Jean Lave, Learning as a Socially Situated Activity
Jean Lave is Professor Emerita in the Department of Geography. She is a social anthropologist with a strong interest in social theory. Much of her ethnographically based research concentrates on the re-conceiving of learning, learners, and everyday life in terms of social practice. She has published three books on the subject: Understanding Practice (co-authored with S. Chaiklin, 1993); Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (with E. Wenger, 1991); and Cognition in Practice (1988). Her work took a historical turn with a collaborative, ethnohistorical research project, “Producing Families, Trading in History” on the British merchant families engaged in the port wine trade in Portugal (History in Person: Enduring Struggles, Contentious Practice, Intimate Identities, 2000, edited with Dorothy Holland). Her most recent book is Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice (2011).
Summary of the Presentation
Professor Lave is well known as the co-author, with Etienne Wenger, of Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Cambridge University Press, 1991). She began her talk by observing that both formal and informal theories of learning are often merely theories of teaching, curricula, or assessment, none of which feature learners as their primary focus. Formal theories of learning, which originated in the early twentieth century as psychologists and educators generated structures for the school system and teacher training colleges, tend to reflect what Lave called our “vernacular understanding of learning.” Similarly, our more informal beliefs about how learning happens come from our own embedded position in institutions of schooling.
Lave pointed out that everyone at the working group meeting — graduate students and faculty — had more than 10,000 hours of formal, institutional education, which strongly influenced what we thought of as our “intuitions” about learning. She identified some of the assumptions that many if not all of us subscribe to, consciously or unconsciously: that knowledge is produced in universities by elite knowledge producers who engage in creative research; that teaching is a matter of the transmission of knowledge from those who know to those who do not; and that it takes teaching to produce learning. She acknowledged that there may be discrepancies between our personal experiences of learning and what we believe about knowledge production.
Nevertheless, Lave maintained, our approach to learning is often shaped by the implicit assumption that students should learn in the way baby birds feed: by swallowing wholesale. Just as the young bird feeds by opening its mouth and accepting whatever is given, we expect pupils to be hungry, empty vessels for knowledge who only internalize or digest content that we provide. We assume that the pupil should exactly reproduce what has been taught, take it away from the schoolroom, and use it somewhere else — somewhere entirely different. In this model, students are passive, empty, individual receivers engaged simply in a psychological exercise of content mastery.
In contrast to this view of teaching as content delivery to the individual, Lave proposed an anthropological view of “situated learning as legitimate peripheral practice,” in which learning is considered as a complex social phenomenon dependent on context. She reminded the audience that teaching is a relationship that develops based on our understanding of learning, rather than a distinctive practice in its own right. Lave encouraged group members to think about what priority they give learning with respect to teaching, suggesting that we consider ourselves facilitators of learning, rather than master teachers instructing pupils who are inferior to us in knowledge acquired.
Given this focus on learning rather than on teaching, Lave posed two questions: what could we do differently, and why does it matter? She began by addressing the second question, explaining that these ideas matter because they show us that only learners can learn — teachers cannot learn for them, or “make” them learn, if learning is a social and context-dependent phenomenon. Teaching skillfully is therefore an incredibly complicated activity made more complicated because of our institutional context, in which “learning is an epiphenomenon” of teaching. Lave noted that we give teaching awards, but not learning awards — our focus, in spite of our good intentions, is typically on the unidirectional delivery of information, not necessarily on fostering an environment in which students learn.
As for what we can do differently, Lave proposed that we radically rethink our approach to the classroom, to students, and to learning. She suggested that we try to talk about learning without falling into talking about teaching, and that we think of ourselves as facilitators of learning, rather than as teachers teaching. In her own classes, she described “being a witness rather than a transmitter” to students who are “changing their identity as knowers.” In one example, she described her syllabus for a graduate course, in which she assigned students readings for the first part of the semester, and then paused to read secondary critical material that contradicted some of the previous reading. When one of the students observed the contradiction in class discussion, then Lave would produce the syllabus for the second half of the course — which consisted of the same readings from the first half, done again, while students began to think about and relate to the material in an entirely different way. She reported that she never knew exactly what would come out of the re-reading, but that it was always productive and fascinating. Ultimately, she said, what she described was not only a theory of learning but, more comprehensively, a theory of changing social life.