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Teaching, as Learning, in Practice

by Jean Lave


Why pursue a social rather than a more familiar psychological theory of learning? To the extent that being human is a relational matter, generated in social living, historically, in social formations whose participants engage with each other as a condition and precondition for their existence, theories that conceive of learning as a special universal mental process impoverish and misrecognize it. My colleagues and I have been trying to convey our understanding of this claim for some years (e.g., Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and I will try to develop the argument a little further here. There is another sort of reason for pursuing a theoretical perspective on the social nature of learning. Theories that reduce learning to individual mental capacity/activity in the last instance blame marginalized;" people for being marginal. Common theories of learning begin and end with individuals (though these a days they often nod at "the social" or "the environment" in between). Such theories are deeply concerned with individual differences, with notions of better and worse, more and less learning, and with comparison of these things across groups-of-individuals. Psychological theories of learning prescribe ideals and paths to excellence and identify the kinds of individuals (by no means all) who should arrive; the absence of movement away from some putatively common starting point becomes grounds for labeling others sub-normal. The logic that makes success exceptional but nonetheless characterizes lack of success as not normal won't do. It reflects and contributes to a politics by which disinherited and disenfranchised individuals, whether taken one at a time or in masses, are identified as the disabled, and thereby made responsible for their "plight" (e.g., McDermott, 1993).[1] It seems imperative to explore ways of understanding learning that do not naturalize and underwrite divisions of social inequality in our society. A reconsideration of learning as a social, collective, rather than individual, psychological phenomenon offers the only way beyond the current state of affairs that I can envision at the present Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as Learning, in Practice. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 3(3): 149-164. time. This re-envisioning is by no means simple. It requires reconsideration at many levels of alternative assumptions that might support a social understanding of learning from the ground up. Such an enterprise would not be possible today if there hadn't been changes in participants' conceptions of the field of education in recent decades. This view of the field of education is laid out by Holland and Eisenhart (1990, especially chapter 3, pp. 26ff): that in education, in the social sciences, we have moved in the last quarter century from implicit to explicit theory, increasing our ability to reflect critically on our own research practice. It seems crucial to me, as it does to them, to base the Held of education on explicit accounts of its different theoretical perspectives. The region of social theory that seems richest in clues for how to conceive of learning in social terms, in my view, is that of historical, dialectical, social practice theory. Such a theoretical perspective takes learning to be an aspect of participation in socially situated practices. My understanding of the theoretical implications of learning as social practice could not have developed outside my research on Vai and Gola tailors' apprenticeship in Liberia, West Africa. Research on apprenticeship in West Africa casts learning in a different light. Early on in the apprenticeship research I argued that the characteristics of apprenticeship among the Liberian tailors didn't match claims about the nature of informal education, and hence the theory underlying those claims needed to be reexamined. More recently I have come to the conclusion that the "informal" practices through which learning occurs in apprenticeship are so powerful and robust that this raises questions about the efficacy of standard "formal" educational practices in schools rather than the other way around. Further, I found that apprenticeship studies offered an especially clear window on issues about learning. But even supposing that this claim is correct, how could apprenticeship studies be relevant to learning in school settings? The argument developed by Etienne Wcnger and myself (Lave &Wenger, 1991) is that learning is an aspect of changing participation in changing "communities of practice" everywhere. Wherever people engage for substantial periods of time, day-by-day, in doing things in which their ongoing activities are interdependent, learning is part of their changing participation in changing practices. This characterization fits schools as well as tailor shops. There are not distinguishable "modes" of learning, from this perspective, because however educational enterprises differ; learning is a

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