Institute for Research on Learning
The Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) in Palo Alto, California was co-founded by John Seely Brown, then chief research scientist at the Palo Alto Research Center, and James G. Greeno, Professor of Education at Stanford University, with the support of David Kearns, CEO of Xerox Corporation in 1986 through a grant from the Xerox Foundation. It operated from 1986 to 2000 as an independent cross-disciplinary think tank with a mission to study learning in all its forms and sites.
George Pake, who founded Xerox Palo Alto Research Corporation in 1970 became IRL's first director and moved with the institute to its different locations, first on Hanover Street, Palo Alto and then to Willow Place, Menlo Park. Greeno was Associate Director of IRL 1987-1991 and Acting Director for a few months during 1991. From 1992 to 2000 the leadership team consisted of Executive Director Peter Henschel, Associate Director Susan Stucky, Chief Financial Officer Ian Thomson and HR Lorraine Watanabe.
IRL was a nonprofit research organization that looked at learning in a wide variety of settings, including schools, workplaces, and informal settings, using collaborative, multidisciplinary teams. Research questions were based in real-world problems and settings defined in partnership with people in schools and workplaces who championed these activities. IRL had a significant impact on education and knowledge management (among many other fields) not only in the US but globally through the development of the concept of a community of practice.
Social Approach to Learning
The first group of researchers was recruited from Stanford and Berkeley universities and from Xerox PARC, in disciplines including anthropology, computer science, education, psychology, and linguistics.
The institute developed its unique social approach to learning, expressed in the Seven Principles of Learning and in the conception of communities-of-practice. Its innovative view of learning, the use of qualitative methods and the coupling of research with design were path breaking in its time, inspired an enthusiastic following and have enriched organizational and educational discourses to this day.
IRL's Seven Principles of Learning
- Learning is fundamentally social.
- Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities.
- Learning is an act of membership.
- Knowing depends on engagement in practice.
- Engagement is inseparable from empowerment.
- “Failure to Learn” is the normal result of exclusion from participation.
- We already have a society of lifelong learners.
IRL’s Core Capabilities
IRL defined its core capabilities as:
- Learning to see Learning
- Design for Learning
- Learning and Work Design
- Learning, Identity and Diversity
IRL’s projects were grouped into research settings:
1. Research of Learning in the Classroom
- Funding from Education Grants. (NSF, Hearst Foundation and others)
- Researchers: Shelley Goldman, Jim Greeno, Jennifer Knudsen, Ray McDermott, Angela Booker, Karen Cole, Ralph Manak, Judit Moschkovich, Tina Syer, and more.
- Partners and clients: NSF, Dep. of Education, Hearst Foundation Spencer Foundation, Stanford University, Middle Schools in the Bay Area and more.
- Research focused on Learning in the K 8- 12 classroom, with special emphasis on mathematics as the greatest hurdle to school success. Researchers developed alternatives to, and support of, traditional math modules by embedding mathematical topics in practical tasks (e.g. design of a building) executed in groups and with computers.
2. Research on Learning in the Workplace
- Financed through corporate sponsorship.
- Research projects for corporate clients. Research topics were co-developed with the corporate clients to have academic and corporate relevance. Results were shared with the client and a network of affiliates in the form of articles, reports and presentations.
- Researchers: Libby Bishop, Melissa Cefkin, Bill Clancey, Chris Darrouzet, Gitte Jordan, Ted Kahn, Charlotte Linde, Patricia Sachs, Susan Stucky, Eric Vinkhuyzen, Etienne Wenger, Marilyn and Jack Whalen, Helga Wild, and more.
- Partners and clients: e.g. Xerox Corporation, State Farm Insurance, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, Nynex, Steelcase, Hermann Miller, IDEO, Stanford University, and more.
3. Research Initiative on Learning, Identity and Diversity.
- Researchers: Penny Eckert, Charlotte Linde, working on social identity and memory through sociolinguistic analysis and the analysis of an organization’s (his)tories.
History and Philosophy of IRL
The chief scientist at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), John Seely Brown, psychologist by training, saw the computer revolution open up the possibility of dramatic changes in learning. He gained the support of David Kearns, CEO of Xerox Corporation, who encouraged the Xerox Foundation to grant a substantial amount of money to the creation of an institution to study learning and innovation in the context of the use of computers.
The institute was to operate as an independent entity, even though it was incubated with the knowledge and the assistance of key people from Xerox PARC. It gradually weaned itself from dependence on the grant and earned its keep by the fruits of its research.
The institute was named Institute for Research on Learning (IRL) and founded in 1988. Its first director was George Pake, a physicist from PARC. Its staff was composed of an inter-disciplinary group of researchers: recruited in part from PARC and from Stanford and Berkeley Universities. Researchers came from the disciplines of education, linguistics, anthropology, computer science, and psychology. Of particular note, James G. Greeno, a senior educational psychologist, worked to define themes and guide research projects throughout IRL's history. This first generation of researchers developed the vision and methodology for the institute. They were inspired by anthropology’s conception of learning as a social and cultural phenomenon and inspired by books like “Situated Learning” (Co-authors Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger were members of the institute).
The institute adopted ethnography as its main research method, a factor that distinguished it in major ways from other thinktanks. Under this influence the initial image of learning as an individual’s interaction with knowledge mediated possibly by computational tools made way for a vision of learning as apprenticeship. In apprenticeship the knowledge content could not be isolated from the learner’s social status in a socio-cultural field: apprentices had to be received into a community – a guild, profession or team – and migrated within this group from the periphery towards greater and greater participation in the social and professional activities.
The learning process was seen to be substantially one of interaction with the members of one’s own community or group first and with related social groups and networks secondarily. From gaining access to a practice to learning how it is carried out by this group, to collaborating with peers on a shared task or agenda, and finally socializing others as an established member – all these were aspects of learning but also evidence of transformations of identity. They establish both the position of the learner and the content of what is to be learned as part of a social practice shaped by and shaping a material and institutional environment.
IRL’s social perspective opened up areas of learning where none had been suspected before. Learning was found to be present not just in schools and training camps, but also in clubs, prisons, neighborhoods, in highly formalized as well as highly informal settings.
In traditional schools and workplaces, social interaction was often frowned upon as an interruption of work proper. It was the institute’s conviction and commitment to convince the public otherwise. The school part of the institute took on the key gatekeeper in Middle School, mathematics, and created social and practical learning substitutes for the individualized learning tasks in the school curriculum. For instance, instead of teaching fractions in the traditional manner through a series of manipulations of numbers, they developed collaborative design exercises that involved fractions in a practical context – designing a room layout and furniture – that taught students the relevance of fractions in maintaining proportions and gave them a grounded understanding as well as a practical use.
The analogous research on the industry side consisted in ethnographic projects in organizations to uncover social forms of learning inside the workplace and to enhance what benefits they could bring to the corporation. These enhancements could relate to the spatial and institutional aspects of work: Several large projects were dedicated to designing work processes, strategies and workplaces in support of the social aspects of work. They could focus on furniture and technology, on organizational processes or on team building, orientation and training. What all had in common was the theoretical position of the institute – to treat a corporation as a social entity composed of individuals and communities formed around key practices or competencies. Communities-of-Practice were seen as building blocks for learning and identity formation and as holders of organizational know-how.
For over twelve years the institute managed to keep itself afloat through grants and corporate projects. It hired researchers, developed a network of affiliates and corporate sponsors, conducted industry retreats, delivered reports and presentations, and contributed to journals and conferences. In 2000, as the dotcom bubble was bursting, soft money for learning projects became hard to come by; the institute lost a major project at the end of its fiscal year and decided to close down.
In twelve years of existence IRL had developed and disseminated many radical advances in social and cognitive science: the use of systematic ethnographic methods to study organizations, the social approach to learning, research projects with corporate clients, emphasis on communities and social networks as instrumental for innovation and organizational knowledge, and the awareness of the informal aspects of an organization.
As the institute closed, the members dispersed: Some went back to university, some moved to other research institutions such as WestEd and NASA Ames, others made their way into the corporate world to work in the emerging field of business anthropology or Ethnographic practice in corporations.
IRL Projects and Researchers (from Annual Reports)
|Year||Project Topic||Funder||IRL research lead|
|1992||Apple Classrooms Tomorrow||Apple, McDonnell Fndtn|
|1992||Video Portfolios Project||Nat’l Brd Prof. Teacher Standards|
|1992||Thinking Practices Symposium||Carnegie Corporation, New York||Jim Greeno|
|1992||Synthesis Engineering Education Coalition||NSF, Stanford U./ Ctr for Design Research|
|1993||Gate Airlines Project||American Airlines||Gitti Jordan|
|1993||Instructional Design Environment||Apple, Motorola, NHI|
|1993||Middle-School Math-through–Applications||NSF, Hearst Fndtn||Shelley Goldman|
|1993||Fellowship program for Minorities||Carnegie Foundation|
|1993||Environments for Knowledge Worker Productivity||Steelcase||Charlotte Linde|
|1993||Work Practice and Design Project||Xerox Services||Gitte Jordan|
|1993||T-Helper Project||NSF, Info, Robotics & Intelligent Systems||Bill Clancey|
|1994||Learning and Work Design||Nynex Sci & Technology||Bill Clancey, Gitti Jordan|
|1994||Learning, Identity and Diversity||Xerox Foundation||Penny Eckert, Etienne Wenger|
|1994||Gender Restructuring in Pre-Adolescence||Spencer Foundation||Penny Eckert|
|1994||Institutional Memory||Xerox Fndnt||Charlotte Linde|
|1994||Core Competency Reconnaissance||Congruity, Xerox||Etienne Wenger, E. Solomon-Grey|
|1994||Classroom Assessment for Math Learning||Hearst Fndtn, PacTell Fndtn, Telesis Fndtn||Shelley Goldman, Ray McDermott|
|1994||Rethinking Distance Learning||Sun Microsystems||Chris Darrouzet, Helga Wild|
|1994||Life of Engineering Teams||Sun Microsystems||Chris Darrouzet, Helga Wild|
|1994||Understanding Productive work||Xerox Services, PARC||Gitte Jordan|
|1994||Bilingual conversations in Mathematics classrooms||Spencer Foundation||Judit Moschkovich|
|1994||Synthesis Project. Innovative Assessment for Engineering||NSF, Stanford U.||Charlotte Linde|
|1994||Electronic Records Project||HMO, anonymous||Charlotte Linde|
|1994||Learning Multimedia and Telecommunications||NSF, PacBell, Bay Area Multimedia Alliance||Ted Kahn|
|1994||Research into the Reform of Education||NSF||Jim Greeno|
|1994||Workplace as Learning Spaces: Work Practice and Design Project||Xerox Corporation, PARC||Gitte Jordan|
|1995||Technology in Support of Flatter Organizations||Talegen Holdings, PARC||Gitte Jordan|
|1995||Productivity Partnership||Member-sponsored||Ted Kahn, Jeff Kelly|
|1995||Understanding Organizational Learning across Institutions||Insurance companies||Charlotte Linde|
|1995||Innovation as Learning||Congruity, Raychem, National Semiconductors||Etienne Wenger|
|1996||Alternative Officing in a Sales Office: Informal Learning & Space||Sun Microsystems||Chris Darrouzet & Helga Wild|
|1996||Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project||US Dep. of Ed, Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network||Ralph Manak, Tina Syer|
|1996||Classroom Assessment for Math Learning||Hearst Fndtn, NSF, Pacific Telesis Fndnt, anonymous donor||Shelley Goldman & Ray McDermott|
|1996||Fifth Dimension Project: A Learning Community of After-School Clubs||Mellon Foundation||Jim Greeno, Ray McDermott, Mizuko Ito|
|1996||Gender Re-Structuring in Preadolescence: Learning, Identity and Diversity||Spencer Foundation||Penny Eckert|
|1997||Learning in and for Participation in Work & Society||US Dep. of Education (OERI)||Susan Stucky and Jim Greeno|
|1997||Learning, Multimedia and Telecommunications||NASA, BAMTA member contributions||Ted Kahn|
|1997||Learning Network Planning||AT&T Foundation||Shelley Goldman and Karen Cole|
|1997||Mathematical Discourse in Bilingual Settings||NSF||Judit Moschkovich|
|1997||Multimedia Makers, Media Works, Design Net||NASA, BAMTA||Ted Kahn|
|1997||School-to-Career: Workplace Life skills||Connecticut Ctr for Ed'l and Training Technology||Shelley Goldman, Ted Kahn, Ray McDermott|
|1997||Teacher Professional Development||AT&T Fndtn., NSF, Arthur Andersen & Co, San Mateo County Office of Education||Ralph Manak|
|1997||Affordances of Remote Communication Technologies||Xerox PARC||Gitte Jordan|
|1997||BRAHMS: Agent-based holistic modeling||Nynex Science & Technology Inc.||Bill Clancey|
|1997||Workplace Assessment: New Sun Campus||Sun Microsystems||Chris Darrouzet & Helga Wild|
|1997 and on||Broadening Access: Research for Diverse Network Communities||NSF||Charlotte Linde & Mizuko Ito|
|1997||Building Environments for Learning and Innovation||HP Corporation||Helga Wild|
|1997||Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity||Xerox Fndtn||Etienne Wenger|
|1997||Customer-driven arrival time||Xerox Corp.||Jack Whalen|
|1997||Developing and Implementing Integrated Customer Services||Xerox Corp.||Marilyn Whalen|
|1997||Enhancing Success of Xerox’s Sales Representatives||Xerox Corp.||Melissa Cefkin|
|1997||From Training to Learning: Demonstrating Innovation at Xerox||Xerox Corp.||Marilyn Whalen|
|1997||Institutional Memory||Xerox Fndtn||Charlotte Linde|
|1997||Insurance Agent Learning Project||Insurance Company||Chris Darrouzet & Charlotte Linde|
|1997||Learning, Identity & Diversity||Xerox Fndntn||Penny Eckert, Etienne Wenger|
|1997||Learning Strategy||Nynex Sci & Technology||Pat Sachs|
|1997||Phased Interactive Learning||Xerox Corp.||Jack & Marilyn Whalen|
|1997||RepTool Project: Building a Tool for the Learning Organization||Nynex Science & Technology||Gitte Jordan|
|1997||Design Strategy for Learning & Innovation Environments||Steelcase Inc. and HP||Helga Wild|
|1998||Middle-School Math: A Curriculum that works||NSF||Shelley Goldman & Jennifer Knudsen|
|1998||MMAP Implementation Project||U. of Missouri||Shelley Goldman & Jennifer Knudsen|
|1998||Creating Assessment Systems||Bay Area School||Karen Cole|
|1998||Challenge 2000 Multimedia Project||US Dep Education||Ralph Manak, Karen Cole|
|1998||Research-based Website Design||P International||Karen Cole|
|1998||New Hire Learning and Development: Xerox Sales||Xerox Corp.||Melissa Cefkin|
|1998||Adapting Practice acrss Country and Cultural Boundaries||European financial group||Susan Stucky|
|1998||Institute for Women & Technology||Xerox PARC||Penny Eckert|
|1998||Managing Innovation in a large dispersed Organization||Insurance Co.||Charlotte Linde, Chris Darrouzet, Libby Bishop|
|1998||Re-Introducing Mentoring and Learning on the job||Insurance Co.||Charlotte Linde, Chris Darrouzet, Libby Bishop|
|1998||Training, Motivating and Managing the Independent Professional||Insurance Co.||Charlotte Linde, Chris Darrouzet|
|1998||Work Practice Apprenticeship||Xerox Corp.||Pat Sachs|
|1998||Integrative Study||US Dep. Education||Susan Stucky|
|1998||Social Ecology Project||Steelcase Inc.||Helga Wild|
|1998||Creating a Learning Strategy||VA||August Carbonella & Melissa Cefkin|
|1998||Advanced Seminar in Learning, Technology and Design||Stanford U., School of Education||Shelley Goldman|
|1998||Capitalworks Learning Effectiveness Index||Capitalworks||Melissa Cefkin|
|1998||Evaluation Framework for NASA’s Outreach programs||NASA||Charlotte Linde|
|1998||Biodiversity Education through Mountain Lake Rehabilitation||CA Academy of Sciences||Shelley Goldman|
|1998||Learning to be Adolescent. Part of IRL’s Learning, Identity & Diversity Initiative||IRL||Penny Eckert|
|1998||Video Interactives for Teacher analysis and learning||NSF||Pam Briskman|
|1999||PRIMES: Parents Rediscovering Math and Engaging Schools||NSF||Angela Booker|
|1999||Revising Educational Strategy in a Major Computer Company||Anonymous||Chris Darrouzet|
|1999||Intellectual Capital in a Global Financial Firm||Zurich Financial||Susan Stucky|
|1999||Xerox Work Practice – Building Xerox’s Expertise||Xerox Corp.||Melissa Cefkin|