BOOK REVIEW: “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation” by Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger (1991)

CoverIn the past decade, there’s been a great deal of talk about how the education industry is going to be revolutionized, and that we can do away with classrooms and universities altogether.  There is nothing new about this.  However, the revolution that has been predicted some many times has never really come. People learn efficiently because they are together, because they can have a discussion about their ideas, because they are with a professor who can adapt to their learning style. This book gives some background ideas to this debate and to why the bricks and mortar university is not quite dead yet.  

Key words

Psychology, education, social/cultural patterns, situated learning, behavioral learning, cognitive learning.


If you go back to the 1920s, it was said that correspondence courses would also get rid of universities, because people could simply send off the assignments they had to do, and receive the books and further work in the post. In the 1960s, it was said that the cassette recorder and recorded lectures would also do away with bricks and mortar university.  In the last decade, the Internet, and now with massive open online courses, or MOOCs, it is said that this will similarly seal the demise of the old university.  In the midst of all this, it is nice to have a reminder of one thing, that learning is fundamentally a social process.

This book by sets out just why learning is; fundamentally based on the social the authorscontext.  Learning, according to the authors, an anthropologist and a Computer Scientist, has a central characteristic. This is a process they call “legitimate peripheral participation.”  As part of a group, learners participate in communities of practice.  They share ideas, they have debates, they exchange opinions and it is this discourse that leads to them efficient active learning. Of course, this does not have to be in a classroom.  In fact, the ideas they discuss deal with a variety of different situations.  They talk about midwives and how they exchange practices of delivering babies. They talk about butchers exchanging ideas about their professions, and also non-drinking alcoholics and their day-to-day battle with giving up drink.  Learners, they say, will inevitably participate in communities of practice and becoming a master requires that a newcomer will move towards full participation in the social/cultural practices of a community.  By having such a debate, abstract notions can then become meaningful in real situations.

Etienne Wenger: What is situated learning?

When the authors deal with schools, they equally have a critical analysis.  In fact, they don’t see that knowledge is decontextualized as people often claim.  Rather, they say that schools themselves are social institutions and places of learning, and have specific contexts.  This means that a certain part of learning that is done is relevant.  Others may be less so.

Vygotski's concept

Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development.

The book also deals with Vygotsky’s concept of zone of proximal development.  A very basic summary of this would be that, at certain stages, we are ready to actually learn certain things because they are close to what we have already understood.  If we go too far, then we simply can’t do it.  Without knowing such concepts, most practiced teachers will actually understand that.  You simply can’t make jumps in the educational development of your students and expect them to understand.

What the book also shows quite clearly is that, in the different cases that they bring up, there is a very little, observable teacher, the most basic phenomenon of, in fact, learning.  A practice community, therefore, creates a curriculum in the very broad sense of the word, where a general set of ideas are exchanged but not in any particular order.   As the authors say, a learning curriculum enfolds an opportunity for engagement of practice.  We also construct a new identity.  Thus, engaging in practice is probably a condition for the effectiveness of learning.

If you are in something like a business school, you will also understand this.   It’s one of the reasons students are made to do internships, because they simply need to not only construct their identities as future graduates, but also practice a certain number of things they didn’t learn in the classroom.  Professors of HR management, in particular, will tell you it is very difficult to teach the subject until the student has been confronted with real problems within a company.

The book shows quite clearly that learning is not a commodity; it’s not just a series of facts, but something that has to be learned as a process-driven, situation-based skill.  It’s reassuring to know that practice is still needed, and that universities or business schools cannot teach students everything.  Similarly, by actually having some kind of formal structured education, participants will develop their skills in a particular domain far more efficiently.

 Interesting quotes from the book:

General knowledge only has power in specific circumstances.

Learning is an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world.

The organization of schooling as an educational form is predicated on claims that knowledge can be decontextualized, and yet schools themselves as social institutions and as places of learning constitute very specific contexts.

A theory of social practice emphasizes the relational interdependency of agent and world, activity, meaning, cognition, learning, and knowing. It emphasizes the inherently socially negotiated character of meaning and the interested, concerned character of the thought and action of persons-inactivity. Participation is always based on situated negotiation and renegotiation of meaning in the world.

 Learning involves the construction of identities.

legitimate peripheral participation

Analysis of learning through legitimate peripheral participation must take into consideration various apects.

Any given attempt to analyze a form of learning through legitimate peripheral participation must involve analysis of the political and social organization of that form, its historical development, and the effects of both of these on sustained possibilities for learning.

 The importance of language should not, however, be overlooked. Language is part of practice, and it is in practice that people learn. The important point concerning learning is one of access to practice as resource for learning, rather than to instruction.

 A learning curriculum consists of situated opportunities (thus including exemplars of various sorts often thought of as ‘goals’) for the improvisational development of new practice (Lave 1989). A learning curriculum is a field of learning resources in everyday practice viewed from the perspective of learners.


Successful politicians quickly mastered how to talk in the manner of full participants.

As Jordan (1989) argues, learning to become a legitimate participant in a community involves learning how to talk (and be silent) in the manner of full participants. The notion of ‘proper speech’ is so clearly crystallized in the collective expectations of the community.

 To account for the complexity of participation in social practice, it is essential to give learning and teaching independent status as analytic concepts. Most analyses of schooling assume, whether intentionally or not, the uniform motivation of teacher and pupils, because they assume, sometimes quite explicitly, that teacher and pupils share the goal of the main activity (e.g., Davydov and Markova 1983)


See also:

Other Book Reviews

Communities of Practice

Infed: “Rather than looking to learning as the acquisition of certain forms of knowledge, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have tried to place it in social relationships – situations of co-participation. As William F. Hanks puts it in his introduction to their book: ‘Rather than asking what kind of cognitive processes and conceptual structures are involved, they ask what kinds of social engagements provide the proper context for learning to take place’.”

Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, A Review

Learning with Technology: “This is an incredibly difficult book to read and even more difficult to understand, so good luck! However, after cogitating on the book awhile and reading what others wrote, I wrote “Cold, so cold!” as a synopsis of what I saw as the key idea.”

Lave & Wenger Legitimate Peripheral Participation Practice, Person, Social World

Rebecca West Burns: “In contrast to learning as internalization, learning as increasing participation in communities of practice concerns the whole person acting in the world (p. 49).” Learning is therefore not simply a cognitive act but rather a way of being”.”


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Managing your talent in a company
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Learn about The IKEA Effect, The Baby Jessica Effect and why large bonuses make CEOS less effective. A fun book that show why humans don’t always behave in a rational manner. One of the most charismatic leaders of the 1980s. Still worth reading.

1 Comment

Filed under Behavior, Book Review, Culture, Education, France, Learning, Psychology, Society, USA

One response to “BOOK REVIEW: “Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation” by Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger (1991)

  1. Pingback: The Smartest Kids in the World are created by the smartest (and bravest) education policy makers. | GlobalEd

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