Field Day Lab
Oct 19, 2015 · 5 min read

Why Situated Learning Matters

What is situated learning and why do we care so much about it? Situated learning refers to knowledge that is developed and applied in the same social setting in which it is typically used — such as when you learn to use a hammer by actually building something, and the values and practices associated with becoming a carpenter by working on a construction crew.

One of the clearest examples of the need for situated learning can be seen in language learning. Take this scenario, for example. It’s the end of the semester and you’ve learned all the Spanish verb conjugation charts, you know the 45 vocab words for your final exam, and you can introduce yourself and inquire about the weather. Maybe you even write a paragraph or essay that’s good enough to get you an A on your exam. But when you overhear your neighbors chatting at the grocery store in rapid-fire Spanish, you can’t enter into their conversation. Sure, you can point to the apple in his cart, “manzana,” or say “gracias.” But the words feel thick and uncomfortable on your tongue. You struggle to conjugate the verbs in your head as you ask the kids about their day at school. “What’s going on?” you wonder. “I just wrote several good paragraphs on my test earlier today about how to converse at the store! This shouldn’t be so hard!”

Photo Credit: @maximalideal Chris Holden

Determined to learn the language, you spend the summer in Guatemala, or Mexico, or even in your neighborhood while paying special attention to your community’s Spanish speakers. You keep starting conversations with your neighbor — in Spanish — and surround yourself with other Spanish speakers. Pretty soon, you know phrases you never saw in a text book. You understand nuances in tone, verb conjugations flow from your mouth with ease, and you enjoy the rolling r’s and bouncing vowels all around you.

You just experienced situated learning.


Student’s using our Siftr app to learn about plants in the field.

Situated learning as an instruction model is based on observations made by anthropologists Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. It argues that learning happens best where the knowledge is applied, whether in a specific social setting or a physical place. When learning is situated, it is an experience of a particular sort — one that is open for critical thought but guided by the practices of those who use the knowledge that is being learned in their everyday lives.

Even before Situated Learning was named and described by Lave and Wenger, John Dewey (not the Dewey Decimal System guy), recognized that experience is at the core of learning. He wrote a book called Experience and Education, which criticized the method that teaches something like mathematics independent of how it is used in the world around us. He argued that learning ideas from books and tests gives the appearance that knowledge is static and everything has already been discovered. It gives the impression that learning and discovery involves doing what one is told. While we want learners to understand and learn from the past, too often educational settings stop short of allowing learners to hypothesize and test ideas, and to learn from experiences that both succeed and fail.

Whether a learner is in a classroom, at home, or in the wild, his or her learning experiences are always in a context. The challenge educators face is how to design that context so that it supports the lessons being learned. They also need to be enjoyable and connected with the language and practices people actually use in the real world.


One way to make learning fun and contextualized is through games and game-design. Let’s go back to that Spanish exam you aced on paper, but not so much in a real life scenario. Imagine that instead of an essay, your final was to create a game about navigating el SuperMercado. The game rules and game play must all be done in Spanish. Don’t you think you — and your classmates — would have fun developing a working use of Spanish?

Julie Sykes designs a level Spanish Language game Mentira made in ARIS (photo credit: Chris Holden)


In this way, we see that learning isn’t just about memorizing set lists, numbers, and formulae, but putting those things into practice in authentic experiences. In our game design workshops, the teachers come as educators AND as learners. As they create games with our designers’ input, they experience situated learning; they learn to design a similar experience for their students — embracing the title of “Experience Designer” — using ARIS, Siftr, and whatever else is at their disposal.

Most recently, we have seen teachers such as Larry Gundlach and Craig Brumwell adopt the role of the Experience Designer by using digital tools to help learners explore and invest in the history of their communities. Larry’s activity with Siftr situates poetry as an outlet for critical thinking and creative output as learners apply their daily experiences for fun and poetic results. Craig’s use of ARIS guided students to emotionally engage with the experiences of local residents in their Canadian town. These two educators join the thousands of others who have implemented situated learning as their theoretical grounding for how they teach.


Teacher’s playing games right before designing their own

John Dewey argued for experiential education because he believed that education is a powerful liberating force. We at Field Day agree, and hope to further this ideal as we work with educators to design situated learning experiences. When educators become designers, they guide learners to grow as interested and inquisitive people who will make a healthier and more just world. We invite folks like yourself to join us in our work in conceiving of learning as embedded in our daily lives.

Teacher’s designing ARIS Games with us

Hey, if you would really into this idea let us know what kind of situated learning experiences you have designed! If you are interested in trying out some of the tools we have designed to help people explore the world check out ARIS Games for making games and stories around your neighborhood or Siftr for photo field collection activities. Everything we do is free!

Field Day Lab

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Designing learning experiences that blur the lines between virtual and physical, formal and informal, play and work. Find us at

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