Located learning

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The theory of situated learning (also situated cognition ) illuminates the social anchoring of individual learning. Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger were in charge of further developing the idea.

A variety of learning theories attempt to explain how human learning works. Most of these theories focus on the individual as a learner. In the early 1990s, scientists from various disciplines came together to explore the social dimension of learning.

To understand the theory, it is important to consider the theoretical guiding principles of the concept. In the course of the development of the theory, some of these were also further developed with it. These central ideas include the negotiation of meaning , the situated context including the theory of communities of practice , identity development as one of the main goals of the learning process for the learner. Another central idea of ​​the theoretical model of situated learning is that the social context that enables individual learning evolves with the learning person. One theory that this school of thought has adopted is distributed cognition .

Core ideas of the theory

Which learning situations does the theoretical model of situated learning relate to?

In many models of teaching and learning, specific learning situations are examined more closely (e.g. learning in the classroom ). In situated learning, there has been a change in the focused teaching / learning situation.

  • First of all, everyday teaching / learning situations were focused. The focus was not solely on learning as such, but on the action situation in which learning is also interwoven and embedded. Situations that were analyzed for the development of the model were mainly the informal 'training situation' apprenticeship.
  • The model was developed as 'general': situated learning not only takes place in ' apprenticeship ' situations, but also in the situated context in schools and companies. The basic assumption of the model developers here is that learning can never take place without such a context (see Wenger, who illuminates the drastic consequences of blocking for individuals and companies). Due to the lucrative area of ​​application, the model was focused on companies.

Each situation has specific contextual elements that shape the learning situation and the opportunities for the individual and the learning community.

  • A model that illuminates the double-layered nature of school learning situations and analyzes the 'fingerprint' of the school context situation is still pending (in the rudiments of Bernd Hackl , Klaus Holzkamp ).
  • A model that analyzes the interlinking of individual development in the situational context is in development.

Learning as 'Negotiation of Meaning'

Theories of situated learning have a common starting point. They are directed against assumptions that knowledge is transmitted from the teacher to the learner, so that the learner then has the knowledge learned in exactly the same form as the teacher (cf. Nuremberg funnel ). The theory of situated learning, on the other hand, assumes that knowledge cannot be transferred from one person to another. Rather, learning requires negotiating the meaning in the situation ('Situation Backtalk, Schoen, 1986) and negotiating in social frameworks.

Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger summarize this initial assumption:

"Learning as internalization is too easily construed as an unproblematic process of absorbing the given, as a matter of transmission and assimilation."

- Lave, Wenger 1991, 47

This simple acceptance of learning as the absorption of knowledge is critically examined in the concept of situated learning .

Situated context

Located learning theory states that learning takes place in 'situated'. This means that learning is embedded in the situational context. The concept of 'situatedness' goes back to a new word ( neologism ) by Lucy Suchman in the mid-1980s. Suchman showed the importance of the context for human cognition and thus brought a hitherto underexposed perspective into the cognition discussion, which until then was limited to the human brain as the 'seat of the cognitive machine' (see also the review by Nardi 1998).

Context is interpreted as

  • Reifications (tools, instructions, thought models, plans, see Suchman 1987)
  • Practice in a social context (e.g. Lave, Wenger 1991)

In the context of the theoretical model, situated learning means that learning takes place in a social context with an emphasis on analyzing this very context.

Establishing identity in the foreground

Another central element of the theory of situated learning is that the development of cognitive structures is not in the foreground. There is a correlation between internal processes ( cognition ) and external processes ( situation ). The situation means not only a material aspect (available tools, etc.), but also and especially the social environment of the learner.

In the concept of situated learning , learning takes place as a 'negotiation of meaning' with the

  • Establishing, expanding and changing identity
  • Expansion of opportunities for participation in a social context.

Chaiklin and Lave explain:

"We have come to the conclusion [...] 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 in other way around, participation in everyday life may be thought of as a process of changing understanding in practice, that is, as learning. "

- Chaiklin, Seth & Lave, Jean 1996, 6

"Learning to-do is part of learning to become and to belong."

- OECD 2000

The importance of the situated context for learning

The role of social interaction in the concept of situated learning is of central importance. In the concept of situated learning, social interaction is interpreted as a 'space' in which experiences can be made and skills can be developed (Wenger 1998). Social contacts serve as an opportunity for the individual to negotiate importance. They enable individuals to practice and learn to understand practices that they could not do without outside help.

What does the environment have to do with the process of individual learning?

The idea of ​​learning in a situated context brings with it the idea of ​​learning in a social context. This assumption is often confused with ' learning by doing '. The focus of the concept of 'learning by doing' is on the practical relevance and not on the analysis of the social structure of conditions, as is the case with 'situated learning'. Lave and Wenger (1991) emphasize that the model of situated learning means a drastic expansion of the theoretical basic assumptions and models of 'learning in doing'.

"This conception of situated learning clearly was more encompassing in intent than conventional notions of 'learning in situ' or 'learning by doing' for which it was used as a rough equivalent. [...] We have tried to capture this new view under the rubric of legitimate peripheral participation. Discussing each shift in turn may help to clarify our reasons for coming to characterize learning as legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice. "

- Lave, Wenger 1991: 31

Further theoretical models were developed to explain these types of 'embedding':

  • The model of legitimate peripheral participation (Lave, Wenger 1991)
  • The model of communities of practice , which form the place in which legitimate peripheral participation can take place or is prevented (Wenger 1998)
  • The scaffolding model (Wood et al. 1978; Bruner et al. 1976; based on the basic assumption of a zone of proximal development , Vygotsky, 1930/1978)

Formation of identity and formation of the environment in the interplay

Another basic assumption of situated learning is that the individual person is not only shaped by his environment, but that he himself also shapes his environment. On the one hand, the Community of Practice opens up the space of experience for legitimate peripheral participation (or blocks access to it) for the newcomer . On the other hand, the members of a community of practice shape the practice of this community.

Lave quotes Giddens and Bourdieu:

“We have to avoid any account of socialization which presumes either that the subject is determined by the social object (the individual simply as' molded by society); or, by contrast, which takes subjectivity for granted as an inherent characteristic of human beings, not in need of explication. "

- Anthony Giddens, 1979 [4], quoted in Lave 1988 [5], 15

"We shall escape from the ritual either / or choice between objectivism and subjectivism ... only if we are prepared to inquire into the mode of production and functioning of the practical mastery which makes possible both an objectively intelligible practice and also an objectively enchanted experience of that practice. "

- Pierre Bourdieu 1977 [6], quoted from Lave 1988, 16

Relation to the constructivism discussion in German-language literature

Knowledge always arises through an active construction process for the learner in the context of the situation, which is what gave the situated learning its name. In German-language literature, this theory is often seen in the context of the constructivism discussion. In the English-language literature, from which the term 'situatedness' originates, there is hardly any reference to constructivism . The group of authors who developed the term 'situated learning' even explicitly points out that the theoretical area, despite overlapping courts of meaning with constructivist theories, follows a significantly different interest in knowledge (namely the development of an analytical framework for assessing the social context of individual learning activities).

Application of the theoretical analysis concept

From analysis model to application

The concept of situated learning was originally intended as a model for analyzing learning situations (Suchman 1987; Lave, Wenger 1991).

As such, the idea of ​​situatedness became the subject of numerous new theoretical models at the end of the 1980s (such as Lave and Wenger's 'Situated Learning', the concept of 'Communities of Practice').

These analysis models were then used as the basis for design concepts.


Located learning theory has been applied in various fields. These include, among other things, the design of professional and school learning processes.

You stand up

  • the design of individual learning situations
  • the design of the learning environment
  • the reshaping of more comprehensive organizational processes and institutions (see e.g. Brown, Duguid 1991).

Application example: Design of a learning situation and a learning environment

The theory of situated learning assumes that knowledge is newly created in learners through an active construction process. Consequences for the design of learning environments must be drawn from this.

If a learning situation is designed which takes into account that learning is not only based on 'internal brain' processes, but above all on contextual embedding and the negotiation of meaning in social relationships, the basic situation of the learner during learning should be taken into account. Pedagogical approaches that build on this basic idea particularly criticize the imparting of abstract knowledge through frontal teaching . This is justified with a learning situation created in this way that does not correspond to the later possibilities of knowledge use. The method will be in traditional forms of teaching to dull knowledge - keep it can indeed and reproduced are an application of this knowledge but falls learners often difficult. Learning and application situations should therefore be designed as similarly as possible, since knowledge is viewed as strongly context-bound. This means that the situation in which learning takes place should already be designed in such a way that it resembles the situation in which the knowledge is used. Only in this way can the teaching objective of using knowledge outside of learning situations be achieved. The following aspects arise as demands on teaching :

  • Learning and working in groups
  • Use of tools
  • Consideration of the areas of application of knowledge

The role of the teacher

The teacher (be it a person or a learning medium ) has a different role in situated learning than the teacher in the traditional approach, where the teacher and his subject matter are central. The learner and their learning process are at the center, and the teacher is responsible for providing them with tools and guidance . The entire learning process is assessed, with the teacher taking on a supporting role as a coach . The teacher should be an expert in his field and work together with the learner on a complex task. The focus is on the dialogue between them. Over time, the expert steers less and less, rather he reacts to questions from the learner.

Located cognition and instruction

There are different models that have developed instructions on what situated learning should look like. The similarities between these models can be summarized as follows:

  • The learning environment should be designed in such a way that the learner is able to work on realistic problems and authentic situations. This is to ensure that the application context becomes clear to the learner and that an application outside of the learning situation is successful. The learning and the learning content should not be ends in themselves, but rather create opportunities for solving diverse everyday problems.
  • The learning environment should offer the learners different contexts in which what they have learned can be seen. It should become clear to the learner that knowledge is not only related to a single context, but can also be related to new problems .
  • Learners should articulate and reflect on what they have learned . The aim is to abstract the knowledge in order to apply the knowledge to other problems later. Since the knowledge is abstracted by the learners themselves in this way, it differs from directly learned abstract knowledge. Through the own abstraction of knowledge, it is linked directly with contextual references.
  • Learning in a social context should be taken into account when designing learning environments. Cooperative learning and problem solving , setting up study groups and learning and working with experts are important factors here.


  • Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press
  • Brown, JS & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning and Innovation. Organization Science, 2 (1): 40-57.
  • Bruner, JS & Ross, G. & Wood, DJ (1976). The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 17: 89-100.
  • Chaiklin, S. & Lave, J. (Eds.) (1993). Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Giddens, A. (1979). Central Problems in Social Theory: action, structure and contradiction in social analysis. Berkeley: University of California Press
  • Greeno, J. (1998). The situativity of knowing, learning, and research. American Psychologist , 53, 5-26.
  • Lave, J. (Ed.) (1988). Cognition in Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Nardi, BA (1998). Concepts of Cognition and Consciousness: Four Voices. Journal of Computer Documentation, 22 (1): 31-48 [(Adapted by the author, with permission, from an earlier version in Australian Journal of Information Systems, 1996, 4 (1), 64-69.)]
  • OECD (2000). Management of Knowledge in the New Learning Society. Paris OECD
  • Suchman, LA (1987). Plans and situated actions - The problem of human-machine communications. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Vygotsky, LS (1930/1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Wood, DJ & Wood, H. & Middleton, D. (1978). An Experimental Evaluation of Four Face-to-Face Teaching Strategies. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 2: 131-147.

Other models of 'social learning'

  • Hutchins, E. (1995) Cognition in the Wild ( ISBN 0-262-58146-9 ) (MIT Press).
  • Hutchins, E. (1995) "How a cockpit remembers its speeds". Cognitive Science, 19, 265-288.
  • Norman, DA (1993) "Things that make us smart" (Addison-Wesley).
  • Perry, M. (2003) "Distributed Cognition". In JM Carroll (Ed.) "HCI Models, Theories, and Frameworks: Toward an Interdisciplinary Science" (Morgan Kaufmann) 193-223.
  • Rogers, Y. and Scaife, M. (1997)
  • Zhang, J. & Norman, DA (1994) "Representations in Distributed Cognitive Tasks", Cognitive Science, 18, 87-122.
  • Solomon, Gavriel. (1993) Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations. ( ISBN 0-521-57423-4 ) (Cambridge University Press).

Application in German-speaking countries

  • Mandl H., Gruber H. & Renkl (2002): "Situated learning in multimedia learning environments", In: Issing & Klimsa (ed.): "Information and learning with multimedia and Internet". Weinheim: Beltz, Psychologie Verlags Union. Pp. 139-149, ISBN 3-621-27449-9 .
Mandl primarily represents the material-related context approach. Here the environment should be designed as realistically as possible. The social aspect finds its way into the discussion as learning in groups. This focus treats the topic of situated social practice, as discussed primarily in the Anglo-American area, rather than secondary.
  • Kiel, E., Kahlert, J., Haag, L. & Eberle, T. (2011): Challenging situations in school. A case-based workbook. Bad Heilbrunn: Klinkhardt.

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