Published on October 3, 2016 by Paul Ryan  

How do people learn?

Jean Lave, a social anthropologist, and Etienne Wenger, an educational theorist, in Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation locate the development of knowledge, skills, and identity in activity over time involving changing participation in sociocultural practices and interaction with practitioners of varying levels of mastery leading toward full participation in the community of practice.

Legitimate Peripheral Participation claims that the development of knowledge, skills, and identities are situated among people in activity; that there is an interdependency between learning and practice in the socially and culturally structured world.

Taken in part, legitimate refers to the form of participation by the apprentice and one’s access to the community’s artifacts, technology, or resources. It involves a sense of belonging as a participant in a community of practice. As such, there is no illegitimate participation. Participation implies legitimacy. Peripheral, on the other hand, refers to the “multiple, varied, more- or less-engaged and –inclusive ways” of participation within and defined by a community. Peripherality implies movement in time between less and more intense, complex, or empowering positions. There is no core, center, or location of peripherality, however. A peripheral participant is not on the “outside.” Peripheral participation, rather, describes direction and relationship. It is concerned with movement toward full participation and relates to the social structures and power relationships within a community of practice.

Learning involves access to activity and a community’s resources.
Lave and Wenger illustrate in their studies of apprenticeship that access to activity is essential to learning and is a key component of legitimate peripheral participation. Through access to activity, apprentices interact with the community’s artifacts and technology, which is a “way to connect with the history of the practice and to participate more directly in its cultural life.”

The forms of access to activity for church musicians is varied. For some, apprenticeship begins simply through observation, hearing and seeing music performed in the context of the liturgy. For others, choirs can be the first opportunity for children and youth to enter legitimate participation in worship leadership. What are other forms of access to activity?

At the same time, some measure of control and selection are “inherent in communities of practice.” While young apprentices may find open access to practice in a children’s choir, instrumental participation may involve skill development outside of the community of practice. What are other measures of control and selection within the community of practice?

The organization of access to activity, therefore, can either promote or prevent fuller participation in the community of practice. What are factors that prevent fuller participation in the community of practice?

A learning curriculum unfolds in the changing nature of participation.
A second aspect of Lave and Wenger’s theory of learning is that “a learning curriculum unfolds in opportunities for engagement in practice.”

Rather than being taught an abstract set of requirements for proper participation, apprentices learn as the nature of participation changes from one form to another. In other words, the curriculum is not determined by an arbitrary timeline or a predetermined pedagogical strategy. As apprentices have opportunities to participate, they learn. What are timelines for increasing participation in the community of practice and what is learned along the way?

The unfolding curriculum through changing and increasing participation reveals not only developing knowledge and skills but also a sense of identity as a member of the community of practice. When do apprentices begin to self-identify as worship leaders?

How might you respond to this set of key questions?