My next three posts will look at social context, interpersonal relationships, and emotional well-being and examine the extent to which they are important to learning. This is #13 in my series on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning: “Learning is situated within multiple social contexts.”

It’s fair enough to point out that we’re all part of a variety wider social groups. Of course we’re influenced by the languages, beliefs, values and experiences of those with whom we interact. And of course these different cultural factors will exert pressures on each other and collide, but what difference does it make? Do teachers really need to appreciate and understand “the potential influence of these contexts on learners” in order to “enhance the effectiveness of instruction and communication across contexts”?

Well, yes, according to the theory of situated learning. Developed in the 90s by Lave & Wenger as part of their ‘communities of practice’ theory, situated learning is, in essence, concerned with the creation of meaning from forcing together the ‘real’ activities of students’ lives with the culture of school. This web site summarises some of Lave & Wenger’s thoughts thusly:

Learning viewed as situated activity has as its central defining characteristic a process that we call legitimate peripheral participation. By this we mean to draw attention to the point that learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and that the mastery of knowledge requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the sociocultural practices of a community. ‘Legitimate peripheral participation’ 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. A person’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a sociocultural practice. This social process includes, indeed it subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills …

That’s probably not a whole lot clearer, so here are some examples of the sorts of activities which might fit the situated learning brief:

  • School trips to unfamiliar environments
  • Workplace-based experiences
  • Performances in authentic environments such as a music performance in a concert hall or a sports match in a stadium
  • Classrooms which replicate actual work settings.

Now my instinct is to stop reading at this point and to dismiss all this as the kind of stuff Greg Ashman satirises here. The whole things seems to be about authenticity and the flawed assumption that by getting children to act like experts they well magically become experts without having to do any of the tiresome accumulation of disciplinary knowledge or years of deliberate practice which is normally considered important. But seeing as this is considered one of the top 20 psychological principles teachers need to know about I’m determined to see if there’s anything coherent underpinning these ideas.

So, what does the research say? I haven’t read most of the sources cited below as they’re either behind paywalls or expensive, boring-looking books. But the two I could access have rather more to do with school and classroom environment on the mental and emotional health of students than the theory that “learning is situated with multiple social contexts”.

The School Climate Research Summary does, however, say this:

…there seems to be abundant literature on school climate from different parts of the world that documents a positive school climate: i) having a powerful influence on the motivation to learn (Eccles et al., 1993); ii) mitigating the negative impact of the socioeconomic context on academic success (Astor, Benbenisty, & Estrada, 2010); iii) contributing to less aggression and violence (Karcher, 2002a, Gregory, Cornell, Fan, Sheras, Shih, & Huang, 2010; less harassment (Kosciw & Elizabeth, 2006; Blaya, 2006) and less sexual harassment (Attar-Schwartz, 2009); and iv) acting as a protective factor for the learning and positive life development of young people (Ortega, Sanchez, Ortega Rivera, & Viejo, 2011).

Fair enough. I can’t see anyone reasonable arguing that a climate in which safety, rules and norms, relationships, and institutional environment don’t have a significant effect on students’ motivation. The most interesting (to me) section of the report is the bit on teaching and learning (page 7). The report argues that “Teaching and learning represents one of the most important dimensions of school climate. School leaders and teachers should strive to clearly define the sets of norms, goals, and values that shape the learning and teaching environment.” I agree. They then make some rather weak claims for SEAL and character education but say nothing whatsoever about ‘situated learning’. There’s really not much to argue either for or against here. The report seems to fall in the ‘not even wrong’ category.

So what about the National Association of School Psychologists’ Framework? Does that have anything to say about situated learning? In short, no. there’s lots of (possibly helpful) advice on making schools nicer place to be, but that doesn’t really seem to have anything to do with the psychological principle under discussion.

I confess, I’m a bit confused about exactly where the advice for teachers contained in the Top 20 report derives from. I’ve got nothing against the claim that “Teachers who are aware of the potential influence of the classroom’s social context on learners and the teaching–learning process can facilitate effective inter-personal relationships and communication with and between students”, but am less convinced with the “and thereby affect learning” bit. I mean, we could claim anything will ‘affect learning’. A bee in the room will ‘affect learning’.

I’m more than happy with the statement that “Given potential variations in cultural experiences, it is critical that the teacher facilitate a “classroom culture” that ensures shared meanings, values, beliefs, and behavioral expectations and provides a safe and secure environment for all students.” But some of the other advice is dubious at best.

It may be the case that “The more teachers know about the cultural backgrounds of students and how differences in values, beliefs, language, and behavioral expectations can influence student behavior, including interpersonal dynamics, the better they will be able to facilitate effective teaching–learning interactions in their classrooms”, but the advice that we should give “students whose culture is more collectivist than individualistic more frequent use of cooperative learning activities” is extraordinary. This is essentially saying if you’re from a South East Asian background you’ll have a more ‘collectivist’ approach which means you should do more group work. Maybe I’m interpreting this uncharitably but this seems staggeringly condescending.

They then suggest teachers need to relate the school curriculum to students’ cultural backgrounds in order for it to makes sense. This is the sort of logic which leads teachers to saying, “Oh, the World Cup is on, I must get the World Cup into my lesson.” Again, this is unbelievably patronising. The way to make learning relevant is to link to the curriculum content students have already learned about. If there are no readily available links present, we can look to create knowledge gaps and activate curiosity. We do not need to provide a less academic curriculum for ‘kids like these’.

We’re then told that getting families involved in class work is “vital”. It might not be a bad thing to do, but it’s hardly vital.

In summary, I’m in broad agreement that there is merit in making the curriculum feel more relevant by showing how and where it interacts with students’ lives and experiences, but not if it involves making that curriculum less rigorous, academic or challenging. I really can’t find any evidence to support this as being the 13th most important psychological principle that teachers need to know about, but I’m sure readers will post out where I’ve gotten confused.

References cited by the report

Lee, P. C., & Stewart, D. E. (2013). Does a socio-ecological school model promote resilience in primary schools?

National Association of School Psychologists. (2013). A framework for safe and successful schools.

Thapa, A., Cohen, J., Higgins-D’Alessandro, & Gaffey, S. (2012). School climate research summary: August 2012. 

Trickett, E. J., & Rowe, H. L. (2012). Emerging ecological approaches to prevention, health promotion, and public health in the school context: Next steps from a community psychology perspective.

Ysseldyke, J., Lekwa, A. J., Klingbeil, D. A., & Cormier, D. C. (2012). Assessment of ecological factors as an integral part of academic and mental health consultation.