Recently, I had an experience that, for me, exemplifies the meaning of “situated learning”. I had the basement walls of my house painted including the room where the water heater is located. The next day I had no hot water. The electric pilot light on the water heater was not coming on. I didn’t know how to fix the problem so I turned to YouTube and found a video that explained what to do. With my iPad next to the water heater, I learned how to reset the little computer that regulates the pilot light and gas. Apparently, the fumes from the paint had activated a safety feature that turns off the pilot light.

I could have taken a course on Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning, but that would have been useless in my case. Without feeling the urgency of the problem and without being in the context of my water heater, I would not have remembered what to do about it. Learning in this case required all of the elements of the actual situation: the particular water heater; the basement environment; the pressure I (and my wife) felt to have hot water; and my limited knowledge about modern heating and cooling.

John Seely Brown, Allan Collins, and Paul Duguid labeled this kind of learning: “situated cognition”. They write:

People who use tools actively rather than just acquire them, by contrast, build an increasingly rich implicit understanding of the world in which they use the tools and of the tools themselves. The understanding, both of the world and of the tool, continually changes as a result of their interaction. Learning and acting are interestingly indistinct, learning being a continuous, life-long process resulting from acting in situations.

 Learning how to use a tool involves far more than can be accounted for in any set of explicit rules. The occasions and conditions for use arise directly out of the context of activities of each community that uses the tool, framed by the way members of that community see the world. The community and its viewpoint, quite as much as the tool itself, determine how a tool is used. Thus, carpenters and cabinet makers use chisels differently. Because tools and the way they are used reflect the particular accumulated insights of communities, it is not possible to use a tool appropriately without understanding the community or culture in which it is used.

We have the technology that can support situated learning in companies; that can merge learning and acting. We have technology that allows employees to learn when, where, and how they need to learn. One example of this technology is KnowledgeStarTM

Let’s say you work at a refinery and you are responsible for reading the new DigitalFlow Flare Gas Meter. The company’s cost and safety goals depend on you recording accurate readings. You can Gas meter reading attend the class that’s offered once per quarter or you can go to the meter and, using your smart phone, “talk” to it using the KnowledgeStar system. Instructions are automatically sent to you and you can “pull” the information you need from the cloud. You might ask to see a video model of someone reading the meter. You might ask for a checklist with a list of things critical for you to do. You might look up some tips for long term maintenance of the meter. You might discuss this event with someone knowledgeable in the company who can give you feedback regarding what you did and how well you did it. This is situated learning in an industrial environment.

I’ve written extensively about creating and sustaining a learning culture in organizations. Part of the mix of activities in that kind of culture must be intentional and guided situated learning. It’s not sufficient to simply require employees to attend a training program or put employees in the activity they need to perform and hope they learn from experience. Learners acquire most knowledge and skills best in the situation in which they must apply that learning and with feedback and reflection, preferably from an onsite work group where they can receive support and hear a variety of perspectives that challenge their own thinking about their work.