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CEJ: Series 3, Vol. 7, No.

1 Copyright 2010

Situated Learning: Optimizing Experiential

Learning Through God-given Learning Community

Stephen Kemp
Antioch School o f Church Planting and Leadership Development

Abstract: This article explores the educational concept of experiential learning, particularly in
terms of service learning and situated learning. It proposes an alternative definition of an academic
learning community, namely the role of prim ary social relationships as God-given contexts for learn-
ing. It concludes with practical application of the enormous potential for accomplishment of educa-
tional objectives through situated learning.


Discussion of the topic of academic learning communities almost always

assumes a traditional definition of students and faculty interacting in an in-
stitutional context. Even distance education that allows students to study
where they are tends toward replication of traditional campus features, such
as online lounges and chapels. This article explores the educational idea of
experiential learning with special focus on service learning and situated
learning. It proposes an alternative definition of academic learning commu-
nity, namely the role of primary social relationships as God-given contexts
for learning. It concludes with practical application of the enormous poten-
tial for accomplishment of educational objectives through situated learning.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is education characterized by active learning expe-

riences, usually outside the traditional classroom. It is often described by ed-
ucators as based on the foundation of constructivism by which learners are
active participants in constructing meaning and in their own development.
However, it is important to bear in mind the helpful perspective of Henze
(2009) who helps us distinguish between pedagogical ideas related to the hu-
man learning process and the philosophical underpinnings of construc
KEMP: Situated Learning 119

tivism. In this paper, experiential learning is simply a term for education

forms that emphasize the central role that experience plays in the learning
process (Kolb, 1984, p. 20).

Intellectual Ancestry of Experiential Learning

There is a rich intellectual history associated with experiential learning.

Houle (1976) traces medieval patterns, 19th century demands, problems up
to the 1970s, and future directions to establish the deep traditions of expe-
riential learning. David Kolb is the contemporary educator most closely asso-
ciated with experiential learning, but he acknowledges that the developmen-
tal focus of his work is based on the thesis first articulated by the Russian
cognitive theorist L.S. Vygotsky, namely that learning from experience is the
process whereby human development occurs (Kolb, 1984, p. xi). The contri-
butions of Vygotsky are described further in the section on situated learning.
Experiential Learning (1984), Kolbs landmark book, offers the founda-
tion for an approach to education and learning as a lifelong process that is
soundly based in intellectual traditions of social psychology, philosophy, and
cognitive psychology (p. 4). Prior to presentation of his model of experien-
tial learning, Kolb reviews challenges to the rationalist philosophies that
dominated thinking about learning and education since the Middle Ages rep-
resented by Dewey (from the philosophical perspective of pragmatism),
Lewin (from the phenomenological perspective of Gestalt psychology), Pi-
aget (from within the rationalist perspective), and others (p. 12).
John Deweys progressive approach to education made significant em-
phasis on learning by experience within the traditional education structures.
The intimate and necessary relation [ref?] between the processes of actual
experience and education was the fundamental unity of Deweys educational
philosophy. Deweys (1938) Experience and Education is an insightful retro-
spective regarding his contribution to experiential learning, but also as a cor-
rective to critics and proponents who misunderstood his emphasis, including
the concept of intentionality and guidance in education.
Kurt Lewin is recognized as the founder of American social psychology.
Kolb (1984) acknowledges Lewins tradition of experiential learning as larger
in numbers of participants and perhaps wider in its scope of influence, par-
ticularly through his work on group dynamics and action research methodol-
ogy leading to the discovery that learning is best facilitated in an environ-
ment of concrete experience and analytic development (p. 9).
Jean Piaget, the French developmental psychologist and genetic episte-
mologist, described how intelligence is shaped by experience. Piagets re-
search, conducted in the 1920s, did not receive wide recognition in America
120 Christian Education Journal

until the 1960s through the work of Jerome Bruner, a prominent American
cognitive psychologist. Kolb (1984) reports a movement of curriculum devel-
opment and teaching that focuses on the design of experience-based edu-
cational programs using the principles of cognitive-development theory
(p. 13).
Other intellectual ancestors of experiential learning theory are ac-
knowledged by Kolb (1984, pp. 15-17). First, the therapeutic psychologies (of
Carl Jung, Erik Erikson, Carl Rogers, Fritz Peris, and Abraham Maslow) bring
two important dimensions to experiential learning. One is the central role of
affective experience in the concept of adaptation. The other is the concept of
socioemotional development throughout the life cycle. Second, radical edu-
cators (Paulo Freire and Ivan Illich) are the revolutionary extension of the
liberal, humanistic perspective characteristic of the Deweyan progressive ed-
ucators and laboratory-training practitioners (p. 16) to the educational sys-
tem seen as an agency of social control, oppressive and conservative. Third,
the area of brain research attempts to identify relationships between brain
functioning and consciousness, particularly with regard to the differences as-
sociated with left and right hemispheres of the brain. Fourth, philosophy,
particularly metaphysics and epistemology, challenges the dominant seien-
tifie rational tradition in order to explore the relationships between the
learning process and the knowledge systems that flow from it (p. 17).
The themes that emerge from Kolbs (1984) review of experiential learn-
ing ancestors lead him to five contemporary applications of experiential
learning theory: social policy and action, competence-based education, life-
long learning and career development, experiential education, and curricu-
lum development (p. 17). Experiential learning to Kolb is not a series of
techniques to be applied in current practice but a program for profoundly re-
creating our personal lives and social systems (p. 18).

Kolbs Model of Experiential Learning

Significant similarities in the learning process as understood by Dewey,

Lewin, and Piaget are identified by Kolb. Lewin articulates the dimensions of
the model, Dewey makes more explicit the developmental nature of learning,
and Piaget applies the model to stages of child development.
Kolbs (1984) experiential learning theory is an elaboration on Lewins
four-part experiential learning model (which is often incorrectly attributed
to Kolb because it is presented in his book on experiential learning). Learn-
ing is thus conceived as a four-stage cycle. Immediate concrete experience is
the basis for observation and reflection. These observations are assimilated
into a theory from which new implications for action can be deduced. These
KEMP: Situated Learning 121

implications or hypotheses then serve as guides in acting to create new expe-

riences (p. 21). According to Kolb, the noteworthy aspects of this model are
its emphasis on where-andnow concrete experience and feedback processes.
Dewey makes more explicit the developmental nature of learning by de-
scribing how learning transforms the impulses, feelings, and desires of con-
crete experience into higher-order purposeful action. Kolb (1984) recognizes
both Lewin and Dewey as emphasizing learning as a dialectic process inte-
grating experience and concepts, observations, and actions (p. 22).
Kolb (1984) sees Piagets four major stages of cognitive growth corre-
sponding to the basic dimensions of Lewins model. First, during ages 0-2, a
child is predominantly concrete and active in learning style. Second, ages 2-6,
a child retains a concrete orientation but begins to develop a reflective orien-
tation. Third, ages 7-11, intensive development of abstract symbolic powers
begins. Fourth, ages 12-15, the adolescent moves from symbolic processes
based on concrete operations to symbolic processes of representational logic
based on formal operations. Throughout the stages, learning lies in the mu-
tual interaction process of accommodation and assimilation (pp. 23-24).
The characteristics of experiential learning according to Kolb (1984) are
the following:

Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes.

Learning is a continuous process grounded in experience.
The process of learning requires the resolution of conflicts between
dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world.
Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world.
Learning involves transactions between the person and the environ-
Learning is the process of creating knowledge, (pp. 25-38)

For Kolb, learning is not the acquisition of content or outcomes, but the pro-
cess whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience
(p. 38).
Kolbs (1984) model of experiential learning includes the four basic di-
mensions of Lewins model: concrete experience, reflective observation, ab-
stract conceptualization, and active experimentation. However, Kolb also de-
velops a much more sophisticated model in which the structural bases of the
learning process are found in the transactions among four adaptive modes
and the way in which the adaptive dialectics get resolved (p. 41).
The abstract/concrete dialectic involves two different and opposed
processes of prehension (how the mind grasps an experience). Comprehen-
sion is reliance on conceptual interpretation and symbolic representation.
122 Christian Education Journal

Apprehension is reliance on tangible, felt qualities of immediate experience.

Kolb (1984) illustrates the dialectic of prehension through the grasping of ex-
perience related to a chair:

The continuous feel of your chair as it firmly supports your b o d y . . . all

these things and many others you know instantaneously without need
for rational inquiry or analytical confirmation. They are simply there,
grasped through a mode of knowing here called apprehension.. . . The
concept chair probably describes where you are sitting.. . . It is a con-
venient way to summarize a whole series of sensations you are having
right now, although it tends to actively discourage attention to parts of
that experience other than those associated with chairness. . . . Through
comprehension we introduce order into what would otherwise be a
seamless, unpredictable flow of apprehended sensations, but at the price
of shaping (distorting) and forever changing that flow. (p. 43)

The active/reflective dialectic involves two different and opposed pro-

cesses of transformation (transforming prehension into figurative represen-
tation of experience). Intention is internal reflection. Extension is active ex-
ternal manipulation of the external world. Kolb (1984) explains the dialectic
of transformation by comparison with the two branches of semiotics: Syn-
tactics and semantics correspond respectively to the study of the intentional
formal characteristics of symbols and the extensional denotation of signs
and symbolsthat is, the objects in the world that signs and symbols refer
to (p. 51).
Kolb (1984) sees these dialectics as forming a grid of two axes that result
in four basic knowledge forms:

Divergent knowledge is grasped through apprehension and trans-

formed through intention.
Assimilative knowledge is grasped through comprehension and
transformed through intention.
Convergent knowledge is grasped through comprehension and trans-
formed through extension.
Accommodative knowledge is grasped by apprehension and trans-
formed by extension.

The central idea is that learning, and therefore knowing, requires both a
grasp or figurative representation of experience and some transformation of
that representation (p. 42).
Kolb (1984) also extends his experiential learning model to the way
learning shapes the means of development. Complexity and the integration
KEMP: Situated Learning 123

of dialectic conflicts among the adaptive modes are the hallmarks of true ere-
ativity and growth (p. 141). He describes four learning modes in terms of in-
tegrative complexity as they relate to the basic dimensions of learning: Affec-
tive complexity in concrete experience results in higher-order sentiments;
perceptual complexity in reflective observation results in higher-order obser-
vations; symbolic complexity in abstract conceptualization results in higher-
order concepts; and behavioral complexity in active experimentation results
in higher-order actions. Kolb contends that the human developmental pro-
cess is divided into three broad developmental stages of maturation: acquisi-
tion, specialization, and integration. The four learning modes work together
to form a cone representative of maturation (p. 141). Very little has been pub-
lished in terms of further consideration of this aspect of Kolb's contribution.
The most common manifestation of Kolbs experiential learning model
is in the form of his Learning Styles Inventory, a tool used to assess ones pre-
ferred learning style according to the four basic forms of knowledge. Most of
the research using Kolbs model has addressed learning styles, often in rela-
tion to academic disciplines and career fields. Even Kolb himself seems to
show greater interest in learning styles than the experiential learning model
(Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Fry, 1975). Applications of Kolbs learning styles, even by
Kolb himself, tend to focus on single quadrants of his model in particular vo-
cations and academic fields, rather than on learning as a four-stage cycle
(Kolb, 1984, p.21). Little is published by Kolb that draws on the underlying
experiential learning model as a comprehensive tool for studying curriculum
and academic processes according to foundational dimensions of learning.

Applications of Kolbs Model

Kolbs (1984) model of experiential learning claims that

any educational program, course design, or classroom session can be

viewed as having degrees of orientation toward each of the four learning
modes in the experiential learning model, labeled as affective, perceptual,
symbolic, and behavioral, to connote the overall climate they create and
the particular learning skill or mode they require, (p. 197)

Ricci (2000) describes Bernice McCarthy as the successor to Kolb, com-

bining John Deweys principles of experiential learning, Kolbs model of
learning styles, Jungs theory of personality types, and perhaps most signifi-
cantly, recent research on cerebral asymmetry. McCarthys (1980) 4MAT
System popularizes Kolbs learning style research and introduces significant
aspects of brain function research. McCarthy (1999a, 1999b) also provides a
teaching style inventory that corresponds with Kolbs learning style inventory.
124 Christian Education Journal

Most recent dissertations based on Kolbs work in relation to higher educa-

tion do not study the experiential learning model itself, but, instead, focus on
the model of learning styles (Beck, 2001; Lippincott, 1999; Ricci, 2000). Kolb
gives his own overview of research on experiential learning theory and the
learning styles as the final chapter in a book on thinking, learning, and cogni-
tive styles (Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis, 2001).
Perhaps the area of higher education most significantly affected by expe-
riential learning is adult education. Early in its development as a sector of the
higher education landscape, experiential learning played a significant role.
The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), now the leading
higher education organization focused on adults, was originally named the
Cooperative Assessment of Experiential Learning. Underlying the decision
to initiate CAEL was agreement that our present educational practices do not
fulfill our needs (Keeton, 1976, p. 2).
Two recent dissertations specifically address experiential learning in dis-
tance education. Daniel (1999) studied effects of variables in learning en-
vironment and learning style of physical therapy graduate students in in-
teractive television and computer-aided instruction. Cilliers (2000) studied
the practical work module structured around an experiential learning cycle
for first-year physics at the University of South Africa, a distance education
Several studies address experiential learning in theological education.
Some deal only with the learning styles portion of Kolbs model (Johnson,
1985; Semenye, 1990). Ewazko (1993) uses Kolbs experiential learning theory
and other theories to study field education. MacDonald (2000) examines
clinical pastoral education and the role of portfolios and reflective practice.
Koh (1998) addresses the Asian theological context, particularly in terms of
active learning applications of experiential learning.
Other studies make some use of Kolbs experiential theory in the study of
theological education curriculum. Brock (1988) uses experiential learning
concepts, including those expressed by Kolb, to describe the instructional
models of adult religious instruction curriculum. However, the author does
not use Kolbs model as a conceptual framework. Beck (2001) examines a
mission-school training program in terms of Kolbs experiential learning
model. The examination goes as far as to identify ideal students who inte-
grate all aspects of Kolbs model and to make recommendations for inte-
grated instructional design. The study was conducted through interviews
with students and faculty, as well as participation in classes of the program.
Because the study combines multiple theories, it has limited value as research
using Kolbs model. Lingenfelter & Lingenfelter (2003) make extensive use of
Kolbs experiential learning ideas in their book on teaching cross-culturally.
In conclusion, experiential learning is education characterized by active
learning experiences, usually outside the traditional classroom, that empha
KEMP: Situated Learning 125

sizes the central role that experience plays in the learning process (Kolb,
1984, p. 20). It has a rich intellectual history, but most discussion of research
on experiential learning focuses on the contribution of David Kolb and his
book called Experiential Learning, and several significant streams flow from
experiential learning, such as service learning and situated learning.

Service Learning

The term service learning was coined in 1967 by Robert Sigmon and
William Ramsey of the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) (Giles 8c
Eyler, 1994). McElhaney (1998) provides a synthesis of the various ways that
service learning has been defined: philanthropy, volunteerism, community
service, and community service learning. The latter has emerged as the dom-
inant meaning in higher education literature.
Many discussions of service learning bemoan the absence of a uniform
definition (Conrad & Hedrin, 1991; Eyler & Giles, 1999; McElhaney, 1998;
Prentice, 2001; Siscoe, 1997; Wong, 2001). However, nearly all of the studies
cited above draw on a consensus of understanding. Service learning is a ped-
agogical model that intentionally integrates academic learning and relevant
community service (Rhoads 8c Howard, 1998, p. 1).
Service-learning is a form of experiential education in which students
engage in activities that address human and community needs together with
structured opportunities intentionally designed to promote student learning
and development. Reflection and reciprocity are key concepts of service-
learning (Jacoby, 1996, p. 5). McElhaney (1998) provides a synthesis of defi-
nitions of service learning: the service meets community needs, is coordi-
nated between the institution and community, is integrated into the
academic curriculum, is linked with goals and objectives of the course, pro-
vides structured time for reflection, and provides students opportunity and
encouragement to use newly acquired skills and knowledge in real-life situa-
tions. Sigmon (1996) proposes a typology with four variations, depending
upon point of emphasis: service-LEARNING, SERVICE-learning, service-
learning, and SERVICE-LEARNING. Wong (2001) presents a similar typol-
ogy on a chart with quadrants.
Reflection is a key characteristic that distinguishes service learning from
community service (Christensen, 2004; McElhaney, 1998; Prentice & Garcia,
2000; Wolfson, 1999). At its simplest, reflection is being able to step back and
be thoughtful about experienceto monitor ones own reactions and think-
ing processes (Eyler 8c Giles, 1999, p. 171). The term reflection is used 11
times in the chapter subheadings of Jacobys (1996) edited volume on service
learning. Eyler and Giles even find reflection in the hyphen used for service-
learning as the link that takes the student back and forth between the service
and learning dimensions (p. 5).
126 Christian Education Journal

Kendall (1990) provides a list of 33 terms that combine the concepts of

service and learning. The following are key illustrations:

Active learning is a term used to describe pedagogies inside and out-

side the classroom that engage students in experiential learning
(Weigel, 2002).
Community service is the term most easily confused with service
learning. Community service learning seems to be the term com-
monly used for programs that have brought academic dimensions to
existing programs of service projects and relationships in the com-
munity (Wang, 2003). Community service can be mere charity, but
community service learning is a reciprocal relationship (Siscoe,
Situated learning emphasizes the appropriateness of the context for
learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991). Service learning is a type of situated
learning that takes place in the community and includes reciprocal

Wolfson (1999) provides a helpful literature review and chart on the relation-
ship of situated learning and service learning in terms of activities and learn-
ing outcomes.
Several national associations emerged in leadership of service learning in
the late-1970s to the mid-1980s: The Commission for the Study of National
Service, Campus Outreach Opportunity League, Campus Compact, the Na-
tional Society for Experiential Education (NSEE, formerly the National Soci-
ety for Internships and Experiential Education), and the Council for Adult
and Experiential Learning (CAEL). A process of articulating and refining a
set of principles of good practice begun by NSEE culminated in the Wing-
spread Conference and subsequent Principles of Good Practice for Combining
Service and Learning (Honnet & Poulsen, 1996). All recent definitions [of
service learning] are based on the key statement in the preamble to the Wing-
spread Principles: 4Service, combined with learning, adds value to each and
transforms both (Jacoby, 1996, p. 14). Kendall (1990), following the Wing-
spread Conference, published a multi-volume set, Combining Service and
Learning>that extensively addresses historical, theoretical, and practical as-
pects of service learning.

Key Contributors to the Study of Service Learning

The basic theory of service-learning is Deweys: the interaction of

knowledge and skills with experience is key to learning (Ehlrich as cited in
Jacoby, 1996, p. xi). Dewey's emphasis on experiential education emerged
KEMP: Situated Learning 127

from the Progressive movement of the 1930s and serves today as the founda-
tion for service learning (McElhaney, 1998). Some have gone as far as to say
that all elements of service learning can be attributed to Dewey (Giles & Eyler,
1994; Saltmarsh, 1996). Tai-Seale (2000) finds three theoretical seeds for
service learning in Deweys early writings: service fused with experiential
learning, need for reflection, and reciprocal learning. Giles and Eyler (1994)
use the themes of Dewey to suggest areas for further theory development and
testing of service learning.
Paulo Friere was significantly influenced by Dewey s emphasis on de-
mocracy and dialogue (Saltmarsh, 1996). Both saw teachers as civic educators
(Anderson, Switch, & Yff, 2001). Though not addressing service learning by
name, Friere would certainly approve of its emphasis on involvement leading
to social change. Friere advanced the ideas of Dewey and others through his
understanding of learning situations as collaborative, active, community ori-
ented, and grounded in the culture of the student (Deans, 1999).
McElhaney (1998) notes the large gap in the timeline between the work
of Dewey and the work of Kolb, suggesting that the experiential education
movement lay relatively dormant for some 40 years. Wong (2001) suggests
that this may be attributed to the same factors that kept service learning itself
from flourishing in the 1940s and 1950s. Attention was focused on nondo-
mestic issues, and service to ones community was transformed into military
service (p. 29).
Other significant influences on the study of service learning include the
work by Giles and Eyler (1994) to advance service learning by focusing it on
theory and on research, as well as bringing renewed attention to the theoreti-
cal contributions of Dewey. The highest profile resource on service learning is
the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE) series called Ser-
vice Learning and the Disciplines that provides concrete resources to faculty
working in or wishing to explore service-learning (Zlotkowski, 2002, p. vii).
One volume in the AAHE series addresses religious studies (Devine, Favazza.
& McLain, 2002). The book deals with theoretical concerns, such as whether
service learning is descriptive or normative in religious studies, the relation-
ship of service learning to the institution and community, and extensive de-
scriptions of actual models of service learning in religious studies. The faculty
of Calvin College, a Christian liberal arts institution, published a book that
deals with service learning at their institution (Heffner & Beversluis, 2002).
These two books provide vivid and helpful examples of the implementation
of service learning principles in a distinctively Christian academic context.
In conclusion, service learning is the form of education that connects ex-
periential learning with community service in order to accomplish academic
objectives. It is characterized by its practical orientation, but it is well
grounded in educational theory and is the subject of extensive study.
128 Christian Education Journal

Situated Learning

Situated learning is related to service learning in many ways, but the two
concepts are rarely found discussed together in the literature. Wolfson (1999)
is the most notable exception whose chart on The Relation of Situated
Learning Principles to Service Learning Activities is tremendously helpful
(pp. 8-10).
The concept of situated learning emerges from social psychology. Situ-
ated learning is considered to be a constructivist approach to education that
considers the social context as foundational for the individuals development
of knowledge (Wolfson, 1999); views mental functioning as an aggregate of
contextually situated processes (Wertsch, 1985); is characterized by dialogue,
context, and participation (Goodale, 2001); and shifts the analytic focus from
the individual as learner to learning as participation in the social world (Lave
& Wenger, 1991). Learning and doing are inseparable, learning is a process of
enculturation, and situated learning is a type of learning that results from
complex social interaction at its center (Hill, 1998). It is important to note
that this article draws upon the pedagogical ideas related to human learning
processes in a manner that is unbundled from the philosophical baggage of
constructivism (Henze, 2009).
Situated learning may be best understood in comparison with most
other types of learning that are considered to be ahistorical and acontextual,
including the individual constructivism of Piaget (Lave, 1993; Rogoff & Lave,
1984). Hill (1998) deals extensively with the nuances of difference between
radical constructivism and various types of social constructivism. Traditional
approaches to learning make clear distinctions between learning and other
forms of human activity; focus on the transmission of existing knowledge;
have an assumed homogeneity of actors, goals, motives and activities; and do
not recognize failure to learn as normal (Lave, 1993).
Definition of other related terms helps to clarify the meaning of situated

Situated cognition is knowledge that is situated, at least in part, in the

context from which it is acquired (Kumer, 1995). The term is used by
some as an alternative heading for this conceptual area (Hill, 1998).
Cognitive apprenticeship is derived from the traditional concept of
apprenticeship, but adds the externalization of processes that are
usually carried out internally (Collins, 1989, p. 457). Instruction
is placed within authentic contexts that mirror real-life problem-
solving situations (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989).
Legitimate peripheral participation is a term coined for the process by
which newcomers become included in a community of practice, par
KEMP: Situated Learning 129

ticularly as they function on the periphery (Isenhour, 2000; Lave &

Wenger, 1991 ; Wenger, 1998).
Communities of practice are composed of people with a common
commitment, a common sense of purpose emerging from their activ-
ities, and group dynamics (Isenhour, 2000). They strive to reproduce
themselves so that group knowledge and identity are preserved over
time (Lave & Wenger, 1991).
Reification describes the process of constructing meaning through
participation in a community that allows various abstractions to be
made into things (Wenger, 1998).
The zone of proximal development is a small social area focused on in-
put for the process of internalization of the culture of the area (Enge-
strom, 1987; Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wink & Putney, 2002).

Key Contributors to the Study of Situated Learning

The study of situated learning originated with the work of a Russian psy-
chologist, Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky thought that people pass through develop-
mental stages in which they are particularly sensitive to particular social and
cultural influences that lead to learning. Wolfson (1999) has carefully item-
ized Vygotskys contributions. Vygotsky (1994) drew special attention to the
recognition of humans as social creatures and products of collaborative con-
struction (Billett, 1996). The zone of proximal development is Vygotskys
way to describe the difference between what someone can learn on his or her
own and what he or she can learn with guidance (Tudge, 1990). Vygotsky
views situated learning and classroom learning as complementary, but also as
reconceptualizing each other. Situated learning enables development from
lower to higher orders of cognition. Lastly, Vygotsky posits that socially dis-
tributed cognitive systems of people working collaboratively are more sue-
cessful than individuals working alone.
Other key contributors include the team of Lave and Wenger who con-
ducted an ethnographic investigation of five traditional and nontraditional
apprenticeships in various parts of the world. Their discoveries show how
learning can be explained by the function of legitimate peripheral participa-
tion through which new members of a community of practice operate on
the periphery as they are brought closer into the group. Lave and Wenger
(1991) provide analysis of the dialectic relationship between learning, activ-
ity, and setting over time and among communities of practice. Learners not
only participate in communities of practice, but also make into a thing ab-
stractions that help them organize meaning through reification (Wenger,
1998, p. 58).
130 Christian Education Journal

An article by Brown, Collins, and Duguid (1989) describes basic con-

cepts of situated learning, implications for schooling, and cognitive appren-
ticeship. Although the article is written primarily with K-12 education in
mind, it is very frequently cited as foundational to the discussion of situated
learning. Carr (1992) focuses on adult learners and the opportunity for col-
laboration with more capable peers through cognitive apprenticeships in the
situations of cultural institutions. Brown et al. (1989) make contributions in
a wide variety of types of publications: educational technology (Brown &
Duguid, 1993), organizational science (Brown & Duguid, 1991), human-
computer integration (Brown & Duguid, 1994), business review (Brown &
Duguid, 2000), business trends (Brown & Gray, 1995), educational innova-
tion (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1996), and management review (Brown &
Duguid, 1998).
Marcia Baxter-Magolda contributes significantly on the role of context
in student-centered learning. Baxter-Magolda (1999) provides an extensive
treatment of constructive-developmental pedagogy, demonstrating and ana-
lyzing this pedagogy in specific academic subject areas. Particular areas of de-
velopment for particular types of students are provided in a volume edited by
Baxter-Magolda (2000). Although not making explicit reference to situated
learning, Baxter-Magolda contributes significantly to an understanding of
the social construction of knowledge and learning.
In conclusion, situated learning is a very helpful way to conceptualize ex-
periential learning that focused both on service and context. Although situ-
ated learning theory receives far less attention in educational research than
experiential learning in general or service learning in particular, it is well
grounded in educational theory and has tremendous potential for considera-
tion of the role of primary social relationships as contexts for real-life learn-
ing community.

Learning Community

In recent years, there has been a tremendous surge of interest in learning

community in higher education. It has taken its place as a key dimension of
accreditation standards and institutional values, particularly for Christian in-
stitutions that have objectives of ministry preparation and spiritual forma-
tion. Yet, how is learning community defined? In nearly every deliberation
about learning communities of which I am aware, the components are iden-
tified as students, faculty, and institutionally created settings (usually a cam-
pus) who interact for the purpose of learning (Accrediting Association of
Bible Colleges, 2000, pp. 29, 42, 46; Boyer Commission, 1998; MacGregor,
Tinto & Lindblad, 2001). This assumes a form of learning community that is
KEMP: Situated Learning 131

institutional and academically oriented. Even learning communities in dis-

tance education are generally developed as non-traditional manifestations of
this traditional definition (Cully, 2002; Kemp, 2001; Palloff & Pratt, 1999;
Rheingold, 2001). Little or no consideration is given to the role of student
contexts apart from those directly associated with the traditional definition of
learning community.
A similar reliance on the traditional definition of learning community is
manifested in studies of adult learning. Eastmond (1998) describes the signif-
icance of the characteristics of what adults bring to the courses, how they
learn, and how they interact through online instruction. Bennett (2003) iden-
tifies this problem in a study of rural learners in distance education, noting
that far fewer sources recognize that aspects of the community can affect the
quality of educational experiences for its members (p. 14). Programs of
adult learning in distance education have incorporated most of the things
suggested by Chickering (1977) for commuter students, such as designing
course activities based on differences in learning style, combining group ac-
tivities and individual projects, maximizing interactions during class meet-
ings, creating learning teams, encouraging interactions between classes, and
providing explicit criteria for evaluation. Yet, few seem to have taken seriously
Chickerings (2000) suggestion for using ongoing experiential contexts that
are part of students daily lives (p. 29). Caffarella and Merriam (2000) in-
elude a section on situated learning in their work on adult learning, but then
focus on simulations, internships, apprenticeships, and role-playing, not real-
life situations.
Gibson (1998) is a rare exception, devoting an entire chapter to the dis-
tance learner in context, stating,As we look at the distance learner, we must
remember that these learners exist in a broad social context a social context
which can profoundly affect the success of the distance teaching-learning
transaction (p. 113). Another major exception is the work of Ormond Simp-
son (2003) whose research with students of the Open University demonstrates
that family and friends are the most important source of external support
greater than tutors, other students, employers, and the institution itself. He
claims, It appears that the most important single form of support for Open
University students is outside institutional control (and may be largely ig-
nored by institutions) (Simpson, 1999, p. 121). However, this research does
not seem to have been given attention by educators in North America, even
distance educators. A most pointed push in the direction of an alternative def-
inition of learning community comes in The Powerful Potential of Learning
Communities by Lenning and Ebbers (1999). In the conclusion of their chapter
on optimal college student learning communities, they cite Patricia Cross as
saying, Service learning is the ultimate learning community (p. 85).
132 Christian Education Journal

Alternative Definition of Learning Community

Ted Ward, prominent theological education researcher and consultant, is

the one who first drew my attention to the potential of real-life learning com-
munities in a workshop on Integrity of Method and Objective. Ward (1994)
asked workshop participants to examine three case studies that illustrate how
participants operate on an often uniformed presupposition that the campus
standards must surely be superior when in reality, in many situations, dis-
tance education can provide learning experiences that are superior to the
campus (p. 1). Cannell (1999) cites Ward as stating, The key fallacy is the
belief that any learning experience can simply be picked up whole and trans-
ported to some other location and situation. The lively circumstances of the
new context a students personal and vocational experiences, for example
are thus ignored (p. 39). This led to my composition of a monograph on
learning community in distance education in which I first addressed an alter-
native definition of learning community that emphasizes the role of primary
social relationships as real-life learning communities (Kemp, 2001) that calls
for integrity of method, objective, and context.
While it is tremendously important for academic institutions to take se-
riously the relation of students and faculty in institutional contexts, concern
for other dimensions of learning community are conspicuous by their ab-
sence. The college or seminary experience is often conceived as a time in a
students life to step away from other social contexts in order to prepare for
ministry. However, they do not cease to be spouses, children, parents, church
members, friends, employees, and neighbors when they enroll in college or
seminary. Although it is often true that many students suspend or reduce
many of their non-academic commitments, nearly all students, even those
living on a campus, maintain significant involvement in other contexts and
extensive communication with many for whom relationship is characterized
apart from the academic environment.
An alternative definition of learning community focuses on a students
own real-life learning context, particularly in the form of primary social rela-
tionships as contexts for experiential learning. Most discussion of learning
community in distance education focuses on the mediation of what is absent,
rather than what is present. Two recent studies move us in this direction.
Mount (2008) most clearly focuses attention on what is present in distance
education in her dissertation Presence in Distance: The Lived Experience of
Faith Formation in an Online Learning Community. Lowe and Lowe (in press)
move us forward significantly in the consideration of real-life learning con-
texts for all students in their article on Spiritual Formation in Theological
Distance Education: An Ecosystems Model as Paradigm. Situated learning
KEMP: Situated Learning 133

helps us focus on what is present, particularly for distance education stu-

dents, but also for commuters and campus-based students. Other non-
academic contexts offer tremendous potential for supporting the accom-
plishment of objectives of academic programs. The overriding strength of
the philosophy of experiential education is that it counters the distancing
[italics added] of the learner from the subject of instruction by placing
knowledge in context with real life nuances (McElhaney, 1998, pp. 24-25).

Historical and Cultural Perspective

Before proceeding to some examples of practical implementation, it may

be helpful to place Christian higher education in historical and cultural per-
spective. Many of us consider colleges and seminaries to be the norm for
ministry training. Formal higher education, including theological education,
on a broad scale is a relatively recent phenomenon of the Western world. Even
though the training of clergy was an integral part of the initial development
of higher education institutions in colonial America, as well as at the fore-
front of westward expansion in the 19th century (Brubacher & Rudy, 1997;
Rudoph, 1990; Jencks & Reisman, 1977), training of ministers in formal insti-
tutions was not a large-scale phenomenon until the twentieth century. Today,
a very large portion of North American churches are still served by ministers
without formal preparation. Formal education is fairly small-scale in many
parts of the world where the church is growing most rapidly.
There is also a theological foundation for this alternative definition. The
family and church are social institutions that were directly created by God for
the development of His people. He established the family and entrusted it
with the responsibility of spiritual formation (Deut 6, Eph 5-6). Similarly,
God established the church as a social institution for the development of
Christians, including ministry leaders (Eph 4). Few ministry training enter-
prises truly take the church seriously as the center for theological education
(Reed, 1992; 2001).
Christian higher education and theological education institutions arose
as specialty services for the church in a cultural context that places great value
on academics and academic credentials. Further, schools often responded to
situations in which families and churches were perceived to be not doing a
good job of developing people for ministry, particularly leaders. It has often
proved difficult for academic institutions to maintain proper emphasis on
ministry training and spiritual formation while also achieving academic ex-
cellence. Perhaps after decades of being a stop-gap solution for the perceived
inadequacies of the family and church as learning communities, it is time for
academic institutions to focus on an alternative definition of learning com-
134 Christian Education Journal

munity in order to optimize the God-given potential of primary social rela-

tionships as contexts for situated learning.
No part of higher education is better positioned to benefit from situated
learning than Bible colleges, Christian liberal arts colleges, and seminaries.
Theological education seems uniquely well suited because of the overlapping
missions of churches, families, and formal higher education institutions.
Families and churches tend to provide a level of support for students in min-
istry preparation that is unrivaled in any other field. Yet, it seems quite easy to
overlook in educational design and research. In a study of experiential learn-
ing, Beck (2001) makes reference to two anthropologists, Douglas (1982,
1989) and Lingenfelter (1996, 1998), who recognize social order found in
every society of the world: families, work, religious institutions, and educa-
tional institutions (or other institutional contexts). Still, she focuses only on
the learning experience in a quasi-campus context, not the natural social con-
texts of learners.
The areas of traditional academic programs that are probably doing the
most in terms of mobilizing these other learning communities are intern-
ships, field education, and Christian service assignments. Additionally, many
faculty members (and other staff and students) are helping students integrate
learning with real lives through assignments built into their courses, inten-
tional mentoring programs, and informal personal relationships. However,
the potential of the God-given learning communities has been largely un-
tapped. Commitments to family, church, job, and community are not just
roots that keep students from participation in the academic learning commu-
nity, but may be channels of nourishment that are vital for healthy growth.

Practical Examples of Implementation

The main point of this article is to recognize the priority of the social in-
stitutions of family and church as God-given learning communities, even for
those in academic ministry training programs. We need to take seriously our
intentions to incorporate components of community that extend beyond our
traditional focus on students and faculty on campuses. How well are we mo-
bilizing the God-given learning communities of home and church for our
In the final section of this article, I wish to show practical examples of the
implementation of situated learning theory for the accomplishment of aca-
demie objectives through the maximization of God-given learning commu-
nities. First, I will provide a few examples of situated learning where the con-
tent matches the context in terms of subject area, then I will focus on the
potential of mobilizing real-life relationships.
KEMP: Situated Learning 135

Content & Context

Situated learning is not entirely foreign to traditional academic pro-

grams. Most mission majors are now required to participate in an immersion
experience, such as a short-term mission trip, as part of their educational ex-
perience. Most M.Div. programs require a pastoral internship. These are fa-
miliar illustrations of situated learning that are already built into traditional
academic programs.
Perhaps the best place to start is with the role of context in the admission
process. Students are expected to have letters of recommendation from cur-
rent ministry leaders. However, they are not usually required to identify the
contexts of ministry that they expect to have during their academic program.
Participation in a local church is not just a good thing to do while enrolled in
a campus program, but has the potential to be a rich source of learning
through practical ministry and engagement in normal church life. The tran-
sition from the cloistered environment of traditional campus education to
real-life ministry should not begin at graduation, but at admission. Placing
emphasis on the establishment of ongoing ministry contexts at the outset of
an academic program helps it to be poised for optimization of learning
through the program.
Assignments at the lesson level and the course level could be used to
maximize real-life learning communities. However, so often in theological
education, we settle for less. In my Ph.D. dissertation (Kemp, 2007), I docu-
ment the manner in which assignments in distance education courses (in
which students can study where they are) call for students to engage in ex-
periential learning activities merely in hypothetical or rhetorical terms, as if
they were on campus, even though they are in the midst of real life ministry
contexts. It was uncommon to find assignments that used experiential learn-
ing activities built upon the reality of where they were. These distance educa-
tion courses, like traditional campus courses, seem to be built on a cloistered
frame of reference that is detached from engagement in life and ministry. Yet,
few students are truly removed from non-campus ministry contexts and rela-
tionships while enrolled.
It is common to hear someone say, if you really want to learn some-
thing, you need to teach it. However, little of our educational system is built
on this premise. Situated learning calls for us to put this concept into action
on a much more frequent basis. Even apart from formal classroom structures,
most students would benefit from the experience of trying to transfer their
learning to others. Often in higher education, we can mask our lack of under-
standing behind big words, long explanations, and citations of others. Les-
son-level assignments for topics could include requirements to give brief
136 Christian Education Journal

explanations of the lessons being learned to others in a student s ministry

context. These assignments should include an assessment dimension (such as
a simple, multiple-choice question, If what IVe said is true, then which of
the following is also true?) to determine whether the others have understood
what was explained to them. Students would be expected to report on how
their understanding of the topic was affected by the teaching of others. What
aspects of the topic did they learn better from the interaction? How would
they explain the topic differently in the future? The combination of founda-
tional knowledge, practical experience, and reflection leads to better under-
standing according to standard experiential learning theory (Kolb, 1984).
More extensive use of this technique, such as giving brief explanations of key
topics to a large number and/or wide array of people in ones ministry con-
text, could be used as a course-level assignment in most courses.
As mentioned earlier in this article, two books are excellent resources on
how to take advantage of service learning beyond the typical field education
and internship techniques. One volume in the AAHE series on service learn-
ing in the disciplines, called From Cloister to Commons: Concepts and Models
for Service-Learning in Religious Studies (Devine et al., 2002), provides exten-
sive descriptions of actual models of service learning in religious studies.
Also, the faculty members of Calvin College have published a volume called
Commitment and Connection: Service-Learning and Christian Higher Educa-
tion (Heffner & Beversluis, 2002) that gives many examples of the use of ser-
vice learning in academic programs for Christian institutions.
Lastly, capstone projects are used in some programs to demonstrate
comprehensive and/or integrative knowledge of an area, as well as to make a
unique contribution (M.A. thesis, D.Min. project, Ph.D. dissertation). How-
ever, the idea of a capstone project at the end of an academic program can be
a rich educational tool to connect a students learning with a real-life learning
context. It is common for students in M.Div. programs to create doctrinal
statements through the programs that will be used in ordination processes af-
ter graduation. Yet, it is uncommon for students outside of D.Min. programs
to develop comprehensive ministry strategy plans for specific ministry con-
texts. Even students who are unsure of their specific direction in ministry
upon graduation would benefit from thinking seriously about ministry strat-
egy in a specific ministry context. Such an assignment would be an excellent
counterpart to an internship or other major immersion experience, such as a
mission trip.

Content & Relationship

Another dimension of situated learning is focused on primary social re-

lationships as contexts for learning. Much more can be done in theological
KEMP: Situated Learning 137

education to take advantage the personal relationships of our students as

God-given contexts for learning.
None of us would deny that ministry preparation is a spiritual endeavor.
However, how seriously do we take the engagement of those with the gift of
prayer for our students? In addition to having prayer warriors who pray gen-
erally for our academic institutions and their programs, each student could
be required to enlist a prayer team from real-life relationships. At the begin-
ning of each term, a student could give syllabi to dedicated prayer warriors in
the students family, church, and/or community. An instructor who takes
prayer seriously could insist that students have others praying for them
throughout the course. By giving the syllabus to prayer warriors, you enable
them to follow along in the progress of the course and be very specific about
the contents of their prayer.
As stated above, it is often helpful to teach someone else in order to learn.
While it may not be possible for a full-time student to do this with every les-
son in every course, there is tremendous potential for increased comprehen-
sion and appreciation of the material if a student is quickly transferring it
into a ministry setting. A small group, Bible study, Sunday school class, or dis-
cipleship relationship serves well for this purpose. However, it is important
that the ministry includes personal relationships and interaction, not just
content transmission, so that the student can also benefit from the experi-
ence, wisdom, and insight of others in the group. Experiencing immediate
ministry benefit adds vitality to the course. Educational research shows that
these sorts of learning activities promote deeper learning, better retention,
and more development in the learner. Further, having a real-life learning
community that is dependent on the contribution of the student adds a sig-
nificant sense of engagement and responsibility for the student to maximize
learning in the traditional academic learning community.
In addition to the prayer warriors above, it is good for students to have
significant accountability for their learning to those who have a spiritual stake
in their development (such as pastors, mentors, church leaders, family mem-
bers). Many students give only vague reports about their progress and pay far
too much attention to their grades as indicators of success. Students need to
be explicitly and extensively accountable for their learning to those (other
than just faculty) who have responsibility for overseeing their ministry prepa-
ration. Perhaps faculty members should require graded exams and papers to
be reviewed by members of a students real-life learning community in order
to increase the level of accountability, but also to lead toward much greater
conscientiousness during courses for purposes of making relevant applica-
tion and retention of content.
Lastly, there are some tremendous gains that can be made, even in the
curricular areas that seem to be the most likely to separate students from their
138 Christian Education Journal

primary social relationships. Learning Biblical Hebrew is often described as

one of the most difficult and isolating experiences in theological education.
Yet, simply teaching the alphabet to a spouse, family member, or friend
equips them to be a study buddy who can be of enormous benefit. Now, in-
stead of having to study alone and experiencing the isolation that comes with
language learning, everyday social interactions can include review of vocabu-
lary, paradigms, and translation. Rather than experiencing the phenomenon
of learning that drives one away from interaction in primary social relation-
ships, students are driven toward them in order to accomplish the academic
objectives of learning Biblical Hebrew, but also to benefit from the nuances of
relationship that develop through meaningful interaction.


It is my conviction is that experiential learning turbocharges education . . .

and situated learning turbocharges experiential learning, particularly for min-
istry training and theological education because of the unique overlapping of
interests of educational institutions, churches, church networks, and Chris-
tian families.
This article focuses on experiential learning from the perspective of ser-
vice learning and situated learning. It proposes an alternative definition of
academic learning community, namely the role of real-life contexts and pri-
mary social relationships as God-given contexts for learning. It concludes
with practical application of the enormous potential for accomplishment of
educational objectives through situated learning.
We need to take seriously the development of traditional learning com-
munities (faculty and students interacting in an institutional context) in or-
der to improve our campus and distance education programs. However, we
should also take seriously other forms of learning community that have
tremendous potential for the accomplishment of our objectives, especially
the God-given learning communities of family and church.

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