Lave Practice Learning

In: KNUD, Illeris (2009), Contemporary Learning Theories. London: Routledge., pp. 200-208.

Chapter 14

The practice of learning

Jean Lave

The American anthropologist Jean Lave is Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She has studied education and schooling in pre-industrial societies and, through comparisons with the corresponding American conditions, she has become a strong advocate of “practice learning.” Most significantly this approach has been formulated in the famous book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participationwhich she published together with Etienne Wenger in 1991. The following chapter is an extract of Lave’s introduction to the anthology Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context, edited together with Seth Chaiklin and published in 1993 as a kind of programmatic update, reformulation and overview of the learning approach of the Russian cultural-historical and activity theoretical school as developed in the 1930s by Lev Vygotsky and others.

The problem with “context”

Understanding Practice grew out of the work of a two-part conference in which the participants came together to consider what we initially called “the context problem.” All of us were involved in research on socially situated activity. We were concerned about conventional limitations on various approaches to the study of activity. In particular, we wished to explore questions about the “socially constituted world” – the context of socially situated activity – that our work often seemed merely to take for granted.

I had tried in previous research to understand how math activity in grocery stores involved being “in” the “store,” walking up and down “aisles,” looking at “shelves” full of cans, bottles, packages, and jars of food and other commodities. My analyses were about shoppers’ activities, sometimes together, and about the relations between these activities and the distractingly material, historically constituted, subjectively selective character of space–time relations and their meaning. Both Seth Chaiklin and I knew that other people conceived of the problem in quite different terms. We decided to hold a collective inquiry into these old, but still perplexing questions.

But why would a diverse group of students of the human condition participate over months, and even years, to try to understand each other’s perspective? Seth | page_201 | Chaiklin and I initially proposed the following rationale: Theories of situated everyday practice insist that persons acting and the social world of activity cannot be separated. This creates a dilemma: Research on everyday practice typically focuses on the activities of persons acting, although there is agreement that such phenomena cannot be analyzed in isolation from the socially material world of that activity. But less attention has been given to the difficult task of conceptualizing relations between persons acting and the social world. Nor has there been sufficient attention to rethinking the “social world of activity” in relational terms. Together, these constitute the problem of context.

The participants in the conference agreed to this set of priorities, with the obvious proviso that relational concepts of the social world should not be explored in isolation from conceptions of persons acting and interacting and their activities. That proviso gradually took on a more central meaning and, as a result, our conception of the common task crystallized into a double focus – on context and, to our surprise, learning. A focus on one provided occasions on which to consider the other. If context is viewed as a social world constituted in relation with persons acting, both context and activity seem inescapably flexible and changing. And thus characterized, changing participation and understanding in practice – the problem of learning – cannot help but become central as well.

It is difficult, when looking closely at everyday activity, to avoid the conclusion that learning is ubiquitous in ongoing activity, though often unrecognized as such. Situated activity always involves changes in knowledge and action, and “changes in knowledge and action” are central to what we mean by “learning.” It is not the case that the world consists of newcomers who drop unaccompanied into unpeopled problem spaces. People in activity are skillful at, and are more often than not engaged in, helping each other to participate in changing ways in a changing world. So in describing and analyzing people’s involvement in practical action in the world, even those authors whose work generally would be least identified with educational foci (e.g. Suchman and Trigg, 1993; Keller and Keller, 1993) are in effect analyzing peoples’ engagement in learning. We have come to the conclusion, as McDermott (1993) suggests, that there is no such thing as “learning” sui generis, but only changing participation in the culturally designed settings of everyday life. Or, to put it the other way around, participation in everyday life may be thought of as a process of changing understanding in practice, that is, as learning.Learning became one focus of our work, even where unintended, partly because of our concern with everyday activity as social and historical process and with the improvisational, future-creating character of mundane practice; partly, also, because those of us whose research has touched on educational questions have come to insist on denaturalizing the social processes that unfold within educational institutions by turning them into analytic objects. So whether the researchers have approached the problem of context through its temporal dimension, as activity (or practice), or whether they have looked at institutions of learning as contexts, learning has become a central issue. | page_202 |

The discussion of context suggests a problem, however: Conventional theories of learning and schooling appeal to the decontextualized character of some knowledge and forms of knowledge transmission, whereas in a theory of situated activity, “decontextualized learning activity” is a contradiction in terms. These two very different ways of conceiving of learning are hardly compatible. Nonetheless, a belief that the world is divided into contex tualized and decontextualized phenomena is not merely an academic speculation that can be discarded when found theoretically inadequate or incomplete.

Craftwork learning and social production

Traditionally, learning researchers have studied learning as if it were a process contained in the mind of the learner and have ignored the lived-in world. This disjuncture, which ratifies a dichotomy of mind and body, sidetracks or derails the question of how to construct a theory that encompasses mind and lived-in world. It is not enough to say that some designated cognitive theory of learning could be amended by adding a theory of “situation,” for this raises crucial questions about the compatibility of particular theories (cf. Soviet psychologists’ discussion of the “match” between psychologies and sociologies in the 1920s: Davydov and Radzhikovskii, 1985, p. 49). Nor is it sufficient to pursue a principled account of situated activity armed only with a theory of cognition and good intentions. Without a theoretical conception of the social world one cannot analyze activity in situ. A more promising alternative lies in treating relations among person, activity, and situation, as they are given in social practice, itself viewed as a single encompassing theoretical entity. It is possible to detect such a trend in most if not all of the research traditions represented in Understanding Practice – the chapters are working toward a more inclusive, intensive development of the socially situated character of activity in theoretically consistent terms.

Theories of situated activity do not separate action, thought, feeling, and value and their collective, cultural-historical forms of located, interested, conflictual, meaningful activity. Traditional cognitive theory is “distanced from experience” and divides the learning mind from the world. This “release” from the narrow confines of body and immediate experience is rejected on varied grounds in the chapters collected in Understanding Practice in favor of more complex relations between person and world. The idea of learning as cognitive acquisition – whether of facts, knowledge, problem-solving strategies, or metacognitive skills – seems to dissolve when learning is conceived of as the construction of present versions of past experience for several persons acting together (e.g. Hutchins, 1993). And when scientific practice is viewed as just another everyday practice (e.g. Lave, 1988), it is clear that theories of “situated activity” provide different perspectives on “learning” and its “contexts.”

Participants in the conference agreed, on the whole, on four premises concerning knowledge and learning in practice: | page_203 |

  1. Knowledge always undergoes construction and transformation in use.
  2. Learning is an integral aspect of activity in and with the world at all times. That learning occurs is not problematic.
  3. What is learned is always complexly problematic.
  4. Acquisition of knowledge is not a simple matter of taking in knowledge; rather, things assumed to be natural categories, such as “bodies of knowledge,” “learners,” and “cultural transmission,” require reconceptualization as cultural, social products.

It should be said that the conceptions of craftwork in most of the chapters bear little resemblance to the small-scale problem-solving tasks typical of cognitive learning research: Forging a cooking utensil or taking part in the work of a national university examination committee are substantial, meaningful forms of activity. In all cases the work described takes on meaning from its broader interconnections with(in) other activity systems.

Relations with theory past: Some paradoxes and silences of cognitive theory

Silences and paradoxes are generated in any theoretical problematic: questions that cannot be asked and issues for which no principled resolution is possible. At least four such issues trouble traditional cognitive theory. They concern the conventional divisions between learning and what is not (supposed to be) learning. Resolutions to these difficulties have been anticipated in the four premises concerning knowledge and learning in practice mentioned earlier. The problems include, first, an assumed division between learning and other kinds of activity. Second, both the invention and reinvention of knowledge are difficult problems for cognitive theory if learning is viewed as a matter of acquiring existing knowledge. Third, cognitive theory assumes universal processes of learning and the homogeneous character of knowledge and of learners (save in quantity or capacity). This makes it difficult to account for the richly varied participants and projects in any situation of learning. Finally, there is a problem of reconceptualizing the meaning of erroneous, mistaken understanding in a heterogeneous world.

First, how is “learning” to be distinguished from human activity as such? Within cognitive theories it has been assumed that learning and development are distinctive processes, not to be confused with the more general category of human activity. This involves two theoretical claims that are in question here: One is that actors’ relations with knowledge-in-activity are static and do not change except when subject to special periods of “learning” or “development.” The other is that institutional arrangements for inculcating knowledge are the necessary, special circumstances for learning, separate from everyday practices. The difference may be at heart a very deep epistemological one, between a view of knowledge as a collection of real entities, located in heads, and of learning | page_204 | as a process of internalizing them, versus a view of knowing and learning as engagement in changing processes of human activity. In the latter case, “knowledge” becomes a complex and problematic concept, whereas in the former it is “learning” that is problematic.

A second, related issue concerns the narrow focus of learning theories on the transmission of existing knowledge, while remaining silent about the invention of new knowledge in practice. Engeström (1987) argues that this is a central lacuna in contemporary learning theory. Certainly, any simple assumption that transmission or transfer or internalization are apt descriptors for the circulation of knowledge in society faces the difficulty that they imply uniformity of knowledge. They do not acknowledge the fundamental imprint of interested parties, multiple activities, and different goals and circumstances on what constitutes “knowing” on a given occasion or across a multitude of interrelated events. These terms imply that humans engage first and foremost in the reproduction of given knowledge rather than in the production of knowledgeability as a flexible process of engagement with the world. Engeström’s conceptualization of how people learn to do things that have not been done before elaborates the idea that zones of proximal development are collective, rather than individual, phenomena and that “the new” is a collective invention in the face of felt dilemmas and contradictions that impede ongoing activity and impel movement and change.

Further, part of what it means to engage in learning activity is extending what one knows beyond the immediate situation, rather than involuting one’s understanding “metacognitively” by thinking about one’s own cognitive processes. Critical psychologists of the Berlin school (e.g. Dreier, 1991; Holzkamp, 1983) insist on the importance of a distinction between experiencing or knowing the immediate circumstances (“interpretive thinking,” “restricted action”) and processes of thinking beyond and about the immediate situation in more general terms (“comprehensive thinking,” “extended, generalized action”). Together, in a dialectical process by which each helps to generate the other, they produce new understanding (see Wenger, 1991).Doing and knowing are inventive in another sense: They are open-ended processes of improvisation with the social, material, and experiential resources at hand. Keller and Keller’s research illustrates this: The blacksmith’s practices as he creates a skimming spoon draw on rich resources of experience, his own and that of other people, present and past. But his understanding of the skimmer also emerges in the forging process. He does not know what it will be until it is finished. At one point he spreads one section of the spoon handle for the second time but goes too far and, in evaluating the work, finds it necessary to reduce the width of the handle again. “It is as though he has to cross a boundary in order to discover the appropriate limits of the design” (Keller and Keller, 1993).

The work of researchers in artificial intelligence appears to have the same character: Suchman and Trigg (1993) describe it as “a skilled improvisation, organized in orderly ways that are designed to maintain a lively openness to | page_205 | the possibilities that the materials at hand present.” And “analyses of situated action … point to the contingencies of practical action on which logic in use, including the production and use of scenarios and formalisms, inevitably and in every instance relies.”

Fuhrer (1993) emphasizes the varying emotional effects of the improvisational character of activity. These effects are perhaps most intensely felt by newcomers, but he equates newcomers’ predicaments with those of learners in general. He insists that in addition to cognitive and environmental dimensions, there is an emotional dimension to all learning. He argues that:

Given these considerations, Fuhrer raises the question of how people manage and coordinate “the various actions that arise from cognitive, social, and environmental demands or goals.” Old-timers as well as newcomers try to carry out the usual activities in given settings, but they are also trying to address many other goals, among which are impression management and “developing interpersonal relations to other setting inhabitants … Thus the newcomers simultaneously pursue several goals and therefore they may simultaneously perform different actions.”

The third issue, the assumed homogeneity of actors, goals, motives, and activity itself, is challenged in many chapters, replaced with quite different assumptions that emphasize their heterogeneity. I believe this view is new to discussions of learning. It derives from an intense focus on the multiplicity of actors engaged in activity together and on the interdependencies, conflicts, and relations of power so produced. These views are elaborated in Understanding Practice by several authors: Keller and Keller (1993) argue that “the goal of production is not monolithic but multifaceted … based on considerations aesthetic, stylistic, functional, procedural, financial, and academic as well as conceptions of self and other, and material conditions of work.” Dreier (1993) proposes that “different participants’ interpretations are based on different contextual social positions with inherent differences in possibilities, interests, and perspectives on conflicts arising from different locations.” Suchman and Trigg (1993) describe artificial intelligence research as a socially organized process of craftsmanship consisting of “the crafting together of a complex machinery made of heterogeneous materials, mobilized in the service of developing a theory of mind.” And McDermott (1993) proposes that “by institutional arrangements, we must consider everything from the most local | page_206 | level of the classroom to the more inclusive level of inequities throughout the political economy (preferably from both ends of the continuum at the same time).” These statements refer to a wide variety of relations, but each challenges research on knowing and learning that depends implicitly on a homogeneity of community, culture, participants, their motives, and the meaning of events.

The heterogeneous, multifocal character of situated activity implies that conflict is a ubiquitous aspect of human existence. This follows if we assume that people in the same situation, people who are helping to constitute “a situation” together, know different things and speak with different interests and experience from different social locations. Suddenly assumptions concerning the uniformity of opinion, knowledge, and belief become, on the one hand, matters of common historical tradition and complexly shared relations with larger societal forces (whatever these might mean – now an important question) and, on the other hand, matters of imposed conformity and symbolic violence. Analysis focused on conflictual practices of changing understanding in activity is not so likely to concentrate on the truth or error of some knowledge claim. It is more likely to explore disagreements over what is relevant; whether, and how much, something is worth knowing and doing; what to make of ambiguous circumstances; what is convenient for whom; what to do next when one does not know what to expect; and who cares most about what. There are always conflicts of power, so mislearning cannot be understood independently of someone imposing her or his view. There is, of course, and at the same time, much uniformity and agreement in the world. The perspectives represented here differ about whether this is always, or only much of the time, a matter of one party imposing assent, subtly or otherwise, on others.

The fourth and final issue concerns “failure to learn.” In mainstream theorizing about learning, this is commonly assumed to result from the inability or refusal on the part of an individual to engage in something called “learning.” The alternative view explored earlier is that not-learning and “failure” identities are active normal social locations and processes. The latter generates further questions, however: If failure is a socially arranged identity, what is left to be said about the making of “errors”? Given that several of the authors provide novel construals of failure to learn, question the meaning of “consensus,” and call attention to the deficiencies of claims that knowing unfolds without conflict and without engaging the interests of involved participants, does the term error still have meaning? The answer depends on whose socially positioned point of view is adopted, and on historically and socially situated conceptions of erroneous action and belief. Several of the chapters in Understanding Practice develop powerful ways of conceptualizing socially, historically situated nonlearning or mislearning. They discuss nonlearning activities that occur when embarrassment is too great or that result from anxiety, from the social delegitimation of learning or the learner, and from the retarding effects of denying learners access to connections | page_207 | between immediate appearances and broader, deeper social forces, or to concrete interrelations within and across situations (e.g. Fuhrer, 1993; Levine, 1993). Mehan explores the discoordination of voices in interactions between school psychologist, teacher, and parent, who speak in different “languages” – psychological, sociological, and historical – and between physicians and patients. Engeström (1987) locates unproductive encounters between patients and physicians in the mismatch among historically engendered discourses – thus, in practice, among the biomedical and psychosocial registers or voices the physician and patient use for communicating about medical issues.

Hutchins’s analysis (1993) raises questions about the location of error-making in historical systems of activity and in relations among participants. He describes what it is possible for novice navigators to learn in practice in terms of task partitioning, instruments, lines of communication, and limitations and openness of access for observing others, their interactions, and tools. He argues that these define the portion of the task environment that is available as a learning context to each task performer – this constitutes the performer’s “horizon of observability.” The density of error correction (which helps to make learning possible) depends on the contours of this horizon.

In sum, the assumptions proposed here amount to a preliminary account of what is meant by situated learning. Knowledgeability is routinely in a state of change rather than stasis, in the medium of socially, culturally, and historically ongoing systems of activity, involving people who are related in multiple and heterogeneous ways, whose social locations, interests, reasons, and subjective possibilities are different, and who improvise struggles in situated ways with each other over the value of particular definitions of the situation, in both immediate and comprehensive terms, and for whom the production of failure is as much a part of routine collective activity as the production of average, ordinary knowledgeability.


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