Pedagogy, power, practice (and stuff)

The Master’s students resource needs a robust pedagogical underpinning, and this is a much longer blog post than I ever intended it to be but that’s just how important pedagogy is. The state of higher education at the moment, its pressures and its ideologies, means that we need to be ever more critical about this pre-arrival resource. We need to be critical about its content, delivery, structure, technology and yes, its pedagogy. So this very long post is an attempt at some transparency in terms of pedagogical approach as well as an invitation to you to be critical of it.

Situated learning theory

The video above is (a) short and (b) pretty good. In it, Etienne Wenger-Traynor explains about situated learning theory and, in particular, what is and isn’t meant by the word ‘situated’. It’s worth a watch and if you’re interested then there’s a reference in the bibliography below to lots of Wenger’s stuff (and see especially Farnsworth et al., 2016 for a contemporary perspective on this).

Situated learning theory is sociocultural – learning is advanced through collaborative social interaction, and achieved by authentic activities, expert modelling and supporting the generalisation of activities. Learning is a social process, it is participation, it is situated in a specific social and cultural context. This context fundamentally shapes the nature of what is to be learned, the process of learning, and the identities of the learners (Wenger, 1998). Learning, then, is relative to one’s own ‘geographies of practice’, and the nature of these practices is shaped by one’s own social context.

But how does learning take place? In 1989, Brown et al. developed the idea of a ‘cognitive apprenticeship’, where learning happens when an ‘expert’ outlines to a ‘novice’ the stages of learning that they must go through in order to become an expert. Two years later, Lave and Wenger (1991) published on the notion of the ‘community of practice’, avoiding the novice/expert dichotomy and instead focusing on the mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire of people (cf. Wenger, 1998). So situated learning is not learning-by-doing, nor does it refer to a specific physical location (e.g. a classroom) where learning takes place. Instead it’s about the trajectory one takes, as a newcomer to a community of practice towards full participation in it. It is social, and about our identity as much as it is about our practices.

If you’re still with me at this point you might be thinking that this all sounds super interesting or whatever but how do you turn this into something concrete? Discussions of pedagogy sometimes sound very grand (‘geographies of practice’, anybody?) but not always hugely applicable. So in what follows I’m going to attempt to give you five practical reasons why situated learning theory and ideas relating to it, especially communities of practice, are relevant to the development of this pre-arrival resource. In summary, it’s because they focus attention on the following things: practices, identities, learning as social, and the implications of learning as social: power.

(1) The first reason is that it gives us a way to conceptualise the potential audience for the resource. There is no typical Cambridge Master’s student and so attempting to pitch the resource at an imaginary typical student is not only inappropriate but also daft. Thinking in terms of communities of practice can give us a way to negotiate the differences in the potential audience, and it does it in a way which is vastly superior to passively accepting that they’re all different. Let’s think in terms of the students’ communities of practice, and the fact that they are participants in multiple communities of practice all at once: their subject, former place of study, workplace. These might overlap, might cohere nicely, might produce tension.

At the same time, the students have in common the fact that they’re about to join a new community of practice: Cambridge graduate study. They’ll arrive with different but equally legitimate pre-existing levels of participation in it, and their experiences of it won’t be identical. But it means we should consider what the Cambridge graduate community of practice is like. What is its discourse? What does it entail, and what doesn’t it? And – I can’t stress this enough – who does it include, and who does it exclude? Who has power, and who doesn’t? Gender, race, class, and more – all of these might facilitate participation in the community of practice, or they might create barriers to it. How might this resource sit within this? How can it help students to negotiate these barriers? What barriers might the resource itself create?

(2) The second reason is the idea of learning as a trajectory, and the reason this is important is that the resource focuses on information literacy and academic skills. There are loads of real-life examples from Cambridge both of information literacy being taught as a set of generalizable skills and as discipline-based competences (Kuglitsch, 2015, is brilliant on the implications of this). But no matter how or why it is taught, information literacy and academic skills are not the disciplines that students are coming to Cambridge to study. That old chestnut that we’re not trying to churn out mini librarians from our ref management sessions might be a truism, but it’s still (hopefully) true.

So part of the pedagogical approach has to be around supporting transfer of knowledge to the actual subjects they’ve come to Cambridge to do. We should be thinking about how information literacy and academic skills support students in more fully participating in their subject’s community of practice, not how to turn them into database wizards. And we should be thinking of this in social terms – how their communities of practice might affect their experience of this resource (if, for example, their subject naturally denigrates the importance of these types of skills, or bestows upon students the sacred importance of them), and how the resource might affect their post-arrival experiences.

(3) Third, I like situated learning for providing a small, quiet solution – but nonetheless a sensible, manageable one – to the specific vs generic problem. (That is, how do you make a thing be relevant to an engineer and a modern linguist at the same time). Situated learning is related to situated cognition, and a theorist in this, Gee (1997), writes about ‘situated meanings’. Dead simply, this is the idea that the meaning of a word changes depending on the social context and an individual’s experience of that context. This encourages us to think about the specific vs generic problem in terms of discourse. Like, if we use the phrase ‘information literacy’, will bad things happen? What if we use the word ‘data’? or information, or resource, or digital? or assignment? or literature?

Gee advises us to take the strategy of being neither too specific nor too general if we want to maximise transfer of knowledge. (Easier said than done, though, amirite). What does this middle ground look like? Is it barren landscape where none of these words are used? Do we swap the word ‘information’ for the emoji with hearts for eyes? Do we include a glossary? Do we call the resource itself ‘ALL MEANINGS ARE CONTESTED’? No, of course not. At the very least we would have to have an open-ended survey on which emoji to use in place of the word ‘information’.

Instead I think we need to focus on creating a sense of authenticity in the resource, and using this to frame the situated nature of the discourse. Herrington and Oliver (2000) are useful here – they developed nine guidelines for developing authentic experience in ‘learning environments’, including things like reflecting the way that knowledge is used in real life, incorporating authentic activities, modelling processes. This may all sound a bit theoretical right now but it does give us a clue to things like tone and content and format.

(4) The fourth reason I like these theories is that they make us think critically about the technologies we use, how we use them, and how they use us. At a broad, functional level this might be how to recreate an authentic experience online, or how we use the technology to support knowledge transfer? How might technology enable this new and evolving community of practice to explore or define or express their shared identity? How might it support an experience of this community? At a micro level it means thinking closely about the domain name, the look-and-feel, the ways in which the resource might invoke a ‘Cambridge identity’ or sense of community. Can we achieve this through Cambridge name-dropping? Is it branding, symbols, skylines, references to Chelsea buns? Do we need a button that says ‘DON’T WALK ON THE GRASS’?

We might very well need all of these things. But we also need to think through the assumptions we’re making about technology, about how we use it, and about those who use it. What does it mean for us to use a libguide, or Moodle, or something else entirely? What are the social implications of this? What does it mean for us to put the resource online? Who do we include or exclude through our technology choices?

(5) Finally (yes, finally) situated learning assumes that there are experts, those who are fully participating in communities of practice. Yes, there are, and (guess what!) we are not them. The current Master’s students are the experts. And so in the development of this resource, we must elevate their voices and their experiences.



Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.

Farnsworth, V., Kleanthous, I., & Wenger-Trayner, E. (2016). Communities of Practice as a Social Theory of Learning: a Conversation with Etienne Wenger. British Journal of Educational Studies, 64(2), 139–160.

Gee, J. P. (1997). Thinking, learning and reading: the situated sociocultural mind. In D. Kirshner & J. A. Whitson (Eds.), Situated cognition: social, semiotic, and psychological perspectives (pp. 37–55). Mahwah, N.J: L. Erlbaum.

Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48(3), 23–48. 

Kuglitsch, R. Z. (2015). Teaching for Transfer: Reconciling the Framework with Disciplinary Information Literacy. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 15(3), 457–470. 

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2 thoughts on “Pedagogy, power, practice (and stuff)

  1. Thank you so much for this post- it’s so exciting (for me!) to see renewed interest in sociocultural approaches to information literacy instruction and I would love to chat to you more about what Cambridge is doing along these lines- I feel like it has been bobbing up and down in the English-speaking IL world over the last 15 years or so (Harris, 2008 for a great early read; lots more fab articles in the Scandinavian literatire) but it’s only gradually becoming widely accepted. A couple of things in particular interested me/made me react in a variety of ways.

    Firstly, I was interested to see you jumped from a sociocultural approach to the idea of transfer- however, if learning (and by implication, knowledge) is situated, then to me, this automatically throws the idea of whether transfer exists or is even possible into question- knowledge isn’t a thing that can be transported, kind of in a suitcase between contexts, but is dependent and produced within each specific context. In addition, and as you rightly point out with references to a community of practice, each community has its own power structures which would constrain and enable transfer (if it even exists) – eg try transferring a positivist approach to research into a humanities field… In the same vein, I take issue with Kuglitsch’s use of the ACRL framework as a way to facilitate transfer- again, to my mind, if the framework as a set of universal truths that are applicable to all disciplines, settings or what have you, just interpreted in different ways, then it can’t be sociocultural, which illustrates how everything is situated and contextual and that IL in one discipline /context/setting may look VERY different from another.

    So then I guess that raises a couple of additional points for me- if we are talking about a sociocultural perspective on learning, we should be talking about sociocultural perspectives of IL too, ie the concept of IL as a research object or the ways in which IL is understood. To my mind, generic descriptions (eg find, evaluate, use) are too specific if everything is situated. I really like Annemaree’s Lloyd’s work in this area, and her 2010 book is fab. In turn, the focus on sociocultural and situated has made me think in terms of transition rather than transfer- how is an individual’s transition mediated into a new community/setting/discipline and how IL can help to mediate these changes. IL and transition into a new setting is the entire topic of my PhD thesis, which I am in the final stages of defending (!) , but some of my ideas about sociocultural have just come out in a chapter in Nicholson and Seale’s book, The Politics of Theory and the Practice of Critical Librarianship. I have submitted a PDF of that to my uni’s IR, but it is still being processed- let me know if you want me to email you a copy! Lastly, (sorry!), I love your focus on authenticity- there aren’t that many examples of teaching from a sociocultural perspective out there but I have tried to do this with a class of library school students ( as well as with undergraduate students and workplace IL ( Lots of good references that I found helpful in the lit review and I would love to know how you approach this.

    Well, a little longer than I expected, but I am so excited to talk sociocultural! Thank you so much for a great post, and good luck with all your plans- I look forward to hearing more about them! Feel free to reach out if you want to chat 🙂

    Alison Hicks
    Department of Information Studies, University College London

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I do hope that embedding pedagogical approaches, such as the above, in IL activity at Cambridge will be an enduring output of CILN in the same way that tangible objects, such as the online resource, will be. We would do well to integrate this philosophy across the network and into the framework. It strikes me that a cohesive approach to all activities is necessary to demonstrate our own community of practice.

    I’m looking forward to fleshing out what this means for the groups I am involved in. Alison’s point about transition is particularly apt for this and the undergraduate resource and we should bear that in mind; we are not aiming to offload our knowledge about libraries/skills/Cambridge but empower the new student so they feel assimilated and equipped to access resources and information at point of need.

    Thank you, Helen.

    Laura Jeffrey


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