From novice to expert

This is number 24 in my series on learning theories. I'm working through the alphabet of psychologists and theorists, providing a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. The last post highlighted issues around the andragogy theory of Malcolm Knowles. In this post, we review the situated learning theory of Jean Lave. As usual, this is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

Jean Lave's situated learning theory can be located within the social constructivist school of thought. Lave's argument is that most traditional classroom learning is based on abstract knowledge that can be difficult to apply within meaningful contexts. This is ineffective, she suggests, and offers an alternative where the abstract is removed and learning is grounded in an authentic context or 'situated'. She sees this as authentic learning because it occurs within environments or contexts where the learning can realistically applied.

Lave sees the social context of this kind of situated learning as vitally important, because novice learners can be closely supported by experts, and their behaviour and knowledge can be scaffolded by more experienced members of their learning community. As novices become more knowledgeable and begin to apply their knowledge in authentic situations, so they become more confident of their membership and place in the learning community, and they begin to move from the periphery to the core of the group.

How it can be applied in education

This theory relies heavily on social contexts, and shows that learning rarely occurs within a social vacuum. The notion of legitimate peripheral participation could be easily applied to online learning. Where some might see lurking (being present but not directly contributing to discussions or online activities) as a form of social loafing or lack of engagement in the learning community, Lave argues that it is legitimate and can lead to fuller participation once knowledge and confidence has been gained. The role of stronger, or more knowledgeable learners within a learning community (e.g. a student cohort) can be extended by encouraging them to scaffold weaker, or less expert learners, to encourage and lead, in a kind of cognitive apprenticeship.

Subsequent work on the theory has revealed that cognitive tools (learning with, rather than through technology) can be applied to amplify the 'situatedness' of learning, by providing active, engaging contexts. ICTs should also be embedded authentically within and across the curriculum, rather than be used as an isolated, 'special' set of tools.


Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1990) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Previous posts in this series:

1.  Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
2.  Argyris Double Loop Learning
3.  Bandura Social Learning Theory
4.  Bruner Scaffolding Theory
5.  Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
6.  Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
7.  Dewey Experiential Learning
8.  Engeström Activity Theory
9.  Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves
10. Festinger Social Comparison Theory
11. Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
12. Gardner Multiple Intelligences Theory
13. Gibson Affordances Theory
14. Gregory Visual Perception Hypothesis
15. Hase and Kenyon Heutagogy
16. Hull Drive Reduction Theory
17. Inhelder and Piaget Formal Operations Stage
18. Jung Archetypes and Synchronicity
19. Jahoda Ideal Mental Health
20. Koffka Gestalt theory
21. Köhler Insight learning
22. Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle
23. Knowles Andragogy

Photo by Thomas Hawk on Fotopedia

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From novice to expert by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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