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Contexts, boundary objects and hybrid spaces: theorising learning in lifelong learning

Richard Edwards

University of Stirling, Scotland

Paper presented at the 35th Annual SCUTREA Conference July 5-July 7 2005, University of Sussex, England, UK


This paper focuses on the questions of what constitutes a learning context and how the relationship between learning and context can best be conceptualised when we work with a framing of lifelong learning. These are not new questions. Chaiklin and Lave (1996) suggest that all social practices are contextualised and involve learning, but how those practices are conceptualised is more contentious.

Simply put, there are two sets of queries underpinning this discussion. First, under the sign of lifelong learning, a great deal of attention is being given to those diverse domains outwith educational institutions and other structured learning opportunities wherein people are held to learn. The workplace, the home and the community are all held to be domains of learning, within which there are specific sites. In this sense, there are learning contexts distributed across the social order and embedded in social practices. That this is the case has become perhaps most apparent in the development of distributed, blended and online learning through the use of information and communication technologies and the use of the Internet as a site and resource for learning. However, insofar as we expand our concept of learning to embrace apparently all domains of life, we might be said to start to lose the conceptual basis for talking specifically of a learning context. What is specific to a learning context which is not to be found in other contexts? What characterises a specifically learning context? Who names these contexts as learning contexts? The latter is important insofar as the discourses of educators and researchers are not necessarily shared by those who are engaging in practices within the domains identified as contexts of learning. The meaning and significance of social practices can therefore vary. Insofar as people do not identify themselves as learning in different domains, they may not draw upon the resources and relationships available to them for learning in other domains.

Second, as indicated, the learners themselves move in and between these domains and may be said to carry with them aspects of their learning and identity. This may be from task to task within a single domain or between domains, signifying different distances between contexts. The question then emerges about how we understand a learning context, when the learning is not bounded by a specific set of institutional relationships and structures. Pedagogic approaches may seek to bound the learning and the learner, but there is also the sense in which there is a desire for learning to be mobile. This is exemplified, for instance, in the discourses of transferability and transferable skills and those of the recognition of prior experiential learning. In this sense, a context may be considered a bounded container within which the learning takes place or a more fluid and relational set of practices. In the former, there is a sense in which there is closure to contain or structure the learning, which once acquired may, in principle, be poured from one domain container into another.

The relational framings find expression in theories of learning that emphasise activity and draw upon concepts of communities and networks rather than that of context. Here, rather than a container, context is an outcome of activity or is itself a set of practices. Practices and learning are not bounded by context but emerge relationally and have the potential to be mobilised in a range of domains and sites based upon participation in multiple communities of practice (Tuomi-Grohn, et al. 2003). To understand context in container or relational terms has effects on how we conceptualise the mobilising of learning across domains and associated pedagogic practices.

Once we look beyond the context of conventional sites for learning, allowing context to be extended into the dimension of relationships between individual learners and variously defined others mediated through a range of social, organisational and technological factors, then the limitations of much conventional pedagogy comes into sharp focus. Pedagogy has for many been defined as contained within the ‘spaces of enclosure’ of the classroom, the book and the curriculum (Lankshear, et al. 1996). Here learners move from one classroom to another, one curriculum area to another, one institution to another in a linear step-by-step way. Identifying pedagogy across the life course requires different conceptual framings.

In trying to address the question of what constitutes a learning context therefore (description), we are also therefore required to address the question of how we frame that description (conceptual) and vice versa. Yet in much of the discussion of learning and certainly in the policies to promote lifelong learning in different domains. In a range of domains, concepts of communities of practice, networks and activity systems have come to the fore to help frame our understanding of pedagogy in extended and complex contexts of learning. How such framings constitute a learning context and their implications for learning and teaching across domains therefore represents a major focus for consideration for anyone interested in pedagogical research and practice.

Framing contexts

It is possible to locate a number of areas of debate and conceptual framings relevant to the question of context in the fields of:

These complement and contribute to existing work in education on areas such as

  • informal and community-based learning,
  • learning in the home,
  • workplace learning (e.g. Eraut 2004),
  • experiential and vicarious learning e.g. (Mayes, et al 2001),
  • vertical and horizontal discourse (e.g. Bernstein 1999), and
  • tacit knowledge (e.g. Eraut 2000,).
  • Some of this work focuses on domains other than educational institutions e.g. the workplace, some on the relationship between domains, some on the relationships between learners and other groups, and some on the transferability of learning from one domain to another. There is thus no shortage of research to draw upon in trying to make sense of the notion of a context for lifelong learning.

    What is perhaps significant is that much of the literature on learning is framed within a set of binaries, which separate domains from one another. Thus, broadly within the arena of cultural psychology, there is a distinction made between everyday and formal/scientific learning (see contributions to Murphy and Ivinson 2003). In the realm of applied linguistics, the focus is on vernacular/contextualised and formal/decontextualised literacy practices (Barton and Hamilton 1998) framed within the everyday and educational experiences of learners. In educational research, the debate has become focused around either informal or experiential learning and formal learning.

    Each of these binaries identifies that learning is occurring across a range of domains and sites, but that this learning is in some senses situated or contextualised. The range of learning contexts may therefore be extended and what can be identified as learning. However, their very situatedness and pedagogical approaches that assume domains to be discrete – we leave ourselves at the metaphorical door of the classroom – mean that learning from one site is not necessarily realised as a resource in other sites by either teachers or learners. Learning contexts are conceived as containers still.

    There is the identification of a gap and exploration of how that comes to be and how these gaps might be overcome. This is sometimes in order that learners resources can be realised in formal educational sites, but also vice versa, especially where the concern is for the transfer of learning from education to the workplace (Tuomi-Grohn and Engestrom 2003). There is also the attempt to frame this as a two-way process, in which both the learning and the domains are transformed in the process of being related, thereby producing a boundary zone or hybrid space.

    Learning in different contexts may involve different types of learning for different purposes, so we might need to question the extent to which, as educational researchers and pedagogic practitioners, we should try to overcome the gaps. The educational rationale for such an approach is often that education is not recognising or developing the full potential of learners by not mobilising their full resources in formal sites, or that what is learnt is not relevant to the ‘real world’. However, this tends to deny conflict and difference in and through learning. It assumes the inherent worthwhileness of education that denies the very struggles in and around it, where some people seek to keep a gap between their lives and what is educationally available.

    A concern is that in starting with those binaries, a whole discourse is produced that sends us down particular pathways, looking at certain things in certain ways. As a result, we may misconceive the pedagogical issue and, perhaps more importantly, we may frame issues in educational terms when more appropriately they should be framed in other ways.

    Thus, for instance, the discussion of informal and formal learning often ignores the informality of learning in educational institutions and the formality of some learning in other organisations (Coffield 2000). Billett (2002) has argued that the informal/formal learning debate is a waste of time and that either people are learning or they are not. Colley, et al. (2003) have argued somewhat differently that attributes of formality and informality can be found in all learning situations. These suggest that sites of learning are more complex and relational, as to produce the formal there must be a realisation of that which is informal and vice versa. In other words, learning contexts are practically and discursively performed and performative. They co-emerge with the activities by which they are shaped and vice versa.

    The attempts to conceptualise this are to be found in the discussion of:

    Situated learning, activity theory and actor-network theory have been drawn upon if different ways to help conceptualise learning that is not confined to educational institutions. Metaphorically and analytically each attempts to frame learning in alternative ways to that of the learning context as container. Simulations and boundary zones (Tuomi-Grohn, et al. 2003) are formulated as mediators between domains within which pedagogy may seek to mobilise a fuller range of resources for learning than in the formal domain of education.

    As can be seen, it is the theories that focus on activity and participation that have come to the fore as the notion of a learning context has become more complex. Learning is a generic concept, but as such is not very helpful. Learning is undertaken by specific people (who may or may not name themselves as learners), in specific sites, for specific purposes. And perhaps more importantly they are learning something in particular. Thus if we frame learning as a situated practice, in what ways can it be logically transferable, unless we locate the movement from site to site as a forms of situated learning? How and what we learn in movement then becomes perhaps more interesting than what we learn in specific sites; the transition itself becomes a site for learning, extending the grasp of pedagogy yet further. What then goes on in the gaps between sites and how are they to be framed? And what are the implications for those within educational institutions who wish to mobilise the full – material, cognitive, affective, semiotic - resources of those with whom we work?

    Hybrid spaces and boundary objects

    There has been much debate over the years about the gap between learning in different domains and how to overcome it. Pedagogic practices around, for instance:

  • the recognition of prior experiential learning
  • work-based learning
  • community-based learning
  • inclusive learning
  • have all developed as ways in which the education system can recognise and mobilise learning from elsewhere. The discourses of core skills, transferable skills, transferability of skills and skills of transfer have been much in play (Harrison 1996). Much of this debate has been framed within the assumptions of cognitive psychology and there has been much debate about whether transfer can be explained in simply cognitive terms (Tuomi-Grohn and Engestrom 2003).

    More recently, with the interest in social theories of learning, there is increased recognition of the complexity of transfer. If learning is situated/contextualised, there is a requirement for disembedding/decontextualisation and re-situating/re-contextualisation, some of which might require more explicit deliberation than others. As Eraut (2004: 256) suggests, the transfer of knowledge entails the interrelated stages of:

    1. the extraction of potential relevant knowledge from the context(s) of its acquisition and its previous use
    2. understanding the new situation – a process that depends on informal social learning
    3. recognising what knowledge and skills are relevant
    4. transforming them to fit the new situation
    5. integrating them with other knowledge and skills in order to think/act/communicate in the new situation.

    This involves building relationships between domains and extending the learning context beyond specific sites, which creates a pedagogic zone in its own right, a hybrid space of in-between contexts.

    To move away from the cognitive concept of transfer, a discourse of boundary-crossing and border-crossing has also emerged (Tuomi-Grohn and Engestrom 2003 and 2003a), with associated notions of boundary objects. This is to make explicit the social practices and objects through which learning is mediated, but also to identify that objects may be part of many contexts. In addition, notions of mediation, mobilisation and transition have been deployed as alternative to that of transfer. These emphasise the relational and flow over context as a container.

    Rather than focus on transfer of an existing skills set, the practices themselves, while identifiable as the same at some level, take on a different significance when networked into a different set of practices. Here it may be the pattern of participatory processes that are transferred rather than knowledge. This entails moving from a generalised notion of learning transfer to an understanding of the diverse specifics of a context that may be mobilised. To focus on learning per se may not be helpful therefore. Conventionally we might focus on what occurs in one context to the exclusion of others. What is suggested here is that this is only an effective pedagogic strategy if we assume context as a container. When we start to question that, the interesting pedagogic space is that in-between arena of boundary practices, where ‘elements from both sides are always present in the boundary zone’ (Tuomi-Grohn, et al. 2003: 5). These are not closed spaces but hybrid, networked and mediated domains, which give raise to alternative framings and metaphors.

    Here the notion of a boundary object is crucial. The notion of boundary objects was developed in actor-network theory (ANT) (Star 1989), but has also been taken up by Wenger (1998) in his conceptualisation of communities of practice. In ANT, ‘like the blackboard, a boundary object "sits in the middle" of a group of actors with divergent viewpoints’ (Star 1989: 46). Boundary objects circulate through networks playing different roles in different situations. They are not merely material; boundary objects can be ‘stuff and things, tools, artefacts and techniques, and ideas, stories and memories’ (Bowker and Start 2000: 298). For Wenger (1998: 107) boundary objects work at the edges of communities of practice mediating their external relationships; ‘they enable co-ordination, but they can do so without actually creating a bridge between the perspectives and the meanings of various communities’.

    There are some possible pedagogical implications here, not least because ‘using an artifact as a boundary object requires processes of coordination and translation between each form of partial jurisdiction’ and acts of brokerage (Wenger 1998: 108). However, not all constituencies are involved with the evolution of many of the artifacts in teaching and learning and therefore they do not do the work that boundary objects do. Identifying and designing boundary objects that enable a change of horizons in learning may therefore enable the border crossing from one domain to another and support learning.

    There are more questions than answers

    The discourses and practices of lifelong learning raise significant challenges to our understanding of learning and the relationships between learning in different aspects of a person’s life and whether they conceive it all as learning at all. There are many conceptual and empirical questions to be addressed. I have focused here on conceptual questions, but the empirical issues are also being addressed in a number of projects funded by the Teaching and Learning Research Programme. There are three broad questions to be addressed it seems:

    1. What are the assumptions about lifelong learning and context underpinning pedagogical practices?
    2. What are the pedagogical implications of understanding lifelong learning and context in particular ways?
    3. How can we best understand lifelong learning and context in order to mobilise learners’ resources and relationships across domains, where desired by them?

    In attempting to conceptualise a notion of context that has pedagogic significance we have to consider the different levels of conceptualisation that are possible and how they might relate to each if at all. What type of metaphors do we use to conceptualise our notions of context – backcloth, surround, container, network, activity, boundary, hybrid, etc? What I think is clear is that a neatly bounded concept of learning context is no longer possible to embrace difference and diversity in lifelong learning.


    This paper arises from work undertaken for a Teaching and Learning Research Programme Thematic Seminar Series, funded by the ESRC (Ref: RES-139-25-0174). My thanks to Jim Gallacher, Terry Mayes, Mary Thorpe, Gert Biesta, Roz Ivanic and Tamsin Haggis for comments at various stages in its preparation.


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    This document was added to the Education-Line database on 01 July 2005