that some links may require Library proxy access. Please see the Library’s page Connecting from Off Campus.

Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Brown, John Seely, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid. “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.” Educational Researcher 18.1 (Jan.–Feb. 1989): 32–42.

Darvin, Jacqueline. “‘Real-World Cognition Doesn’t End When the Bell Rings’: Literacy Instruction Strategies Derived From Situated Cognition Research.Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 49.5 (Feb. 2006): 398–407.

Choi, Jeong-Im and Michael Hannafin. ”Situated Cognition and Learning Environments: Roles, Structures, and Implications for Design.Educational Technology Research and Development 43.2 (1995): 53–69.

Rosemary Joyce’s Berkeley Blog posts on teaching and learning: Read more about how Prof. Joyce interprets these learning principles in her own classroom. “Learning is breaking out all around.” Feb. 9, 2010. “Great teaching can happen in many different ways…” April 21, 2010.