Situated Learning in Adult Education. ERIC Digest.
by Stein, David
In the situated learning approach, knowledge and skills are learned
in the contexts that reflect how knowledge is obtained and applied in everyday
situations. Situated cognition theory conceives of learning as a sociocultural
phenomenon rather than the action of an individual acquiring general information
from a decontextualized body of knowledge (Kirshner and Whitson 1997).
This Digest presents an overview of the concepts related to applying situated
cognition in adult learning. It should be noted that situated learning
theory has not yet produced precise models or prescriptions for learning
in classroom settings.
THE CONCEPT OF SITUATED LEARNING
As an instructional strategy, situated cognition has been seen as a
means for relating subject matter to the needs and concerns of learners
(Shor 1987). Learning is essentially a matter of creating meaning from
the real activities of daily living. By embedding subject matter in the
ongoing experiences of the learners and by creating opportunities for learners
to live subject matter in the context of real-world challenges, knowledge
is acquired and learning transfers from the classroom to the realm of practice.
To situate learning means to place thought and action in a specific place
and time. To situate means to involve other learners, the environment,
and the activities to create meaning. To situate means to locate in a particular
setting the thinking and doing processes used by experts to accomplish
knowledge and skill tasks (Lave and Wenger 1991). In the adult classroom,
to situate learning means to create the conditions in which participants
will experience the complexity and ambiguity of learning in the real world.
Participants will create their own knowledge out of the raw materials of
experience, i.e., the relationships with other participants, the activities,
the environmental cues, and the social organization that the community
develops and maintains.
A situated learning experience has four major premises guiding the development
of classroom activities (Anderson, Reder, and Simon 1996; Wilson 1993):
(1) learning is grounded in the actions of everyday situations; (2) knowledge
is acquired situationally and transfers only to similar situations; (3)
learning is the result of a social process encompassing ways of thinking,
perceiving, problem solving, and interacting in addition to declarative
and procedural knowledge; and (4) learning is not separated from the world
of action but exists in robust, complex, social environments made up of
actors, actions, and situations.
These four premises differentiate situated learning from other experiential
forms of acquiring knowledge. In situated learning, students learn content
through activities rather than acquiring information in discrete packages
organized by instructors. Content is inherent in the doing of the task
and not separated from the noise, confusion, and group interactions prevalent
in real work environments. Learning is dilemma driven rather than content
driven. Situations are presented that challenge the intellectual and psychomotor
skills learners will apply at home, in the community, or the workplace
Situated learning uses cooperative and participative teaching methods
as the means of acquiring knowledge. Knowledge is created or negotiated
through the interactions of the learner with others and the environment.
Subject matter emerges from the cues provided by the environment and from
the dialogue among the learning community. The structure of the learning
is implicit in the experience rather than in the subject matter structured
by the instructor. Knowledge is obtained by the processes described (Lave
1997) as "way in" and "practice." Way in is a period of observation in
which a learner watches a master and makes a first attempt at solving a
problem. Practice is refining and perfecting the use of acquired knowledge
(p. 21). Applied to the classroom, situated learning is not only reflecting
upon and drawing implications from previous experiences but is immersion
in and with the experience.
ELEMENTS OF SITUATED LEARNING
Situated learning places the learner in the center of an instructional
process consisting of content--the facts and processes of the task; context--the
situations, values, beliefs, and environmental cues by which the learner
gains and masters content; community--the group with which the learner
will create and negotiate meaning of the situation; and participation--the
process by which learners working together and with experts in a social
organization solve problems related to everyday life circumstances (Brown,
Collins, and Duguid 1989; Lave 1988; Shor 1987). Learning becomes a social
process dependent upon transactions with others placed within a context
that resembles as closely as possible the practice environment. Situated
learning in the classroom integrates content, context, community, and participation.
Situated learning emphasizes higher-order thinking processes rather
than the acquisition of facts independent of the real lives of the participants
(Choi and Hannafin 1995). Content situated in learner's daily experiences
becomes the means to engage in reflective thinking (Shor 1996). Retention
of content is not the goal of learning. By placing content within the daily
transactions of life, the instructor, in dialogue with learners, negotiates
the meaning of content, frames it in terms of the issues and concerns within
the learners, provides opportunities for learners to cooperate in investigating
problem situations, and makes content applicable to the ways in which learners
will approach the environment. Application rather than retention becomes
the mark of a successful instructional encounter.
Learning in context refers to building an instructional environment
sensitive to the tasks learners must complete to be successful in practice.
Context embraces notions of power relationships, politics, competing priorities,
the learner's interaction with the values, norms, culture, of a community,
organization, or family (Courtney, Speck, and Holtorf 1996). Boud (1994)
describes context as drawing out and using experiences as a means of engaging
with and intervening in the social, psychological, and material environment
in which the learner is situated. Context is not just bringing life events
to the classroom but reexperiencing events from multiple perspectives.
Learners are in the experience rather than being external to the event
(Wilson 1993). Context provides the setting for examining experience; community
provides the shaping of the learning.
COMMUNITY OF PRACTICE.
Through community, learners interpret, reflect, and form meaning. Community
provides the setting for the social interaction needed to engage in dialogue
with others to see various and diverse perspectives on any issue (Brown
1994; Lave and Wenger 1991). Community is the joining of practice with
analysis and reflection to share the tacit understandings and to create
shared knowledge from the experiences among participants in a learning
opportunity. Community also refers to the body of knowledge created by
an individual entering an area of inquiry. Jacobson (1996) identifies practitioner
knowledge and cultural knowledge as communities in which a new member must
learn to perceive, interpret, and communicate experience through interactions
with other members of that community. Community provides the opportunity
for the interaction; participation provides the learner with the meaning
of the experience.
Participation describes the interchange of ideas, attempts at problem
solving, and active engagement of learners with each other and with the
materials of instruction. It is the process of interaction with others
that produces and establishes meaning systems among learners. From a situated
cognition perspective, learning occurs in a social setting through dialogue
with others in the community (Lave 1988). Learning becomes a process of
reflecting, interpreting, and negotiating meaning among the participants
of a community. Learning is the sharing of the narratives produced by a
group of learners.
Orner (1996), a college-level instructor, shares her story illustrating
how narratives arising from the lived experiences of students become the
data for dialogue and situate the meaning of content for the class. Situated
cognition in the classroom becomes the vehicle for students to challenge
and intervene in the social constructions imposed by various institutions
and political and cultural settings. Orner invites adult learners to engage
in "interpreting business as usual" projects (p. 77). The projects are
opportunities for students to interpret, intervene, and interrupt the usual
happenings of their own experiences. The learning comes about through reflecting
on the experience, engaging in dialogue with others, and exploring the
meaning of events in a particular space and time, i.e., the context.
SITUATED LEARNING IN THE ADULT CLASSROOM
In designing a collaborative classroom for adult learners in a doctoral-level
organizational behavior course, Schell and Black (1997) created an environment
to foster natural learning processes. Learners engaged in discussion, simulated
group activities, and articulation-reflection, verbalizing knowledge gained
and comparing problem-solving approaches with that of experts. Schell and
Black found variations in the degree of transfer of knowledge and skills
from the simulation to the work world due to limitations in the nature
of simulation and due to the degree of involvement with the simulation
as real. Courtney and Maben-Crouch (1996) found that learning transfers
more easily when a "natural learning environment" is created. A natural
learning environment engages learners in solving authentic, nonroutine
problems likely to be encountered back on the job. Problem solving is collaborative,
with participants contributing to the dialogue and constructing novel solutions.
Participants are encouraged by instructors to engage in critical reflection,
questioning the values and assumptions behind answers suggested by other
learners. Knowledge is acquired by framing problems in terms of conditions
likely to be encountered on the job.
Young (1993) suggests that instructors should consider four critical
tasks when designing situated learning in the classroom. Instructors must
select situations that will engage the learner in complex, realistic, problem-centered
activities that will support the desired knowledge to be acquired. Instructors
must provide a scaffold for new learners, that is, know the type and intensity
of guidance necessary to help learners master the situations. As learners
acquire additional skills, less support will be needed. Instructors recast
their roles from content transmitters to facilitators of learning by tracking
progress, assessing products produced by learners, building collaborative
learning environments, encouraging reflection, and helping learners become
more aware of contextual cues to aid understanding and transference (Ottoson
1997). The last task is continually to assess the intellectual growth of
the individual and the community of learners. In the adult classroom, the
instructor fosters the notion of cognitive apprenticeships (Brown, Collins,
and Duguid 1989). Learners observe how instructors solve problems and develop
their own solution paths. The tools of cognitive apprenticeship include
discussion, reflection, evaluation, and validation of the community's perspective.
The main elements of situated cognition--content, context, community,
and participation--offer intriguing opportunities for instructors to engage
with learners in novel and meaningful ways. Situated cognition reminds
us that adult learners are a rich and diverse source of stories, data that
can transform the classroom from a source for transferring knowledge from
instructor to learners to a resource for interpreting, challenging, and
creating new knowledge. Interactions among the learners and the environment
holds the promise of having learners directly intervene in and change the
processes that surround their lives at home, in the community, and at the
Anderson, J.R.; Reder, L. M.; and Simon, H.A. "Situated Learning and
Education." EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER 25, no. 4 (May 1996): 5-11. (EJ 528
Boud, D. "Conceptualizing Learning from Experience: Developing a Model
for Facilitation." In PROCEEDINGS OF THE THIRTY FIFTH ANNUAL ADULT EDUCATION
RESEARCH CONFERENCE, edited by M. Hymans, J. Armstrong, and E. Anderson,
pp. 49-54. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1994. (ED 381 616)
Brown, A.L. "The Advancement of Learning." EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER 23,
no. 8 (November 1994): 4-12. (EJ 495 748)
Brown, J.S.; Collins, A.; and Duguid, P. "Situated Cognition and the
Culture of Learning." EDUCATIONAL RESEARCHER 18, no. 1 (January-February
1989): 32-41. (EJ 386 603)
Choi, J., and Hannafin, M. "Situated Cognition and Learning Environments:
Roles, Structures, and Implications for Design." EDUCATIONAL TECHNOLOGY
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT 43, no. 2 (1995): 53-69. (EJ 508 659)
Courtney, S., and Maben-Crouch, C. "Beyond the Sixth Floor: Redesigns
for Learning." In PROCEEDINGS OF THE 15TH ANNUAL MIDWEST RESEARCH-TO-PRACTICE
CONFERENCE IN ADULT, CONTINUING, AND COMMUNITY EDUCATION, pp. 40-45. Lincoln:
University of Nebraska, 1996.
Courtney, S.; Speck, S.; and Holtorf, P. "The Impact of Motivation,
Volition, and Classroom Context on Adult Learning." In PROCEEDINGS OF THE
15TH ANNUAL MIDWEST RESEARCH-TO-PRACTICE CONFERENCE IN ADULT, CONTINUING,
AND COMMUNITY EDUCATION, pp. 35-39. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1996.
Jacobson, W. "Learning, Culture, and Learning Culture." ADULT EDUCATION
QUARTERLY 47, no. 1 (Fall 1996): 15-28. (EJ 535 222)
Lave, J. "The Culture of Acquisition and the Practice of Understanding."
In SITUATED COGNITION: SOCIAL, SEMIOTIC, AND PSYCHOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES,
edited by D. Kirschner and J. Whitson, pp. 17-35. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence
Erlbaum Associates, 1997.
Please note that this site is privately
owned and is in no way related to any Federal agency or ERIC unit.
Further, this site is using a privately owned and located server. This
is NOT a government sponsored or government sanctioned site. ERIC is a
Service Mark of the U.S. Government. This site exists to provide the text
of the public domain ERIC Documents previously produced by ERIC.
No new content will ever appear here that would in any way challenge the
ERIC Service Mark of the U.S. Government.