Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, A Review


Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Summarized by Derrel Fincher

Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation

Lave, J. and E. Wenger, 1991 New York: Cambridge University Press

Below are my notes from the text. This is an incredibly difficult book to read and even more difficult to understand, so good luck! However, after cogitating on the book awhile and reading what others wrote, I wrote “Cold, so cold!” as a synopsis of what I saw as the key idea.

I typed most of the notes while reading, so the language is a little rough. Italics are for direct quotes from the book. Bold refers to page numbers, concepts, or when within an italicized quote, a term they chose to emphasize. Plain text is for my thoughts, questions, or short summaries of what I read. Unfortunately, I ended up with more questions than answers. 

Summary (I hope). The basic thrust is that real learning is social in nature and not internal. Legitimate Peripheral Participation refers to how newcomers become integrated into a community of practice (I think of it as learners "learning in a situation". ) Although they use the term “peripheral”, they are quick to point out that there is no real center as the loci always moves around. They use the term “centripetal” frequently as that also refers to movement around the center.  

Newcomers should move from peripheral participation to full participation eventually. How well this occurs depends on the social dynamics and the power structure. They often cite the concept of apprenticeship to help support their theory. They present five studies of apprenticeship, which are well worth reading, and use little of the high-falutin’ language present in the rest of the book.

The concept of regeneration is how a newcomer moves from periphery, to full participation, to supporting newcomers. In other words, the community of practice is a social organism that exists, so people can enter and leave with little effect.

Note that school as we think of it definitely does not fit the definition of LPP.


They locate learning squarely in the processes of coparticipation, not in the heads of individuals. Pg 13. So, how is this different from Vigotsky's "zone of proximal development"?

Legitimate Peripheral Participation [LPP]--provides a way to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities, identities, artifacts, and communities of knowledge and practice. It concerns the process by which newcomers become part of a community of practice. See page 29. A descriptor of engagement in societal practice that entails learning as an integral constituent.

Situated Learning--More complete and broad than "apprenticeship", so LPP helps define it. It's a transitory concept, a bridge, between a view according to which cognitive processes and thus learning, are primary and a view according to which social practice is the primary, generative phenomenon, and learning is one of its characteristics.

LPP and Peripherality. Authors imply that it really isn't possible to have a center--everyone is peripheral. "Changing locations and perspective are part of actor's learning trajectories, developing identities, and forms of membership."  pg 36. I was put in mind of penguins keeping warm.

"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”. pg 36-37.

Pg 40--they specifically reject intertwining schooling and learning for their theory because they have become too intertwined already. "The organization of schooling as an educational form is predicated on claims that knowledge can be decontextualized, and yet schools themselves as social institutions and as places of learning constitute very specific contexts." So, they think LPP describes all learning situations, whether intentional or not. They do think that it would be instructive to rethink schools based on the theory.

Power issue:. "Hegemony over resources for learning and alienation from full participation are inherent in the shaping of the legitimacy and peripherality of participation in its historical realizations." Pg 42. In other words, I think it means that the more power towards the center, and the less willing the full participators are to share, the less effective is LPP. The meatcutters are a prime example.

"Conventional explanations view learning as a process by which a learner internalizes knowledge, whether "discovered," "transmitted" from others, or "experienced in interaction" with others." Pg 47 In short, this views knowledge as cerebral and internal, not social and external.

Pg 48 Interpretations of Vygotski

  • "Scaffolding" interpretation, where the ZPD is characterized as the distance between problem-solving abilities exhibited by the learner alone and working together.

  • "Cultural" Interpretation. Distinction between scientific and everyday concepts, and on his argument that a mature concept is achieved when the scientific and everyday versions have merged. They point out that socialness is merely a small "aura" and just provides the inputs for the process of internalization.

  • "Collectivist" or "Societal" interpretation. Engström wrote "distance between the everyday actions of individuals and the historically new form of the societal activity that can be collectively generated as a solution to the double bind potentially embedded in ...everyday actions" This is closest to LPP according to L&W.

Page 51 "One way to think of learning is as the historical production, transformation, and change of persons." Understanding and experience are in constant interaction--mutually constitutive.

LPP Page 53-Learning is not merely a condition for membership, but is itself an evolving form of membership.


"In this context, schooling is usually assumed to be a more effective and advanced institution for educational transmission than (supposedly) previous forms such as apprenticeship"  Pg 61 They go on

"In the United States today much learning occurs in the form of some sort of apprenticeship, especially wherever high levels of knowledge and skill are in demand (e.g., medicine, law, the academy, professional sports, and the arts)."  Page 63 But the more "cerebral" ones (e.g., law) rely heavily on didactic approaches as well, don't they? Or is it that there are two kinds of didactic approach, that which applies and supports the apprenticeship, and that which doesn’t.

 The Yucatec study addresses the puzzle of how learning can occur without teaching and without formally organized apprenticeship"  Pg 84. But these are Midwives, the skills of which, although much knowledge is required, can be transmitted in such a manner. They don't address the issue of how masters continue to learn, nor do they address the breadth of knowledge versus the depth of knowledge.

In Cain's ethnographic study of identity construction in A.A. talk is a central medium of transformation”. Pg 85. This reminds me of the paper on how stories help keep a company on course.

"In AA, old-timers who act as "sponsors" reportedly withhold advice and instruction appropriate to later stages; they hold back and wait until the newcomer becomes "ready" for a next step through increasing participation in the community. Pg 92. This reminds me of raising children, particularly with respect to the film we saw in Denise's class on how the father interacted with his infant daughter by holding the ring at the right angle for her to grab.

"In all five cases described in the preceding chapter, in fact, researchers insist that there is very little observable teaching; the more basic phenomenon is learning." Page 92. So, what is "teaching"? What is "learning"? Could there be more efficient ways of gathering the information?

You know, at no point in the apprenticeship discussion was there any discussion about the other opportunities the apprentices may have had. How did that shape their learning? How does that shape the LPP concept? Is there a way to introduce opportunities to people that is different from LPP? Why did they choose the apprenticeship rather than something else?

Decentering Shifts from the notion of the individual learner to LPP. "To take a decentered view of master-apprentice relations leads to an understanding that mastery resides not in the master but in the organization of the community of practice of which the master is part."  Page 94.

Distinguish between Learning Curriculum and teaching curriculum. "A learning curriculum is a field of learning resources in everyday practice viewed from the perspective of learners. A teaching curriculum, by contrast, is constructed for the instruction of newcomers."  pg 97.

Reproduction of the community of practice: The length of time it takes a newcomer to go the cycle of novice, full participant, begins to work with novices, who then become full participants, then are ready to work with newcomers. Pg 99.

Their example of high school physics students as being the community of practice of reproducing the high school as opposed to being in the community of professional physicists. pg 99

Transparency is the way in which using artifacts and understanding their significance interact to be one learning process. Pg 102 Hey, this is a crucial sentence for our assignment.

Sequestration: "To the extent that the community of practice routinely sequesters newcomers...these newcomers are prevented from peripheral participation." They use the example of the meat cutters, where the class work didn't reflect the supermarket, and the master butchers had their apprentices isolated and wrapping meat. They also allude to more subtle and pervasive ways in the schools. Pg104

Discourse and practice: the path to full participation includes learning how to talk, and be silent, in the manner of full participants. pg 105

"Thus the didactic use of language, not itself the discourse of practice, creates a new linguistic practice, which has an existence of its own.  Legitimate peripheral participation in such a linguistic practice is a form of learning, but does not imply that newcomers learn the actual practice the language is supposed to be about."  pg 108 Just because you teach it doesn’t mean they learn what you think they are learning.

"In a community of practice, there are not special forms of discourse aimed at apprentices or crucial to their centripetal movement toward full participation that correspond to the marked genres of the question-answer-evaluation format of classroom teaching, or the lecturing of college professors or midwife-training course instructors." pg 108

It goes on to talk about stories in apprenticeship and how they relate.

“It is thus necessary to refine our distinction between talking about and talking within a practice. Talking within (e.g., exchanging information necessary to the progress of ongoing activities) and talking about (e.g., stories, community lore). Inside the shared practice, both forms of talk fulfill specific functions... For newcomers then, the purpose is not to learn from talk as a substitute for legitimate peripheral participation: it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation.” pg 109

“Moving toward full participation in practice involves not just a greater commitment of time, intensified effort, more and broader responsibilities within the community, and more difficult and risky tasks, but, more significantly, and increasing sense of identity as a master practitioner.”  pg 111

“When the process of increasing participation is not the primary motivation for learning, it is often because ‘didactic caretakers’ assume responsibility for motivating newcomers.” In such circumstances, the focus of attention shifts from co-participating in practice to acting upon the person-to-be-changed. Pg 112. Hey, this sounds like k-12 teaching! Read the rest of the page. As they point out, overlooking the importance of LPP, has two effects: 1) The focus is not on learning, but on changing the identity of the learner and 2) without the LPP, exchange value replaces use value of increasing participation. I think that refers to merely exchanging information as opposed to being able to use and apply it. At the bottom of the page, ”Test taking then becomes a new parasitic practice, the goal of which is to increase the exchange value of learning independently of its use value.”.

“Most analyses of schooling assume, whether intentionally or not, the uniform motivation of teacher and pupils, because they assume, sometimes quite explicitly, that teacher and pupils share the goal of the main activity.” Pg 113. They disagree with this, which is why they separate learning and teaching. At the bottom of the page, “Learning understood as legitimate peripheral participation is not necessarily or directly dependent on pedagogical goals or official agenda, even in situations in which these goals appear to be a central factor (e.g., classroom instruction, tutoring).”

“We have claimed that the development of identity is central to the careers of newcomers in communities of practice, and thus fundamental to the concept of Legitimate Peripheral Participation” Pg 115. This is a key point—learning develops identity. Think about how our identities have been shaped by the groups we interact with and the choices we make.

“Conflicts between masters and apprentices (or, less individualistically, between generations) take place in the course of everyday participation.  Shared participation is the stage on which the old and the new, the known and the unknown, the established and the hopeful, act out their differences and discover their commonalities, manifest their fear of on another, and come to terms with their need for one another.”  Pg 116.  Conflict is inherent as is how we react to that conflict, so “This helps to account for the common observation that knowers come in a range of types, from clones to heretics.”  Then, “As a way in which the related conflicts are played out in practice, legitimate peripheral participation is far more than just a process of learning on the part of newcomers. It is a reciprocal relation between persons and practice.”  That must mean the newcomers effect some change on the old-timers.

The final quote before the conclusion is key as it shows that everyone can be considered a newcomer, on page 117, “Legitimacy of participation is crucial both for this naïve involvement to invite reflection on ongoing activity and for the newcomer’s occasional contributions to be taken into account. Insofar as this continual interaction of new perspectives is sanctioned, everyone’s participations is legitimately peripheral in some respect. In other words, everyone can to some degree be considered a “newcomer” to the future of a changing community.”

The conclusion section does not offer new insight, but merely summarizes. However, try this sentence on your friends and family to see if they can figure it out: “We have tried, in reflective consonance with our theoretical perspective, to reconceive it in interconnected relational terms.” Don’t try this at home; these sentences have been written by professional obfuscators.

Last maintained 08/23/2003


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