From Practice Fields

to Communities of Practice

Sasha A. Barab
Thomas Duffy
Indiana University

To appear in D. Jonassen & S. Land (Eds.), Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

The authors would like to thank members of the Center for Research on Learning and Technology, specifically Thomas Keating and Donald Cunningham, for the valuable feedback on this chapter.

Correspondence about this article should be addressed to:
Sasha A. Barab
School of Education
Room 2232
201 N. Rose Avenue
Bloomington, IN, 47405

Phone: (812) 856-8462
E-mail: SBarab@Indiana.Edu

Prefatory Note

In writing this piece we (a constructivist and a situativity theorist) struggled with the distinction between situativity and constructivism, and the implications in terms of the design of learning contexts. In clarifying (and justifying) our various sides we created strawman and pointed fingers with respect to the limitations of each other's perspectives. We found that although discussions of situativity and of constructivism draw on different references and clearly have specialized languages, actual interpretations of situativity and of constructivism share many underlying similarities. Further, when it comes to the design of learning contexts predicated on our respective theories, we found ourselves continuously forwarding similar principles and advocating for similar learning contexts.

We are dealing with evolving concepts-and people use new terms to include and extend old ones. Constructivism was the label used for the departure from objectivism; however, even among those who call themselves "constructivists" there are different perspectives and different sets of assumptions (see Cobb, 1995). But now the term more commonly used is "situated," reflecting the key proposal from both the constructivist and situativity perspective that knowledge is situated in (indexed by) the experience. In the context of this chapter we found it trivial to distinguish among those learning theories and principles related to constructivism and those related to situativity theory. Rather, we discussed the various learning theories that have informed our understanding all under the heading of situativity learning theories. This term, and its associated assumptions and current interpretations, seemed to better capture the essence of the learning contexts we forwarded as useful. However, even within the context of situativity theories we found it necessary to make distinctions, and it was these distinctions (not the distinction between constructivist and situativity views) that best captured the essence of this paper.

Currently, we are witnessing a period in which theories of learning and cognition seem to be in a state of perturbation, with numerous books and scholarly articles being published that put forward radically new theories of what it means to know and learn. We have been moving from cognitive theories that emphasize individual thinkers and their isolated minds to theories that emphasize the social nature of cognition and meaning (Resnick, 1987). More recently, we have been moving to situative theories that emphasize the reciprocal character of the interaction in which individuals, as well as cognition and meaning are considered socially and culturally constructed (Lave, 1988, 1993). In these latter (anthropological origin) situative theories, interactions with the world are viewed as not only producing meanings about the social world but also producing identities; that is, individuals are fundamentally constituted in their relations with the world (Lave, 1993; Lemke, 1997; Walkerdine, 1997; Wenger, 1998).

In general, situative perspectives suggest a reformulation of learning in which practice is not conceived of as independent of learning and in which meaning is not conceived of as separate from the practices and contexts in which it was negotiated. While the dominant movement over the last decade has been to a situated perspective of cognition, there has been considerable variation in our understanding of just what is meant by situated cognition or situativity theory (Greeno, 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Resnick, 1987; Young, 1993). In this chapter we examine two dominant themes. First there is an approach arising from work in psychology and education that is focused on learning (or the failure to learn) in school contexts. Because of the schooling context, this work has focused on meeting specific learning objectives or content. For example, the questions that arise are how do we design learning environments to support students in learning mathematics (or learning algebra) or science (or Newtonian principles)? Here, the focus has been on situating content in authentic learner activities. In Senge's (1994) terms we are focused on creating practice fields[1] in which students in schools engage in the kinds of problems and practices that they will encounter outside of school.

Parallel to the development of the psychological perspective of situativity, we have seen an "anthropological" approach [2], reflected most heavily in the work of Lave and her colleagues. Rather than a focus on the situatedness of meaning or content, the anthropological perspective focuses on communities and what it means to learn as a function of being a part of a community. This shift in the unit of analysis from the individual's context to the community context leads to a shift in focus from the learning of skills or developing understandings to one in which, "developing an identity as a member of a community and becoming knowledgeably skillful are part of the same process, with the former motivating, shaping, and giving meaning to the latter, which it subsumes" (Lave, 1993, p. 65).

The goal of this chapter is to explore the implications of these two views of situativity for architecting learning environments. We begin with an examination of the movement from a representational view of learning to a situated perspective. We then examine the psychological perspective of situativity theories in some detail, considering the theoretical underpinnings, distinctions between this perspective and the anthropological perspective, the learning environments associated with this framework, and finally, the key principles for the design of learning environments (practice fields) associated with this group of situativity theories. We then turn to the anthropological perspective and consider how this perspective, in our view, encompasses and enriches the psychological perspective and significantly complicates the design of learning environments (from practice fields to communities of practice). We propose three characteristics of communities of practice that extend beyond those features typically found in psychologically based designs for learning. Finally, we examine in greater detail, several examples of learning environments that purport to reflect the anthropological perspective on situativity, i.e., to focus on the development of self in the context of an individual's participation in a community.

Before beginning this discussion, let us emphasize two points that guide the design of this chapter. First, our focus is on schooling--we seek to understand the principles for the design of learning environments that can be utilized in schools. While the designs may require systemic change in the schools, the learning context and the motivations for learning is nonetheless framed within a school environment. Second, it is our belief that the epistemological assumptions we make and our practices are reciprocally determined. Most clearly, one's assumptions about learning and knowledge will reciprocally interact with the design of learning environments and how one participates in those environments (Bednar, Cunningham, Duffy, & Perry, 1992). It is inconceivable that a teacher or instructional designer would advocate a particular lesson or activity without at least a tacit theory of how students think and learn. In turn, however, dissatisfaction with teaching practices is likely to lead to a questioning of the epistemological assumptions on which that instruction is based. Indeed, dissatisfaction with schooling practices, along with the need for theories that account for learning that occurs outside of schools, is a major factor in the development of situativity theories.

From an Acquisition to a Participation Metaphor

Since the cognitive revolution of the sixties, representation has served as the central concept of cognitive theory and the representational theory of mind has served as the most common view in cognitive science (Gardner, 1985; Fodor, 1980; Vera & Simon, 1993). The central tenet of the representational position is that "knowledge is constituted of symbolic mental representations, and cognitive activity consists of the manipulation of the symbols in these representations, that is, of computations" (Shannon, 1988; p. 70). Consequently, learning is "acquiring" these symbols, and instruction involves finding the most efficient means of facilitating this acquisition.

Since the late 1980s, Sfard (1998) has argued, we have been witnessing a move away from the predominant "acquisition" metaphor that has guided much of the practice in K-12 schools towards a "participation" metaphor in which knowledge is considered fundamentally situated in practice. In large measure, this epistemological shift was stimulated by a growing dissatisfaction with schooling. Learning in school was seen as resulting in inert knowledge; that is, knowledge that was "known" but simply not used outside of schools (Whitehead, 1929). Resnick (1987), in her presidential address to the American Educational Research Association, examined the practices in schools under the acquisition metaphor comparing them to how we learn and use knowledge outside of schools. Her analysis focused attention on the collaborative, contextualized, and concrete character of learning outside of school. In essence, learning was situated in a complex social context and derived much of its meaning from that context. Arguably, it was this analysis that has served as one of the principal stimuli for the development of the participatory perspective with its emphasis on situated activity.

Shortly after Resnick's (1987) seminal work, Brown, Collins, & Duguid (1989) argued that knowing and doing are one and the same--learning is always situated and progressively developed through activity. Central to this theory is the contention that participation in practice constitutes learning and understanding. They further suggested that one should abandon the notion that concepts are self-contained entities instead conceiving them as tools, which can only be fully understood through use. Reinforcing this view, Greeno and Moore (1993) argued that "situativity is fundamental in all cognitive activity" (p. 50). It is the contention from this perspective that learning involves more than acquiring an understanding, and actually involves building an "increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and of the tools themselves" (Brown et al., 1989, p. 33). This understanding is framed by those situations in which it is learned and used.

The central tenets of this perspective regarding how one conceives of knowledge or knowing about are: (a) knowing about refers to an activity--not a thing; (b) knowing about is always contextualized--not abstract; (c) knowing about is reciprocally constructed within the individual-environment interaction--not objectively defined or subjectively created; and (d) knowing about is a functional stance on the interaction--not a truth (see Barab & Duffy, 1998, for further elaboration on these points). This position, we feel, is consistent with the views of Clancey, (1993), the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (CTGV) (1990, 1993), Greeno (1997, 1998), Roschelle and Clancey (1992), Tripp, (1993) and Young (1993) as well as Resnick (1987) and Brown et al (1989). However, there is another set of discussions related to situativity theory that emphasize the situatedness of identities, as well as cognitions. It is to these discussions with their roots in anthropological circles that we explore theories of situativity that focus on the construction of whole persons within communities of practice, not simply "knowing about" (Lave, 1997).

Discussions of situativity that have their genesis in anthropological research, including those being made by some educational psychologists (See Kirshner & Whitson, 1997a), focus on learning in relation to communities of practice and provide a different perspective with respect to what is "situated" and what is constituted within an interaction. In this broadened view, what Lave (1997) referred to as situated social practice, there are no boundaries between the individual and the world; instead, "learning, thinking, and knowing are relations among people engaged in activity in, with, and arising from the socially and culturally structured world" (p. 67, italics in the original). From this "anthropological" perspective[3] it is not only meanings that are produced, but entire identities are shaped by and shape the experience. In other words, the interaction constitutes and is constituted by all of the components-individual, content, and context. There are no clear boundaries between the development of knowledgeable skills and the development of identities; both co-arise as individuals' participate and become central to the community of practice. We believe that the collection of "psychological" perspectives of situativity that were fashioned out of an interest on cognition, and the work of Resnick (1987) and Brown et al. (1987) in particular, was a decisive move away from representational theories of mind and away from didactic models of instruction. The anthropological framework further helps to enrich our conceptualization of this framework for what is meant by "situated." These two perspectives of situativity theories are described in Table 1. It is with this initial analysis of situativity theory that we now seek to develop principles, derived from the psychological framework, for the design of learning environments.

Table 1

Focus of Psychological and Anthropological Views of Situativity Theory

Psychological Views Anthropological Views
Focus Cognition Individuals' Relations to Community
Learners Students Members of Communities of Practice
Unit of Analysis Situated Activity Individual in Community
What is Produced from Communities Meaning Meanings, Identities, and Interactions
Learning Arena Schools Everyday World
Goal of Learning Prepare for Future Tasks Meet Immediate Community Needs
Pedagogical Implications Practice Fields Communities of Practice

Architecting Learning Environments: Practice Fields

Within this theoretical perspective on situativity, the unit of analysis is the situated activity of the learner-the interaction of the learner, the practices being carried out, the reasons why the learner is carrying out particular practices, the resources being used, and the constraints of the particular task at hand. From an instructional perspective, the goal shifts from the teaching of concepts to engaging the learner in authentic tasks that are likely to require the use of those concepts or skills. As Brown et al. (1989) and Greeno (1989) argued, concepts are seen as tools that can only be understood through use.

Architecting a learning environment begins with identifying what is to be learned and, reciprocally, the real world contexts in which the activity occurs. One of those contexts is then selected for creating the learning activity. Thus the emphasis is on creating circumscribed "activities" or "experiences" for the learner. Consistent with Resnick (1987), these activities must be authentic. They must present most of the cognitive demands the learner would encounter in the "real world." Hence authentic problem solving and critical thinking in the domain is required. And of course, the learning activities must be anchored to real uses of the learning or it is likely that the result will be inert knowledge, knowledge only recognized as applicable to that context but not actually applied (Whitehead, 1929).

Senge (1994) in his discussion of the development of learning organizations has referred to designs like this as the creation of practice fields and advocates their use as a primary approach to corporate training. Practice fields are separate from the "real" field, but they are contexts in which learners, as opposed to legitimate participants, can practice the kinds of activities that they will encounter outside of schools. Further, every attempt is made to situate these authentic activities within environmental circumstances and surroundings that are present while engaged in these activities outside of schools. However, these contexts are practice fields and, as such, there is a clearly a separation in time, setting, and activity from the life for which the activity is preparation.

Problem based learning (PBL) is an example of one approach to creating practice fields. In the medical profession, where PBL began and is still most pervasive, the students are presented with real, historical, patient cases to diagnose (Koschmann, Kelson, Feltovich, & Barrows, 1996; Evenson & Hmelo, in press). Problem based learning has extended well beyond the medical profession to elementary and secondary schools, business schools (Milter & Stinson, 1995), higher education (Savery & Duffy, 1996), and a host of other areas. In all of these instances the goal is to present the students with "real" societal, business, or educational problems. The PBL approach differs from studying cases in that the students are responsible for developing their position on the issue (their solution to the problem), rather than studying someone else's solution. Thus they are engaged "as if" they were in the real world working on this problem.

Anchored instruction, as represented in the work of the CTGV (1990, 1993), is another approach to creating practice fields. As with PBL, the goal is to capture a real problem and the context for that problem from the real world. In contrast to PBL, there is no pretense that this is a real problem. Rather, in some sense, the learners are invited to engage in a fictitious problem. Rich and realistic video contexts present the information relevant to working on the problem, and also create the fictitious context. For example, in "Escape from Boone's Meadow" the students must buy into the fact that they are helping to save the eagle in the video, or in "A Capital Idea" they must buy into the fact that they helping the students at the school develop a fall festival booth [4]. It is only when students "own" these problems that they will be engaged in some of the same sorts of problem solving the people in the video would engage (Lave, 1997). Of course, gathering evidence and the range of distractions is considerably different then it would be in the real world. But indeed, in terms of solving the specific problems-developing the most efficient strategy for retrieving the eagle or maximizing profits from the booth at the fair-they are engaged in solving ill-structured problems.

Cognitive apprenticeship is another approach to conceptualizing and designing practice fields (Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1989). The cognitive apprenticeship framework emphasizes learning at the elbows of experts. That is, experts are present to coach and model the cognitive activity. In reciprocal teaching (Palinscar & Brown, 1984), for example, the teacher and learner take turns in the role of student and teacher as they seek to understand a text. Or, in the work of Schoenfeld (1996) the expert thinks out loud as he works through a problem he has not seen previously and then reflects with the students on the effectiveness of the strategies used and paths followed.

The design of practice fields has received extensive attention over the last decade (Barab & Landa, 1997; CTGV, 1990, 1993; Duffy and Jonassen, 1992; Duffy, Lowyck, & Jonassen, 1992; Edwards, 1995; Hannafin, Hall, Land, & Hill, 1994; Hmelo & Emerson, in press; Kommers, Grabinger, & Dunlap, 1996; Koschmann, 1996; Roth, 1996, 1998; Roth & Bowen, 1995; Savery & Duffy, 1996; Wilson, 1996). There has also been numerous lists of principles for design since Resnick's (1987) contribution. We summarize the design principles as follows.

Engagement in domain-related practices. Learners must be actively doing domain-related practices, not listening to the experiences or findings of others as summarized in texts or by teachers. The notion of an active learner has its roots in the work of Dewey (1938/1963) who advocated for learning by doing, and is being forwarded by many educators. Schoenfeld (1996) has pushed us to think further about the nature of this doing, and whether students are engaged in performance dilemmas (such as getting a good grade) or domain-related dilemmas (such as finding a cure for cancer). The latter situations give rise to a more authentic appreciation for and understanding of the content being learned.

Ownership of the inquiry. The students must be given and must assume ownership for the dilemma and the development of a resolution. That is, they must see it as a real dilemma worth investing their efforts in, they must see their efforts as geared toward a solution that makes a difference (not a school solution), and they must feel they are responsible for the solution. If they seek the solution from the teacher or if they seek a solution the teacher wants, they will not be engaged in the sorts of thinking in the domain they would be engaged in outside of schools (Savery & Duffy, 1996; Schoenfeld, 1996).

Coaching and modeling of thinking skills. The teacher's role is not that of a content expert, but rather as a learning and problem solving expert. Hence, the teacher's job is to coach and model learning and problem solving by asking the questions the students should be asking themselves. This is not directive, but rather participatory and based not on moving to the "right" answer, but rather on the questions an expert and problem solver would be asking himself (Schoenfeld, 1996; Savery & Duffy, 1996). In part, it is the availability of coaching and modeling as well as other scaffolding (see Duffy and Cunningham, 1997), including support for reflective activities, that distinguish practice fields from those situations in which individuals are simply doing the job [5].

Opportunity for reflection. Too often when we are engaged in work we simply do not have the opportunity to reflect on that which we are doing, going to do, or that which we have done. The time demands are such that we must move forward, understanding just enough to permit progress in resolving the dilemma. However, in a practice field, opportunity for reflection must be central (indeed, it should be central in the work environment as well). It provides the opportunity to think about why we are doing what we are doing and even to gather evidence to evaluate the efficacy of our moves. Reflecting on the experience afterwards ("debriefing" in the terminology of business) provides the opportunity to correct misconceptions and fill in where understanding was not adequate. The reflective process--an active, rigorous, and analytic process--is essential to the quality of learning (Clift, Houston, & Pugach, 1990; Savery & Duffy, 1996; Schon, 1987)

Dilemmas are ill-structured. The dilemmas in which learners are engaged must either be ill defined or defined loosely enough so that students can impose their own problem frames (Roth, 1996; Savery & Duffy, 1996). It is only with ill defined problems that students can own the problem and take ownership of the process.

When working with an ill-defined problem, the quality of the solution depends on the quality of the effort in the domain-and it is always possible to work a little longer in an attempt to develop a different rationale for a solution or a more detailed solution or to consider better alternatives. It is in this inquiry into ill structured dilemmas that ownership and learning occurs.

Support the learner rather than simplify the dilemma. The dilemma students encounter should reflect the complexity of the thinking and work they are expected to be able to do outside of the school context when this learning is completed. That is, the problem presented is a real problem. We do not start with simplified, unrealistic problems since this would not be reflective of a practice field but rather would reflect the more traditional, building blocks approach to instruction characteristic of the representational perspective. Scaffolding is meant to support the learner in working in the practice field, by providing the learner with the necessary support to undertake complex problems that, otherwise, would be beyond their current zone or proximal development (Duffy & Cunningham, 1997; Vygotsky, 1978).

Work is collaborative and social. Meaning is a process of continual negotiation. The quality and depth of this negotiation, and understanding, can only be determined in a social environment where we can see if our understanding can accommodate the issues and views of others and see if there are points of view that we could usefully incorporate into our understanding (Bereiter, 1994). The importance of a learning community where ideas are discussed and understandings are enriched is critical to the design of effective practice fields (Scardamalia & Bereiter, 1993).

The learning context is motivating. In the educational environment we cannot let students only pursue problems that rise in their life naturally. That is, learning issues cannot be solely self determined. Rather, there is some need to introduce students to communities and the issues or problems that engage that community. In doing so, we are faced with the problem of "bringing the issue home" to the learner (Barrows & Myers, 1993). That is, dilemmas brought to the attention of the learner are seldom, in and of themselves, engaging. The students must be introduced to the context of the problem and its relevance and this must be done in a way that challenges and engages the student. The importance of being challenged and engaged has a long history in education (Cordova & Lepper, 1996; Dweck & Leggett, 1988) and psychology (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990).




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