The social/situational orientation to learning

Picture: Circle of friends by the Arches Creative Learning Partnership. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons ccby2 licence

The social/situational orientation to learning. It is not so much that learners acquire structures or models to understand the world, but they participate in frameworks that that have structure. Learning involves participation in a community of practice.

Social learning theory ‘posits that people learn from observing other people. By definition, such observations take place in a social setting’ (Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 134). Within psychology, initially it was behaviourists who looked to how people learned through observation. Later researchers like Albert Bandura looked to interaction and cognitive processes. One thing that observation does is to allow people to see the consequences of other’s behaviours. They can gain some idea of what might flow from acting in this way or that.

Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people ha d to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasion s this coded information serves as a guide for action. (Bandura 1977: 22)

Attending to a behaviour; remembering it as a possible model or paradigm; and playing out how it may work for them in different situations (rehearsal) are key aspects of observational learning.

Symbols retained from a modelling experience act as a template with which one’s actions are compared. During this rehearsal process individuals observe their own behaviour and compare to their cognitive representation of modelled experience. (Hergenhahn 1988 quoted in Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 135)

In this model behaviour results from the interaction of the individual with the environment.

A more radical model – situated learning – has been put forward by Lave and Wenger (1991). Rather than looking to learning as the acquisition of certain forms of knowledge, they 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’ (1991: 14). It not so much that learners acquire structures or models to understand the world, but they participate in frameworks that that have structure. Learning involves participation in a community of practice.

Lave and Wenger illustrate their theory on observations of different apprenticeships (Yucatec midwives, Vai and Gola tailors, US Navy quartermasters, meat-cutters, and non-drinking alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous). Initially people have to join communities and learn at the periphery. As they become more competent they move more to the ‘centre’ of the particular community. Learning is, thus, not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation. The nature of the situation impacts significantly on the process.

Learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and… the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community. “Legitimate peripheral participation” provides a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities, identities, artefacts, and communities of knowledge and practice. A person’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a sociocultural practice. This social process, includes, indeed it subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills. (Lave and Wenger 1991: 29)

In this there is a concern with identity, with learning to speak, act and improvise in ways that make sense in the community. What is more, and in contrast with learning as internalization, ‘learning as increasing participation in communities of practice concerns the whole person acting in the world’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 49). The focus is on the ways in which learning is ‘an evolving, continuously renewed set of relations’ (ibid.: 50). In other words, this is a relational view of the person and learning.

As Tennant (1997: 77) argues, this orientation has the definite advantage of drawing attention to the need to understand knowledge and learning in context. However, situated learning depends on two claims:

  • It makes no sense to talk of knowledge that is decontextualized, abstract or general.
  • New knowledge and learning are properly conceived as being located in communities of practice (op cit.).

Questions can be raised about both of these claims. It may be that learning can occur that is seemingly unrelated to context or life situation. Second, there may situations where the community of practice is weak or exhibits power relationships that seriously inhibit entry and participation.

This said, the idea of situated learning does provide significant pointers for practice. Here I want to highlight three:

  • Learning is in the relationships between people – As McDermott (in Murphy 1999:17) puts it:

Learning traditionally gets measured as on the assumption that it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their heads… [Here] learning is in the relationships between people. Learning is in the conditions that bring people together and organize a point of contact that allows for particular pieces of information to take on a relevance; without the points of contact, without the system of relevancies, there is not learning, and there is little memory. Learning does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations of which they are a part.

  • Educators work so that people can become participants in communities of practice – they need to explore with people in communities how all may participate to the full. There is a strong link here with the long-standing concern among informal educators for association.
  • There is an intimate connection between knowledge and activity – Learning is part of daily living. Problem solving and learning from experience become central processes (although situtated learning is not the same as ‘learning by doing’ – see Tennant 1997: 73).

Other psychologists have looked beyond the focus on human interaction to the geography or terrain of learning. ‘People appear to think in conjunction or partnership with others and with the help of culturally provided tools and implements’ (Salomon 1993: xiii). In other words, there is a need to explore the extent to which learning (or intelligence) lies in the resources to which people have access. These might be obvious resources like libraries and internet access, but it can also involve the use of tools like pencils and pens. In this view, as Gardner (1999: 24) puts it, ‘intelligence is better thought of as “distributed” in the world rather than “in the head”‘. Some of those advocating the importance of distributed cognition place a stronger focus on distribution than others. They argue that while the individual is significant, psychological analysis should focus on the joint, socially mediated activity in a cultural context (see Salomon 1993: xv for a discusssion). Others, like Salomon and Gardner, argue that ‘”solo” and distributed cognitions are still distinguishable from each other and are taken to be in an interdependent dynamic interaction (ibid.: xvi).

See, also: learning · the behaviourist orientation to learning · the cognitive orientation to learning · the humanistic orientation to learning · the social/situational orientation to learning


Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Gardner, H. (1993) Intelligence Reframed. Multiple intelligences for the 21st century, New York: Basic Books.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Murphy, P. (ed.) (1999) Learners, Learning and Assessment, London: Paul Chapman.  See, also, Leach, J. and Moon, B. (eds.) (1999) Learners and Pedagogy, London: Paul Chapman.  280  + viii pages; and McCormick, R. and Paetcher, C. (eds.) (1999) Learning and Knowledge, London: Paul Chapman.  254  + xiv pages.

Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education, London: Routledge.

Salomon, G. (ed.) (1993) Distributed Cognitions. Psychological and educational considerations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London: Routledge.

Tennant, M. and Pogson, P. (1995) Learning and Change in the Adult Years. A developmental perspective, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wenger, E. (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning, meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Acknowledgement: Picture: Circle of friends by the Arches Creative Learning Partnership. Sourced from Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons ccby2 licence.

How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (1999). ‘The social/situational orientation to learning’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date]

© Mark K. Smith 1999