Posted by: katja221186 | March 31, 2009

Early approaches of research on workplace learning: Situated cognition movement

by Katja Steinhauser & Clarissa Uihlein

This article will give you an overview about the beginning of research on workplace learning. The main focus is on the theory of situated cognition which was the basis for further research.

The article is divided in several parts: Definitions, origin, main ideas of the situated cognition movement, empirical study, our position, important researchers, studies and literature.

First of all some definitions from different authors about situated cognition:

“Thinking is situated in physical and social contexts. Cognition, including thinking, knowing, and learning, can be considered as a relation involving an agent in a situation, rather than as an activity in an individual’s mind (Greeno, 1989).”

“Activities, tasks, functions, and understandings do not exist in isolation; they are part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning. These systems of relations arise out of and are reproduced and developed within social communities, which are in part systems of relations among persons. Learning thus implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations (Lave & Wenger, 1991).”

“Situated cognition theory, by contrast, shifts the focus from the individual to the sociocultural setting and the activities of the people within that setting. Knowledge accrues through the live practice of the people in a society (Discroll, 2004).”


Several learning models in the social constructivist paradigm reflect some aspect of situated cognition. The cognitive apprenticeship model is most directly related to situated cognition.

Jean Lave is often credited with starting the situated cognition movement. “As Lave (1991) noted, effectively structured apprenticeships […] have come to figure importantly in theories of situated learning and into alternative models for schooling practices” (Kirshner & Whitson, 1997). John Dewey and Lev Vygotsky both advocated similar approaches. Lev Vygotsky’s concept of “zones of proximal development” suggest that we design authentic tasks that are more difficult than students may handle alone, but not so difficult that they cannot be resolved with the support of peers or teachers who model appropriate strategies. John Dewey was an advocate of situated approaches to learning, arguing that understanding is defined within a social unit.

After this short introduction we would like to concentrate now on the main ideas of the situated cognition movement.

Main ideas of the situated cognition movement

We focus on the text “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning” from John Seely Brown, Allan Collins and Paul Duguid (1989). They argue “that knowledge is situated, being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed and used” (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). The authors think that the activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed is not separable from cognition and learning. So, learning and cognition are fundamentally situated. Why are activity and situations integral to cognition and learning?

There are four ideas

–       and the first idea is “Situated Knowledge and Learning”. The experiment from Miller and Gildea (1987) about vocabulary teaching has shown that by listening, talking and reading pupils have learned more vocabulary than by words from abstract definitions. Learning words from abstract definitions overlooks the way understanding is developed through continued, situated use. So, words are situated.

–       The next idea is “Learning and Tools”. “Conceptual knowledge is (…) similar to a set of tools” (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). Tools can only be fully understood through use. Using them changes the user’s view of the world and he can adopt the belief system of the culture in which they are used. People who use tools build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and of the tools themselves.

–       The third idea is “Learning and enculturation”. Enculturation may, first of all, appear to have little to do with learning. But it is, factual, what people do in learning to speak, read and write or becoming school children, office workers, researchers and so on. For example students can quickly get an implicit sense of what is suitable diction, what is legitimate or illegitimate behaviour in a particular way or what makes a relevant question.

–       The last idea is “Authentic activity”. There is an undefined distinction between authentic and school activity. So, often school work is inauthentic and thus not fully productive of useful learning. Authentic activities then are most simply defined as the ordinary practices of the culture. Many of the activities students undertake are simply not the activities of practitioners and would not make sense. So when teachers try to transfer authentic activities to the classroom, their context is inevitably transmuted. They become classroom tasks and part of the school culture.

Lauren B. Resnick demonstrates in the text “Learning in school and out” (1987) two main aspects. First of all she explores four broad contrasts which suggest that school is a special place and time for people. This place is different to their daily life and work. She consequently explores “How school learning differs from other learning”. Relating to these contrasts the second topic covers “What role for schooling then? – And what kind of schooling?”. So we focus on the topic what these discontinuities suggest about the relationship between schooling and competence in work and daily life. This topic is considered from three points of view: “The role of schooling in directly preparing people for economic participation, its role in preparing people to learn effectively over the long course of their work lives and its role in preparing people for civic and cultural participations” (Resnick, 1987).

The view of education as a means of improving economic productivity treats schools and classrooms as places in which to prepare students directly for jobs. But the kind of direct job training in school, like to provide certain students with experiences with the same kinds of machines and the same kinds of tasks that they will encounter in the workplace is unusable to today’s conditions. The job training vocational education agenda fails today due to the impossibility of preparing people for the quickly changing requirements of specific jobs. The direct training approach can only work when there is relatively slow change in the technological and social structure of work and when the equipment of the workplace can be duplicated within the economic and safety tolerances of the education system. But neither of these conditions holds today. The obvious alternative to school- based job training is training at the worksite. Cognitive apprenticeship is a model of learning based on the situated cognition theory. It provides practical steps for applying situated cognition theory. Training at the worksite was common in traditional apprenticeship, where a beginner in a field worked in the shop of an established expert and gradually acquired various elements of skill. Although full- scale apprenticeships are not common today, Jean Lave´s study of tailoring apprenticeships in Liberia provides an understanding:

Study from Jean Lave about the curriculum of tailors´ apprenticeship

Jean Lave´s field research with the tailors took place during 1973 until 1978 in Monrovia, Liberia. He made five field trips to Liberia. Lave came in contact with the Via and Gola tailors. Tailors´ Alley employed 120 master tailors and had as many treadle sewing machines in 20 shops. The shops had a working population of about 250 men including the apprentices. No women worked as tailors. In each shops were several masters- their business was to tailor clothes and to supervise the apprentices. The main job of the apprentices was to observe the full process of producing garments, to observe other apprentices and masters at work and of course to observe the finished products. To become a master tailor the apprentices needed to learn an inventory of garments: hats, children´s trousers, short trousers, long trousers, Vai shirts, sport shirts, Muslim prayer gowns and women´s dresses.

The learning of each operation is subdivided into phases: First there is a period where the apprentices watch masters and advanced apprentices until they think they understand how to sew a garment, then they wait until the shop is closed and the masters have gone home before trying to make it. Once an apprentice produces a first garment that has all the parts correctly oriented in relation to each other, he moves on to the phase of practice in which he makes many of the same clothes until he can do so at high speed, and in a good manner.

There are no formal tests in tailors´ apprenticeship. They can decide for themselves whether the clothes they make are good enough to sell and what price to set. A high percentage (about 85%) of apprentices become masters, masters do not distinguish greater or lesser mastery among themselves.

In summary the tailors’ form of education seems remarkably successful- apprentices learn a substantial trade without being taught, in practice. The educational form does not involve separation of learning from practice. The order does not depend much on intentional pedagogical activities by masters. Learners know clearly what the curriculum is. It organizes the basic outlines of their everyday practice but doesn´t specify what they should do or how to do it.

After these two suggestions, direct job training in school and training at the worksite, we must consider how education functions to directly prepare people for specific economic roles, their jobs. We can use for example special forms of “bridging apprenticeships” that use simulated work environments and specially designed social interactions. Certain projects are developing forms of tutoring and coaching that reproduce many of the key conditions of apprenticeship in a computer-based simulation environment. This environment acts as a bridge between the theoretical learning of the classroom and the actual practice of the work environment.

Another role for school is preparing people to learn effectively over the long course of their work lives. So that people are adaptive to various settings. Such education is essential to prepare people to function well when “breakdowns” in the structure of activity occur. Breakdowns – unexpected changes or difficulties that disturb the normal way – can result from equipment failures. When such breakdowns occur people have to do what machines cannot: step outside the system and reason about it. People work best with a complex system if they have a “mental model” of the system – that is, an idea of all its parts, what each does and how they work together. This mental model permits flexibility in responding to unexpected situations. So one important function of schooling is to develop the knowledge and mental skills students will need to construct mental models of systems with which they will eventually work.

The last role of school mentioned here is the role in preparing people for civic and cultural participation. The new forms of schooling are preparing the next generation to participate knowledgeably and effectively in the civic functions. School is not only a place to prepare people for the world of work and everyday practical problems. It is also a place in which a particular kind of work is done – intellectual work that engages reflection and reasoning. In school, at its best, reasoning and reflection can be cultivated, and a shared cultural knowledge that permits a population to function as a true society can be developed. The civic functions of education should be: a culture of reason, analysis, and reflection, based on certain shared knowledge. “Building such civic consciousness […] may be the most important challenge facing educational research and reform today” (Resnick, 1987).

Our position

We were wondering about the topic situated cognition in relation to our seminar title “Individual and social influences on workplace learning”. At first glance we couldn’t see any relation. But we realized that there was no particular research on workplace learning in 1989. The research began in our opinion in school. School was and is still an important institution where basic abilities where taught and applied. We can identify with some points from Lauren B. Resnick´s characteristics of mental activity outside school that stand in contrast to typical school work. For example school learning is often individual and in contrast much activity outside school is socially shared, like personal life or work. We made those experiences, too. In today’s classroom, for the most part, students are asked to reason about rules and laws pre-formulated by others, act on accepted symbols or systems, and resolve well-defined problems. This tends to produce fixed meaning which does not transfer well to new situations.

Another point is the symbol manipulation in school while outside school there is a contextualized reasoning used. Outside school actions are connected with objects and events; people often use the objects and events directly in their reasoning without necessarily using symbols to represent them. Out of school mental activities make sense in terms of their results in a specific circumstance. Actions are grounded in the logic of immediate situations. School learning is mostly symbol- based; indeed, connections to the events and objects symbolized are often lost. In school symbolic activities tend to become detached from any meaningful context. Schooling is coming to look increasingly isolated from the rest of what we do.

Contrast to this traditional approach is the way most apprentices learn. They reason with unique models and cases, act on authentic situations, and resolve complex, ill-defined problems. This learning is typically negotiated if apprenticed. It is more effective because concepts “…continually evolve with each new occasion of use, because new situations, negotiations, and activities inevitably recast it in a new, more densely textured form” (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989).

So, for us it’s important to reconsider the role of school and which role school should play in our society. Perhaps it would be a good idea to combine school teaching and practical methods which are used in apprenticeships. But in summary we can say that learning strategies which are applied in school are inevitable in the work life, too. And because of this the research about workplace learning started in school…

Important researchers

Paul Duguid

Berkely University of California

John Seely Brown

Independent co-chair of the Deloitte Center for Edge Innovation

Allan Collins

Northwestern University, Evanston/Chicago

Jean Lave

Professor (Education and Geography)
Ph.D., Social Anthropology, Harvard University, 1968

Empirical studies

Here are some studies listed which are relevant concerning the situated cognition movement:

Edwin Hutchins (1987): Personal communication, navigation practice

Jean Lave (1977): Study of tailoring apprenticeships

Olivia de la Rocha (1986): Weight Watchers study

Sylvia Scribner (1984): The use of mathematics knowledge by dairy workers


Bereiter, C. (1997). Situated cognition and how to overcome it. In Kirshner D. & Whitson J.(Eds.), Situated cognition- social, semiotic, and psychological perspectives. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum, p. 281-300.

Brown, J., Collins, A. & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1).

Collins, A., Brown, J.  & Newman, S. (1990). Cognitive apprenticeship: Teaching the crafts of reading, writing, and mathematics. In Resnick L. (Ed.), Knowing, learning, and instruction: Essays in honor of Robert Glaser (p. 453-494). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Driscoll, M. (2004). Psychology of learning for instruction (3 ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Allyn & Bacon

Greeno, J. (1989). “A perspective on thinking”. American Psychologist 44: p. 134-141.

Kirshner, D. & Whitson, J. (1997). Situated cognition- social, semiotic, and psychological perspectives. (p.1-37) New Jersey, London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Resnick, L. (1987). Learning in school and out. Educational Researcher, 16 (9), p.13-20.

Scardamalia, M. & Bereiter, C. (1985). Fostering the development of self-regulation in children’s knowledge processing. In Chipman S., Segal J. & Glaser R.(Eds.), Thinking and learning skills: Research and open questions (p. 563-577). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.



  1. It was interesting to get to know something about the history of workplace learning. Also it was helpful for understanding the topic that you gave an overview of the article at the beginning and defined the terms you used.
    The study about tailors in Liberia was very interesting as well.
    You talked about schools as work places a lot and I immediately thought about the other article about learning from mistakes, there are a lot of connections. Schools unfortunately often punish mistakes (for example with a snappish comment or a bad mark) and prevent students from learning from their mistakes. Instead what they learn is that it is better to hide mistakes rather than admitting and learning from what you have done wrong. This is a great problem in school and I agree with your statement that it is a good idea “to combine school teaching and practical methods which are used in apprenticeships”. This would improve our schooling systems a lot.

  2. Your article entails not only cognitive but also sociological domain, which is good.

    Whether the knowledge learned at school is useful or not at workplace may depend on which professions you are focusing on?

    In addition, I believe that school is not only based on the symbolic learning but also on ‘hidden curriculum’.

    Although it seems to be outdated, Bowels and Gintis’s crrespondence principle provides the key to understanding the major role of the education system. They argue that there is close correspondence between the social relationships which govern personal interaction in the work place and the social relationships of the education system. In other words, the education at school is regarded as subservient to the needs of those who contorol the workforce.

    Here the hidden curriculum shapes the interaction between teaching and learning in order to produce ‘ideal’ future workers.

    What seems to be problematic in relation to the inpracticality knowledge at school is, in my opinion, that we cannot define clearly what is ‘authentic’ and ‘practical’ skills or knowledge.

    Finally, I like Holst’s comment, which she links this topic with ‘learning from mistake’ article.

  3. I forgot to say thank you for this article. I enjoy reading this because I’m especially interested in ‘what schooling is for’.

  4. Thank you for all your comments!
    It was great to hear that you like our article.

    We think that the basic abilities which are taught in school are relevant for each profession.
    Parts of knowledge are helpful and useful for the worklife after school, but we also think that the applied knowledge is only the basis for further learning outside school.

    Clarissa and Katja

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: