Situated Learning and John Seely Brown

John Seely Brown

John Seely Brown

John Seely Brown et al  published Situated Learning and the Culture of Learning in 1989. It is an important foundation block in the evolving notions of Situated Learning and Active Learning.

Situated Knowledge

The authors argue that all knowledge is situated, that is, it has a context. The biologist practices his craft in the world of flora and fauna and addresses real problems. What educators inevitably try to extract from the observed practitioner is what Seely Brown calls explicit knowledge . The contents of a text book demonstrate the look and feel of this kind of knowledge. But, Brown argues, the biologist also makes use of another kind of knowledge which he calls tacit knowledge. This knowledge embodies the tricks of the trade, the special strategies, or the rules of thumb known to any good biologist. This latter type of knowledge does not get captured when we try to emulate the knowledge of the biologist in classroom curriculum. According to Seely Brown et al

All knowledge is, we believe, like language. Its constituent parts index the world and so are inextricably a product of the activity and situations in which they are produced. A concept, for example, will continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in a new, more densely textured form. So a concept, like the meaning of a word, is always under construction.

The authors turn to the subject of tools, including the tools of the specialists students should eventually emulate. It is here that we find an important reference to the important idea of authentic activity.

…students need much more than abstract concepts and self-contained examples. They need to be exposed to the use of a domain’s conceptual tools in authentic activity—to teachers acting as practitioners and using these tools in wrestling with problems of the world. Such activity can tease out the way a mathematician or historian looks at the world and solves emergent problems.

In the school setting students confront precise, well-defined problems, formal definitions, and symbol manipulation as the challenges and the problem-solving techniques that go with them.

Furthermore, though schooling seeks to encourage problem solving, it disregards most of the inventive heuristics that students bring to the classroom. It thus implicitly devalues not just individual heuristics, which may be fragile, but the whole process of inventive problem solving. Lave (1988s) describes how some students feel it necessary to disguise effective strategies so that teachers believe the problems have been solved in the approved way.

Because knowledge is created, stored, and updated in its situation Seely Brown advocates learning through cognitive apprenticeship. Unfortunately,

…prevalent school practices assume, more often than not, that knowledge is individual and self-structured, that schools are neutral with respect to what is learned, that concepts are abstract, relatively fixed, and unaffected by the activity through which they are acquired and used.

He defines cognitive apprenticeship as the development of concepts out of and through continuing authentic activity. Furthermore, cognitive apprenticeship can only occur in group environments through collaborative learning. Groups permit the synergistic solutions of problems, enable multiple roles associated with the knowledge development to be demonstrated, can help to identify misconceptions and poorly chosen strategies, and permit the acquisition of collaborative work skills that would otherwise be omitted.

It is clear from Brown’s article where key notions of Active Learning such as collaborative learning and authentic activity find their roots. It is worthy reading for any professional educator and comes with a delicious list of references.

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