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Situated Inquiry

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Situated Inquiry

 

Situated learning theories typically highlight the contextual nature of knowledge and assert, “learning cannot be understood apart from its historical, cultural and institutional contexts” (Lattuca, 2002, p. 713). Lattuca notes that situated perspectives “contrast sharply with behavioural and cognitive models in which learning is conceptualized as an individual activity and as an artefact that can easily be separated from the contexts in which it takes place” (p. 713). Under the model of situated learning, a narrow focus on techniques that facilitate the individual learning of decontextualized skills is replaced by a broad focus on understandings that see knowledge and the world as “mutually and dynamically constitutive” (Heaney, 1995).

 

Heaney (1995) defines adult education as “the art of implementing a social vision through support, nurturance and inspiration.” He develops relationships between the theory of situated learning and the metaphor of border pedagogy advanced by Henry Giroux (Giroux, 1992, cited in Heaney, 1995). In situated learning theory, learning is “legitimate peripheral participation in a community of practice.” The multiple, competing communities to which we all belong – ranging from family through class, race, nation and professional identity – have centripetal and centrifugal forces within borders that separate outside from inside. Heaney writes, “Centripetal participation moves us inward toward more intensive participation so that our learning and work influences and becomes constitutive elements in the definition of the community. Such participation (learning) is empowering. On the other hand, centrifugal participation moves us outward … and is this disempowering.” Yet Heaney recognizes (with Giroux) that the borders of communities of practice are characterized by “dynamic, chaotic energy” and the “frenzy of transformative learning.” A pedagogy of engagement is ideally situated along these borders, at “contested sites subject to the competing claims of intersecting communities.”

 

Viewing edges as dynamic sites of struggle need not entail romanticizing marginality. The defended borders of communities of practice prohibit entry to real arenas of power. With this recognition, education is linked with the substantive struggle for a democratic society. Situated learning empowers students to become “more fully involved in inventing the discourse which defines the field [or territory of specific communities of practice]” (Heaney, 1995).

 

It is with the practical, political aim of empowering students that situated learning theory is destabilized, for the knowledge required for full participation in specific communities of practice is verifiable and measurable. Here the modernist, empiricist notion that there are objective standards of knowledge prevails, unperturbed by postmodern critiques. Briton’s book (1996) describes how logical empiricism not only dominates cultural paradigms. It also shapes our subjectivities and unconscious processes, subverting every effort to proceed beyond notions of truth and error to the possibility of more dynamic processes of understanding.

 

Specific skills, attitudes and understandings are required to gain admittance to specific communities of practice. Does the effort to empower students with “must know” information necessarily assume a didactic form of instruction? Inquiry-based learning is one possible alternate strategy that may encourage knowledge construction through a process more compatible with the values and understandings of situated learning theory.

 

Inquiry-based learning is described by Jakes (2003) as a “process where students formulate investigative questions, obtain factual information, and then build knowledge that reflects their answer.” Elder and Paul note that “Questions define tasks, express problems and delineate issues. They drive thinking forward. Answers, on the other hand, often signal a full stop in thought.” A model of inquiry-based learning from the “Inquiry Page” is presented in Figure 1, below.

 

 

 

 

Figure 1. Spiral Path of Inquiry. Copied from http://inquiry.uiuc.edu

 

 

Using learners’ authentic questions as a starting point, the spiral path of inquiry involves researching and investigating answers, creating a new knowledge product from this research, sharing and discussing discoveries, and critically reflecting on the process and product to generate new questions. Seeing knowledge as inquiry and “knowers as active, reflective inquirers capable of transforming and improving knowledge-seeking practices” (in the word of feminist philosopher Grasswick, 2004) seems consonant with the theory of situated learning and its understanding of knowledge as a dynamic social process. But the model in Figure 1 is devoid of context; it does not account for the relations between knowers and their communities of practice. It elides the continuity of knowledge and power. To address this deficiency, I propose a model of situated inquiry in Figure 2, below.

 

 

Figure 2: Model of Situated Inquiry

 

According to this model, learning is an iterative process, involving repeated circling from an original question. Rather than overloading students with too much information and unconnected assignments, we can design to allow reworking of the same material. Learning will be superficial if there is too much content. When the curriculum is stimulating without being too demanding, students have sufficient time and space to develop a personal, authentic voice. A spiral path of inquiry allows learners to incorporate new understandings, deepen approaches and address challenges from the instructor and critical friends. Here the repetition, focus and familiarity of the circle are balanced by the excitement, discovery and challenge of an open-ended form.

 

 

For references see http://www.saltspring.com/hideaway/Caffyn/Papers/DesignPatternReferences.htm

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