The more I learn about situated learning theory, developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, the more I find myself reflecting on the sharp contrast between authentic learning and the design of traditional schools and curriculum.

In an attempt to teach students information and skills, society has created an artificial system, school, in which the information and skills students learn are largely disconnected from the actual contexts in which they will need to be applied. Students learn information, use specific tools, and practice skills in the classroom that they struggle to apply or use outside of school. In part, this struggle stems from the challenge of transferring what is learned in one situation and applying it to a totally different situation.

Situated learning is grounded in other learning theories, like social learning. Instead of simply dealing with abstract concepts, situated learning involves a community of learners navigating authentic learning experiences together.

If educators embraced this idea that learning is context specific and that students should rely on each other as valuable resources in the learning process, learning would:

  • focus on authentic situations.
  • involve more doing.
  • be project and problem-based.
  • connect learners with practitioners in the field and experiences beyond the classroom.
  • be messy allowing of multiple approaches to solving problems or answering questions.
  • be louder.
  • require conversation, collaboration, and social negotiation.
  • embrace the philosophy that concepts are always “under construction.”

If learning looked like this, classrooms would be spaces where students enjoy agency as learners and are invited to question, explore, discuss, experiment, make, and reflect. All of these activities require time and all of them are learner-centered. Classes would cover less, but I believe students would learn more.

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