Friday, September 20, 2013

Legitimate Peripheral Participation: A new lens for viewing the first year of higher education

At the outset, let me say that I'm a theoretical and philosophical nerd.  I like to read about theory and educational philosophies because they're just plain interesting and they lead me to see educational experiences differently, which I enjoy.  That said, my strong stance is that, without a theoretical foundation, those who design and order educational experiences (whether that is in a classroom, a home, a playing field, or music hall) aren't nearly as intentional and impactful as they can be when they are operating from a clear set of theoretical or philosophical principles.  Steve Yanchar, a faculty member in the Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology at BYU, has written very eloquently and persuasively about this idea here.

So, with that roundabout disclaimer for any theory-averse readers, here goes.

One of the most interesting theoretical frameworks for describing and understanding learning that I've come across is Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's notion of Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).  To really understand the theory, you'll need to read their book.  But, for the sake of this post and your time, here are the main ideas.

  • Learning isn't merely knowledge or skill acquisition; rather, learning is the process of becoming increasingly skilled in the practices and discourses of a particular community of practice.  This means that "learning" is situated in particular contexts, activities, and social groups.  For example, learning to be a nurse isn't just understanding what to call particular body parts or how to give an injection (though this knowledge and skill is part of the process).  Instead, learning to be a nurse involves learning to think, act, and talk like expert nurses do.  Ultimately, it is a way of being that subsumes a whole constellation of knowledge, skill, and values.  So, learning is the process of becoming like the experts or "old-timers" that are part of an already existing community.
  • In order to learn or become in these ways, a novice or newcomer needs to have access to the practices of the community.  So, that means being around old-timers, hearing the stories they tell, the way they describe problems, and seeing the way they do their work (whether that's making hamburgers at McDonald's, working on stopped up toilets, or writing academic articles).
  • Learners also need opportunities to participate in legitimate and peripheral activities within the community and with other community members.  Lave and Wenger use the example of apprentice Vai and Gola Tailors in West Africa, who learn to be master tailors, first by hemming cuffs and attaching buttons to already finished articles.  From there they move on to increasingly complex tasks, all of which are integral to the overall process of tailoring an entire piece of clothing.  By participating in these practices, they don't just learn how to tailor, but learn what it means to be a tailor, with all of the complexities that come with that craft.  All three principles (participation, legitimacy, and peripherality) are key here because if any of these conditions isn't met, learning isn't likely to occur.  For example, if a tailor isn't performing a legitimate aspect of the tailoring process (e.g. distributing handbills in a public square to generate more business) or one that is peripheral (e.g. working in a setting completely disconnected or isolated from the master tailors), he or she isn't likely to master the knowledge, skills, discourse, or tools necessary to be a good tailor.  Rather, the "learning" will be fragmented and artificial.
There's much more that could be said about LPP, but that should be enough to provide a basic overview of the theory.  

Given the work I do with first-year students on my campus, my question is how LPP might inform the way we welcome, orient, and "teach" students during their first year.  Here are a few thoughts:

1.  First-Year Experience programs should be built around meaningful tasks.  Although there are certainly things that we want first-year students to know and be able to do by the time they finish their initial year on campus, talking at students about these things (whether it is in new student orientation, in a freshman seminar course, or any other formal setting) isn't likely to lead to any real learning or growth.  Instead, we should be identifying a series of developmental tasks that students can be invited (or better yet, expected or required) to participate in during their first two semesters.  And, no, I don't just mean coming up with a list of courses.  Thoughtful FYE administrators will consider what the practices and behaviours of "expert students" are and structure FYE tasks/objectives around these things.

2.   First-year students should be provided with a comprehensive view of the mission and purposes of their particular mission from the very beginning of their experience.  In West African tailor shops this happens through the early tasks novice tailors are asked to complete.  It's very simple, by working with finished garments that have been tailored by master's, newcomers develop a good sense very early on of what a quality finished garment should look and feel like.  And, having that comprehensive understanding helps guide and focus their learning as they move through other tasks.  For a first-year experience program this can and should happen at New Student Orientation.  I've written before about how this could happen during an Orientation Convocation, but there are other, more active ways to give students this perspective as well.  One that was suggested on my campus by one of the administrators involved in orientation was to invite second semester students to serve as orientation leaders.  At first this seems risky, after all, how much can a second semester student really know about campus or about what new students need to know.  But, there is an intriguing idea here in that expecting second semester students to convey institutional messages and model effective student habits for their peers might speed up their development.  By expecting nearly new students to help to orient and support even newer students, we provide them with a meaningful opportunity to embrace and internalize a set of beliefs and practices that are important for their success.  And, by involving them in these ways, we involve them in an important aspect of our work (legitimate peripheral participation).  Similarly, any opportunities for new students to mentor, tutor, or advise their peers (even if that is in a simple setting like a study group) can move forward their growth, again, because they are participating in the work of the institution in meaningful ways.

3.  First-year students should have access to "old-timers."  This could mean anything from experienced students, to faculty members, to administrators or staff members.  The key idea is to structure the first-year in ways that provide opportunities for these interactions.  As a non-example, consider the practice of packing new students into large lecture halls for "survey" or "intro" classes.  Not only is this generally a poor way to learn, it provides little to no opportunities for students to have meaningful interactions with a faculty member.  In contrast, small seminars, employment and research opportunities, and mandatory advising facilitate these types of interactions where new students can learn by watching, talking, and participating with more seasoned members of the campus community.

Ultimately, the goal of the first-year experience should be to invite new students to become full participants in the campus community by structuring their experiences and interactions in ways that allow them to actually participate in those practices.  And that can extend well beyond the realm of traditional academics, to the arts, meaningful service, and anything else that a particular campus might value.

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