Learning and learning theory

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Communities of Practice Bibliography
including books, articles, and videos on theory, practice, examples, and so on...
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Why pursue a social rather than a more familiar psychological theory of learning? To the extent that being human is a relational matter, generated in social living, historically, in social formations whose participants engage with each other as a condition and precondition for their existence, theories that conceive of learning as a special universal mental process impoverish and misrecognize it. My colleagues and I have been trying to convey out understanding of this claim for some years (e.g., Lave, 1988; Lave & Wenger, 1991) and I will try to develop the argument a little further here. There is another sort of reason for pursuing a theoretical perspective on the social nature of learning. Theories that reduce learning to individual mental capacity/activity in the last instance blame marginalized people for being marginal. Common theories of learning begin and end with individuals (though these days they often nod at "the social" or "the environment" in between). Such theories are deeply concerned with individual differences, with notions of better and worse, more and less learning, and with comparison of these things across groups-of-individuals. Psychological theories of learning prescribe ideals and paths to excellence and identify the kinds of individuals (by no means all) who should arrive; the absence of movement away from some putatively common starting point becomes grounds for labeling others sub-normal. The logic that makes success exceptional but nonetheless characterizes lack of success as not normal won't do. It reflects and contributes to a politics by which disinherited and disenfranchised individuals, whether taken one at a time or in masses, are identified as the disabled, and thereby made responsible for their "plight" (e.g., McDermott, 1993). It seems imperative to explore ways of understanding learning that do not naturalize and underwrite divisions of social inequality in our society. A reconsideration of learning as a social, collective, rather than individual, psychological phenomenon offers the only way beyond the current state of affairs that I can envision at the present time.
  • Cox, A. (2005). What are communities of practice?: A comparative review of four seminal works. Journal of Information Science, 31(6), 527-540.
  • Gourlay, S. Communities of Practice: A new concept for the millennium, or the rediscovery of the wheel? Retrieved 4 17, 2006 from [>>>> ]
  • Ray P. McDermott, "The acquisition of a child by a learning disability", in Chaiklin, S.; Lave, J. (Eds.) Understanding Practice; Perspectives on activity and context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).//"If we can stop focusing on who learns more or less of particular, culturally well-defined fragments of knowledge, and ask questions instead about what is around to be learned, in what circumstances, and to what end, learning achievements would become statements about the points of contact available to persons in various social settings (Lave, 1988a, b)." p. 277
"In all commonsense uses of the term, context refers to an empty slot, a container, into which other things are placed. It is the "con" that contains the "text," the bowl that contains the soup. As such it shapes the contours of its contents; it has its effects only at the borders of the phenomenon under analysis.... The soup does not shape the bowl, and the bowl most certainly does not alter the substance of the soup. Text and context, soup and bowl.. can be analytically separated and studied on their own without doing violence to the complexity of the situation. A static sense of context delivers a stable world." p. 23 in Lave's intro.
  • Dorwin Cartwright, Ed., Field Theory in Social Science a collection of Lewin's papers (Harper & Brothers, 1951), p 169. Chapter VII, which is a 1943-44, "Problems of Research in Social Psychology":
"Many psychologists working today in an applied field are keenly aware of the need for close cooperation between theoretical and applied psychology. This can be accomplished in psychology, as it has been accomplished in physics, if the theorist does not look toward applied problems with highbrow aversion or with a fear of social problems, and if the applied psychologist realizes that there is nothing so practical as a good theory."
  • Mark Thompson, "Ontological Shift or Ontological Drift? Reality Claims, Epistemological Frameworks, and Theory Generation in Organization Studies", The Academy of Management Review (AMR) Volume 36, Number 4, October 2011, pp 754 - 773 http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/amr.2010.0070
Uses the evolution of the notion of a community of practice as the main example. Abstract: Minor shifts in emphasis between the process and entitative dimensions of management constructs can be an effective method of theory generation. However, such shifts require corresponding adjustments in both ontology and epistemology. Where ontology and epistemology drift out of alignment, there is significant potential for confusion. I describe and illustrate four kinds of epistemic-ontological movement using a range of examples, particularly from the communities of practice literature, and I discuss implications for both theory and practice.