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Situated learning, also known as situated cognition, first emerged as an instructional model through the research of Paul Duguid, John Seely Brown, and Allan Collins. Their paper, titled “Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning” criticized the division of knowledge and practice. Situated learning is based on ideas from many fields, such as psychology, sociology, cognitive science, and anthropology. Duguid, Brown, and Collins disagreed with public schools and how they treated knowledge “as an integral, self-sufficient substance, theoretically independent of the situations in which it is learned and used.”
They were not the only ones to disagree with the public school’s approach of separating the “knowing and doing.” Many other theorists, including Jean Lave, Lev Vygotsky, John Dewey, and Étienne Wenger, believed that learning occurred within situational contexts. Students acquire knowledge from observing others and practicing themselves, therefore becoming “cognitive apprentices” within the community.
These learning interactions cannot occur abstractly. The theory of situated cognition emphasizes that cognitive apprentices learn from the experts themselves. Lave and Wenger discussed how apprentices become reliable members of the community in their paper Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Apprentices gain knowledge through their interactions with experts in that field. Situated learning gives students the chance to engage with real-life, problem-solving contexts.
This means that when designing instruction, one must remember:
- The best learning occurs when students are presented with a problem themselves and must think through and act on like the experts. Problems must be realistic and relevant to the situation.
- The instructor acts as a coach and model instead of lecturer. They are also responsible for scaffolding information into manageable chunks to assist students in solving the problems.
- The learning environment must promote reflection, discussion, and evaluative thinking. Students must actively engage in the situation, even if most problems are group activities.
- The “content” of a course is not neat packages of information taught by the instructor but the information learned through the contextual and real-life activities.
It is not always possible to facilitate meaningful interactions. Technology has recently become a valuable tool in assisting situational learning. There are many examples of possible situated cognitive activities online, such as case studies or Web-based stimulations. However, these cannot replace valuable, real-life experiences. Examples of situated activities are as follows:
- Cooperative internships that allow students to be immersed in the workplace
- Field trips in which students can experience the work environment
- Laboratory settings where students actively participate in mock activities
- Physical education and musical practices, which offer an identical scenario to real-life events, such as sports training or a concert
As these examples demonstrate, situated learning occurs “in the situation.” The students are addressing issues in real-life as they exist. The context and culture of the activity are as important as the experience itself. Students build knowledge on their current understanding of the situation, which relies heavily on the social and physical interactions.
Situational vs traditional learning
Situational cognition is vastly different from traditional learning. First of all, traditional lessons use abstract experiences, such as textbooks and lectures, to teach ideas. Situated learning occurs in the context of the experience. Secondly, traditional lessons focus only on the relationship between the student and the instructor. Situational learning places great emphasis on relationships and interactions with others in order to build understanding. Students learn by making connections to their prior knowledge. And third, situational learning works to develop the role of the individual within the greater community. As a student gains more knowledge in one area, they are able to collaborate with others and play a more prominent role in the community. They are able to share their understanding in turn and the cycle begins again. There is no such cycle or purposeful role in traditional learning models.
Situated learning is also heavily reliant on collaborative activities. Students work together and discuss their thinking with other group members. Everyone will bring unique prior knowledge to the situation and are encouraged to challenge the thinking of others. All skills and activities will be directly relevant to real situations in the workplace, home, or community.
Developing Situated Classroom Activities
There are some guidelines to keep in mind when developing classroom activities for situated learning:
- The act of learning occurs daily in meaningful situations.
- Understanding can only be transferred to situations similar to the one in which learning occurred.
- Ideal situations will engage the learner in real-world problem-solving in an area that interests them.
- Learning is a social activity; interactions with others prompt reflection and therefore the development of knowledge.
- Learning is not independent of the real world but works alongside it. Every person is an actor in the learning situation and the actions are responses to the complex environment.
- The instructor should recognize the learning situation as such as become the facilitator or guide in the complex situation. They can help learners recognize clues in the environment, promote collaboration, and reflect aloud with individuals.
- Scaffolding is another tool that instructors can implement in the learning situation. The instructor should be knowledgeable enough to recognize where students may need assistance and what kind of guidance they might need. As the learners progress through the problem, less support may be required.
- Instructors are also responsible for assessment, even if the traditional methods of evaluation are not used. They can track the growth of intellectual knowledge through discussions and observations with the students in the situation itself.