Thoughts on Situativity Theory, COPs and Formation

13 11 2013

My recent reading has taken me on an exploration of the theoretical foundations of learning environments, particularly looking at situativity theory and communities of practice.  In a chapter in Jonassen & Land’s 2000 book, Barab & Duffy set COPs in their theoretical context, that is, within constructivism, and within a subset of constructivist theory: situative theory, sometimes called situated cognition.

A cognitive or instructivist approach to learning emphasises the individual learner and views learning as a process of acquiring knowledge, which is understood to consist of symbolic mental representations. That is concepts are viewed as abstract things. Teaching therefore becomes a means of facilitating acquisition or transferring knowledge.

Constructivist approaches emphasise the social nature of cognition, meaning and knowledge. Knowledge is fundamentally situated in practice and teaching is participative. Concepts are not self-contained entities but tools that can only be fully understood through use. Knowing and doing are reciprocal. Knowledge is situated and progressively developed through activity. Knowing is an activity and is always contextualised.

Situative theory is part of the constructivist approach to learning. Situative theories emphasise reciprocal character of interaction which produces meanings about the social world and also produces identities; “individuals are fundamentally constituted through their relations with the world” (Lave 1993, Lemke 1997, Walkerdine 1997, Wenger, 1998). Situative theory suggests that practice should not be conceived of as independent of learning, nor meaning as separate from the practices and contexts within which it was negotiated. This would appear to be consistent with a Christian or biblical view of practice and learning. It could be worth exploring what a Christian response to constructivism, situativity and COPs. The emphasis on identity could be significant for formational learning. (Cf. Lowe & Lowe’s paper on ecology of learning).

Within situative theory (or situated cognition) Barab & Duffy say there are 2 streams:

  1. Psychological perspective which focuses on how to meet specific learning outcomes and design learning environments to support students’ learning in particular areas through situating content in authentic learning activities or “practice fields”.
  2. Anthropological perspective on situativity which focuses on communities and what it means to learn as a function of being part of a community. This focuses on developing an identity as a member of a community.

Barab and Duffy (2005) explore the implications of these two perspectives for designing learning environments. They note that in the psychological perspective on situativity the unit of analysis is the individual learner and the focus is on engaging learner in authentic tasks that are likely to require the use of the concepts or skills desired. Senge calls this ‘practice fields’. E.g.s include PBL, anchored instruction and cognitive apprenticeship. Design principles for practice fields are:

  • Doing domain-related practices i.e. active doing not just listening
  • Ownership of inquiry by student
  • Coaching and modelling of thinking skills
  • Opportunity for reflection
  • Ill-structured or loosely defined dilemmas
  • Work is collaborative and social
  • Learning context needs to be motivating (real issues)

However they also note that practice fields tend to occur in formal learning contexts and so the situated learning is separated from the society/community in which the practices being learned are of value and use. It is practice, not genuine contributions. This, they suggest can lead to the development of negative identities. It also puts the focus on the work of being a student, with a concomitant emphasis on achieving grades. They suggest that educators need to find ways to connect with real communities of practice (COPs) in order to develop a sense of self in their work in society. Similarly, Hung, Chee, Hedberg & Seng (2005) suggest that schooling can lead to problems with identity formation and lack of authenticity (c.f. Harkness). Hung et al posit that schools create cultures of students while COPs create practitioners. Does this imply that if we want practitioners we need COPs?

In the view put forward by Lave (1997) (the anthropological perspective) COPs allow for the situatedness of identities as well as cognitions. COPs are described by Barab and Duffy as situated social practice in which: “There are no clear boundaries between the development of knowledgeable skills and the development of identities; both arise as individuals participate and both become central to the COP”. (p.29). This is a very interesting statement which resonates with what theological educators mean when they talk about formation.

Barab and Duffy suggest that educators need to move towards a learning-as-participating-in-community approach. They provide an example of a “community of teachers” at Indiana university, designed to help pre-service teachers which:

  • Sets up community of teachers and pre-service teachers throughout duration of study. This personalises learning for students and engages them in learning
  • Teachers/students pair up for mentoring/apprenticeship over whole course
  • Ongoing intensive fieldwork (1 day per week)
  • Student led seminars discussing issues on the ground and lessons learned
  • Allows students to collect body of evidence over time of their ability to teach and that they possess qualities of a good teacher.

Barab and Duffy suggest that the key to meaningful learning is finding a way to link the learning experience into society, by giving students a legitimate role or task through community participation or membership. How might this be applied in theological education?

Barab and Duffy argue that COPs are superior to practice fields. But Hung, Chee, Hedberg & Seng (2005) take a slightly different approach and put them on a continuum, finding a valid place for practice fields in a staged and scaffolded process. This would seem to be a more realistic approach.

Hung et al (2005) propose a framework for fostering a community of practice based on 3 models: simulation, participation and co-determined interactions. These 3 models can be placed along a continuum of learning:

Simulation (e.g. PBL,        > Participation (COP)            > Co-determined interactions
project-based learning,
practice fields)

The three models need to be scaffolded, that is, the educator needs to provide a learning structure and framework for the learner to gradually move along the continuum. Scaffolding creates a path but learners need to do the walking.

If this framework is applied to Learning Design approaches we can see that specific learning designs (e.g. a LAMS sequence) tend to be towards the Simulation end of the continuum. Individual learning designs can thus be viewed as one element in the learning process. Hung et al suggest that learners need other (real) elements and to engage in a COP and to move towards authenticity. In this perspective the design of simulation oriented learning environments is complementary to real communities and not a replacement for them. This may be significant for designing for formational learning. Theological educators would agree that genuine formation needs to be a real and authentic process and that ongoing engagement with practitioners is a vital element. Perhaps a scaffolded approach as suggested by Hung et al which includes elements of simulation, COP involvement and aims at eventual co-determined interactions would be a good approach to scaffolding formational learning?

There are several aspects of communities of practice, described by Hung et al that appear to be of relevance to formational learning:

  • COPs recognise the significance of identity formation as integral part of the learning process and provide a means for nurturing this identity formation
  • COPs form ideal situated contexts through which implicit and explicit meanings are appropriated and negotiated by members of the community (p.160).
  • COPs recognise the importance of situated cognition – learners must experience learning in the actual rich situated context. There are e.g’s of this in pre-service teacher education which would form good models for theological education (preservice ministers).

Theological institutions tend to foster strongly collegial environments among their faculty members. In this sense theological faculty, at least those, closely connected to the college at which they teach are experiencing a COP. Faculty members recognise the value of this and so they may well recognise the value of it for students also. It would be worth exploring what other communities of practice currently exist in the real contexts in which theological graduates will be working (e.g. ministers fraternities, mission communities) and to look at how students might be able to become participants in these communities as part of their learning experience.

Hung et al set up a COP for Heads of Departments in Singapore Schools which had an instructivist not constructivist culture. The article describes the successes and challenges of attempting this. The researchers based their approach on ethnomethodology which attempts to consider the contextual nature in which everyday activities are based, focusing particularly on participant categories, i.e. on the way participants organise themselves not what they said about their lives. Ethnomethodology uses conversation analysis, in this case of both f2f sessions and online discussions

The project scaffolded the learning of HODs aiming to make them experience culture and spirit of COPS. This was done in a gradual and staged manner, helping participants to progress from the role of a novice to observer to participant and eventually to active contributor. Might a similar approach be applied to scaffold formational learning in theological institutions, and beyond into the communities of practice relevant to the students ministry?


Sasha A Barab & Thomas M Duffy (2000). “From Practice Fields to COPs”. In David H Jonassen  & Susan M Land, Theoretical Foundations of Learning Environments, Laurence Erlbaum Associates (LEA) Publishers, Mahwah, New Jersey, 2000, pp.25-55

David Hung, Tan Seng Chee, John G Hedberg & Koh Thiam Seng, (2005). “A Framework for Fostering a Community of Practice: Scaffolding Learners through an Evolving Continuum”. British Journal of Educational Technology, 36 (2), 2005, 159-176




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