Situated Learning and the Evolving Learner

In our first installment, Narrative Learning: The Value of Storytelling in Adult Education, we made a case for narrative learning as a general tool or paradigm and used some basic examples of Situated Learning in a narrative context for illustration. In this second installment,we will take a deeper look into Situated Learning, its place in human history, and its relevance to the adult learner. To do so, let us first explore why we learn. 

Narrative Learning

I do not believe it can be overstated just how integral motivation is to the successful outcome of a learning experience. Motivation, of course, can take on many forms. Perhaps, your motivation is to gain the skills necessary to start your dream career, or to gain more marketable skills in order to increase your title or pay at your current place of employment or move on to bigger and better opportunities elsewhere, or even to change careers when you’ve hit a ceiling or dead end or lack fulfillment on your current path.  

Motivations can be lofty—such as desiring the knowledge and skills to save a life or end world hunger—or they can be mundane. Though the gravitas of your motivations certainly plays a role in the overall learning journey and your commitment to seeing it through, it is less about how weighty your motivations are and more about their existence in the first place—you have a reason and need to learn and that means everything. 

So, you are motivated to learn—we’ll consider that a given whatever form your motivation may take. What, then, provides the spark of inspiration for that initial motivation? As human beings, we generally view the world through the lens of an infinite supply of problems to be solved. 

From the moment we wake to the moment we drift off into dreamy slumber, we are constantly and continually solving problems or looking for problems to be solved. We just can’t help ourselves, and thank goodness for that, for without such an insatiable craving to problem-solve we would not have the almost miraculous achievements of human history—in fact, we wouldn’t be here at all.  

Today, we have the luxury and privilege of choosing problems based on personal aspirations and growth, pursuing goals motivated by a desire for comfort or entertainment or joy in some form. This instinct to problem-solve, however, was born out of survival goals and self-preservation and goes back to our earliest human ancestry. 

Problem Solving

As a modern example, we may be solving the problem of how to make a piece of toast without burning it in order to increase our enjoyment of the morning repast. Early humans had to solve the problem of how to find food at all. Motivated to simply not starve and die, for instance, they learned how to encourage the growth and expansion of open prairie land by burning forests in order to attract the animals that would feed upon the nutritious and delicious grasses and that would become their migratory prey as they followed the herds of food around the landscapes of their nomadic world.   

Later, still motivated by food and survival, they would learn to nurture the natural growth of plant-based foods for a more predictable supply of sustenance and would move away from a nomadic lifestyle and toward what we would now call the birth of civilization. Of course, with every problem solved (e.g. reliable food sources and the comforts of a fixed dwelling) came new problems to be solved (e.g. waste management and the diseases associated with a civilized world of growing populations and close-quarters living). Thus, our ancestors continually learned how to either adapt to their surroundings or adapt their surroundings to their own needs. 

So, we have problems to solve and are motivated to solve them through an instinctual need in order to make life more livable by our own personal standards. These factors are at the core of every learning experience and should inform, if not dictate, the methods by which we learn. 

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The Cooperative Nature of Situated Learning

The early human examples above are actually a great illustration of Situated Learning—a group of people with mutual goals, each learning about their role and the inherent tasks to be completed in a cooperative setting in order to ensure communal success and in a practical (or “real-world”) environment.  

The goal of Situated Learning, to distill it down to bare essentials, is to make the learning environment and experience match, as closely as possible, the real-world environment in which the knowledge and skills will be applied. It is less about the acquisition and retention of knowledge commonly associated with traditional scholastic learning and more about the application of knowledge in a specific context.  

Most real-world settings have co-participants and cooperative efforts and communal goals (“co-” comes up a lot in the philosophies behind Situated Learning). Why, then, do most learning experiences encourage, or even require, that the problems are to be worked out in what might as well be solitary confinement? 

For further context, let’s bring our illustrative efforts to the more modern day by looking at a commercial kitchen and the path one takes to work in that environment. Whether your journey begins in a classroom or as an apprentice in a working kitchen, Situated Learning is central to this learning experience. A student in culinary school does not spend their academic career reading about cutlery and their associated techniques—does not merely memorize temperatures and chemical reactions and their application in recipes. Rather, from day one, they are in an actual kitchen working alongside their colleagues, working out communal problems in a cooperative environment that very closely resembles a real commercial kitchen.   

Culinary school
Culinary school

Even still, this is just the beginning of their lifelong journey of learning as it is specific to that one kitchen at that one culinary school at that one point in time. This specificity is a very important aspect of Situated Learning and why its proponents are so adamant regarding its value to the learner.  

Every kitchen is going to have its own culture, its own set of values and rules, its own nomenclature and shorthand, and your application of knowledge and skill will change based on the specific kitchen in which you find yourself at any given moment in time, and your specific role in that kitchen. Your application of knowledge and skill will, by necessity, be determined by needs of the community.  

Which technique you use to chop an onion depends upon how that chopped onion will be used and in which dish and by which chef, and this sort of learning can only take place in real-time through continual investment and participation in that community and by reflecting on what you’ve learned as you learn. To put it another way, you learn what you need to learn and when you need to learn it in order to fulfill your role and purpose in that setting at that moment in time. 

A pilot learns how to fly by flying. A firefighter learns how to fight fires by fighting fires. While these examples may seem obvious, it should be just as obvious that a Salesperson, or Human Resources professional, or Mail Room Courier, or even a CEO would gain significant value from learning in a real-world setting with real-world stakes and real-world motivations—even if those are all simulated.

The Role of Technology in Situated Learning

This is where technology comes into play. Not everyone will have ready access to a real-world environment in which to practice, and sometimes you need the safety net that on-the-job training just cannot supply, but through tools like interactive simulations and virtual experiences that recreate real-world settings and provide cooperative spaces in which people can problem solve together, learners can live out the learning benefits of Situated Learning, sometimes without even leaving their couch.  

Is a digital simulation exactly the same as “being there?” Of course the answer is no. Can a digital simulation closely replicate the learning experience one would get on-the-job and, thus, better prepare you for the demands that will be placed upon you when the moment of truth arrives? Absolutely. 

Digital Simulation

In the end, more than providing you with specific knowledge or skills which can too easily remain static and rigid and become a limiting factor to your evolution, Situated Learning prepares you for the continual learning, reflecting, and adapting that are necessary and invaluable to your growth and success as you navigate your world and strive to become a productive and contributing member of your community.   

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The best news of all is that, when it comes to learning paradigms, it doesn’t have to be one or the other. Situated Learning is but one tool in your toolbox—more relevant to some desired learning outcomes than others—and can be combined with various other teaching styles in order to create well-rounded learners.  

Our goal as educators should be to meet the deeply personal motivations and instinctual needs of our learners with content that can satiate their appetite for knowledge and experience and help them to realize their goals. Situated Learning is but one way—and, in my opinion, supremely relevant and valuable in most adult learning situations—to fulfill our role as educators and serve our learners. 

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