This article was originally published in The SAGE Encyclopedia of Educational Technology.

Situated learning, as defined by y Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, is a model of learning rooted within a community of practice. It is a process of interaction and relationship around a specific domain and which occurs within a social, cultural and historical context, resulting in spontaneous learning. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger.

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger each brings to the development of the model of situated learning rich, diverse academic preparation and professional research and experiences. Jean Lave earned her PhD from Harvard University (1968) in Social Anthropology and is Professor Emerita of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley. She is an expert in social learning, and her work in situated learning is strongly informed by her ethnographic studies in apprenticeship. Lave initiated development of the model that became situated learning by determining that housewives were able to conduct mathematical calculations while doing comparison shopping that they could not repeat in a classroom environment.

Etienne Wenger earned his PhD from the University of California – Irvine in Artificial Intelligence (1990). While Wenger was employed by the Institute for Research of Learning (now the Institute for Research of Learning and Development), he worked with Jean Lave researching apprenticeships with individuals and in settings, including Yucatec midwives, Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia, Naval quartermasters, meat cutters, and nondrinking AA members. Together the two derived additional principles and a more robust model of situated learning. Their seminal work, titled Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, was published in 1991. 

Lave’s Formulation of Situated Learning

Lave proposed that learning does not occur in isolation, but rather occurs in relationship with others, through social interaction and spontaneous, appropriate activities within an authentic context. This activity is embedded within what Lave called a Community of Practice or CoP. A CoP serves as the authentic context and within it has tasks that align with real world situations with a focus of being in some specifically-identified and boundaried domain. The activities, tools, interactions, and conversations within that CoP produce context-specific types of artefacts that are uniquely bounded by the culture of the CoP.

Additional Elements

Jean Lave’s model was deepened through collaboration with Etienne Wenger. In their 1991 book, they proposed the concept of legitimate peripheral participation, suggesting that those novices who seek entrance to a community of practice typically enter from the periphery, participating from a speak about rather than a speak within perspective.

In order to master skills more deeply and move towards expertise and central participation as an expert within the CoP, the individual must learn the contextual language, normative behaviors, and other contextual factors of the CoP. Their resulting thinking and behaviors will increasingly reflect the unique characteristics of the CoP.

According to Lave and Wenger, three factors must exist for situated learning to occur:

  • Domain: A domain/system of thinking and doing must be clearly-identifiable.

  • Community of Practice: Wenger defines a CoP as people who share concerns or a about something they do and want learn how to do it better. He further states that CoPs are formed by people who engage in collective learning in a shared domain of interest.

  • The Practice: There must be specifically, contextually-placed interpersonal engagement and activity that results in the way things are done, or practiced within the CoP.

Lave and Wenger also list the four keys to newcomer success within the CoP include:

  • Access to all that community membership entails;

  • Involvement in productive activity;

  • Learning the discourse of the community including talking about and talking within a practice; and,

  • ·Willingness of the community to capitalize on the inexperience of newcomers.

The ongoing result within the community is a reciprocal learning process that perpetually redefines the individual and the group as it moves forward in time and space.

The Precursors to Situated Learning

The theoretical foundation for situated learning derives from various branches of psychology. Behaviorism suggests that behaviors originate as the direct response to observed stimuli. Social learning theory expands upon this theory, that while observation is important, behavior is the result not only of observation but also internally-negotiated processes. Albert Bandura’s social cognitive theory carries this notion further, with behavior being the result of continuous interactions between the individual, his/her environment, and his/her behaviors. Constructivism, derived from the work by Jean Piaget and others, posits (a) that cognitive development precedes learning, and (b) that it is based on the premise that learning is first an internally-negotiated active construction process based in personal experience and hypotheses that one tests through social interaction and negotiation with others. Problem-based learning , first introduced in  medical education, focuses on learning through the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills required to solve a problem. In affordance theory, the world is viewed as consisting of shapes and spatial relationships that have meaning in terms of the possibilities they afford to those who have access to them. Lev Vygotsky suggested that social interaction is a precursor to learning, with learning being strongly situated within and mediated through the cultural and other aspects of one’s environment. In Vygotsky’s perspective, an individual learns through being in a Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), wherein that individual has achieved a certain level of learning in an area and in order to advance, is within the sphere of influence and availability of another person who has learned more and already moved further ahead in terms of the specific knowledge and skill.

Each of these theoretical perspectives has led to the evolution of situated learning of being a description of contextual learning, with various influential individuals within that context who provide, through social interaction, related observation, and demonstration of behaviors the information an individual needs to learn. Legitimate Peripheral Participation can be viewed as a pure form of Albert Bandura’s social learning and social cognitive theories. People observe others’ behaviors within an environment, potentially interact with them, and are influenced by those interactions and observations.

As individuals persist in these interactions, they move from the periphery to a more central role within the context and eventually if they remain, they serve as experts within the system. Thus, in line with Vygotsky, social interaction is seen as the precursor to learning, and learning is the direct, spontaneous result of those kinds of interactions over time.

Influence of Situated Learning on Later Learning Theory

As the result of the identified tenets of situated learning, the subsequent notions of situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship emerged. Cognitive apprenticeship focuses on the apprenticeship of imparting knowledge and skill from a master to a novice through modeling, a key tenet of Albert Bandura’s social learning theory.

Situated Learning: Its Impact

Two specific areas of life have been more strongly impacted by situated learning. The first is in organizational learning, and the second is in formal school educating settings. Situated learning provides guidance to organizations in terms of how to develop a learning organization in which informal learning as well as more formally structured learning opportunities occur as the result of an intentionally-designed environment that supports spontaneous learning.

Research of formalized school education and applications of situated learning to the work of teachers and students in the classroom suggest that classroom learning can achieve CoP results provided they involve the entire system (e.g., teachers, students, people from the business community and the local community, and the community accessed through the Internet) in the learning experience, mirroring as completely as possible the real environment in which students live.

Implications for Instructional Design

Clearly the application of situated learning provides a different perspective and approach to learning, in that it portrays the value and utility of communities of practice, and how to move from the periphery – a legitimate perspective – to the center, where expertise has been and is reciprocally fostered. How can situated inform instructional design practice? Provided here is an example that begins the discussion on the multiple potential applications of this model of learning.

Training in face-to-face settings in corporate and other settings is often devoid of CoP design, and often tends towards a highly structured and directive approach. Situated learning activity can be designed within a classroom such that tables/groups serve as small, developing communities of practice which in turn revolve around the other groups within the larger classroom, leading to a full-group situated learning laboratory. Intentionally designing activities to leverage the strengths (affordances) of various individuals in the group enables a cross-pollination of the diverse capabilities and strength group members. Including within this environment a deftly and exceptionally-well-designed, authentically-represented, and highly integrated story within the curriculum that requires authentic group construction of artifacts and the cross pollination of capabilities within each small and the one larger CoP builds group cohesion and fosters a greater level of trust and cooperation that – depending on the length of the curriculum – can be carried forward into participant work lives.

See also Activity Theory, Cognitive Apprenticeship, Constructivist Theory, Engaged Learning, Learning with Simulations, Organizational Learning and Performance, Problem- and Project-Based Learning with Technology, Scaffolding for Learning and Instruction, Simulation-based Learning, Virtual Teams

Further Readings

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.

Barrows, H. S., MD. (1996). Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: A brief overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 68, 3-12.

Collins, A., Brown, J. S., & Newman, S. E. (1987). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the craft of reading, writing and mathematics (Technical Report No. 403). BBN Laboratories, Cambridge, MA: Centre for the Study of Reading, University of Illinois.

Gibson, J. J. (1977). The theory of affordances. In R. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, acting and knowing. Hillsdale, N. J.: Erlbaum.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.