Blog: Situated Learning and its relevance today

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Situated Learning and its relevance today

Situated learning is learning that takes place in the context in which it has to be applied. It was first propagated by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger as a theory of learning amongst a community, who share a common calling, profession or skill.
Situated Learning and its relevance today

I live in Parel, a densely populated area in Mumbai. Except for Mondays, the market is buzzing with activity.  Vendors squat on the pavements, selling fruit, vegetables and other products, try to outshout each other, hoping to attract customers.  As I walk down the street and see the hustle and bustle with a myriad of colours, commerce and cacophony, I observe something distinct.

I learned Arithmetic and Math at school with the Unitary System; if I had to divide 595 by 7, I would put 595 down on a piece of paper and put a line under that with the figure 7 and proceed to use the Unitary method to get the result of 85.  If I had to purchase 1.25 kgs of onions priced at Rs. 78/- per kg, I would have to do some simple Math in my head, again, using the Unitary method.  There would be some time lag, perhaps of 45 seconds before I arrived at the right answer.  In contrast, the street vendors, in spite of fractions being demanded of them or their weighing portions of vegetables such as pumpkin, did the arithmetic in a flash.  What gives them this ability?  The context in which we learn even simple arithmetic is extremely important.  It is possible that the vegetable vendor was thinking in symbols, maybe 1 kilo is a circle and a 250 gms as a quarter of that circle rather than getting bogged down by numbers.

Situated learning is learning that takes place in the context in which it has to be applied. It was first propagated by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger as a theory of learning amongst a community, who share a common calling, profession or skill. They called this a community of practice.  When we think about Situated Learning, we begin to understand the importance of practical learning which happens as one learns on a job, along with others.  Particularly in the Indian context, the emphasis on theory, rote learning and abstract knowledge given in the classroom is hard to relate with the real world and therefore difficult to retain.  Real learning happens when it is digested, reflected upon and can be applied to the context of the person.  I am a student of Economics having completed my graduation with Honours in the subject from Sriram College of Commerce, Delhi.  Thereafter, I pursued post graduate programmes in Business Management, Human Resource Management and Law.  My academic foundations were not even remotely connected with engineering.  From a very young age, I began to be interested in electronics and its practical application.  My fascination for electronics led me to study circuits and the practical understanding of how electricity works in the context of one of my favourite hobbies, which is operating and modifying scale model trains.  I am today able to read circuits, modify them and understand the practical importance of voltage, amperage and how decoders work.  

In today’s context, what is very important is that the learner must see the benefit of the outcome of his/her learning almost immediately which is possible only with hands-on practical learning.  Similarly, a learner will learn quickly which she/he sees the outcome of a mistake made during the practical work situation.  When I convert an analogue train into a Digital Command Control (DCC) train, I have to solder as many as 21 differently coloured wires in a space which is smaller than a matchbox for getting the decoder chip working.  Mercifully, I haven’t made too many mistakes so far.  One wire soldered wrongly to a joint can make a big difference in the function of the chip including in extreme cases, damaging it.  Since the chips are expensive and difficult to get, I have learnt the hard way.  For me the Situation Learning environment with respect to electronics happens because the learning situation is created by my actively being immersed in an activity that I love.  

Situated Learning actively promotes problem Solving and Critical Thinking Skills. I do remember attending workshops and sessions on TQM and Kaizen which would highlight the importance of the Shewhart Cycle of PDCA i.e. Plan-Do-Check-Act and also the importance of small implementable ideas through Kaizen.  Unfortunately, in most cases the learning stayed at a conceptual level particularly at the top of the pyramid and did not translate into concrete actions.

One of the most important parts of the pedagogy of my Masters Program in Human Resource Management was field work.  I did my field work in an unfamiliar environment of a textile mill and then in a newspaper printing press.  I was able to actively participate in the practical experiences of seeing workmen engrossed and physically involved in an actual work environment.  In today’s world, it is possible to replicate digitally the actual work setting and illustrate scenarios where learners are engaged fully in finding solutions to real world problems.  As the theory of Situated Learning suggests, the learning is situated in the centre of the learning process and the acquisition of practical knowledge becomes an embedded part of the learning activity, its context and the culture in which it is used and developed.

From the first time when I introduced the concept of Assessment/Development Centres (DCs) in L&T way back in 2001, I realized how role plays can be a powerful method of learning particularly with respect to interaction with other colleagues and with customers.  Role playing situations in the Development Centres context engaged the assessee learners in complex, realistic problem-solving activities providing a stimulus in acquiring the desired skills in areas such as Risk Management, influencing others, listening, paraphrasing etc.  The transition from a teacher to a facilitator has a direct bearing on the success of a candidate in a role play.  In today’s digital world, creating a collaborative learning environment, encouraging reflection and helping learners to become more aware of the context, helps in understanding and in transference.  Learning through assessment / development centres happens also because of the scenario building and the requirement of the assessee to arrive at judgements with ambiguous data by generating plausible alternatives. And DCs can be run digitally.

Finding a powerful method of using technology for helping people retain information and facts that are usually hard to retain is important.  When learners are a part of a game, the gamification or simulation of the learning process through leaderboards, blogs, microblogs and also podcasts, helps learners connect with the learning and to embrace a community where they can learn from each other.  Social interactions through the digital media play a significant role in the learning process.  Therefore, the groups that form in the virtual world around a hobby, around a practice or around a field of interest are very powerful means of learning from each other and the kind of learning that sticks. As an example, the beer distribution game (also known as the beer game) is a type of gamification that is used to experience typical coordination problems of a supply chain process. It reflects a role-play simulation where several participants play with each other. The game represents a supply chain with a non-coordinated process where problems arise due to lack of information sharing.

The National Education Policy rolled out quite recently, emphasises in many places the importance of moving away from Rote Learning to  Learning that involves reflection, critical thinking and problem solving.  This contrasts with the older style, classroom learning activities which involved knowledge which is abstract and completely out of context.  I therefore fear that some of the learning factories in Rajasthan and other states that prepare students for gruelling examinations like the Joint Entrance Exam for the IIT helps these high performing, exam cracking individuals develop a myopic sense of problem solving in this complex world.   I would therefore think that a bright Diploma holder in engineering who has gone through some practical experience, who completes the Engineering Degree later with a part time programme such as AIME or a good evening programme in Bachelors in Engineering will be better equipped to contribute in a work situation than one who has been ensconced in complex equations.  Here, the role of a laboratory or a workshop where students learn hands-on skills is very important notwithstanding the sociological stigma attached to hands-on working and the dignity of labour issues, in India.  Situated learning in this sense can be a powerful source of cognitive apprenticeship.    To this extent, organisations such as National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) are playing an extremely important role in preparing individuals to enhance their hands-on skills that are learnt in a community of practice in their 37 Sector Skill Councils.  The World Skill Competition is another example of NSDC’s outstanding efforts in using Situated Learning.  Lave and Wenger (1991) provided an analysis of Situated Learning in five different settings: Yucatán midwives, native tailors, navy quartermasters, meat cutters and alcoholics. In all cases, there was gradual acquisition of knowledge and skills as beginners learnt from experts in the context of day to day activities. Today, situated learning is more relevant than ever before in a world where continuous learning is the only mantra for success.


Views in this article are personal 


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  • Suchman, L. (1988).  Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human/Machine Communication. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.    



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