Learning to Talk the Talk in the Community of Faith
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991
Reviewed by Ted Witham
Christian leaders desire to have Christians fully prepared for ministry and mission. They desire a church engaged in activities appropriate for Christian faith, especially worship, service and learning, a community of practice where people go beyond simply identifying as Christian.
Christian leaders in fact spend much energy and time in finding ways of forming Christians, and these ways are often introduced to Christian communities as programs. In my experience, these programs are often resisted. It is very difficult, for example, to establish the catechumenate in an Anglican parish despite its track record as a powerful tool for deepening people’s belonging, believing and acting.
The catechumenate for new Christians, Education for Ministry for Christians seeking to exercise a ministry of leadership in a local community and the preparation of local leaders for ordination as local deacons and priests have been a large part of my professional life. In addition, as a Third Order Franciscan, I am engaged in the formation of novices as they become professed members of the Order.
I have, therefore, a large personal stake in improving the systems by which we introduce people to ministry.
I thank my colleague and friend Craig Mitchell for drawing my attention to Situated Learning. The premise of this short book is that the process by which people become effective in a community of practice is more like socialisation than schooling.
Apprentices learn through their connection to a master, appropriate access to the ‘artefacts’ of their trade, and joining in the talk about their craft. Jean Lave discusses apprentice tailors in West Africa, meat-cutters in US super-markets, and midwives in Mexico. Difficulties with the meat-cutters’ apprenticeship are analysed, and apprentices fail to learn, for example, where there is not a ‘space’ where they can comfortably watch the saws as they are used by journey-men or masters.
Initiates to AA start with a problem with alcohol and end up as members of AA (non-drinking alcoholics) through a stepped process of listening to life-stories and shaping their own.
Situated learning works well when being a full part of the community of practice is more than learning a list of skills and supporting knowledge. Rather than focusing on the learners themselves, situated learning examines the total context in which the learners become members of the community of practice through their initially limited participation in it. As new-comers, they learn from old-timers and gradually become old-timers themselves.
The notion of participation thus dissolves dichotomies between cerebral and embodied activity, between contemplation and involvement, between abstraction and experience; persons, actions and the world are implicated in all thought, speech, knowing and learning. (p. 52)
The key concept of Situated Learning is legitimate peripheral participation, where learners are placed at the edge of the community of practice and they learn by staged participation.
Most of the examples have some rite to mark the beginning of this learning and phase and another at its end where they are recognised as full members of the community of practice. They become practitioners. The rites mark each person as a liminal member of the community, a member, yes, but not yet fully a member.
Rites not only mark the status of individuals, they are also powerful in renewing whole communities, as they focus attention on the role of the community in the formation of its new members. The Lenten rituals of the catechumenate, culminating in baptism (or renewal of vows) provide these markers for catechumens. The ceremonies of novicing and professing mark the beginning and ending of the formation of a Third Order novice.
In situated learning, a mentor may be provided for the learner: a sponsor or novice counsellor. As with an apprentice’s master, this mentor may not actually teach the learner anything about the community’s practices. Their function is to provide the mentor with one exemplar of a member of the community, whose life can be observed by the mentor, and to be the focus of the learner’s connection with the whole community.
In the highly relational community of practice of ministry (as lay, clergy or tertiary), the provision of a mentor highlights that relationships are the central act of all ministry. A sponsor or novice counsellor literally loves the learner into full participation.
Dr Lave surprisingly concludes that a learner becomes a full member of the community of practice when he talks the talk. This conclusion is helpful when the practice in question is ministry as a Christian, as a Christian leader, or as a Franciscan Christian.
It implies that the learner has been exposed to the teachings and stories of the community and reflected on them, and is able to continue that reflection by talking about them. It implies that the learner can participate in worship, either in the pews or the sanctuary, or in the specifically Franciscan practice of the Community Obedience, and that the learner’s ‘talk’ in worship is meaningful and life-giving.
It implies that the learner has had access to the ‘artefacts of the craft’: she has, for example, been able to reflect on what it means to receive Holy Communion in this community, to contribute meaningfully to the service this community engages in, has the tools – Bible, Prayer Book, Third Order Manual – on which her practice is now to be based.
The framework of legitimate peripheral participation takes into account the complexity of real communities of practice. It is:
Becoming a “member such as these” in an embodied telos too complex to be discussed in the narrower and simpler language of goals, tasks and knowledge acquisition. (p. 85)
The parallels between Lave’s concept of situated learning and the formation of Christian people for ministry are clear. The implications for action are more difficult to draw. This way of learning certainly takes the emphasis off the curriculum, what a novice has to learn, and places it on the community and the way it practices its ministry. It similarly de-thrones cerebral learning from the central place it might occupy and places it on the whole person. It suggests that learners should be allowed to do real ministry (as appropriate) and not learn facts about ministry.
This way of learning highlights the mentor-learner relationship, not for the transmission of knowledge, but as a simple symbol of the wider community.
Above all, this way of learning maintains the high importance of ministry to our community and its lived complexity. We attend to new members by building relationships with them at the same time as attending to the quality of our community of practice.
Programs like the catechumenate and EfM have their place, but they are not necessary to forming a more faithful community of practice. What is needed is the willingness of ‘old-timers’ – masters of the faith! – to engage new-comers in talk about ministry and faith, so that they too will come to talk the talk, and the walk will follow.