Lave, Jean 1939-
Jean Lave is a social anthropologist, whose work on learning as an integral aspect of social practice has been a major influence on thinking in several fields, including cultural studies, sociolinguistics, organizational studies, human geography, and of course education. That so many disciplines have been influenced by her work speaks to the power of her insights.
Born in 1939, Jean Lave received her BA in anthropology from Stanford University and her PhD in social anthropology from Harvard University. She has taught at the University of California at Irvine and at Berkeley. She has done fieldwork research on the nexus of social practice, learning, and identity in a variety of settings, including Indian communities in Brazil, tailor apprentices in Africa, and shoppers in the United States. Subsequently, in the context of an ethno-historical study of the port trade undertaken with Paul Duguid, Lave investigated the complex identities of British families in Portugal (see the book History in Person). She has received several awards, including in 1994 the Sylvia Scribner Research Award from the American Educational Research Association in recognition of the influence of her work on thinking and research in education.
Those who have had the privilege to work with her know Lave as an exceptional teacher and collaborator, who practices her theorizing and invests in it her deep concern about the social production of marginalization. For her, in both her theory and her life, the production of knowledge is a fundamentally social enterprise. The book Understanding Practice, which she edited with Seth Chaiklin, reflects this ability to open spaces for learning together: It was the result of a highly collaborative two-part conference, during which a group of scholars met initially without position papers, but collaborated until a major contribution had been published.
Lave is best known for her seminal writing on situated learning, which she describes as “changing participation in changing practices.” In their book Situated Learning, she and Etienne Wenger introduced the now widely adopted concepts of “legitimate peripheral participation” and “communities of practice.”
But it is important to place these contributions in the context of Lave's intellectual trajectory. On the one hand, these developments were the result of two decades of careful studies of learning as situated in activity. Early in her career, Lave did an ethnographic study of apprenticeship among Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia, a study summarized in Situated Learning and analyzed in more details in a subsequent book Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnography. This ethnography convinced Lave that knowing and learning had to be understood as situated in the activities and trajectories of the apprentices whose new skills were part of their becoming tailors. Back in the United States, she applied the insights of the tailor study to understand the use of mathematics by shoppers in grocery stores. This study examined the complex relations among persons in action, social contexts, and knowledge-ability, and yielded an insightful critique of purely cognitive perspectives on learning laid out in her groundbreaking book Cognition in Practice.
On the other hand, communities of practice and legitimate peripheral participation are not isolated concepts. They are part and parcel of a broader framework, a learning theory anchored in a “historical, dialectical, social practice theory.” (Lave, 1996, p. 150) This theory places learning in the context of the lived experience of persons in the socially constituted world—with its histories, cultures, institutions, identities, generations, claims to knowledge, and their contested production and reproduction in communities of practice. A person always participates in multiple communities of practice, and learning entails the development of an identity across practices.
Turning this theoretically and ethnographically informed gaze on the classroom, Lave questions some fundamental assumptions about schooling. She uses insights from apprenticeship to challenge the privileged status of teaching and to argue that learning, not teaching, is the primary phenom-enon—for both students and teachers—learning as the fashioning of a trajectory of identity. Listening to students, she hears them talk about the work of entering their social reality rather than school subjects. She suggests that to advance teaching, “teachers need to know about the powerful identity-changing communities of practice of their students, which define the conditions of their work” (Lave, 1996, p. 159).
Her focus on social practice provides both a theoretical framework and a body of field research to analyze the classroom as a unique place of practice, with its own logic, politics, and history. This yields three fundamental questions about classroom teaching:
What is the practice of the classroom as a historically specific setting for learning?
How is the practice of the classroom related to “mature practices” in the world?
How is the practice of the classroom related to the everyday lives of students more broadly?
That these three questions seem natural to educators in the early 2000s is a tribute to the influence of Jean Lave.
Lave, J. (1988). Cognition in practice: Mind, mathematics, and culture in everyday life. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lave, J. (1993). The practice of learning. In Chaiklin, S., & Lave, J. (Eds.), Understanding practice: perspectives on activity and context. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as learning, in practice. Mind, Culture and Activity 3, 149-164.
Lave, J. (2001). Getting to be British. In Holland, D., & Lave, J. (Eds.), History in person: Enduring struggle, contentious practice, intimate identities. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.
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