Friday, April 15, 2005

Reading :: Situated Learning

Originally posted: Fri, 15 Apr 2005 19:14:24

Situated Learning : Legitimate Peripheral Participation

by Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger

This short (138pp, including index) monograph packs in a lot about how people learn. I first read it -- oh, probably in grad school, when I noticed it was being cited quite a bit by activity theorists, distributed cognitionists, and people interested in the social aspects of computing. Rereading it has helped me to see the huge impact it had on learning theory -- but also the problems of applying it uncritically.

The idea of the book is to examine learning in all its contexts as a sort of cognitive apprenticeship in which people have to participate in an activity, first peripherally (on the edges, with minor responsibilities), then in ways that increase complexity and responsibility. This participation must be legitimate, that is, sanctioned and validated so that the activity is properly continued. When all three of these are put together, you get "legitimate peripheral participation." That's not as easy as it might sound. Schooling allows learning that is legitimate and peripheral, but not participation. Apprentice meat cutters, in Marshall's 1972 study, engage in learning that is legitimate and participation, but not peripheral -- they start with simple tasks such as wrapping, but are physically separated from the journeymen who actually cut the meat in the back room.

LPP takes its inspiration from traditional apprenticeship, of course, and Lave and Wegner discuss historical apprenticeship at some length (Ch.3). They criticize functionalist and Marxist understandings of apprenticeship, which both treat it "as a historically significant object" that "connotes both outmoded production and obsolete education (p.62). In particular, they take issue with Engestrom's association of apprenticeship with craft production, "emphasizing the individual or small-group nature of production, the use of simple tools and tacit knowledge, a division of labor based on individual adaptation, and the prevalence of traditional protective codes" (p.63). In contrast, Lave and Wenger "emphasize the diversity of historical forms, cultural traditions, and modes of production in which apprenticeship is found" (p.63).

Apprenticeship, they argue, allows people to enter a community of practice. And when conditions "place newcomers in deeply adversarial relations with masters, bosses, or managers; in exhausting overinvolvement with work; or in involuntary servitude rather than participation," these conditions "distort, partially or completely, the prospects for learning in practice." In these cases, "communities of practice may well develop interstitially and informally" (p.64).

After reviewing five cases of apprenticeship -- including, interestingly, participation in Alcoholics Anonymous -- Lave and Wenger spell out other characteristics of LPP. Apprentices often "move backward through the production process" -- beginning their apprenticeship by finishing details on a product, then progressively mastering the previous steps in reverse order (p.96). They develop a "circumferential" perspective by taking part in "partial, peripheral, apparently trivial activities" such as "running errands, delivering messages, or accompanying others," and in doing so, they absorb "a first approximation to an armature of the structure of the community of practice" (p.96). (Formal learning curricula, in contrast, often evolve from a perscriptive understanding of participation (p.97).) In participating in an activity, apprentices also participate in a heritage:

A community of practice is a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice. A community of practice is an intrinsic condition for the existence of knowledge, not least because it provides the interpretive support necessary for making sense of its heritage. Thus, participation in the cultural practice in which any knowledge exists is an epistemological principle of learning. The social structure of this practice, its power relations, and its conditions for legitimacy define possibilities for learning (i.e., for legitimate peripheral participation). (p.98)

Heritage is a big theme here, and the idea of apprentices slowly absorbing and becoming part of a community of practice is interesting because it reflects what I've been calling the weaving perspective, in which activities develop slowly and more or less linearly over long periods of time. It doesn't do a good job of examining spliced work in the so-called new economy, and it also doesn't do a good job of exploring the resistances, tensions, and contradictions involved in absorbing new members -- something for which Lave and Wegner have been criticized from a variety of perspectives, including activity theory.

In terms of technology, "understanding the technology of practice is more than learning to use tools; it is a way to connect with the history of the practice and to participate more directly in its cultural life" (p.101).

Lave and Wegner close the book with a discussion of a major contradiction in LPP: between the continuity of the practice over generations vs. the displacement as old-timers are replaced with new participants (p.114). They propose this contradiction in addition to the fundamental contradiction of commodity (use-value vs. production-value) that activity theorists such as Engestrom often cite (p.114). "The continuity-displacement contradiction is present during apprenticeship .... The different ways in which old-timers and newcomers establish and maintain identities conflict and generate competing viewpoints on the practice and its development" (p.115). So there is resistance, there is conflict and contradiction, even though critics of LPP have tended to downplay these and portray it as an unproblematic absorption of new members.

In the conclusion, Lave and Wegner explain that LPP "obtains its meaning ... in its multiple, theoretically generative interconnections with persons, activities, knowing, and world" (p.121). When they say "interconnections," evidently they mean dialectic, since they use the term elsewhere in this monograph. "Legitimate peripheral participation has led us to emphasize the sustained character of developmental cycles of communities of practice, the gradual process of fashioning relations of identity as a full practitioner, and the enduring strains inherent in the continuity-displacement contradiction. This longer and broader conception of what it means to learn, implied by the concept of legitimate peripheral participation, comes closer to embracing the rich significance of learning in human experience" (p.121).

All in all, this is a really thought-provoking book. But I find myself thinking, as I implied earlier, about the sort of work that seems not to lend itself to this model. In particular, I don't see much place for historically new activities; for innovations; for multiplicity (this is perhaps because of Lave and Wegner's reliance on dialectic); in a word, for splicing. I would have difficulty applying LPP, for instance, to a new or substantially changed profession brought about by new legislation, as is often true in the telecommunications industry, or to hybrid organizations brought about by mergers. Looking at Lave and Wegner's examples, I note that meat cutting and tailoring have both undergone radical changes in work organization and automation over the last few decades, changes that were in full swing by the time the book was written, and Lave and Wegner do little to address those changes. Is LPP applicable to distributed capitalism? I'm sure it is, but not as a general explanatory principle.

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