Situated Learning


Individuals developing more expert skills

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … domain of expertise
  • Knowing is … social co-participation
  • Learner is … a newcomer
  • Learning is … apprenticing
  • Teaching is … mentoring




Originally focused on adults developing professional skills, Situated Learning is concerned with how newcomers become full participating members in established communities. Highlighting that knowing and doing are inseparable, the theory asserts that learning can be powerfully interpreted as a process of apprenticeship – that is, it should happen in context, it should involve personally meaningful and situationally legitimate tasks, it should involve community-appropriate tools and vocabulary, and it should occur under the mentorship of an expert. Prominent associated discourses include:
  • Apprenticeship – A system of on-the-job training, often occurring alongside some manner of formal study (ranging from recommended reading to required coursework). Apprenticeships are often associated with gaining licence to practice in a recognized and regulated field.
  • Cooperative Education (Herman Schneider, 1960s) – Significantly predating Situated LearningCooperative Education combines school-based and practical work experiences, typically with contexts known as “co-ops” that are designed to prepare learners to enter the job market.
  • On-the-Job-Training – Asserted by some to be the most popular, widespread, and ancient approach to work apprenticeship, On-the-Job Training involves immediate and direct experiences on the worksite with the tools, materials, and tasks associated with a particular job.
  • Work-Based Learning (Murray Saunders, 1990s) – A model of learning that combines school-based and workplace-based experiences in the complementary development of academic/theoretical knowledge and technical/practical skills.


As might be expected, the examples used to explicate Situated Learning are overwhelmingly drawn from professional and other adult contexts. The theory is thus most prominent in adult education, and efforts to extend its principles and recommendations to public school settings often feel strained and artificial. (Conversely, when applied to what happens in most public-school settings, Situated Learning highlights the decontextualized and impractical natures of most of what is taught.)

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Jean Lave Etienne Wenger

Status as a Theory of Learning

Considered as a theory of learning, Situated Learning might be characterized as a focused version of Situated Cognition, a perspective that provides modest elaborations of Socio-Cultural Theory, but it offers little new insight into the complex dynamics of knowing and learning at either individual or collective levels.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

The original authors of Situated Learning were adamant that it was not a theory of pedagogy, but it’s fair to say that the vast majority of subsequent writings have been focused much more on teaching than learning. To that end, the notion of “legitimate peripheral participation” (whereby beginners are assigned tasks that are necessary to the community, but that are low risk and relatively simple – gradually progressing toward more complex and essential duties) is perhaps the most commonly invoked pedagogical notion associated with the theory. Situated Learning is often invoked to support arguments for using tools and other technologies that are current and appropriate to school-based tasks, for formatting classroom tasks in terms of culturally relevant activity (e.g., Project-Based Learning), and for framing disciplines in terms of the work of practitioners rather than pre-established bodies of knowledge.

Status as a Scientific Theory

With regard to its minor conceptual contribution, Situated Learning satisfies our criteria of a scientific theory.


  • Apprenticeship
  • Cooperative Education
  • On-the-Job Training
  • Work-Based Learning

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Situated Learning” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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