Stories from "Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation"

Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (available on LibGen) is a book about an interesting view on learning.

It claims that a good way to learn things is to engage in legitimate peripheral participation:

  • LEGITIMATE PARTICIPATION: the learner is participating (not "doing" but "participating") in the actual activity that they want to learn to perform. This is very different from how education works in schools, where if you are learning, say, physics, you are not participating in the same activity that a working physicist is participating in. Ideally, the learner should be a part of a community engaged in its self-reproduction.
  • PERIPHERAL: the learner is not doing the "whole" activity. Think of an assistant, or an apprentice. They are helping out with a part of the master's duties, and the rest they are merely observing, or trying out and failing, or discussing with other learners, etc.

What follows are several stories, taken from the book, of successful practices of legitimate peripheral participation—and one story of a failure.

If you're trying to teach a group of people something (e.g. in a workplace, on Twitter, etc), you might want to read them.

The successes are:

  • The apprenticeship of Yucatec midwives,
  • The apprenticeship of Vai and Gola tailors,
  • The apprenticeship of naval quartermasters,
  • The apprenticeship of nondrinking alcoholics.

And the failure is:

  • The apprenticeship of meat cutters.

Success: Yucatec midwives

Jordan (1989) describes the process by which Yucatec midwives move, over a period of many years, from peripheral to full participation in midwifery. This work poses a puzzle concerning the general role of masters in the lives of apprentices. Teaching does not seem to be central either to the identities of master midwives or to learning.

“Apprenticeship happens as a way of, and in the course of, daily life. It may not be recognized as a teaching effort at all. A Maya girl who eventually becomes a midwife most likely has a mother or grandmother who is a midwife, since midwifery is handed down in family lines. . . . Girls in such families, without being identified as apprentice midwives, absorb the essence of midwifery practice as well as specific knowledge about many procedures, simply in the process of growing up. They know what the life of a midwife is like (for example, that she needs to go out at all hours of the day or night), what kinds of stories the women and men who come to consult her tell, what kinds of herbs and other remedies need to be collected, and the like. As young children they might be sitting quietly in a comer as their mother administers a prenatal massage; they would hear stories of difficult cases, of miraculous outcomes, and the like. As they grow older, they may be passing messages, running errands, getting needed supplies. A young girl might be present as her mother stops for a postpartum visit after the daily shopping trip to the market.

Eventually, after she has had a child herself, she might come along to a birth, perhaps because her ailing grandmother needs someone to walk with, and thus find herself doing for the woman in labor what other women had done for her when she gave birth; that is, she may take a turn . . . at supporting the laboring woman. . . . Eventually, she may even administer prenatal massages to selected clients. At some point, she may decide that she actually wants to do this kind of work. She then pays more attention, but only rarely does she ask questions. Her mentor sees their association primarily as one that is of some use to her. (“Rosa already knows how to do a massage, so I can send her if I am too busy.”) As time goes on, the apprentice takes over more and more of the work load, starting with the routine and tedious parts, and ending with what is in Yucatan the culturally most significant, the birth of the placenta [Jordan 1989: 932-4].”

Success: Vai and Gola tailors

Vai and Gola tailors enter and leave apprenticeship ceremoniously. Their apprenticeship is quite formal in character compared to that of the Yucatec midwives. In an insightful historical analysis, Goody (1989) argues that in West Africa apprenticeship developed a formal character in response to a diversification of the division of labor. This development involved a transition from domestic production in which children learned subsistence skills from their same-sex parent, to learning part-time specialisms in the same way, to learning a specialized occupation from a specialist master. Household production units have moved from integrating their own children into productive activities, to including other kin, to incorporating nonkin, to production separated from the household. Today, many Vai and Gola craft shops are located in commercial areas, so that craft production is separated from craft masters’ households by time and space. (These households, however, still include the apprentices who work in the shops.) Goody notes that there have been corresponding transformations in the relations between learners and communities of practice: from the child’s labor that contributes use value to the household, to exchange of child labor between related families for political/social resources (fostering) or economic ones (pawning, slavery), to apprenticeship where learners’ labor is exchanged for opportunities to learn. Learning to produce has changed thereby from a process of general socialization; to what might be called contrastive general socialization (as children grow up in households different from their own); to apprenticeship, which focuses on occupational specialization loosely within the context of household socialization. Learners shifted from participating in the division of labor as household members, growing up in the “culture of the household’s labor,” to being naive newcomers, participating in an unfamiliar culture of production.

In summary, formalized apprenticeship in West Africa has developed as a mechanism for dealing with two needs generated by increasing diversification of the market and of the division of labor: the demand for additional labor, on the one hand, and on the other, the desires of individuals or families to acquire the knowledgeable skills of diverse occupations, desires which simply could not be met within the household (Goody 1989). The developmental cycles that reproduce domestic groups and other communities of practice, the relations of newcomers to those who are adept, and the way in which divisions of labor articulate various kinds of communities of practice in communities in the larger sense all shape the identities that may be constructed, and with them, knowledgeable, skillful activity. Nonetheless, the examples of the midwives and the tailors reveal strong similarities in the process of moving from peripheral to full participation in communities of practice through either formal or informal apprenticeship.

“Between 1973 and 1978 . . . a number of Vai and Gola tailors clustered their wood, dirt-floored, tin-roofed tailor shops along a narrow path at the edge of the river at the periphery of . . . the commercial district.

. . . There were several masters present in each shop visibly doing what masters do – each ran a business, tailored clothes, and supervised apprentices. Apprenticeship, averaging five years, involved a sustained, rich structure of opportunities to observe masters, journeymen, and other apprentices at work, to observe frequently the full process of producing garments, and of course, the finished products.

The tailors made clothes for the poorest segment of the population, and their specialty was inexpensive, ready-to-wear men’s trousers. But they made other things as well. The list of garment types in fact encoded complex, intertwined forms of order integral to the process of becoming a master tailor [serving as a general “curriculum” for apprentices]. . . .

Apprentices first learn to make hats and drawers, informal and intimate garments for children. They move on to more external, formal garments, ending with the Higher Heights suit.

“The organization of the process of apprenticeship is not confined to the level of whole garments. The very earliest steps in the process involve learning to sew by hand, to sew with the treadle sewing machine, and to press clothes. Subtract these from the corpus of tailoring knowledge and for each garment the apprentice must learn how to cut it out and how to sew it. Learning processes do not merely reproduce the sequence of production processes. In fact, production steps are reversed, as apprentices begin by learning the finishing stages of producing a garment, go on to learn to sew it, and only later learn to cut it out. This pattern regularly subdivides [the learning of] each new type of garment. Reversing production steps has the effect of focusing the apprentices’ attention first on the broad outlines of garment construction as they handle garments while attaching buttons and hemming cuffs. Next, sewing turns their attention to the logic (order, orientation) by which different pieces are sewn together, which in turn explains why they are cut out as they are. Each step offers the unstated opportunity to consider how the previous step contributes to the present one. In addition, this ordering minimizes experiences of failure and especially of serious failure.

There is one further level of organization to the curriculum of tailoring. The learning of each operation is subdivided into phases I have dubbed “way-in” and “practice.” “Way in” refers to the period of observation and attempts to construct a first approximation of the garment. . . . The practice phase is carried out in a particular way: apprentices reproduce a production segment from beginning to end, . . . though they might be more skilled at carrying out some parts of the process than others.”

Success: Naval quartermasters

Hutchins (in press) has carried out ethnographic research on an amphibious helicopter-transport ship of the U.S. Navy. He describes the process by which new members of the quartermaster corps move from peripheral to key distributed tasks in the collaborative work of plotting the ship’s position. He emphasizes the importance for learning of having legitimate, effective access to what is to be learned.

“Quartermasters begin their careers with rather limited duties and advance to more complicated procedures as they gain expertise. . . . Any new quartermaster needs to learn to plot the ship’s position, either alone when at sea, or in collaborative work with five others when moving into harbors. It takes about a year to learn the basics of the quartermaster rate. For a young man entering the quartermaster rate, there are many sources of information about the work to be done. Some go to specialized schools before they join a ship. There they are exposed to basic terminology and concepts, but little more. In some sense, they are “trained” but they have no experience. (In fact, the two quartermaster chiefs with whom I worked most closely said they preferred to get their trainees as able-bodied seamen without any prior training in the rate. They said this saved them the trouble of having to break the trainees of bad habits acquired in school.) Most quartermasters learn their rating primarily on the job [though] some of the experience aboard ship is a bit like school with workbooks and exercises. In order to advance to higher ranks . . . novice quartermasters participate in joint activity with more experienced colleagues in two contexts: Standard Steaming Watch and Sea and Anchor Detail.

[At sea] depending upon the level of experience of the novice he may be asked to perform all of the duties of the quartermaster of the watch. While under instruction, his activities are closely monitored by the more experienced watch stander who is always on hand and can help out or take over if the novice is unable to satisfy the ship’s navigation requirements. However, even with the help of a more experienced colleague, standing watch under instruction requires a significant amount of knowledge, so novices do not do this until they have several months of experience. . . . The task for the novice is to learn to organize his own behavior such that it produces a competent performance. . . . As [the novice] becomes more competent, he will do both the part of this task that he [performed before], and also the organizing part that was done [for him].

. . . Long before they are ready to stand watch under instruction in standard steaming watch, novice quartermasters begin to work as fathometer operators and bearing takers in sea and anchor detail; . . . there are six positions involved, and novice quartermasters move through this sequence of positions, mastering each before moving on to the next. This ordering also describes the flow of information from the sensors (fathometer and sighting telescopes) to the chart where the information is integrated into a single representation (the position fix). . . . The fact that the quartermasters themselves follow this same trajectory through the system as does sensed information, albeit on a different time scale, has an important consequence for the larger system’s ability to detect, diagnose, and correct errors. . . . [Besides], movement through the system with increasing expertise results in a pattern of overlapping expertise, with knowledge of the entry level tasks most redundantly represented and knowledge of expert level tasks least redundantly represented.

. . . The structure of the distributed task [fix taking among the collaborating six quartermasters] provides many constraints on the learning environment. The way a task is partitioned across a set of task performers has consequences for both the efficiency of task performance and for the efficiency of knowledge acquisition. . . .

[So do] lines of communication and limits on observation of the activities of others. . . . But being in the presence of others who are working is not always enough by itself. . . . We saw that the fact that the work was done in an interaction between members opened it to other members of the team. In a similar way, the design of tools can affect their suitability for joint use. . . . The interaction of a task performer with a tool may or may not be open to others depending upon the nature of the tool itself. The openness of a tool can also affect its use as an instrument in instruction.

A good deal of the structure that a novice will have to acquire in order to stand watch alone in standard steaming watch is present in the organization of the relations among the members of the team in sea and anchor detail. The computational dependencies among the steps of the procedure for the individual watch stander are present as interpersonal dependencies among the members of the team.”

Success: Nondrinking alcoholics (A.A.)

The descriptions of apprenticeship in midwifery, tailoring, and quartermastering provide examples of how learning in practice takes place and what it means to move toward full participation in a community of practice. A more detailed view of the fashioning of identity may be found in an analysis of the process of becoming a nondrinking alcoholic through Alcoholics Anonymous. An apprentice alcoholic attends several meetings a week, spending that time in the company of near-peers and adepts, those whose practice and identities are the community of A.A. At these meetings old-timers give testimony about their drinking past and the course of the process of becoming sober. In addition to “general meetings,” where old-timers may tell polished, hour-long stories – months and years in the making – of their lives as alcoholics, there are also smaller “discussion meetings,” which tend to focus on a single aspect of what in the end will be a part of the reconstructed life story (Cain n.d.).

The notion of partial participation, in segments of work that increase in complexity and scope, a theme in all the analyses of apprenticeship discussed here, also describes the changing form of participation in A.A. for newcomers as they gradually become old-timers. In the testimony at early meetings newcomers have access to a comprehensive view of what the community is about. Goals are also made plain in the litany of the “Twelve Steps” to sobriety, which guide the process of moving from peripheral to full participation in A.A., much as the garment inventory of the tailors’ apprentices serves as an itinerary for their progress through apprenticeship.

The contribution of an absolutely new member may be no more than one silent gesture – picking up a white chip at the end of the meeting to indicate the intention not to take a drink during the next 24 hours (Cain n.d.). In due course, the Twelfth-Step visit to an active drinker to try to persuade that person to become a newcomer in the organization initiates a new phase of participation, now as a recognized old-timer. Cain (n.d.) argues that the main business of A.A. is the reconstruction of identity, through the process of constructing personal life stories, and with them, the meaning of the teller’s past and future action in the world.

“The change men and women . . . undergo . . . is much more than a change in behavior. It is a transformation of their identities, from drinking non-alcoholics to non-drinking alcoholics, and it affects how they view and act in the world. . . . One important vehicle for this is the personal story. . . .

By “identity” I mean the way a person understands and views himself, and is viewed by others, a perception of self which is fairly constant. . . . There are two important dimensions to the identity of A.A. alcoholic. The first distinction which A.A. makes is alcoholic and non-alcoholic, where alcoholic refers to a state which, once attained, is not reversible. The second is drinking and non-drinking, and refers to a potentially controllable activity. . . . There are therefore two aspects of the A.A. alcoholic identity important for continuing membership in A.A.; qualification as an alcoholic, which is based on one’s past, and continued effort at not drinking. The A.A. identity requires a behavior – not drinking – which is a negation of the behavior which originally qualified one for membership. One of the functions of the A.A. personal story is to establish both aspects of membership in an individual. . . . In personal stories, A.A. members tell their own drinking histories, how they came to understand that they are alcoholics, how they got into A.A., and what their life has been like since they joined A.A. . . .

In A.A. personal stories are told for the explicit, stated purpose of providing a model of alcoholism, so that other drinkers may find so much of themselves in the lives of professed alcoholics that they cannot help but ask whether they, too, are alcoholics. Since the definition of an alcoholic is not really agreed on in the wider culture, arriving at this interpretation of events is a process negotiated between the drinker and those around her. A.A. stories provide a set of criteria by which the alcoholic can be identified. . . . A.A. recognizes their importance, and dedicates a significant amount of meeting time and publishing space to the telling of these stories. A.A. members tell personal stories formally in “speakers’ meetings.” . . . Less formally, members tell shortened versions of their stories, or parts of them, at discussion meetings. . . . The final important context for telling personal stories is in “Twelfth Step calls.” When A.A. members talk to outsiders who may be alcoholics in a one-to-one interaction, they are following the last of the Twelve Steps. . . . Ideally, at these individual meetings, the member tells his story, tells about the A.A. program, tries to help the drinker see herself as an alcoholic if she is “ready.” [Members] claim that telling their own stories to other alcoholics, and thus helping other alcoholics to achieve sobriety, is an important part of maintaining their own sobriety. [At the same time] telling a personal story, especially at a speaker’s meeting or on a Twelfth Step call, signals membership because this “is the time that they [members] feel that they belong enough to ‘carry the message’.”

Telling an A.A. story is not something one learns through explicit teaching. Newcomers are not told how to tell their stories, yet most people who remain in A.A. learn to do this. There are several ways in which an A.A. member learns to tell an appropriate story. First, he must be exposed to A.A. models. . . . The newcomer to A.A. hears and reads personal stories from the time of early contact with the program – through meetings, literature, and talk with individual old-timers. . . . In addition to learning from the models, learning takes place through interaction. All members are encouraged to speak at discussions and to maintain friendship with other A.A. members. In the course of this social interaction the new member is called on to talk about her own life. . . . This may be in bits and pieces, rather than the entire life. For example, in discussion meetings, the topic of discussion may be “admitting you are powerless,” “making amends,” “how to avoid the first drink,” or shared experiences in dealing with common problems. . . . One speaker follows another by picking out certain pieces of what has previously been said, saying why it was relevant to him, and elaborating on it with some episode of his own. . . . Usually, unless the interpretation runs counter to A.A. beliefs, the speaker is not corrected. Rather, other speakers will take the appropriate parts of the newcomer’s comments, and build on this in their own comments, giving parallel accounts with different interpretations, for example, or expanding on parts of their own stories which are similar to parts of the newcomer’s story, while ignoring the inappropriate parts of the newcomer’s story.

In addition to the structure of the A.A. story, the newcomers must also learn the cultural model of alcoholism encoded in them, including A.A. propositions, appropriate episodes to serve as evidence, and appropriate interpretations of events. . . . Simply learning the propositions about alcohol and its nature is not enough. They must be applied by the drinker to his own life, and this application must be demonstrated. . . . In A.A. success, or recovery, requires learning to perceive oneself and one’s problems from an A.A. perspective. A.A.s must learn to experience their problems as drinking problems, and themselves as alcoholics. Stories do not just describe a life in a learned genre, but are tools for reinterpreting the past, and understanding the self in terms of the A.A. identity. The initiate begins to identify with A.A. members. . . . She comes to understand herself as a nondrinking alcoholic, and to reinterpret her life as evidence.”

Failure: Meat cutters

Our use of apprenticeship as a source of insights for exploring the concept of legitimate peripheral participation cannot be construed as a general claim that apprenticeship facilitates learning-in-practice in some inevitable way. Not all concrete realizations of apprenticeship learning are equally effective. The exchange of labor for opportunities to become part of a community of mature practice is fraught with difficulties (Becker 1972). The commoditization of labor can transform apprentices into a cheap source of unskilled labor, put to work in ways that deny them access to activities in the arenas of mature practice. Gaining legitimacy may be so difficult that some fail to learn until considerable time has passed. For example, Haas (1972) describes how high-steel-construction apprentices are hazed so roughly by old-timers that learning is inhibited. Gaining legitimacy is also a problem when masters prevent learning by acting in effect as pedagogical authoritarians, viewing apprentices as novices who “should be instructed” rather than as peripheral participants in a community engaged in its own reproduction.

The example of the butchers illustrates several of the potential ways in which particular forms of apprenticeship can prevent rather than facilitate learning. The author discusses the effects, frequently negative, of trade-school training for butchers. This study, like other studies of trade schools and training programs in the apprenticeship literature, is quite pessimistic about the value of didactic exercises (e.g., Jordan 1989, Orr 1986, as well as the excerpt from Hutchins). It should be kept in mind that many contemporary vocational education and union-based “apprenticeship” programs implicitly reject an apprenticeship model and strive to approximate the didactic mode of schooling in their educational programs, which inevitably adds to the difficulties of implementing effective apprenticeship.

“Butchers’ apprenticeship consists of a mix of trade school and on the job training. [This program was] started by the meat cutters’ union to grant a certificate. The certificate equaled six months of the apprenticeship and entitled the holder to receive journeyman’s pay and status after two and one-half years on the job. . . . To justify awarding the certificate, the trade school class runs in traditional fashion, with book work and written examinations in class and practice in shop. The work follows the same pattern year after year without reference to apprentices’ need to learn useful things not learned on the job. Teachers teach techniques in use when they worked in retail markets that are readily adaptable to a school setting. . . . Most assignments are not relevant to the supermarket. For instance, students learn to make wholesale cuts not used in stores, or to advise customers in cooking meat. Because these are not skills in demand, few students bother to learn them. . . . Apprentices are more interested in the shop period, where they become familiar with equipment they hope to use someday at work. But the shop, too, has tasks useless in a supermarket. One of the first things learned is how to sharpen a knife – a vital task only in the past. Today, a company delivers sharpened knives and collects dull ones from meat departments at regular intervals. . . .

On the job, learning experiences vary with certain structural dimensions of the work settings. A supermarket meat department manager tries to achieve an advantageous difference between the total volume of sales for the department and the wholesale price of his meat order, plus his costs for personnel and facilities. To do this, the manager sees to it that his skilled journeymen can prepare a large volume of meat efficiently by specializing in short, repetitive tasks. He puts apprentices where they can work for him most efficiently. Diverting journeymen from work to training tasks increases the short-run cost of selling meat. Because journeymen and apprentices are so occupied with profit-making tasks, apprentices rarely learn many tasks. . . .

The physical layout of a work setting is an important dimension of learning, since apprentices get a great deal from observing others and being observed. Some meat departments were laid out so that apprentices working at the wrapping machine could not watch journeymen cut and saw meat. An apprentice’s feeling about this separation came out when a district manager in a large, local market told him to return poorly arranged trays of meat to the journeymen. “I’m scared to go in the back room. I feel so out of place there. I haven’t gone back there in a long time because I just don’t know what to do when I’m there. All those guys know so much about meat cutting and I don’t know anything.

When he arrives at a store, an apprentice is trained to perform a task, usually working the automatic wrapping machine. If he handles this competently, he is kept there until another apprentice comes. If none comes, he may do this job for years almost without interruption. If a new apprentice comes, he trains him to wrap and then learns another task himself. . . . Stores offer the kind of meat customers in their locale will buy. . . . In poor neighborhoods, apprentices have more opportunity to practice cutting meat than in wealthy neighborhoods [due to lower error cost]. [Where there is high volume] a division of labor among a relatively large number of workers increases efficiency. . . . In this situation, not only apprentices but journeymen, too, seldom learn the full range of tasks once proper to their trade [Marshall 1972: 42-6].”