Jean Lave’s Problem

Eclectic Heretic Homeschooler
August 28, 2015
Natural Learning in Action
August 28, 2015
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Jean Lave’s Problem

by Dr John Peacock

Jean Lave had a problem.

She knew that the best scholarship said that schools were better than other places of learning because in schools skilled professionals taught general principles that were objective and unbiased because they were not dependent upon particular contexts or situations. That same scholarship said that other sorts of learning, such as go on in the home or in apprenticeships, for example, were second rate because they only taught people to mindlessly repeat or do as they had been taught.

Yet here she was studying apprentices in a poor African tailoring community and finding an 85% success rate, observing creative and complex learning and none of it had anything to do with teaching!

What is more, when she did the obvious and started looking at learning, not teaching, in other contexts she found similar results.

It became clear that when people are taken out of the real world of everyday, put in isolated institutions and ‘taught’ knowledge away from involvement in its practice nothing happens with respect to that knowledge.

That is, schools don’t work.

At least schools don’t work in terms of what teachers say they are doing.

Learning, she found, is not about passing things from the head of one individual to the head of another but about becoming like another person, developing an identity. Do you remember how you always did better in the classes of teachers you liked?

Learning is a social, not a cognitive process.

“Wherever people engage for substantial periods of time, day by day, in doing things in which their ongoing activities are interdependent, learning is part of their changing participation in changing practice.1


What is more, that superior ‘decontextualised’ knowledge of the schools was generated in specific contexts and could only be put to work in specific contexts whereas the situated knowledge and practices that she observed could be generalized to all appropriate contexts.

Focusing on learning, she found, was much more fruitful than looking at teaching and she came to the conclusion that because learning is, of its nature, a process of developing identity within the practice of a developing community the learning of some sort must be happening with the school community.

Drawing upon the research of Olsen (1995), Carlock and others she found that learning certainly does go on in school but it has more to with the peer group than the Principal, with the “turf” of the different student groups than the classroom and with a student’s status and identity among fellow students than his school report. In other words, teachers, their subjects and their values are peripheral to the community of practice in which the students are learning and crafting their own identities.

For Jean Lave this is a fascinating area of research that has as much to do with social and political justice as anything else.

Home Educator Parent’s Solution

Jean Lave has discovered this through her research but thinking parents have reached the same conclusion in practice as they reflect upon the issues that face them every day in their parenting practice. Their conclusion has been to take their children out of school, or not enroll them, and immerse them in the community of practice that is the family and its networks rather than the community of practice of the school based peer group.

“What do home educating parents want their children to learn?”

When I ask this question I get “becoming” replies that fall largely within a common framework. “I want my children to be independent thinkers, caring for people and the environment having high self-esteem, a balanced, happy personality and being creatively useful rather than a drag on society.” These responses tend to support Lave’s perspective on what education is all about.

Not all parents have understood what is happening to the same extent. Indeed, knowing of no alternative or lacking confidence, most start off with a “school-at-home” approach in which they try their own hand at teaching or are persuaded to buy expensive packages of teaching materials of dubious value.

Some find themselves in a school-like, institutionalized community of practice built around the packaged materials but others move, over time, to an increasing reliance upon the family as the community within which all participants, including adults, grow and learn as they develop their own individual identities along with the family identity. To come back to Lave’s definition: “Wherever people engage for substantial periods of time, day by day, in doing things in which their ongoing activities are interdependent, learning is part of their changing participation in changing practice.” My own research indicates that children do become a really important contributing part of the family community so that parents and children become truly interdependent and that out of the interdependence parents begin to learn and grow in ways that they value. Children are “useful again” as Edgar2 put it. This is not just in a domestic servant sense but as real players in the emotional and developmental life of the family.

Perhaps that is why so many home educating parents place so much value upon their children learning the interpersonal and other skills that will enable them to establish permanent and positive families of their own. Within home educating families I observe parents trying to reproduce idealized versions of themselves in their children but in the process of engaging they are being themselves changed. There is a kind of dialectic going on in which “the child is father of the man” in a more real sense than even the poet anticipated.

The developmental trajectories of the children cannot be described in the jerky terms of primary, secondary and tertiary education because they observe and are an integral part in a living organism in which such divisions are meaningless.

There is no end because living and learning are synonymous and experienced every day in all the rich diversity and complexity of situated activity.

It remains to be seen what vested interests will do with schools but I find it fascinating that the development of home education and situated learning theory have run such a parallel course in history. I know from personal experience that natural learning, that is, the involvement of my children every day in the ongoing situated activity of my family and its network as a community of practice, is providing and has provided them with the best learning opportunities possible. It is encouraging to have leading edge scientists confirm the fact. Woe betide anyone who wants to rob our children of that advantage.

Lave, J. (1995) Scribner Award Lecture. AERA conference.
Edgar, D. (1988) Children, from useful to useless to useful again. AIFS.

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