In sequencing activities for students, it is important to give students tasks that structure their learning but that preserve the meaningfulness of what they are doing. This leads us to three principles that must be balanced in sequencing activities for students.

1. Global before local skills. In tailoring (Lave, 1988), apprentices learn to put together a garment from precut pieces before learning to cut out the pieces themselves. The chief effect of this sequencing principle is to allow students to build a conceptual map, so to speak, before attending to the details of the terrain (Norman, 1973). In general, having students build a conceptual model of the target skill or process (which is also encouraged by expert modeling) accomplishes two things: First, even when the learner is able to accomplish only a portion of a task, having a clear conceptual model of the overall activity helps him make sense of the portion that he is carrying out. Second, the presence of a clear conceptual model of the target task acts as a guide for the learner’s performance, thus improving his ability to monitor his own progress and to develop attendant self-correction skills. This principle requires some form of scaffolding. In algebra, for example, students may be relieved of having to carry out low-level computations in which they lack skill in order to concentrate on the higher-order reasoning and strategies required to solve an interesting problem (Brown, 1985).

2. Increasing complexity refers to the construction of a sequence of tasks such that more and more of the skills and concepts necessary for expert performance are required (VanLehn and Brown, 1980; Burton, Brown, and Fisher, 1984; White 1984). For example, in the tailoring apprenticeship described by Lave, apprentices first learn to construct drawers, which have straight lines, few pieces, and no special features, such as waistbands or pockets. They then learn to construct blouses, which require curved lines, patch pockets, and the integration of a complex subpiece, the collar. There are two mechanisms for helping students manage increasing complexity. The first mechanism is to sequence tasks in order to control task complexity. The second key mechanism is the use of scaffolding, which enables students to handle at the outset, with the support of the teacher or other helper, the complex set of activities needed to accomplish any interesting task. For example, in reading, increasing task complexity might consist of progressing from relatively short texts, employing straightforward syntax and concrete description, to texts in which complex interrelated ideas and the use of abstractions make interpretation difficult.

3. Increasing diversity refers to the construction of a sequence of tasks in which a wider and wider variety of strategies or skills are required. Although it is important to practice a new strategy or skill repeatedly in a sequence of (increasingly complex) tasks, as a skill becomes well learned, it becomes increasingly important that tasks requiring a diversity of skills and strategies be introduced so that the student learns to distinguish the conditions under which they do (and do not) apply. Moreover, as students learn to apply skills to more diverse problems, their strategies acquire a richer net of contextual associations and thus are more readily available for use with unfamiliar or novel problems. For reading, task diversity might be attained by mixing reading for pleasure, reading for memory (studying), and reading to find out some particular information in the context of some other task.


The final dimension in our framework concerns the sociology of the learning environment. For example, tailoring apprentices learn their craft not in a special, segregated learning environment but in a busy tailoring shop. They are surrounded both by masters and other apprentices, all engaged in the target skills at varying levels of expertise. And they are expected, from the beginning, to engage in activities that contribute directly to the production of actual garments, advancing quickly toward independent skills in the context of their application to realistic problems, within a culture focused on and defined by expert practice. Furthermore, certain aspects of the social organization of apprenticeship encourage productive beliefs about the nature of learning and of expertise that are significant to learner’s motivation, confidence, and most importantly, their orientation toward problems that they encounter as they learn. From our consideration of these general issues, we have abstracted critical characteristics affecting the sociology of learning.

1. Situated learning. A critical element of fostering learning is to have students carry out tasks and solve problems in an environment that reflects the multiple uses to which their knowledge will be put in the future. Situated learning serves several purposes. First, students come to understand the purposes or uses of the knowledge they are learning. Second, they learn by actively using knowledge rather than passively receiving it. Third, they learn the different conditions under which their knowledge can be applied. As we pointed out in the discussion of Schoenfeld’s work, students have to learn when to use a particular strategy and when not to use it (i.e., the application conditions of their knowledge). Fourth, learning in multiple contexts induces the abstraction of knowledge, so that students acquire knowledge in a dual form, both tied to the contexts of its uses and independent of any particular context. This unbinding of knowledge from a specific context fosters its transfer to new problems and new domains. For example, reading and writing instruction might be situated in the context of students putting together a book on what they learn about in science. Dewey created a situated learning environment in his experimental school by having the students design and build a clubhouse (Cuban, 1984), a task that emphasizes arithmetic and planning skills.

2. Community of practice refers to the creation of a learning environment in which the participants actively communicate about and engage in the skills involved in expertise, where expertise is understood as the practice of solving problems and carrying out tasks in a domain. Such a community leads to a sense of ownership, characterized by personal investment and mutual dependency. It can’t be forced, but it can be fostered by common projects and shared experiences. Activities designed to engender a community of practice for reading might engage students and teacher in discussing how they interpret what they read and use those interpretations for a wide variety of purposes, including those that arise in other classes or domains.

3. Intrinsic motivation. Related to the issue of situated learning and the creation of a community of practice is the need to promote intrinsic motivation for learning. Lepper and Greene (1979) and Malone (1981) discuss the importance of creating learning environments in which students perform tasks because they are intrinsically related to an interesting or at least coherent goal, rather than for some extrinsic reason, like getting a good grade or pleasing the teacher. In reading and writing, for example, intrinsic motivation might be achieved by having students communicate with students in another part of the world by electronic mail (Collins, 1986; Levin, 1982).

4. Exploiting cooperation refers to having students work together in a way that fosters cooperative problem solving. Learning through cooperative problem solving is both a powerful motivator and a powerful mechanism for extending learning resources. In reading, activities to exploit cooperation might involve having students break up into pairs, where one student articulates his thinking process while the other student questions the first student about why he made different inferences. Cooperation can be blended with competition; for example, individuals might work together in groups to compete with other groups.