Wolfson, L. & Willinsky, J. (1998). What service learning can learn from situated learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 5, 22-31.

What Service-learning Can Learn from Situated Learning

Larry Wolfson

John Willinsky

The University of British Columbia


As relative newcomers to service-learning, we have been struck and drawn by its enthusiasm for community and civil service, and its commitment to building citizenship and enhancing self-esteem among students. It appears to us to have done less with learning, that is, it makes few detailed claims about how acts of service provide an especially conducive setting for students to learn what needs to be learned. While we note that constructivist models have been more recently proposed as a model of learning for this approach (DeLay, 1996), what we take to be a particular subset of that model, known as situated learning (as well as situated cognition or situativity), provides an excellent vehicle for grounding the educational claims to be made on behalf of service-learning as a way of learning.

While service-learning has placed its stress on the nature of the service and the students’ engagement with communities typically outside of the school which leads to various forms of learning, situated learning dwells on the nature of the learning that takes place in certain sorts of communities of practice typically outside of school. We think there is a profitable association to be had between them in understanding and advocating the advantages of both approaches to education.

In this paper, we seek to introduce exactly why the theory and practice of situated learning forms an appropriate model for focusing attention on the learning claims of service-learning, and for guiding research into its effectiveness. Included in this introduction are a history of situated learning's theoretical evolution and an overview of its present educational interpretations, applications, and challenges. How the model of situated learning developed in this paper can be applied to the analysis of the learning that goes on in service-learning settings is demonstrated by drawing on examples from the Information Technology Management (ITM) program currently being tested in a series of Canadian high schools. The aim of this paper is to develop ands propose a model for situated learning’s application to service learning that will equip researchers to undertake more detailed empirical analysis of the learning that is achieved in programs that employ situated and service learning.


Situating Situated Learning

It is fair to say that the majority of the research on learning is conducted in the name of cognitive psychology which studies the mind of the individual engaged in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. As John Anderson, Lynne Reder, and Herbert Simon, make clear in a recent critique of situated learning, this cognitive approach holds that both its scientific and educational success can be attributed to “the careful cognitive task analysis of the units that need to be learned” (1997, p. 21).  Although this is decidedly without reference to the situation of learning the context is not ignored by cognitive psychologists who examine, for example, the quality of learning transfer between settings.  Still, they tend to take exception to situated learning for not taking sufficient interest in the fine-grained analysis of the cognitive elements of learning afforded by their work, an analysis which rightly challenges the need for concrete situations and complex social environments (Anderson, Reder & Simon, 1996).

Situated learning, on the other hand, does not deny that learning can go on in a wide range of circumstances but its real unit of interest is in the culture of learning rather than the learning task (Rogoff, 1990; Wertsch, 1990). It is in earnest over what James Greeno calls "the trajectory of participation" that can take place within "communities of practice," as students engage in a form of learning that is "more personally and socially meaningful and [allows] students to foresee their participation in activities that matter beyond school" (1997, pp. 7, 11). This leads those investigating situated learning to pay special attention to the learning that goes on within apprenticeships, coaching, repeated practice, reflection, and collaboration (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). The conception of learning, whether as a cognitive task or as a form of participation, signifies the crucial distinction.

This division between cognition and culture, we would note before going any farther, is not about ascertaining the truth of learning, but of deciding on a frame of reference for both studying the process and trying to enhance it. No one doubts that learning takes place in the brain, just as it always take place in social settings, whether that setting is a learning lab or a factory shop-floor. All learning is cognitive, just as all learning is situated. The question, in the first instance, is whether you begin with the mind and work outwards, or with the situation and work in, while trying to identify the critical factors for learning. At the secondary level, the question is about how learning is conceptualized, whether it is thought of as a mental exercise or a social practice. If it is thought of as a mental exercise, the situation matters much less than if it is thought of as a social practice. When it is thought of as a social practice, in the way that people relate to one another, then the school is rarely considered to be the model situation, although this is to overlook how much learning is consigned to this institution and how consequential demonstrations of learning in that context can be.

Given the inevitability of these factors, one might then ask, what are the benefits of attending to or trying to influence cognitive processes, on the one hand, or social structures on the other?  While the efficacy of learning specific tasks is worth considering (and this is were the cognitive psychologists stand by their record), more than test scores are at issue (Anderson et al., 1997, p. 21). “For when cognitivists ask how the situated perspective advances the cause of education,” it seems to us not enough to point to test-score results, although that is certainly one valid measure (p. 20).  Advancing the cause for education can also be understood, for the advocate of  situated learning, as deeply concerned with improving the quality of the situation or experience of learning. Which is only to say that underlying the cognitive and situated approaches is an orientation to the world that could be said to fall between personal and public spheres, individual and collectivity, competition, and cooperation. How does the brain learn best is a different order of question than, what is the natural setting of learning?  This difference invokes nothing less than the centuries-old debate between those who would use organic and mechanical metaphors to explain the world, with roots in the struggle between Enlightenment and Romantic tendencies during the modern era. While we do not go on to explore the implications of these larger issues here, we think it important to recognize that much more is always at issue in these discussions of learning, and that our arguments on behalf of situated learning do reflect support of a certain way of viewing the world.


The Roots of Situated Learning

Though present interpretations may vary, situated learning (or situated cognition as it is also termed) originates with the work of the Russian psychologist and paedologist, Lev Vygotsky, whose work during the earlier decades of this century took exception with many traditional ideas about education and child development (van der Veer & Valsiner, 1991). What is perhaps most important about Vygotsky’s contribution is how he came to frame the act of learning. As a psychologist interested in understanding learning, he decided not to concentrate on solely the cognitive activity of the individual, the model adopted by our  individuated, independent, and ahistorical notion of schooling in which assessment focuses upon the disconnected learner’s capacity to master x or y.

Rather, his work countered with the following three motifs: "1) reliance on genetic (ie developmental) analysis; 2) the claim that higher mental functions in the individual have their origins in social life; and 3) the claim that an essential key to understanding human social and psychological processes is the tools and signs used to mediate them" (Wertsch, 1990, p. 113).  That is, Vygotsky thought that as children aged they passed through a number of distinct developmental stages in which they were particularly sensitive to the mediation of particular sociocultural events and artifacts that, in turn, ordered and influenced learning.  Flowing from this basic framework,Vygotsky proposed that as  "man is a social creature, that without social interactions he can never develop in himself any of the attributes and characteristics which have developed as a result of methodological evolution of all humankind" (Vygotsky, 1994b, p. 352), both social interactions and cultural context were integral to cognition.  Accordingly, rather than being autonomous, learning must be understood to be “the product of a collaborative construction of understanding” (Vygotsky cited in Billett, 1994, p. 7) in correspondence with “socioculturally evolved means of mediation and modes of activity" (Vygotsky cited in Harley, 1993, p. 47).  Furthermore, as higher levels of development are reached, cultural tools and signs (whose epitome is speech), aid in establishing social interaction (Vygotsky, 1981).  Therefore, as human development and interchange are dependent upon the use and understanding of cultural artifacts, at least some aspect of schooling must be contextualized to enable the learner the greatest opportunity for meaning making, either about a particular community or society as a whole.

Central to the emphasis on interactive learning is the idea of “zone of proximal development” or "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers" (Vygotsky cited in Tudge, 1990, p. 157).  For, as summarized by Vygotsky’s student and collaborator, Leont’ev,  “children’s participation in cultural activities with the guidance of more skilled partners allows children to internalize the tools for thinking and for taking more mature approaches to problem solving”  (cited in Rogoff, 1990, p. 11).  Thus, besides learning being societally embedded, it is dependent upon a specific teaching-learning relationship in which one partner is able to offer expertise and assistance to the other(s).  In this way, not only is learning cooperative, but so, too, is it defined by an attempt to understand and solve the problems situated within and posed by the institutions, artifacts, and norms of society.

Though Vygotsky highlighted the social context of learning, he also understood the need for a theoretical foundation.  By differentiating between scientific concepts (those learned in a formal situation) and everyday concepts (learned informally) he theorized that there are two types of mutually constitutive and interactive learning:

both types of concepts are not encapsulated in the child's consciousness, are not separated from one another by an impermeable barrier, do not flow along two isolated channels, but are in the process of continual, unceasing interaction, which has to learn inevitably to a situation where generalizations, which have a higher structure and which are peculiar to academic concepts, should be able to elicit change in the structure of spontaneous concepts. (Vygotsky, 1994a, p. 365)

In other words, classroom and in situ learning are not just complementary, but actually reconceptualize each other.  For example, through language study in school, children develop the capacity to consciously manipulate the symbolic system; while in the world beyond the school walls, these symbol acquire meaning as "school knowledge grows into the analysis of everyday" (Vygotsky cited in Moll, 1990, p. 10).  Reciprocally, everyday meaning of language is transformed by interacting with the schooled concepts.  Thus, comprehensive learning occurs when the scientific and everyday are working in concert through a transference between contexts.  Regarding service learning, then, though it is not easy and perhaps not important to determine the exact degree of interaction , it is necessary to encourage the flow between ordinary and expert knowledge through both the proper experiences and reflection therein.

Finally, Vygotsky also saw situated learning as enabling development from lower to higher orders of cognition.  For, based upon the proposition that "social relations or relations among people genetically underlie all higher functions and their relationships" (Vygotsky cited in Wertsch & Smolka, 1993, p. 71), he posited that "any higher function necessarily goes through an external stage in its development because it is initially a social function" (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 162).  For, as socially distributed cognitive systems are more successful than a single person attempting to perform a number of parallel tasks, humans working in collaboration are able to integrate their cognitive abilities into one which surpasses its individual parts.   Or as Edwin Hutchins states during his above-mentioned study, "because society has a different architecture and different communication properties than the individual mind, it is possible that there are interpsychological functions that cannot ever be internalized by any individual" (1993, p. 60).


Situated Learning

Jean Lave and E. Wenger are among the leading exponents of situated learning, having built their model on thoroughly Vygotskyian foundations. Their landmark work in establishing this approach, Situated Learning draws on an ethnographic investigation of five traditional and non-traditional apprenticeships in Mexico, Liberia, and the United States (1991). Extending Vygotsky’s basic socio-historic propositions into actual work settings, they tease out how communities of practice tend to reproduce themselves and change, as cultural novices slowly, with guidance from the veterans, move from the periphery to the center of society: Legitimate peripheral participation refers both to the “development of knowledgeably skilled identities in practice and to the reproduction and transformation of communities of practice” (p. 55). Thus, legitimate peripheral participation manifests itself in societal reproduction and change as the newcomers learn and recreate, and finally replace the veterans from whom they have learned.

They focused on the acquisition of skills and knowledge outside of traditional schooling, suggesting in the spirit of Rousseau’s Emile that there was a natural and uncontrived home for learning which educators had lost sight of in building educational institutions. Rather than asking how, now that we have students in school, can we best get them to learn, they have sought “to develop a view of learning that would stand on its own” (p. 40). They conclude that as such a large part of learning can be shown to be dependent upon tacit knowledge and its cultural context, the school is in danger of offering too little experience within the contexts that will guide learning over the course of a lifetime. Lave and Wenger recognize that not all apprenticeships situate their learning well, speaking critically of certain communities: "To the extent that the community of practice routinely sequesters newcomers, either very directly as in the examples of apprenticeship for the butchers or in the more subtle and pervasive ways as in schools, these newcomers are prevented form peripheral participation" (p. 104).

Meanwhile, Hay (1993) pushes Lave and Wenger on this point, arguing that legitimate peripheral participation may diminish learning because the students have no space of their own.  For, the focus on socialization places its emphasis not on the active and independent learner, but on reproducing the situation of learning, potentially  reducing the prospects of an emerging counter-culture of transformation, such as arose in the 1960s.  Thus, he goes on to call for student creation of their own communities of practice, involvement in more than one community, movement from the periphery forms of practice, and initiation of new ways to the center (p. 37).  Hay’s extension of the situation of learning is not only sympatheic with progressive child-centered education, but also allows Lave and Wenger’s approach to be more resonant with the service-learning model.

Another important contributor to situated learning theory and practice is Yrjo Engestrom.  Concerned with the relationships between learning and both work and school, Engestrom’s empirical rich studies have focused mainly upon learning as part of an activity system, a historical incorporation of “both the object-oriented productive aspect and the person-oriented communicative aspect of the human conduct" (1990, p. 79).  In this regard, his study of doctors and their patients suggests that the inherent contradiction between the system and personal views typified by each of these contrasting perspectives is responsible for systemic re-creation as new artifacts are fabricated and accepted during negotiation (Engestrom, 1993).  In other words, not only are relations between humans and context foundational for learning, but also it is through these interactions that "the arenas of our everyday life. . . are constructed by humans" (Engestrom, 1990, p. 78). 

Thereupon, Engestrom has characterized learning as a collaborative, sociohistoric process of internalization and creation:

Learning is meaningful construction and creative use of intelligent cognitive tools, both internal mental models and external instruments.  Learning is also participation, collaboration and dialogue in communities of practice.  Finally, learning is also criticism of the given, as well as innovation and creation of new ideas, artifacts and forms of practice.  (1994, p. 1)

Terming the highest order of learning investigative, Engestrom suggests that organization of content, advancement through the learning process, social interaction, and proper motivation, particulary that arising from the challenge of conflicts, dilemmas and anomalies, enable the learner to pause “in order to reflect upon the problem and formulates a hypothetical explanation of the principles behind successful solutions" (p. 17).  Like other proponents of situated learning, and service-service, Engestrom suggests that we gain knowledge of the world by being in the world.

Goldman’s (1992) introduction of the concept of social community as a defining feature of  situation of learning also has particular relevance for service-learning. Predicated upon situated learning’s basic tenet that "learning is thought to be participation of members in the practice of a community” (p. 5), and her observations of two physics classrooms in which “social, task and procedural, and conceptual worlds of interaction were interwoven, overlapping and mutually constitutive" (p. 6), she suggests that the classroom must encourage "conceptual learning conversations" (p. 5). For, as the physics community is “composed of ways of talking and acting shared beliefs about what is of interest or import (p. 5), classroom learning is similarly dependent upon “environments with multiple resources [and] collaboration and participation" (p. 7). Simply put, her advice for educators who wish to encourage authentic learning is that they establish a comfortable, interactive environment similar to those found characterizing real world communities of learning and practice.  The best way for the establishment of such a process is, obviously, through the utilization of existing, real-life communities.

There is a definite danger here of romanticizing the real world, which can, of course, also be the cruel worksite of anomie and alienation in which the demands of the workplace or service-learning setting leave no place for the students self-realization. In discussing this risk within the realm of vocational education, Jackson (1993) argues for creating and re-creating learning arenas that provide opportunities for learners to design and appropriate skills and knowledge according to their own needs and interests. It would seem that the need to preserve the students’ self-investment in providing, then, requires an opportunity for students to find and set their own learning goals within the scope of helping and working with others.  The reflective component of service-learning presents the perfect opportunity for such a forum.


Transfer of Learning in Situated Learning

Having reviewed a number of qualities that link situated and service-learning, we need to turn to how this approach stands on the crucial question of transfer of learning from one situation to another.  For, the most significant critique of both situated and service-learning is that their greatest strength, domain specificity, is as at the same time their greatest failing.

Traditional empiricist and rational accounts hypothesize that transference is manifest through “symbolic cognitive representations that are learned in one situation and applied in another” (Greeno, Moore, Smith & The Institute for Research on Learning, 1993, p. 145).  Thus, the more abstract and generalizable the learning, the greater the possibility of transference to varied contexts. On the other hand, a meta-analysis of a number of cognitive studies concluded that because transfer appeared to dependent upon “direct perception to an account” (p. 146), situated learning is more conducive to transference.  Additionally, because being situated, “is not an invariant property of an individual [but rather] is relative to situations” (p. 99), symbolic mediation may actually hamper transference.  In other words, transference to another setting is most easily facilitated by direct comparison of the two contexts.  For, instead of having to interject another level of “bureaucracy,” that of a symbolic representation of the learned moment in both the old and new situations, the learner compares only the moments themselves.

Similarly, Choi & Hannafin (1995) argue that situated learning’s reliance upon real-life settings facilitates transfer more efficiently than the relatively impoverished formal learning contexts associated with institutionalized learning.  For, transfer is best enabled when learners are allowed access to general situation in which there is plenty of opportunity to practice in multiple settings.  In this manner, then, "domain experts acquire the ability to discriminate among subtle features by virtue of experience across a wide range of situations that provide relevant contrasts" (p. 59).

On the other hand, acknowledging transference to be a problematic aspect of in- situ learning per se, Collins, Brown, and Newman (1989), and Brown, Collins and Duguid (1989), widen the parameters of the situated learning paradigm.  Resonant with Vygotsky’s distinction between the scientific and everyday, they argue that because there is little integration between real world problem-solving needs, and abstract, in-school learning,  “conceptual and problem solving knowledge remains largely unintegrated or inert for many students . . .  [and thus] to make a real difference in students' skill, we need both to understand the nature of expert practice and to devise methods appropriate to learning that practice" (Collins et al., 1989, p. 455).   Thereupon, they conceptualize “situated cognition” or “cognitive apprenticeship” as the model by which to eliminate this dichotomy.    Derived from traditional apprenticeship incorporating observation, scaffolding, and growing independence, situated cognition is characterized as the “externalization of processes that are usually carried out internally . . .[and thus made] readily available to both student and teacher for observation, comment, refinement and correction" (p. 457).  Thereupon, in a formal setting, the student first gains an understanding of the abstract generalizable principles needed to develop the global framework necessary for the organization of knowledge and transfer of learning to an authentic situation.  In other words, "cognitive apprenticeship supports learning in a domain [as for example, a community agency] by enabling students to acquire, develop, and use cognitive tools in authentic domain activity" <Brown, et al, 1989, p. 39). 

Terming these situated cognition activities “goal based scenarios,” Collins (1994) suggests that there is a relationship between goal-setting, learning, and application:

You give learners the kind of tasks that you want them to learn to do and you give them the scaffolding that they need to carry out such tasks.  Goal-based scenarios make it possible to embed the skills that you want people to learn in the contexts in which they are to be used.  So they learn not only what to do, but when and how to apply their knowledge. (p. 30). 

Specifically, they describe this as a tripartite process in which "teachers or coaches promote learning by making explicit their tacit knowledge or by modelling their strategies in authentic activity . . . teachers and colleagues support student's attempts at doing the task . . .  [and teachers] empower the students to continue independently" (Brown et al., 1989, p. 39).  Thus, through a combination of in-class and community-based activites, students are able to combine academics and practical experience to inhance their own abilities while providing service to the greater community.

These situated learning-transference models, however, are not without their detractors.  Besides the general, relatively undeveloped contention that situated learning simply does not promote transfer from one context to another (Tripp, 1993), more specific and better articulated concerns are directed toward the supposed lack of development and transfer of higher order thinking.  Bereiter (1997), for example, argues that when the necessary information can be indexed and understood in terms of rules, situated cognition succeeds, but in regard to the more creative, abstract pattern recognition, it does not does not allow for the associative retrieval of patterns which result in the grasping of analogies and metaphors.

Though Bereiter acknowledges Greeno, Smith, and Moore's (1993) contention that transfer across settings results from the recognition of similar constraints or affordances, he argues that it fails to account for the pursuit and development of "knowledge building goals" which are only weakly connected to the immediate situation.  That is, situated cognition adequately explains learning and transference regarding the transformation of the physical environment and acquisition of specific expertise therein, but it does not allow for the origination a new world of immaterial objects and/or development of related skills.  The problems associated with space travel, he contends, could never have been mastered solely through reliance on situated learning,.

In a similar vein, Prawat (1993) argues that situated learning enables the development and transfer of procedural but not propositional knowledge.  Thus, though the emphasis on learning as a problem solving activity is relevant, it is overdone and results in the highlighting of the instrumental nature of learning.  Through its disregard for creation, imagination, and the role of insights, he suggests, it fails to “account very well for the equally important process of accommodation which involves a transformative as opposed to informative relationship to the world" (p. 5).


The Situation of the Teacher in Situated Learning

One of the critical factors in thinking about the lessons that situated learning holds for service-learning is in its conception of the role of the teacher in student learning. The connections between the classroom and the real world, shared by situated and service-learning mean that the teacher is no longer to be regarded as the only expert in the classroom, his/her role becomes one of facilitation and guidance rather than that of knowledge depositor (Friere, 1971; Keedy & Drmacich, 1994). The teacher forms part of a team of mentors and guides for learners, and is as much a facilitator of the situation of learning, able as such to draw on the experience of the mentors in arriving at an assessment of the learning that has taken place in the student.

The teacher’s role bears both similarities and differences to those found in the traditional classroom. There are times for example, when the teacher may interact with the class as a whole, perhaps discussing housekeeping items or general project-oriented skills such as time-management and interviewing procedures. The bulk of his or her time however, would be spent helping groups and individuals meet the demands of their projects, assessing portfolios, and communicating with community based sponsors, clients, and students in the field. While direct instruction certainly goes on, that instruction is directed at achieving a shared goal within the scope of situated learning that is only extended by service-learning. The service-learning approach adds the advantage of formalizing the concept of the mentor as well as adding the idea of a client whom the student seeks to serve in some way, allowing for the teacher to coach the student in being helpful as well as working with the client to assess the student.


Evaluation in the Situated Learning Environment

Not surprisingly, situated learning poses some challenges to the question of assessment and evaluation in educational settings. Norm-based assessments, the most traditional type of educational measurement, are designed to pay little mind to the situation of learning, while criterion-referenced testing is equally focused on measuring what the individual can demonstrate within the narrow context of what is typically a paper-and-pencil test (Lunt, 1993).  As neither of these types of measures, nor related alternatives developed in response to their deficiencies, has been found to provide satisfactory data about either a learners’ learning strategies or the social and interactional features of the learning situation, practioners have looked instead to dynamic assessment (Lunt, 1993).

Dynamic assessment has as its aim the elimination of the dichotomy between learning and assessment. Thus, evaluation in a situated learning context is based upon a “dynamic, continuous ever-emergent assessment of the learning process [whose] goal is to better customize the instruction, adapting and refining instructional strategies to invoke and improve the learners progress” (McLellan, 1993, p. 39)). In other words, assessment, rather than being something given or added, is an integral, ongoing aspect of the teaching and learning process.

Notwithstanding, Lunt (1993) offers that both quantitative and qualitative methods may sometimes provide credible means of assessing situated learning.   For, through consideration of 1) the focus (the different ways in which potential for change is being evaluated either by looking at improvement in test scores or looking at the underlying process of learning), 2) the interactions (the degree of guidance needed by the learner), and 3) the target (kinds of skills being considered: domain specific or general cognitive), she suggests that it is also possible to incorporate both dynamic and criterion-based measures.  However, she does finally conclude that as the clinical approach to evaluation emphasizes interaction and teacher  sensitivity “to learners emergent cognitive strategies and abilities" (p. 165), dynamic assessment is the only viable measure.   

Recently, dynamic assessment has seen a growing reliance on the use of student portfolios which offer “an assemblage of students work that is a presentation of in-progress investigative activities and the resulting products of those activities” (Saxe, Gearhart, Note & Paduano, 1993, p. 137). The portfolio leads to teachers and students engaging each other in dialogue, “as students review and organize their portfolio collections . . .become engaged in reflection on what they have come to understand and the value of these new understandings . . . [and] generate new investigations” (p. 137). Thus, totally integrated into the learning process, portfolio maintenance, analysis, and assessment serve not only as a record of process and progress, but also as a focus of motivation and discussion for future directions.

Though portfolio assessment seems currently the most popular form of dynamic assessment, additional techniques being used include debriefing, video or audio replays, post-mortems, co-investigations, abstracted replays, dramatizations, interviews, group discussions, knowledge telling, and problem solving episodes. Like other forms of portfolio assessment, these too emphasize reflection and self-assessment (McLellan, 1993). This approach to assessment offers a good example of what subscribing to a model of situated learning offers those working in the area of service-learning. Service-learning certainly promotes reflection on learning, but it has yet to develop specific strategies for thinking about and assessing the nature of the learning that goes on in providing service. One can see the natural extension by which, for example, the clients of a given service provided by a team of students become part of the dialogue around assessment and goal setting for future work. This is again an instance in which a precedent is to be found in the workplace, which looks to various methods of garnering client feedback, for example, but which also offers its own value and rewards within the students’ experience of learning through the provision of service to the school and community.


The Critique of Situated Learning

Situated learning has been subjected to a variety of criticisms besides those already mentioned relating to the problems of transference, and loss of student centeredness.  Tripp, for example, has raised a critique of the role of the teacher similar to that of Hay’s regarding the role of learner.  He contends that allowing teachers to slip from role of expert to facilitator risks letting learners fall pray to the influence of the partial truths and lies of common everyday knowledge (1993). The place of tradition and community, he insists, is not to allow learners to create their own interpretations but to teach the correct way of behaving.  In turn, without noting the contradiction, he posits that proponents of situated learning are narcissistic in their belief that in knowing what is best for students, they are able to liberate them from the traditional, oppressive educational practices. So, too, does he make the highly contestable claims that the world is much too complex to be subject to interpretation through physical activity, and that theory must always precede practical knowledge, arguments that receive only qualified support in Anderson, Reder, and Simon (1966).   Finally, concludes Tripp (1993), as traditional forms of schooling have always been successful, there is no need of change.

Winn (1994), on the other hand, takes issue with situated learning’s emphasis on learning from experts-as-mentors.  He contends that while learners often prize the acquisition of wide variety of skills and cursory knowledge, situated learning's intense devotion to a particular setting makes this impossible. As a result learners are often forced into making unwanted decisions resulting in the unnecessary exclusion of certain parts of life. Moreover, he also feels that situated teaching is irresponsible because as professional training enables teachers to make a subject “accessible and comprehensible to students” (p. 12), it is their job to do so. Winn goes on to conclude that because situated learning must operate without a plan, due to its intuitiveness and contextuality, it is no substitute for the proven traditional methods. Again, it is helpful to consider how the teacher in situated learning is deeply concerned about creating a learning environment that by no means precludes direct instruction even as it seeks to expand the situation of learning beyond an exclusive reliance on this “proven tradition.”  For the aim of situated learning, and of course service-learning, is not simply to increase the quantity or duration of learning, per se, but to focus on providing a certain quality of experience in association with learning around themes discussed above.

For our part, we remain concerned that the focus on the situation of learning, largely in terms of the social relations implied by such terms as trajectories of participation and communities of practice, needs to be equally concerned with the social relations of equality and power which are bound to prevail.   Thus, in asking how the situation of learning reproduces social and economic structures which violate, for example, the ethical principles of democracy, it at the same time exclaims, for example, that "a good service learning program helps the participants see their questions in the larger context of issues of social justice and social policty-rather than in the context of charity” (Kendal cited in O'Grady & Chappell, 1997, p. 20). 

 Is this focus on the situation absorbed in technical questions about acquiring a skill or fact or does it allow for critical reflection how learners are assimilated into a culture of practice? Lave and Wenger talk about the reproduction and transformation of communities of practice, but as Hay (1993) suggests, there is little room for a sustained critique to emerge, as everyone is standing within the community. Where is the distance to be found for either a disinterested or I’ll-have-none-of-it critique? Where will those skills be situated or learned among those striving to legitimate their peripheral participation? What needs to be developed to ensure that situated learning retains its educational claim, as something more than learning how to and learning who to be, is a rhythm between immersion in the situation of the learning and an opportunity to step back and  engage in a critical and learned interference with what is reproduced by communities of practice. One needs, ultimately, to become a student of one’s situated learning.

This seems to us to be an especially important educational function of teachers who support service-learning, as they stand at a remove from the service, and apart for the community of practice. The student is encouraged to understand the service from the inside and outside, coming by this means to their own understanding, as something more than either teacher or mentor can offer, which forms a basis for transforming practices. For the teacher to critically address structural features of the site of service-learning addresses Tripp's concern that the situated-learning teacher has, in effect, reneged on a responsibility to instruct. This understanding of structure becomes the teacher's own area of expertise, and another aspect of the teacher's mentoring of the students. It ensures that students gain a sense of how situated learning gives rise to situated knowledges, in the sense in which Haraway (1992) and Foucault (1972) write of knowledge as always positioned within power structures and regimes of truth.



Having surveyed the contribution which situated learning seeks to make to our understanding of what it means to acquire skills and knowledge, it remains to us to draw out a research framework that will allow researchers to assess whether the qualities of situated learning are present in a service-learning setting. By determining the ways in which those qualities can be said to be present, researchers can profile the areas of learning, while capturing the particular dynamics of engagement and participation that defines the situation of service-learning. We have argued that situated learning is a way of focusing attention on a particular understanding of learning, especially as it is understood as participation in a community of practice, which is transformed by the participation of those who come to identify with that community.

            Having reviewed the situated learning literature, we would propose a four-part model or schematic that captures the range of contexts that make up the situation of learning: (a) situated contexts, (b) authentic contexts, (c) collaborative contexts, and (d) reflective contexts (Table 1). The parameters of the categories are not mutually exclusive, but are intended to provide a helpful guide for researchers working in service learning settings in locating the circumstances and the nature of the learning. We have initiated studies that are attempting to document the specific contributions which each of these contexts can be said to make to the learning accomplished by students in the service learning setting of the Information Technology Management (ITM) Program. This research is directed at observing changes over the course of a school year in the students’ behaviors, as well as tapping into reflections on their learning by the students and those they are working. By this means, we are relating the situated learning contexts which the ITM program places them in to the specific gains that students make in technical expertise, in managing their own learning, in understanding the knowledge/power relation, and in advancing their social skills. At this point, based on our preliminary work with the ITM program, we offer a series of examples on the table which illustrate what these four contexts look like in a service learning setting.

We remain convinced that this approach is a helpful addition to the research on, no less than the advocacy of, service-learning, which has not paid this sort of concentrated attention to the situation of learning that follows from community participation. We feel that to attend to learning in this way will strengthen the educational position of service-learning. This focus on the situation of learning can increase the benefits of service-learning for students. We have long known that service-learning has much to teach the young about the benefits of service, and we have still to do as much as we can appreciate what it has to teach about learning.


This study has been supported by the TeleLearning Research Network Centres of Excellence with funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the National Science Research Council of Canada.





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Table 1 Situated Learning Criteria in a Service Learning Setting


Learning results from…


With instances from ITM Program…

A. Situated Contexts

 1. Communities of Practice (Brown & Duguid, 1993; Lave & Wenger, 1991)

 2. Artifacts as Mediating Devices (Engestrom, 1990; Moll, 1990)

 3. Multiple Resources (Goldman, 1992; Lave & Wenger, 1991)


Students form project teams to offer their new technology and project management skills to the local community center where they will interact with, learn from, and utilise the resources of the center and local businesses to help the center achieve its mission.

B. Authentic Contexts

 1. Authentic Projects (Engestrom, 1990; Lave & Wenger, 1991)

 2. Problem Solving Scenarios (Rogoff, 1990)

 3. Intrinsic Motivation and Student Responsibility (Volpert, 1989; Collins, 1994)

 4. Dynamic Assessment (Lunt, 1993)


Students engage in development of the community centre’s web page which serves as an educational/advertising tool for the center. Students design web page representative of the community center and accessible for all. Ongoing monitoring of page’s utilisation and value, while transferring skills to center staff.

C. Collaborative Contexts

 1. Small Group Interactions (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989; Saxe, Gearhart, Note & Paduano, 1993)

 2. Skilled Peer Guidance (Rogoff, 1990; Tudge, 1990)

 3. Community Expert Guidance (Lave & Wenger, 1991)


Students divide responsibilities among components of the project while working in close consultation with center staff, with community professionals for provide services necessary to achieve success, and other students peers who have related experience in this type of task.

D. Reflective Contexts *

 1. Goal Setting (Collins, 1994)

 2. Formative Assessment (McLellan, 1993)

 3. Teacher Modelling & Scaffolding (Collins, Brown & Newman, 1989)

 4. Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al., 1989; Collins, Brown & Holum, 1991)


Students engage in individual and project-team meetings in the classroom with their teachers. They review goal-setting and skill-assessment, while teacher poses critical questions on their work and that of the community center, while preparing them to report on the scope of their learning.


* Note: We use “reflective contexts” instead of the related “situated cognition” used by Brown et al. (1989), because not only does this eliminate confusion with “situated learning” but also finds resonance with service learning’s criterion of time for reflection on the meaning and processes of service (National School-To-Work Learning and Information Centre, 1996).


[1].  In the Information Technology Management (ITM) program, students acquire the skills and processes that enable them to provide the necessary services to support the information technologies of their learning environments and communities. While the program is focused on making students active contributors to their education through a wide range of technical, presentation, teaching, writing activities, it is equally intent on introducing them to the project management standards used in the service industry and information economy. The ITM program sees its goal to provide students with skills and problem-solving experiences that are demanded by technology environments in both industry and post-secondary education [best facilitated by combining] technical content, in-school work-experience and an exploration of the social and workplace issues of Information Technology (Forssman & Willinsky, 1995, p.1).


[2] Anderson, Reder, and Simon hold that their cognitive approach provides a more productive approach to understanding the situation of learning by dividing the complex social situations into relations among a number of individuals and study[ing] the mind of each individual and how it contributes to interaction (1997, pp. 20-21).


[3] This attention to the situation of learning also calls forth feminist critiques of situated knowledges which would identify how, for example, the scientific rhetoric of objectivity is located within given power structures, or as Donna Haraway argues: “Many currents in feminism attempt to theorize grounds for trusting especially the vantage points [or situation] of the subjugated; there is good reason to believe vision is better from below the brilliant space platforms of the powerful” (1989, pp. 190-191).


[4] There is something of  this in Streibel’s advocacy of a Habermasian situated critical pedagogy which is committed to freeing learners from the tyranny of the text, lived relationships, and tradition, although his conception of the classroom is removed from situated and service-learning (1993).