Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lave and Wenger are laying out a case for an alternative way of viewing the learning process, what they call “situated learning.” They define situated learning as “legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice,” and spend much of the first chapter defining legitimacy, peripherality, participation, community, and practice.
Basically they are saying that learning is an integral part of socialization into the life of any community of practice, and as such must be viewed as a messy, dynamic social process involving a number of actors with often conflicting goals. They contract this the more typical view of learning as a result of something that a teacher does to a student, imparting some knowledge that enters the student’s mind.
I was initially not too excited about reading this, as discussions of education and learning usually make my eyes glaze over. As I read, however, I realized that what I am bored by is what the authors refer to as pedagogy: the institutionalization and commodification of learning in school systems. But I am rather interested in learning as a socialization process that occurs independently of teaching or schooling.
I was particularly interested in the discussion of transparency of technology (Chapter 4). It is fashionable these days to make transparency a design goal; see for example the ideas around “designing for hackability” and the W3C’s recommendation that users be given access to format and protocol details. Lave and Wenger extend the idea to include not just transparency in terms of “see how it works,” but also transparency in terms of the extent to which the social world in which the technology is used, and the ways things are perceived and manipulated in that world, are revealed.
- The examples Lave and Wenger give of legitimate peripheral participation mostly involve fairly specialized communities of practice. Is it possible to apply these ideas to the more general process of socialization into adult life, or is situated learning necessarily something that happens in communities of practice with a particular focus? If the latter, what does this imply for the principles of a general “liberal education”? Can it (liberal education) be anything more than a process to “increase the exchange value of learning”?
- Designing software systems for “simple” transparency seems fairly straightforward: textual file formats; open, documented protocols; self-describing UIs, etc. How might one design software to embody the practices of the community in which it is used?