Monday, October 12, 2015

Review of 'Situated Learning and Education 'By John R. Anderson, Lynne M. Reder and Herbert A. Simon


The paper critics the four central claims of situated learning in education specially in mathematics namely, (1) action is grounded in the concrete situation, (2) knowledge does not transfer between tasks, (3) training by abstraction is of little use and (4) instruction must be done in social environments. The authors argue that further research in cognitive psychology find stronger and productive links between psychology and mathematics as compared to that of situated learning as also supported by Lesh and Lamen (1992 p. 18-19). At present, two movements, situated learning and constructivism guide the educational research. Constructivism being primarily a philosophical concept whereas situated learning having empirical consequences. Situated learning (Lave 1988; Lave and Wenger 1991; Greeno, Smith, Moore, 1992) emphasis they learning takes place when present in a context and it stands true for all aspects of education. This movement have brought light to what is learned in the classroom and what is needed outside, in the larger world. However, the authors argue that not all claims of situated learning are accurate thus discussing each of the four claims with empirical data.

Claim 1: Action is grounded in the concrete situation

This being the central concept of situated learning, the authors believe that it is exaggerated to all forms of education, especially mathematics. A frequently cited example if Carraher, Carraher, and Schliemann’s (1985) account of Brazilian street children who could easily perform mathematics related to sales were unable to solve similar problems in a school context. Thus, the real life situations do not generalize to school context. And surely, the converse does not stand true. Thus it calls for closer analysis and a need to achieve balance between generality practiced in schools and its applications in the real world scenarios. In other words, it stands for contextualization of learning stated much earlier by (Godden & Baddeley 1975; Smith, Glenberg & Bjork 1978). There are also examples of divers where learning takes place across contexts and of failures of context sensitivity that often frustrate researchers. Thus the concept of learning being bound to the context, depends on the kind of knowledge. One general result is that knowledge is more context bound when it is just taught in a single context (Bjork & Richardson-Klavehn, 1989).

To Lave’s (1986, 1988, p. 195) comment of school-taught mathematics serving only the arbitrary class structure, the authors sternly argue with numerous studies showing moderate to large correlation between school achievement and work performance (Hunter & Hunter, 1984); Bossiere, Knight & Sabot 1985). They also suggest further research on the hypothesis “context-independence of mathematical knowledge”.

Claim 2: Knowledge does not transfer between tasks

This claim is actually corollary to the first to which the authors refer Weber in 1944 and Fechner in 1858 who demonstrates large, modest, no or even negative transfers in psychology. The relationship however depends on the experimental situation and the material learnt prior to it, the amount of practice and the representation of the transfer task. Recent studies show failures as well as successful transfers of knowledge. Transfer between tasks is a function of the degree to which the tasks share cognitive elements (Singley & Anderson 1989). Also, a number of studies point out that transfer is enhanced if exposed to multiple examples. (Bransford, Franks, Vye & Sherwood 1989).

Claim 3: Training by abstraction is of little use

This too is a corollary of the above-discussed claims. However, it has been extended into an advocacy for the apprenticeship model (Brown, Collins & Duguid 1989) where the claim that the most effective training is real apprenticeship in their real world environments. The stronger version challenges the school based abstract learning. The authors argue that this has more to do with the design of the classroom and method of instruction than the idea of the instruction itself. Alternatively, they also state with reference to an unpublished research that abstract instruction leads to successful transfers as compared to concrete instructions. However, this might be true for mathematic knowledge. Theories in cognitive psychology suggest ‘learning by doing’ which suggests a balance between abstract instruction and concrete instructions of learning. This is supported by an experiment performed by Scholckow and Judd (Judd, 1908; Hendruckson & Schroeder, 1941) where two groups practiced throwing darts on an under water target. One was exposed to the abstract knowledge of refraction along with practice, while the other only practiced. Both did equally well. However, when changed the task and decreased the distance of the target underwater, the first group did better.

Claim 4: Instruction must be done in social environments

Another aspect to situated learning is ‘co-operative learning’ as an instructional tool (Johnson & Johnson, 1989). Co-operative learning is alternatively known as ‘communities of practice’ or ‘group learning’ which differs from tutoring in the aspect of people of the equal status work together. However few studies have successfully shown the superiority of co-operative learning over individual learning (Solomon and Globerson, 1989) where a number of detrimental effects like free riders, sucker and ganging up exist. It is because of these reasons it is difficult to practice as an academic panacea. However, there is a gap in structuring or scripting the co-operative learning aspects to make it effective which may lead to benefits of motivating and sharing of goals. Supporting the argument in colleges group projects are increasingly becoming popular.


Studies in cognitive psychology show knowledge to be partly context-dependent and also partly context-independent. There are drastic failures as well as dramatic success in knowledge transfer. Abstract as well as concrete instructions both help in the leaning process. Some may benefit hugely by the social contexts and the environment whereas it might be difficult of few others. Thus the concept of situated learning seems biased or ignores a few phenomena in cognitive psychology that has earlier been proven empirically. The authors thus suggest further research to identification of circumstances when broader or narrower contexts are required to narrower or broader skills for effective and efficient learning. They further state, even through situated learning has helped in raising awareness and consciousness to learning methods, it might misguide blind practitioners when they choose to implement the methods in all circumstances, contexts and learning environments.

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