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Situated cognition and the school domain

March 26, 2010

Image: door of old school in Paris

John Seely Brown, Alan Collins and Paul Duguid’s influential paper Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (Brown et al, 1989) is essentially an assault on conventional schooling. The school, they argue, is an inherently inauthentic domain where knowing is separated from doing, where knowledge is deracinated from its proper context in a community of practice and presented as “abstract, decontextualised, formal concepts”.

Brown et al’s starting point is Lave and Wenger’s concept of situated learning1. All learning is situated in the context of a particular practice; that is

the activity in which knowledge is developed and deployed .. is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Nor is it neutral. Rather, it is an integral part of what is learned. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity.

Most informal learning is embedded in the normal activities of a particular culture or domain, into which newcomers are enculturated by existing practitioners, with knowledge and skills being absorbed implicitly through participation in the domain’s discourse and practice – what Brown et al call its “authentic activity”.

The trouble with school-based learning, in their view, is that school uproots such domain-specific knowledge and situates it instead in the inauthentic activity of the school domain:

Classroom activity takes place within the culture of schools, although it is attributed to the culture of readers, writers, mathematicians, historians, economists, geographers and so forth… Much school work is inauthentic and therefore not fully productive of useful learning.

At this point Brown, Collins and Duguid have in my view veered off into theoretical extremism. Their paper comes very close to arguing that the kind of domain-specific, procedural learning of a craft apprenticeship is the only really useful kind of learning, and that there is little point in the declarative, generalised learning which makes what is learned explicit, that attempts to make connections between different things that have been learnt, to derive general rules and generate abstract concepts that can transfer from one context to another. (For more on domain-specific/procedural/declarative/generalised learning see this earlier post on types of knowledge.)

This strangely intransigent position is explained by Anna Sfard in terms of her Acquisition/Participation metaphorical framework (Sfard A, 1998). A thorough-going belief in the embedded and contextual nature of learning leads, by a purist logic, to a denial of its transferability from one context to another. Knowledge, it’s argued, cannot be both situated and abstract. (Standing on Sfard’s shoulders we can see that, whatever their theoretical intransigence, Brown et al’s widespread use of metaphors to advance their argument – conceptual tools, cognitive apprenticeship – suggests a recognition in practice that concepts can be transplanted from one domain to another.)

Brown et al are absolutely right in saying that learning cannot be understood in isolation from the place and practice in which it occurs, and that school constitutes its own specialised domain; but wrong in asserting that the school domain is less authentic than any other. The school domain’s authenticity lies precisely in an explicit, self-conscious engagement with learning, and perhaps especially with the declarative, generalised learning described above, which can lead to knowledge that is endlessly transferable and learners who can continue learning throughout their lives.

Despite this central flaw, Brown et al’s paper offers up four related but distinct ideas, each of which is a powerful aid to thinking about learning, especially if we consider them less as components in a grand theoretical narrative, and more (to borrow one of the article’s central metaphors) as a toolkit of serviceable conceptual tools. I’ve summarised them below.

Concepts as domain-related tools
Like physical tools, concepts are only properly understood through use in the context of domain-specific practice. Using them “entails both changing the user’s view of the world and adopting the belief system of the culture in which they are used.”

Situated cognition
This is cognition embedded in a social practice, and distributed across a social and physical environment. “Knowledge, which comes coded by and connected to the activity and environment in which it is developed, is spread across its component parts, some of which are in the mind and some in the world..”

Cognitive apprenticeship
A pedagogy aligned to the methods of craft apprenticeship, in which students learn to use conceptual tools through enculturation into the practice of a domain. “The term apprenticeship helps to emphasise the centrality of activity in learning and knowledge, and highlights the inherently context-dependent, situated, and enculturating nature of knowledge.”

Collaborative group learning
An essential component of cognitive apprenticeship, supporting knowledge pooling, collective problem-solving, adoption of multiple roles, and development of collaborative work skills. “Learning advances through collaborative social interaction and the social construction of knowledge.. Throughout most of their lives people learn and work collaboratively, not individually..”

All quotes from Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning (Brown et al, 1989).


Brown J S, Collins A and Duguid P, 1989. Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning, Educational Researcher, Vol 18, No 1, pp 32-42. American Educational Research Association

Sfard A, 1998. On Two Metaphors for Learning and the Dangers of Choosing Just One, Education Researcher, Vol 27, No 2. American Educational Research Association.

1 See, eg, Lave E and Wenger J, 1991. Situated Learning: legitimate peripheral participation, University of Cambridge Press, Cambridge MA.  For an excellent summary of Lave and Wenger’s ideas, see the Infed articles The social/situational orientation to learning and Communities of practice available online at (accessed 20/03/10).

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