Situated Learning Research Paper

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Situated learning is not a unitary, well-defined concept. From an educational point of view, the core idea behind the different uses of this term is to create a situational context for learning that strongly resembles possible application situations in order to assure that the learning experiences foster ‘real-life’ problem solving.

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1. Situated Cognition–Situated Learning

Since 1985, the notion of situatedness of learning and knowing has become prominent in a variety of scientific disciplines such as psychology, anthropology, and computer science. In this entry, however, we focus only on situatedness approaches in education and educational psychology.

Since the late 1980s a particular educational problem has received much attention. In traditional forms of instruction, learners acquire knowledge that they can explicate, for example in examinations. When the learners are, however, confronted with complex ‘real-life’ problems, this knowledge is frequently not used, although it is relevant. Such knowledge is termed ‘inert knowledge’ (Renkl et al. 1996). This frequently found inertness phenomenon motivated some researchers to postulate that the whole notion of knowledge that is used in cognitive psychology as well as in everyday reasoning about educational issues is wrong (e.g., Lave 1988).

It has been argued that knowledge is not some ‘entity’ in a person’s head that can be acquired in one situational context (e.g., classroom) and then be used in another context (e.g., workplace), but that instead it is context-bound. Hence, symbolic modeling of cognitive processes and structures is regarded as inappropriate. From a situatedness perspective, knowledge is generally constituted by the relation or interaction between an agent and the situational context they are acting in. Hence, it is proposed that we use the term ‘knowing’ instead of ‘knowledge’ in order to underline the process aspect of knowing knowledge (Greeno et al. 1993). As a consequence of this conception of knowledge, learning must also be conceived as context-bound or situated. Thus, it is understandable that there is no transfer between such different contexts as the classroom and everyday life.

The theoretical assumption of the situatedness of knowing and learning also has consequences for research methodology. Laboratory experiments can no longer be seen as appropriate, because in this research strategy the phenomena are put out of their ‘natural’ context and their character is changed (e.g., Lave 1988). Situatedness proponents conduct primarily qualitative field studies.

Unfortunately, the term of situatedness is not well defined. One reason for the fuzziness of this construct is that its proponents differ in how far they depart from traditional cognitive concepts. Whereas Lave (1988), for example, radically rejects the notions of knowledge, transfer, and symbolic representations as not being sensible, other proponents, such as Greeno et al. (1993), hold a more modest position. Although they also stress the situatedness of knowing and learning, they aim, for example, to analyze conditions for transfer, or claim that representations can play a role in human activity. A factor that further contributes to the vagueness of the notion of situated learning is that it is used in two ways: descriptive and prescriptive. When descriptively used, situated learning means that learning is analyzed as a context-bound process. In the field of education, situated learning is, however, mostly used as prescriptive concept. It is argued that learning should be situated in a context that resembles the application contexts.

The prescriptive aspect of situated learning was quite appealing to the community of educational researchers in the 1990s. Hence, not only those who subscribe to the situated cognition perspective (i.e., rejection of cognitive concepts), but also people who still more or less remain within the traditional cognitive framework rely on this concept. The latter group often juxtapose situated learning with decontextualized (traditional) learning, in which concepts and principles are presented and acquired in an abstract way with little or no relation to ‘real-world’ problems. It is important to note that this ‘assimilated’ view, in principle, contradicts the more fundamental situatedness concept according to which there is no nonsituated learning. Even typical abstract school learning is situated in the very specific context of school culture, although this situatedness would usually be evaluated as unfavorable because of the differences between school and ‘real-life’ contexts. Hence, irrespective of the logical inconsistencies in the use of the notion of situated learning, the prescriptive notion of situated learning means that the learning and the application situations should be as similar as possible in order to assure that the learning experiences have positive effects on ‘real-life’ problem solving.

2. Learning And Problem Solving In School And Outside

From a situatedness perspective, typical school learning is not much help for problem solving in everyday or professional life because the contexts are too different. Based among others upon Resnick’s (1987) analyses of typical differences between these contexts, the following main points are outlined:

(a) Well-defined problems in school versus ill-defined problems outside. For example, word problems in mathematics are usually well defined. It is clear what the problem is all about, all the necessary information is given in the problem formulation, there is usually only one way to arrive at the solution that is labeled as appropriate, and so on. Nontrivial, ‘real-life’ problems (e.g., improvement of an organization’s communication structure) first often have to be defined more precisely for a productive solution: one has to decide whether one needs more information, one has to seek information, one has to decide what is relevant and irrelevant information, there are multiple ways of solving a problem, and so on.

(b) Content structured by theoretical systems in school versus structured by problems outside. In traditional forms of instruction, content is structured according to theoretical systematizations (e.g., biological taxonomies). This helps learners to organize the content and to remember it. One very salient systematization of content is the distinction between different school subjects. When a ‘real-life’ problem (e.g., pollution in a city or evaluation of an Internet company’s share) has to be solved, thinking within the boundaries of school subjects is often not helpful. Furthermore, the structure of concepts used in school is frequently not relevant to the problem at hand. In ‘real life,’ the nature of the problem to be solved determines what concepts and information are required and in which structure they are needed.

(c) Individual cognition in school versus shared cognition outside. In schools, the usual form of learning and performance is individualistic. Cooperation in examinations is even condemned. In professional or everyday life, in contrast, cooperation is valued and it is frequently necessary for solving problems.

(d) Pure mentation in school versus tool manipulation outside. In traditional instruction, pure ‘thought’ activities are dominating. Students should learn to perform without support of tools such as books, notes, calculators, etc. Especially in exams, tools are usually forbidden. In contrast, a very important skill in everyday or professional life is the competent use of tools.

(e) Symbol manipulation in school versus contextualized reasoning outside. Abstract manipulation of symbols is typical of traditional instruction. Students often fail to match symbols and symbolic processes to ‘real-world’ entities and processes. In ordinary life, on the other hand, not only are tools used, but reasoning processes are an integral part of activities that involve objects and other persons. ‘Real-world’ reasoning processes are typically situated in rich situational contexts.

(f ) Generalized learning in school versus situationspecific competencies outside. One reason for the abstract character of traditional instruction is that it aims to teach general, widely usable skills and theoretical principles. Nobody can foresee what types of specific problem students will encounter in their later life. In everyday and professional life, in contrast, situation-specific skills must be acquired. Further learning is mostly aimed at competencies for specific demands (e.g., working with a new computer program).

On the one hand, this list is surely not complete and more differences could be outlined. On the other hand, this juxtaposition is somewhat oversimplifying. Nevertheless, there is a core of truth because typical learning in and out of school differs significantly. Given these differences, a consequence of situatedness assumptions is to claim that learning environments in school should strongly resemble application contexts or that learning should take place in the field (e.g., ‘on the job’). A traditional model in which people acquire applicable skills in authentic contexts is apprenticeship learning.

3. Apprenticeship Learning As Situated Learning

The situatedness protagonists Lave and Wenger (1991) investigated out of school learning in the form of apprenticeship by means of qualitative analyses. They focused on people working in traditional skills, for example Indian midwives in Mexico, tailors in Liberia, and butchers in supermarkets. In these traditional apprenticeships, learners acquire mainly manual skills. In modern society, in contrast, ‘cognitive’ domains prevail (e.g., computer science, psychology), so that skilled activity is hardly ‘visible.’ Also in school learning, cognitive skills such as mathematical problem solving, reading, and writing dominate. Against this background, Collins et al. (1989) developed the instructional cognitive apprenticeship model. Herein the importance of explication or reification of cognitive processes (e.g., strategies, heuristics) during learning is stressed. Thus, cognitive processes can be approximately as explicit as the more manual skills trained in traditional apprenticeship.

The core of cognitive apprenticeship is a special instructional sequence and the employment of authentic learning tasks. Experts provide models in applying their knowledge in authentic situations. Thereby they externalize (verbalize) their reasoning. The learners then work on authentic tasks of increasing complexity and diversity. An expert or teacher is assigned an important role as a model and as a coach providing scaffolding. The learners are encouraged increasingly to take an active role, as the support by the expert is gradually faded out. Articulation is promoted so that normally internal processes are externalized and can be reflected. This means that one’s own strategies can be compared with those of experts, are then open to feedback, and can be discussed. In addition, the student’s own cognitive strategies can be compared with those of other students. In the course of interaction with experts and other learners, students can also get to know different perspectives on concepts and problems. As a result of this instructional sequence, the students increasingly work on their own (exploration) and may take over the role initially assumed by the expert. Lave and Wenger (1991) have characterized such a sequence as development from legitimate peripheral participation to full participation.

It is important to note that the type of apprenticeship learning that is envisioned by the proponents of the situatedness approaches implies much more than the acquisition of ‘subject-matter knowledge.’ It is a process of enculturation. The learner gradually develops the competence to participate in a community of practice. Such participation presupposes more than the type of knowledge usually focused on in classroom learning. In addition, ‘tricks of the trade’ and knowledge of social norms, for example, are required.

4. Problem-Based Learning As Situated Learning

Besides apprenticeship, problem-based learning is another possibility for implementing arrangements in accordance with a situatedness rationale. Learning should be motivated by a complex ‘real-world’ problem that is the starting point of a learning process. For example, Greeno and the Middle School Mathematics Through Applications Project Group (MMAP) (1998) designed learning arrangements in which mathematical reasoning is not triggered primarily in separate mathematics lessons, but within design activities in four domains: architecture, population biology, cryptography, and cartography. The design activities are supported by the employment of computer tools which are also typical of current situated learning arrangements. An instructional principle is to induce quantitative reasoning involving proportions, ratios, and rates during design activities that strongly resemble the activities of many everyday crafts and commercial practices. The mathematical reasoning within design activities can be quite sophisticated; however, it often remains implicit. The teachers’ task is to uncover the mathematics the students are implicitly using. For this purpose, there are, among others, curricular materials for ‘math extension’ units (i.e., explicit mathematics lessons).

5. Common Critiques Of The Situatedness Approach

The situatedness camp has criticized the fundamental assumptions of cognitively oriented educational research. Hence it is not surprising that the situatedness camp has also been heavily attacked. Three major objections against the situatedness approach and corresponding defending arguments should be outlined:

(a) Faulty fundamental assumptions: Anderson et al. (1996), in particular, have argued that the situatedness approach is based on wrong assumptions such as ‘knowledge does not transfer between tasks’ or ‘training in abstraction is of little use.’ Anderson et al. cited empirical studies that contradict these assumptions. In his reply, Greeno (1997) argues that the assumptions that Anderson et al. criticize are actually wrong, but that they are not the claims of the situativity approach. The core of a situativity theory is a different perspective on phenomena of learning. Instead of focusing on mental processes and structures, the situativity approach analyses ‘… the social and ecological interaction as its basis and builds toward a more comprehensive theory by … analyses of information structures in the contents of people’s interactions’ (Greeno 1997, p. 5).

(b) Triviality: It is also argued that there is nothing really new in the core arguments of the situatedness theories. For example, Vera and Simon (1993) argue that all findings of the situatedness research can be incorporated into the well-elaborated traditional framework of cognitive models (i.e., symbolic paradigm). From the situatedness perspective, however, analyzing symbolic structures and processes runs too short. They may just be a special case of activity (Greeno and Moore 1993). Another triviality argument is that many claims of the situatedness protagonists were already articulated long before, for example by Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotskji, so that they are hardly stating anything new (e.g., Klauer 1999). Renkl (2000) counters that it is to the merit of the situatedness protagonists that they have reactivated these classical ideas. Most of these ideas played only a very minor role in educational mainstream research before the situatedness approach emerged. Furthermore, situated learning approaches bring classical ideas together with new developments (e.g., learning with new technologies) to form new ‘Gestalts.’

(c) Weak methodology: Klauer (1999) is one of many researchers who criticize that the situatedness protagonists employ purely qualitative research methods and that they often rely merely on anecdotes to support their claims of the situatedness of cognition and learning (e.g., the ‘cottage cheese story’; cf. Lave 1988). Lave (1988), on the other hand, rejects the empirical-experimental paradigm as artificially decontextualizing phenomena in laboratory investigations. From a situatedness point of view, it is clear that results from laboratories are of questionable value for out-of-lab contexts. It is important to note that many researchers who merely assimilated the notion of situated learning, but do not subscribe to radical situatedness, keep on researching within the traditional empirical framework. Hence, the methodological critique aims at the more radical situatedness proponents.

6. Possible Futures Of Situated Learning

On the one hand, at least some situatedness protagonists in the area of education make strong statements with respect to the advantage of their approach over the traditional one. On the other hand, the ‘traditionalists’ defend themselves. Against this background it is interesting to ask what the future will bring. Four main possibilities are discussed. (a) Critical traditionalists (Klauer 1999) argue that the situatedness approach and the discussion around it will disappear as other more or less fruitless debates (e.g., the person–situation debate in psychology) have done before. (b) Others (e.g., Cobb and Bowers 1999) hope that the situatedness perspective will take the place of the cognitive paradigm in education, just as years ago the behavioral paradigm was driven out by the cognitive one. (c) Some ‘observers’ of the situatedness debate (e.g., Sfard 1998) argue that the two positions provide different metaphors for analyzing learning and that both are useful. Accordingly, they plea for a complementary coexistence. (d) Greeno and MMAP (1998) envision a very ambitious goal for their situativity approach; that is, to develop a situatedness approach that is a synthesis of the cognitive and the behavioral paradigm. Whatever possibility may become reality, there is at least consensus between the main opponents in the situatedness debate (cf. Anderson et al. 1997, Greeno 1997) on what the touchstone for the two approaches should be: the ability to improve education.


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  4. Collins A, Brown J S, Newman S E 1989 Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In: Resnick L B (ed.) Knowing, Learning, and Instruction. Essays in the Honor of Robert Glaser. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ, pp. 453–94
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  11. Lave J, Wenger E 1991 Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK
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