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Annotation of Lave and Wenger (1991) – Forward and Chapter 1

Daniel Novak, EdPsy 581, Autumn 2010


In the Forward to Situated Learning, William Hanks notes that the concepts explored in
the book challenge basic conceptions about learning. On page 14, he notes that “It takes as
its focus the relationship between learning and the social situations in which it occurs.
Rather than defining it as the acquisition of propositional knowledge, Lave and Wenger
situate learning in certain forms of social coparticipation.”Hanks asserts that this focus on
legitimate peripheral participation (Lave and Wenger‟s specific formulation of
coparticipation) changes the focus of the study of learning from individual mastery to
participation in sociocultural practices. Described in this way, learning becomes the shared
result of participation between learners of various skill levels in an authentic context.

In Chapter 1, Lave and Wenger describe the origin of their approach to situated learning,
and define the key concepts that they will echo throughout the book. First, they describe
their shift in interest from the concept of “apprenticeship” to “situated learning.” This came
as a result of the authors‟ perception of ambiguity in the concept of apprenticeship. The
authors turned towards situated activity theories because “It implied emphasis on
comprehensive understanding involving the whole person rather than „receiving‟ a body of
factual knowledge about the world…and on the view that agent, activity, and the world
mutually constitute one another.” (p.33)

In their shift from considering situated learning to “legitimate peripheral participation,”

the authors found that learning was not only a situated activity. “In our view, learning is
not merely situated in practice – as if it were some independently reifiable process that just
happened to be located somewhere; learning is an integral part of generative social practice
in the lived in world.” The authors propose legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) as a
means of understanding how learning integrates with human social spheres, and how
learning shapes those spheres. The authors also establish the unity of the LPP concept: it is
simultaneously about the individual‟s efforts towards legitimacy, their peripherality (or
relationship) to social activities, and their participation in a social sphere. LPP is indivisible
because these three concepts define social life.

Lave and Wenger also put aside the issue of schooling to focus on “a shift away from a
theory of situated activity in which learning is reified as one kind of activity, and toward a
theory of social practice in which learning is viewed as an aspect of all activity…” (p.38)
They also clarify that LPP is not merely an abstraction of apprenticeship, but a study of
how learning is contained within the peripheral participation of legitimate community
My response

In some ways, this segment of the book echoes Dewey‟s axiom about education, painted on
the second floor of the College of Education. Lave and Wenger have created a mode for
understanding how people involve themselves in social practices (almost all of human
activity) and how people learn through those social practices. This frees us from a number
of philosophical burdens left in the wake of the 20th century (a legacy of machine-made
learners, factory-produced teachers, and assembly-line schools). Rather, LPP allows us, as
educational researchers, to understand how groups create meaning internally without
losing sight of a theoretical lodestar or giving way to a new educational fad.

Key concepts & terminology:

Situated learning: “…the situatedness of activity appeared to be anything but a simple

empirical attribute of everyday activity or a corrective to conventional pessimism about
informal, experience-based learning…That perspective meant that there is no activity that
is not situated. It implied emphasis on comprehensive understanding involving the whole
person rather than „receiving‟ a body of factual knowledge about the world; on activity in
and with the world; and on the view that agent, activity, and the world mutually constitute
each other.” (p.33)

Legitimacy:”The form that the legitimacy of participation takes is a defining characteristic

of ways of belonging, and is therefore not only a crucial condition for learning, but a
constitutive element of its content.” (p.35)

Peripherality: “Peripheral participation is about being located in the social world. Changing
locations and perspective are part of actors‟ learning trajectories, developing identities, and
forms of membership…peripherality is also a positive term, whose most salient conceptual
antonyms are unrelatedness or irrelevance to ongoing activity.” (p. 35-36)

Participation: “We have chosen to call that to which peripheral participation leads, full
participation. Full participation is intended to do justice to the diversity of relations
involved in varying forms of community membership.” (p. 36-37)

Legitimate Peripheral Participation: “We should emphasize, therefore, that legitimate

peripheral participation is not itself an educational form, much less a pedagogical strategy
or a teaching technique. It is an analytical viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding
learning. We hope to make clear as we proceed that learning through legitimate peripheral
participation takes place no matter which educational form provides a context for learning,
or whether there is any intentional educational form at all.” (p.40)

Linkages to other readings

This chapter has much for ethnographers, philosophers, and policymakers to consider.
Thematically, the questions about the role of learners as participants in larger cultural
milieus are similar to those asked by Shirley Brice Heath. Brice Heath observed that
African American children participated in their communities in different ways than white
teachers might have anticipated. One might say that the peripheral participation of these
children at home involves different levels of peripherality than are expected in the

Links to my research

I have an interest in expertise, and the concept of legitimate peripheral participation

provides a framework for understanding how people engage in communities of learning,
and progress from novices to experts.

Class Discussion Topics

 If we adopt Lave and Wenger‟s view of learning as a socially situated behavior, what
kinds of blind spots might we encounter?
 How can we apply the concept of LPP in fieldwork and ethnographic study?
 To what degree does LPP challenge the distinctions between formal and informal
learning environments?
 Can LPP, integrated into a school curriculum, provide opportunities for equity in