3d. Situated Cognition

 by Jennifer M. Brill
The University of Georgia





Click Here to Play Lecture to play a narrated PowerPoint presentation that summarizes the content in this page. If you would like to see a transcript of the audio, click here to download the script as a word document. This summary was created by Buffalo Shuford, Sheri Howard and Daniele Facundo (2006).


Emerging from anthropology, sociology, and cognitive science, situated cognition theory represents a major shift in learning theory from traditional psychological views of learning as mechanistic and individualistic, and moves toward perspectives of learning as emergent and social (Greeno, 1998; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Salomon, 1996). Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) are often credited with developing situated cognition or situated learning theory. Collins (1988) defines situated learning as the notion of learning knowledge and skills in contexts that reflect the way they will be used in real life (p. 2). Thus, situated cognition theory encourages educators to immerse learners in an environment that approximates as closely as possible context in which their new ideas and behaviors will be applied (Schell & Black, 1997).

Cognitive apprenticeship practices are practical educational approaches that reflect a situated perspective by seeking to contextualize learning (Brown et al., 1989). For example, tennis students not only practice basic skills such as the serve, backhand, and forehand but watch experts model these skills, receive expert coaching, and most important, put these skills into practice by participating in matches governed by the rules of the game.

Regarded as leaders in the situated cognition movement, Lave and Wenger (1991), describe learning as an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world (p. 35). Their definition bears analysis: generative implies that learning is an act of creation or co-creation; social suggests that at least a portion of learning time occurs in partnership with others; and lived-in world connotes real-world practices and settings that make learning more relevant, useful, and transferable. From the standpoint of situated cognition proponents, foreign language acquisition will be more successful if the learners are immersed in conversational and cultural activities of increasing complexity and diversity, rather than concentrating on discrete-grammar exercises using recitation or paper-and-pencil worksheets.

Dynamic communities of practice are seen as a critical element of situated cognition theory’s sociological view of learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Thus, learning not only involves teacher and student but also assorted others, such as other experts from the school, from the business and local community, and the electronic world community. Further, learning communities are dynamic in that members assume various roles at different times depending on the needs of the learner. For example, a student may be a learner, instructor, or coach at any given time during the learning episode. Having previously learned how to scan and place images on a project web page, a student may instruct and coach others (fellow students, parents, or friends) through this same process.

Real-World Examples

Lave provides numerous examples of learning as a situated phenomenon. A classic example involves members of a Weight Watchers program problem-solving to determine appropriate food servings. As Lave (1988) describes: “Dieters were asked to prepare their lunch to meet specifications laid out by the observer. In this case, they were to fix a serving of cottage cheese, supposing that the amount allotted for the meal was three-quarters of the two-thirds cup the program allowed. The problem solver began the task muttering that he had taken a calculus course in college. Then after a pause he suddenly announced that he had ‘got it!’ He filled a measuring cup two-thirds full of cottage cheese, dumped it out on a cutting board, patted it into a circle, marked a cross on it, scooped away one quadrant, and served the rest” (p. 165). This example well illustrates how individuals frequently use cues and tools from the environment (the wording of a problem, three-quarters of two-thirds; the cutting board and cup) to create artifacts (the patty of cottage cheese) in order to solve puzzles encountered in daily living much more often than by directly calling on formally-learned knowledge and skills. As Lave (1988) observed, at no time did the Weight Watcher check his procedure against a paper and pencil algorithm [3/4 x 2/3 = 1/2]. Instead, problem, setting, and enactment were the means by which checking took place (p. 165).

Other studies demonstrate how children also make use of context to successfully solve problems. Carraher, Carraher, and Schliemann (1985) observed Brazilian children solving simple mathematical problems as they sold produce on the street. These same children failed to solve the same problems when they were presented out of context in conventional mathematical form. One nine-year-old child answered a customer’s question regarding the price of three coconuts by counting aloud, “40, 80, 120.” Yet, this same child arrived at a result of 70 when confronted with “3 x 40” on a formal test. Context and artifacts seemed to support the child’s ability to work through the same problem more effectively again speaking to the situated nature of human knowledge and learning.

Click Here to play a narrated slideshow movie that describes an application of principles of situated cognition in a contemporary eighth grade classroom. If you would like to see a transcript of the audio, click here to download the script as a Word document. This video was created by Cristina Beck, Shawn Hinger, and Andrew Langley (Fall, 2008).


Collins (1988) notes four benefits of situated cognition as a theoretical basis for learning. First, students learn about the conditions for applying knowledge. Second, students are more likely to engage in invention and problem-solving when they learn in novel and diverse situations and settings. Third, students can see the implications of knowledge. Finally, students are supported in structuring knowledge in ways appropriate to later use by gaining and working with that knowledge in context.


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

Carraher, T.N., Carraher, D.W., & Schliemann, A.D. (1985). Mathematics in the Streets and in Schools. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 3, 21-29.

Collins, A. (1988). Cognitive Apprenticeship and Instructional technology. (Technical Report No. 6899). BBN Labs Inc., Cambridge, MA.

Greeno, J. G. (1998). The Situativity of Knowing, Learning, and Research. American Psychologist, 53(1), 5-26.

Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics and culture in everyday life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

Salomon, G. (1996). Unorthodox Thoughts on the Nature and Mission of Contemporary Educational Psychology. Educational Psychology Review, 8(4), 397-417.

Schell, J. W., & Black, R. S. (1997). Situated learning: An inductive case study of a collaborative learning experience. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 34, 5-28.

Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Available at http://www.exploratorium.edu/ifi/resources/museumeducation/situated.html

Situated Learning & Situated Cognition: A Brief Summary of WWW-based Resources. Available online at http://wangtaoandlixia.blog.163.com/blog/static/4256638200831122124829/

An Instructional Case

Here is a description of a case that embodies Situated Cognition. It suggests a link to another topic in this book, Experiential Learning.

A case study in situated cognition


Additional Resources


APA Citation: Brill, J. M.. (2001). Situated Cognition. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from  http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/