Teaching as Learning, in Practice – Jean Lave

About the paper

Schermafbeelding 2013-10-31 om 12.09.53This paper was a lot harder to read than the previous one.

Lave states that we should prefer a social theory of learning rather than an individual, psychological (which includes cognitivist and behaviourist theories) theory of learning. Furthermore she offers a theoretical perspective on the social nature of learning. She advocates that theories that reduce learning to individual mental capacity/activity in which the last instance is “to blame the marginalized people for being marginal”.

She bases her paper on 2 examples:

  • apprenticeship in Liberia – tailorship (ethnographic)
  • 19th-century mosque schools in Egypt – law practitioners (historical)

These examples are substantive, situated and historically specific. She doesn’t propose we should transfer these practices into our form of education (U.S. schools, etc).

Lave makes a distinction between formal and informal learning in which formal education (school) embraces out-of-context learning, in which learners build understanding through abstraction and generalization. In contrast the informal schools cover apprenticeship in which demonstration, observation and mimesis are key.

Lave collaborated with Wenger. Together they introduced the concept of “Communities of practice“.

From apprenticeship she brings us to her Social practice theory. She advocates that learning theories consist of 3 kinds of stipulations:

  • Telos: direction/movement/change of learning
  • Subject-world relation between subject and the social world
  • Learning mechanisms: ways by which learning comes about

Finally she focusses on teaching in (today U.S.) schools. She emphasizes that teaching is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce learning and there is lack of effective research into how learning occurs. Learning (wherever it occurs) is an aspect of changing participation in changing practices.

Personal reflection

Reflection on apprenticeship:

I teach web design to a group of unemployed students. After getting 4 months of different courses (HTML, Photoshop, Communication skills, Drupal, etc) the have to complete 6 weeks of internship. Making a comparison of Jean Laves apprenticeship in Liberia and our student’s apprenticeship is interesting. I don’t believe we can send our students directly to companies. They have to dispose of a certain level of knowledge before taking of their internship. Some thoughts on this:

  • many important things are learned during apprenticeship. New things (practical things like the price of a website, new subjects, etc), not mentioned during their time at school
  • not every apprenticeship is a success. Students can choose for incompetent companies or being confronted with incompetent supervisors (lack of experience, making errors, being most of the time absent, etc)
  • gives the supervisor objective opinions in case these are requested?
  • nowadays companies are mainly focussed on commerce. Supervisors can’t spend too much time on internships which requires sufficient foreknowledge.
  • in our school 75% (versus Laves 85%) end internship successful and find a job
  • on December 28th, De Redactie communicated that  apprenticeship in Flanders (Belgium) is threatened. Fewer and fewer young people choose to participate in apprenticeship (4 days of apprenticeship versus 1 day taking class). Ten years ago 7000 students choose alternative training versus 3000 in 2013. Source: De Redactie (Dutch)

My personal opinion on learning is that we don’t have to teach the facts but learn how to find information, combined with a general and minimal level of basic knowledge. Learn people how to design a website in HTML, by explaining the concept and beginnings of the syntax. Don’t educate all available HTML tags.

Reflection on learning:

  • As a karateka, we practice two disciplines during a training: kumite (fight) and kata (patterns of movements and techniques). A kata is never explained individually to a new karateka. It is practiced in group, while the new person looks at and imitates the advanced members. Teaching isn’t necessary to pick up a new kata (referring to Lave).
  • Same issue in parenting. I never taught my son how to use the iPad. Or he learned to use it by trial and error, or he taught himself to use it by imitating.
  • We can make an interesting comparison between instructional and experiential learning. I teach web design in 2 groups: DTP and Web Design. In the first group the students are taught how to work on a Mac computer. They get 16 hours of instruction. In the second group the students learn to use a Mac computer by experience, during other courses. We have to conclude both groups of students have equal skills, but the second group had more time to spend on content.
  • When I graduated in 2000, I already apprehend the importance of private study. Recording knowledge without the interference of a teacher. The past 13 years I developed more than 50 courses which can be studied by tutorials, screencasts, etc at zelfstudie.be (zelfstudie stands for “private study”).


Claire and I made a presentation on this paper. While preparing it we discovered the chat function in Google Docs. By this invention, we evolved form asynchronous  to synchronous collaboration.

An important side effect of this paper was the way Lave searched for the definition of a learning theory. It made me realize that we will have to do the same for the “learning environment” assessment. There isn’t a definition that is complete. It is subject to own appreciations en interpretations.



Laves point of view is a rather theoretical. She doesn’t want to convince us to change our whole concept of education, but she wants to criticize the teaching-learning concept. Practically every research on learning is research on “instruction”. We have to focus on the process of interdependent learners learning, not as an effect of teaching. The learner is central, not the teacher.

As a teacher, my favourite quotes appearing in her paper are “Teaching certainly is an object for analytical inquiry, but not an explanation for learning” and “teaching is neither necessary nor sufficient to produce learning. Wonderful! Before reading this paper I didn’t realize she’s right. In our current educational system learning is directly associated to teaching.


Schools kill creativity

The paper made me think about sir Ken Robinson’s talk on Ted “Schools kill creativity”. It was Ruben who mentioned it to me during the conference in Newcastle (June 2013). Juliun also mentioned it during the second session.

Robinson states that people are frightened of being wrong in schools (and companies) and the fact that our education system is predicated on the idea of academic ability.


Claire and I made this presentation.


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