Sunday, March 20, 2011

Embodying Situated Learning Communities of Practice at a High School

In the school system where I work we are in the middle of an important transition: abandoning "Lab Classes" at the high school and developing consistent opportunities for students to access fluid academic services, not classes. In a school of 1500 students, this is no small matter.  Nonetheless, the differences between the two, lab classes and academic services, represents a seismic shift in understanding how learning happens.

Lab classes are based on an old factory model that situated students into specific classes in order to receive knowledge. It was seen as an efficient method: locate x # of students into each class to be remediated. This old world posited knowledge as a singular matter of transfer: from the teacher's head to student's head.

In contrast, this new vision is based on a model of distributed communities of practice, where knowledge is composed among and between people.  Knowledge is not what is kept in one's head, but rather what is made by a collective. Consider James Gee (2008) who clarifies this misunderstanding nicely. He writes:
Our knowledge is not something sitting passively in our heads (although this is the common view of knowledge); rather what is in our heads is just one aspect of larger more public and historical coordinations that in reality constitute 'our' knowledge (p.220).
The academic service model is based on understanding the value of distributed learning and remix, while leveraging Web 2.0 to broaden the potential field of learners, blurring the role distinction between teacher and student, and valuing student choice. This new vision of learning is so very new to some of us that there remains a desire to anchor this rather new vision of distributed learning inside the old model, lab classes.  To help all of us better conceptualize this shift, we are modeling after the ideas espoused by John Seely Brown in his talk, Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge Production.

Brown's ideas embody the spirit of the academic coaching experiences that we are attempting to establish for next year.  Instead of students being scheduled for the year into "lab class" in mathematics and/or English with a predetermined curriculum, students will have the opportunity to choose an academic coaching period by semester (I would like it to be by quarter, but we will need to work beyond this year as we offer no quarter courses).  The academic coaching experience will posit experienced others (teachers, peers, and virtual "teacher-learners") to work alongside students in work (passion projects) the students and coaches co-determine.  Composing something valued will help the learner to see him/herself as a valued and contributing member of the community and will better help the learner to remember skills, strategies, and dispositions learned while composing.  Further, valued projects may well become the seeds for another learner's project. In this way remix and collaboration are possible.

In this new schema of learning, we recognize "academic need" as that which naturally happens alongside learning, not that which needs to be fixed.  Need is not malady, but opportunity.  Consider who among us has not needed an "expert" to share his/her thinking in order to help us clarify confusions?  Who has not benefited from trying out ideas with another before implementing?  Who has not benefited by reflecting on work done and sharing that work with an audience? Are these understandings not the basis for Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development?

In coming to name learning, we understand that "academic need" is not something to be eradicated, but rather that which signals the possibility for further learning and clarification. Working in partnership with other learners, both in real and virtual environments, personalization becomes possible as learners create, reflect and share valued work they have determined.

As we institutionalize this practice, I will post more.  Appreciate any and all comments.

Works Cited:

Brown, John Seely. 2008. Tinkering as a mode of knowledge production in a digital age. Stanford, CA: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Retrieved 3.20.11 from .
Gee, James P. 2008. Social linguistics and literacies (3rd ed.). New York: Taylor and Francis.


  1. Very interesting. I think the key shift here is towards understanding learning as taking place through a dynamic and adaptive system comprising the body, language and interactions between people and their environment.

    The old industrial model of schooling was fit for purpose at the time as preparation for working in factories and on production lines. Unfortunately, although that Taylorist ideal of separating knowledge into disjointed chunks of received wisdom is no longer suited to fostering the kind of critical and creative thinking required today, many are still reluctant, poorly prepared or too insecure to let it go and move on.

  2. Thanks Paul, I could not have said it better. Love how you captured our intention.

  3. Salutation Mary Ann, I love the idea of passion projects. So much of what is happening in our schools today lacks passion. I look forward to reading all about your experience with Situated Learning Communities. It's a brave new world for those willing to risk going beyond those dehumanizing traditional models of learning and teaching.
    The best of luck,

  4. ThanksJesse and Monika. It will not be an easy transition, but it is a necessary ine. Wil post more as we work, along with any documents, et. We might generate. Eventually hope to post student work and reflections.

  5. You're very welcome! I'm an EFL teacher and these are themes I'm very interested in. I've been researching situated and embodied approaches to second language development for a while now, largely in response to some of the issues you discuss in your post. I'm currently looking into custom designed ARGs for providing authentic context and taking language learning beyond the classroom. Feel free to take a peek at one here: