The Social Perspective

A social learning theory is a theory of learning in a social context. The most fundamental assumption of such a theory is that the individual person learns not in isolation but as a member of a larger group. A second assumption is that some, or all, of the members of the group participate in the learning of each individual or of the group as a whole.

Before reviewing the theories that were selected for inclusion in the present study some confusion of terms needs to be addressed. First, situated learning and situated cognition, two terms which refer both to the role of context in learning and the situated nature of meaning, are often used interchangeably. For example, in a special issue of Educational Technology dedicated to a review of situated learning McLellan (1993, p. 5) referred to an article by Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) as the publication responsible for introducing the concept of situated learning. Just one year later, in a follow up issue (McLellan, 1994, p. 7), she referred to the very same article as introducing situated cognition. Though it seems that situated cognition might be the preferred term for cognitive scientists in both the social and clinical sciences of human psychology and the computer science of artificial intelligence, and that situated learning is the preferred term for those in the social science of education, these two terms are generally used as synonyms. I suggest reviewing Clancy (1997) for additional background on situated cognition (p. 1), the philosophical foundations from whence it sprang (pp. 3, 22), its introduction into cognitive science (p. 23), and the “ism” of contextualism (pp. 63-66) by which it is sometimes subsumed, or to which it is sometimes related.

Second, while situated learning is used as a general term to describe theories of learning that emphasize learning ‘in situ’, it was also used as the title of Lave and Wenger’s (1991) publication in which they introduced the idea of legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice. Although the full title of the book is Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, the spine of the book carries only the first portion of the title, Situated Learning. As a result this term is sometimes used to refer specifically to Lave and Wenger’s theory while, at other times, to refer to theories of situated learning in general.

Third, the term apprenticeship is used in some of the theories that are summarized in this section. In some cases its use is quite literal, referring to actual apprentices learning a trade in a real world environment of situated practice—for example, the case studies of Yucatec midwives, Vai and Gola tailors, naval quartermasters, meat cutters, and nondrinking alcoholics in Lave and Wenger (1991). In other cases, such as that of cognitive apprenticeship (J. S. Brown et al., 1989; A. Collins et al., 1987; A. Collins, Brown, & Holum, 1991), it is used more in a metaphorical sense, where the situation does not embody true apprenticeship in the form of learning a craft or trade, but borrows from this real world model to establish a method of teaching and learning in the classroom that builds on the same principles.

Six theories which take the perspective of individuals learning as part of a larger social group were selected for review in the present study: (a) Vygotsky’s theory of internalization and the zone of proximal development; (b) Bandura’s social cognitive learning theory, beginning from his initial behavioral studies of observational and vicarious learning; (c) Lave and Wenger’s situated learning, or legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice; (d) Wilson and Ryder’s dynamic and distributed learning communities; (e) Engestrom’s expansive learning and third generation activity theory; and (f) Brown, Collins, and Duguid’s theory of cognitive apprenticeship.[1] Each will be summarized briefly. Inline citations as well as the reference list at the end of this report provide pointers to the original sources that should be consulted for a more in depth review.


[1] Although the introduction of cognitive apprenticeship is generally credited to Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989)—see, for example, McLellan (1993; 1994)—Collins is listed as the primary author on the 1987 technical report (A. Collins, Brown, & Newman, 1987) that preceded the 1989 article, and which presented a much more detailed account of cognitive apprenticeship than the relatively vague coverage it received in 1989. Because of this, the order of authorship for the 1989 publication may not be an accurate reflection of relative individual contribution to the theory of cognitive learning as a whole, but more a reflection of contribution to the article itself.

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