Institute for Research on Learning

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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 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 first to Hanover Street, Palo Alto and then to Willow Place, Menlo Park.[1] Greeno was Associate Director of IRL 1987-1991 and Acting Director for a few months during 1991. From 1992 to 1999 Peter Henschel was Executive Director.

IRL was a nonprofit research organization that looked at learning in 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. The institute 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.[2]

Social Approach to Learning[edit]

The first group of researchers was recruited from Stanford University, the University of California at Berkeley, 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[edit]

  1. Learning is fundamentally social.
  2. Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities.
  3. Learning is an act of membership.
  4. Knowing depends on engagement in practice.
  5. Engagement is inseparable from empowerment.
  6. “Failure to Learn” is the normal result of exclusion from participation.
  7. We already have a society of lifelong learners.

IRL’s Core Capabilities[edit]

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:

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.
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, William 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.
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[edit]

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 UC Berkeley. 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).[3]

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.

During its twelve years of pioneering research, 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.

Throughout those twelve years the institute managed to keep itself afloat through national and other grants and specialized 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, funding for learning research projects became hard to come by. After the institute lost a major project at the end of its fiscal year, the decision was made to cease operations. A number of key educational projects and research staff were transferred into WestEd, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research, development, and service agency which also worked with education and other communities throughout the United States and abroad.

After the institute closed, staff members and researchers dispersed, some back to universities, some to other research institutions such as WestEd noted above and to NASA Ames. Others returned to the corporate sector or made their way newly 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)[edit]

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 Primes NSF Angela Booker
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 across 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


  • Clancey, W. J., Sachs, P., Sierhuis, M., and van Hoof, R. 1998. Brahms: Simulating practice for work systems design, Int. J. Computer-Human Studies, 49, 831-865.
  • Clancey, W. J. 1997. Situated Cognition: On Human Knowledge and Computer Representations. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Clancey, W. J. 2006. Observation of work practices in natural settings. In A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. Feltovich, and R. Hoffman (eds.), Cambridge Handbook on Expertise and Expert Performance. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 127–145.
  • Clancey, W. J. 2008. Scientific antecedents of situated cognition. In P. Robbins and M. Aydede (eds.), Cambridge Handbook of Situated Cognition. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 11–34.
  • Stucky, S., 1992. Technology in support of organizational learning. In C. Zucchermaglio, Bagnara, S., and Stucky, S. (eds.), Organizational Learning and Technological Change. NATO Advanced Science Institute Series. Springer -Verlag GmbH & KG, Berlin.
  • Stucky, S., Cefkin, M., Rankin, Y., Shaw B., and J. Thomas. 2011. Dynamics of Value Co-Creation in Complex IT Engagements. Information systems and e-business management, 9.
  • Stucky, S., Kieliszewski, C. and L.Anderson. 2014. A Case Study: Designing the client experience for Discovery using Big Data. In Ahram, T., Karwowski, W., and T. Marek (eds.), Proceedings of the 5th International Conference on Applied Human Factors and Ergonomics AHFE 2014, Kraków, Poland July 19–23.


  1. ^ Fried, Ina (March 10, 2004). "PARC founder George Pake dies". cnet. Retrieved 30 December 2009.
  2. ^ Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.