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Institute for Research on Learning

Description : 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... Page:i92

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 1999 the leadership team consisted of Executive Director Peter Henschel, Associate Director Susan Stucky, Chief Financial Officer Ian Thomson and HR Lorraine Watanabe. Following Ian Thomson and Lorraine Watanabe's tenure, Tessy Albin and Nancy Cryer served, respectively, as CFO and as HR/Operations Director 1999-2000.

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

  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

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, 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.

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.

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)

YearProject TopicFunderIRL research lead
1992Apple Classrooms TomorrowApple, McDonnell Fndtn
1992Video Portfolios ProjectNat’l Brd Prof. Teacher Standards
1992Thinking Practices SymposiumCarnegie Corporation, New YorkJim Greeno
1992Synthesis Engineering Education CoalitionNSF, Stanford U./ Ctr for Design Research
1993Gate Airlines ProjectAmerican AirlinesGitti Jordan
1993Instructional Design EnvironmentApple, Motorola, NHI
1993Middle-School Math-through–ApplicationsNSF, Hearst FndtnShelley Goldman
1993Fellowship program for MinoritiesCarnegie Foundation
1993Environments for Knowledge Worker ProductivitySteelcaseCharlotte Linde
1993Work Practice and Design ProjectXerox ServicesGitte Jordan
1993T-Helper ProjectNSF, Info, Robotics & Intelligent SystemsBill Clancey
1994Learning and Work DesignNynex Sci & TechnologyBill Clancey, Gitti Jordan
1994Learning, Identity and DiversityXerox FoundationPenny Eckert, Etienne Wenger
1994Gender Restructuring in Pre-AdolescenceSpencer FoundationPenny Eckert
1994Institutional MemoryXerox FndntCharlotte Linde
1994Core Competency ReconnaissanceCongruity, XeroxEtienne Wenger, E. Solomon-Grey
1994Classroom Assessment for Math LearningHearst Fndtn, PacTell Fndtn, Telesis FndtnShelley Goldman, Ray McDermott
1994Rethinking Distance LearningSun MicrosystemsChris Darrouzet, Helga Wild
1994Life of Engineering TeamsSun MicrosystemsChris Darrouzet, Helga Wild
1994Understanding Productive workXerox Services, PARCGitte Jordan
1994Bilingual conversations in Mathematics classroomsSpencer FoundationJudit Moschkovich
1994Synthesis Project. Innovative Assessment for EngineeringNSF, Stanford U.Charlotte Linde
1994Electronic Records ProjectHMO, anonymousCharlotte Linde
1994Learning Multimedia and TelecommunicationsNSF, PacBell, Bay Area Multimedia AllianceTed Kahn
1994Research into the Reform of EducationNSFJim Greeno
1994Workplace as Learning Spaces: Work Practice and Design ProjectXerox Corporation, PARCGitte Jordan
1995Technology in Support of Flatter OrganizationsTalegen Holdings, PARCGitte Jordan
1995Productivity PartnershipMember-sponsoredTed Kahn, Jeff Kelly
1995Understanding Organizational Learning across InstitutionsInsurance companiesCharlotte Linde
1995Innovation as LearningCongruity, Raychem, National SemiconductorsEtienne Wenger
1996Alternative Officing in a Sales Office: Informal Learning & SpaceSun MicrosystemsChris Darrouzet & Helga Wild
1996Challenge 2000 Multimedia ProjectUS Dep. of Ed, Joint Venture Silicon Valley NetworkRalph Manak, Tina Syer
1996Classroom Assessment for Math LearningHearst Fndtn, NSF, Pacific Telesis Fndnt, anonymous donorShelley Goldman & Ray McDermott
1996Fifth Dimension Project: A Learning Community of After-School ClubsMellon FoundationJim Greeno, Ray McDermott, Mizuko Ito
1996Gender Re-Structuring in Preadolescence: Learning, Identity and DiversitySpencer FoundationPenny Eckert
1997Learning in and for Participation in Work & SocietyUS Dep. of Education (OERI)Susan Stucky and Jim Greeno
1997Learning, Multimedia and TelecommunicationsNASA, BAMTA member contributionsTed Kahn
1997Learning Network PlanningAT&T FoundationShelley Goldman and Karen Cole
1997Mathematical Discourse in Bilingual SettingsNSFJudit Moschkovich
1997Multimedia Makers, Media Works, Design NetNASA, BAMTATed Kahn
1997School-to-Career: Workplace Life skillsConnecticut Ctr for Ed'l and Training TechnologyShelley Goldman, Ted Kahn, Ray McDermott
1997Teacher Professional DevelopmentAT&T Fndtn., NSF, Arthur Andersen & Co, San Mateo County Office of EducationRalph Manak
1997Affordances of Remote Communication TechnologiesXerox PARCGitte Jordan
1997BRAHMS: Agent-based holistic modelingNynex Science & Technology Inc.Bill Clancey
1997Workplace Assessment: New Sun CampusSun MicrosystemsChris Darrouzet & Helga Wild
1997 and onBroadening Access: Research for Diverse Network CommunitiesNSFCharlotte Linde & Mizuko Ito
1997Building Environments for Learning and InnovationHP CorporationHelga Wild
1997Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and IdentityXerox FndtnEtienne Wenger
1997Customer-driven arrival timeXerox Corp.Jack Whalen
1997Developing and Implementing Integrated Customer ServicesXerox Corp.Marilyn Whalen
1997Enhancing Success of Xerox’s Sales RepresentativesXerox Corp.Melissa Cefkin
1997From Training to Learning: Demonstrating Innovation at XeroxXerox Corp.Marilyn Whalen
1997Institutional MemoryXerox FndtnCharlotte Linde
1997Insurance Agent Learning ProjectInsurance CompanyChris Darrouzet & Charlotte Linde
1997Learning, Identity & DiversityXerox FndntnPenny Eckert, Etienne Wenger
1997Learning StrategyNynex Sci & TechnologyPat Sachs
1997Phased Interactive LearningXerox Corp.Jack & Marilyn Whalen
1997RepTool Project: Building a Tool for the Learning OrganizationNynex Science & TechnologyGitte Jordan
1997Design Strategy for Learning & Innovation EnvironmentsSteelcase Inc. and HPHelga Wild
1998PrimesNSFAngela Booker
1998Middle-School Math: A Curriculum that worksNSFShelley Goldman & Jennifer Knudsen
1998MMAP Implementation ProjectU. of MissouriShelley Goldman & Jennifer Knudsen
1998Creating Assessment SystemsBay Area SchoolKaren Cole
1998Challenge 2000 Multimedia ProjectUS Dep EducationRalph Manak, Karen Cole
1998Research-based Website DesignP InternationalKaren Cole
1998New Hire Learning and Development: Xerox SalesXerox Corp.Melissa Cefkin
1998Adapting Practice acrss Country and Cultural BoundariesEuropean financial groupSusan Stucky
1998Institute for Women & TechnologyXerox PARCPenny Eckert
1998Managing Innovation in a large dispersed OrganizationInsurance Co.Charlotte Linde, Chris Darrouzet, Libby Bishop
1998Re-Introducing Mentoring and Learning on the jobInsurance Co.Charlotte Linde, Chris Darrouzet, Libby Bishop
1998Training, Motivating and Managing the Independent ProfessionalInsurance Co.Charlotte Linde, Chris Darrouzet
1998Work Practice ApprenticeshipXerox Corp.Pat Sachs
1998Integrative StudyUS Dep. EducationSusan Stucky
1998Social Ecology ProjectSteelcase Inc.Helga Wild
1998Creating a Learning StrategyVAAugust Carbonella & Melissa Cefkin
1998Advanced Seminar in Learning, Technology and DesignStanford U., School of EducationShelley Goldman
1998Capitalworks Learning Effectiveness IndexCapitalworksMelissa Cefkin
1998Evaluation Framework for NASA’s Outreach programsNASACharlotte Linde
1998Biodiversity Education through Mountain Lake RehabilitationCA Academy of SciencesShelley Goldman
1998Learning to be Adolescent. Part of IRL’s Learning, Identity & Diversity InitiativeIRLPenny Eckert
1998Video Interactives for Teacher analysis and learningNSFPam Briskman
1999PRIMES: Parents Rediscovering Math and Engaging SchoolsNSFAngela Booker
1999Revising Educational Strategy in a Major Computer CompanyAnonymousChris Darrouzet
1999Intellectual Capital in a Global Financial FirmZurich FinancialSusan Stucky
1999Xerox Work Practice – Building Xerox’s ExpertiseXerox 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.

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