Facilitating situated learning experiences for parents and guardians of young children

Facilitating situated learning experiences for parents and guardians of young children

Allison Nichols, Ed.D.
Extension Specialist
WVU Extension Service
West Virginia University

Sue Flanagan, M.S.
Extension Educator
Berkeley County Extension Office

Miriam Leatherman, M.A.
Extension Educator
Hardy County Extension Office

Patty Morrison, M.A.
Extension Educator
Wirt County Extension Office


A Cooperative Extension team examined the long-term impact of newsletters or fact sheets targeted at kindergarten and first-grade parents or guardians. The team sought to determine whether informational newsletters, often considered a static form of learning, facilitate situated learning experiences for parents or guardians of young children. Situated learning includes social processes in the educational experience. The results showed that newsletters do facilitate situated learning experiences because they satisfy the following criteria: (1) learning takes place outside of the formal educational environment; (2) learners are connected to expert knowledge; (3) topics focus on the interests and needs of a specific group; (4) recommendations are provided to give readers opportunities for using new knowledge and skills in everyday life; (5) the format allows readers to share learning; and (6) the resources provided function as a stimulus for continued learning over the lifetime.

Keywords: informal learning, situated learning, parent education, kindergarten, newsletters, Extension


Cooperative Extension, the outreach branch of land-grant universities, is committed to providing research-based information to parents and guardians to help them successfully rear their children. Extension has a long history of distributing research-based information in short, readable formats known as fact sheets or newsletters (Cornell University Extension 1997; Warrix 2000). Other organizations have also used this mode of educational outreach for reaching parents and guardians with timely topics (Department of Health and Human Services 1992; American Library Association 1996; Bond et al. 1997; Kaye 2006). We know that this method is successful in communicating facts to people, but the format is often viewed as static and outdated. In 2001, Extension educators evaluated the Family TimesNewsletter (the newsletter described in this paper) and found that readers used the information immediately after reading the newsletter (Garton et al. 2003), but there was no evidence that this “tried and true” method, which is still used in its paper format with rural and low-income populations, could result in long-term educational change in the lives of the recipients and their families.

To that end, a group of Extension educators investigated whether informational newsletters facilitate situated learning experiences for parents or guardians of young children. Situated learning is a subset of informal learning and involves social participation in the process of learning.

Informal learning

Most of the programs and educational initiatives that Extension provides in the community can be classified as informal learning (Coombs and Ahmed 1974), including educational newsletters or fact sheets, but not all can be classified as “situated” learning. Accepted definitions of informal learning include the following (Smith 1998):

  • “Learning that takes place outside a dedicated learning environment and which arises from the activities and interests of individuals and groups, but which may not be recognized as learning.”
  • “Non course-based learning activities (which might include discussion, talks or presentations, information, advice and guidance) provided or facilitated in response to expressed interests and needs by people from a range of sectors and organizations (health, housing, social services, employment services, education and training services, guidance services).”
  • “The lifelong process by which every individual acquires and accumulates knowledge, skills, attitudes and insights from daily experiences and exposure to the environment – at home, at work, at play: from the example and attitude of families and friends; from travel, reading newspapers and books; or by listening to the radio or viewing films or television” (Coombs and Ahmed 1974, 8).

Situated learning

One theory of informal learning known as situated learning (Lave and Wenger 1991) could be applied to learning generated by newsletters, as long as learning continues over time and is disseminated by the learner to others in their social situation. According to situated learning theory, learning is not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of social participation. The nature of the situation significantly impacts the process. “Activities, tasks, functions, and understandings do not exist in isolation; they are part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning” (Lave and Wenger 1991, 53).

Situated learning theory contains four major points (Smith 1998):

  • “High-level or expert knowledge and skill can be gained from everyday experiences at work and in community or family.”
  • “Domain-specific knowledge is necessary for the development of expertise (i.e. much of expertise relies on detailed local knowledge of a workplace, locality or industry).”
  • “Learning is a social process.”
  • “Knowledge is embedded in practice and is transformed through goal-directed behavior” (Tennant 1999, 170).

Family Times Newsletter

Beginning in 2000, a team of Extension educators began writing and publishing a series of ten informational newsletters or fact sheets containing information for parents and guardians of kindergarten and first-grade children. In 2006, an additional nine newsletters were written based on an assessment of the need for new topics. The newsletters contain well-researched articles that include citations from experts in the field of parenting. All of the newsletters were peer reviewed. The newsletters are distributed by elementary school teachers to parents through their children. In 2007, 6,388 families in West Virginia received the Family Times Newsletter. The number of newsletters distributed has remained constant over the years.

Newsletter topics included the following:

  • Introduction
  • Becoming your child’s reading partner
  • Developing responsibility
  • Friends
  • Dealing with anger
  • Children and small screens – setting limits
  • Taking time to listen
  • Honesty is the best policy
  • Fears and feelings
  • Helping children deal with divorce or separation
  • Kids in the kitchen
  • Family mealtime
  • Play: a child’s work
  • Nutrition and physical activity
  • Child abuse and neglect
  • Parent-teacher communication
  • Identifying behavior problems
  • Developing fairness
  • A caring attitude

Description of the evaluation process

During the summer of 2007, Extension educators in three West Virginia counties conducted scripted focus groups or interviews with recipients of the Family Times Newsletter. All were parents or guardians of kindergarten or first-grade children. Before conducting the focus groups, an institutional review board (IRB) application was submitted and approved by West Virginia University and given an exemption classification. A letter inviting parents or guardians, who were readers of the newsletter, to participate in the study was sent home with the children. If the parents responded positively, they were assigned to a focus group in their county. Participants in focus groups constitute a purposeful sample because they are selected based on their experience with the project. As with all qualitative research, a statistical percentage of the total population is not required because we are seeking a snapshot of the experience rather than a comparison of one mode of learning with that of another, and the results will not be generalized to the whole population. Focus groups can be considered “information-rich” cases as described by Patton (1990) or “those from which one can learn a great deal about the issues of central importance to the purpose of the research” (Patton 1990, 169). In focus group research, the rule of thumb is that conducting three to four focus groups with one type of participant is generally sufficient to understand the meaning of the issue being studied (Krueger and Casey 2000, 26). After conducting a few focus groups, researchers determine if saturation has occurred. Saturation is the point at which the researcher has heard the range of ideas and is no longer receiving new information (Krueger and Casey 2000, 26). In this study, Extension team members determined that they did not need to conduct additional focus groups because they began to hear certain themes repeated.

To address bias issues stemming from the relationship of the researcher to the subjects of the research, each one of the focus groups was facilitated by an agent from another county. Recruitment of participants was difficult, as is typical in rural areas. Two of the focus groups had six participants, and, instead of holding a focus group, one county agent interviewed the only parent who signed up to attend the focus group using the same questions. All participants were white women from rural communities, which is reflective of West Virginia, where only 4 percent of citizens are from minority groups.

The following focus group questions were included in the protocol:

  • Name one thing you read in the newsletters that was new to you or surprised you.
  • Think about one new thing you learned from the newsletter and describe to the group how you used it with your children.
  • Describe changes you have seen in your children’s behavior since using suggestions you learned about in one of the newsletters.
  • Tell us if you feel differently about yourself as a parent since reading the newsletters and practicing skills you learned from the newsletters. Discuss the changes you have noticed in the way you parent.
  • Please tell us how you have shared the information you learned in the newsletter with others. Start by telling us with whom you shared it, and then tell us how you shared it.

The focus groups and interviews were audio taped, and notes were taken by the assistant moderators. All tapes were transcribed by one person. The verbatim transcripts served as the data source for analysis. The accuracy of the audiotape transcription is determined by the quality of the audiotape, the clarity of a respondent’s diction, and the transcriber’s familiarity with a respondent’s accent or speech patterns. Some errors could have occurred in the data transcript. A high degree of accuracy was achieved by the simultaneous review of audiotape transcripts by the four-member research team that reviewed the data, developed the codes, and determined the conclusions.

The qualitative analysis method used involved the division of the data into relevant and meaningful groups while maintaining a connection to the whole (Gredler 1996). Team members reviewed the transcripts and identified the major themes. Once the group reached consensus about the major themes, a coding system was developed and transcripts were coded. The themes included the following:

  • Learning from everyday life (experience)
  • Learning arises from the needs and interests of learners (domain specific)
  • Learning by sharing (social process)
  • Learning over the lifetime (goal directed)


Learning from everyday life

The following quotes illustrate the skills readers practiced in their everyday lives.

Communication. “The newsletter was very good for her (daughter). We actually did sit down and actually looked at it a little bit together. I explained to her, “Look we need to find another way to do things; you and I need to find a better way to communicate.”

Active listening. “There was something about if your child asks you a question, repeat the question back to show you understand it. I said, ‘that makes sense,’ so I started doing that. I got, ‘Daddy, that’s what I said. Answer it.’ So I had to back off on that and took another approach there, but I thought that was worth doing, but I found out it didn’t work for me, but that’s just my boys. Now, if I don’t understand the question what I do is that I rephrase it a different way and say, ‘Is this what you mean to ask me?’”

Learning from mistakes. “Sometimes I feel like a loser. They’ll say something, and I’ll fall short, and I just feel like a loser. I tell my husband, ‘Boy, we’re slackers. This is what you should be doing up here, and we’re down here. We need to step up buddy.’ You put your own spin on parenthood, but I like to stay on top.”

“The one that stuck in my mind was the one about temper tantrums, and that we as grandparents tend to overlook these. That helped me to get control and see that I was headed down the wrong path. I am the grandparent here, and what I say has to go, but I’m willing and open to how he is feeling.”

Drawing on past experiences. “One thing I have noticed over this past year is that it (the newsletter) is very good at reinforcing what I’ve been doing, it’s like I’ve been doing that.”

“Practice makes perfect.” “Sometimes you have to be introduced to a new thing several times before it becomes a part of you.”

“I don’t think I’m a bad parent. I try to do different things. I just find that there are so many different things, and I do not have time to do them all. So, if I get one or two in the period of a week, then I can go back and look at it, and say, “Well, maybe I’ll try this.” I think it is just staying on top of things. I think repetition, that’s the key.”

Learning that arises from the needs and interests of learners

The participants shared similar everyday activities centering around parenting. They mentioned school readiness, health and nutrition, bedtime issues, and reading with children. However, some of the participants had special needs, and they found that the newsletters addressed those needs too. For instance, some participants had older children, as well as a kindergartener, and found they were able to use the expert information gleaned in the newsletter to parent older children. Knowing that their needs and interests were similar to others’ needs and interests gave them comfort and encouragement.

“Everybody and their brother has the same difficulties that you have – the teacher, the minister – everywhere you go, other people are struggling with the same stuff. Their kids are doing and saying the same things. That’s good to know, reassuring to know that other people are dealing with the same things you are.”

“Oh, these are problems that other people have, too, obviously because someone has written about them so I’m not completely off my rocker.”

“My oldest daughter is pretty responsible, my youngest daughter is not. I guess just knowing, having one that can be responsible and knows what to do, it is harder to have one that does not want to follow along in her footsteps, so I guess being patient, very much more patient with my youngest daughter than my oldest, and realizing that she is an individual and a different person.”

Learning by sharing

Sharing information with one’s spouse or partner. “I guess being able to work with my husband, trying to make sure we’re on the same wavelength, and that we’re checking with each other.”

“I’ve talked to my husband quite regularly about what I’ve read – ‘Did you know that this is what they said?’ I catch him captive, like in the garage. I find him in the garage working on his truck. He’s always working on his truck, so he’s captive. I can talk to him, and I tell him what it says, what we should be doing. We talk about it.”

Sharing information with other family members, friends, and acquaintances. “I have a friend who home schools her kids, and I’ll tell her what they said, and she’ll say, ‘Really?’ She has a 3-year-old and an 8-year-old, so the guidelines from 4- to 8-year-old kids, so I share it with her, isn’t this a hoot? This is what you should be doing, you big slacker.”

“Sometimes if I find something that’s poignant, I share it with my sisters. If it really strikes me, and I can’t get it off my mind, I’ll call my sister and say, ‘Hey, did you know …?’”

Learning over the lifetime

The newsletter as a future reference. “Well, for me, some of the tips on developing responsible children were new, and I should probably go back in and re-read them, because I seem to be having trouble with one of my children in particular, and maybe they’ll help me out.”

“I pull things in from various different sources, and I might have pulled something in from the newsletter that I don’t remember now, but it’s a good reference.”

“There comes a point, too, where you just become overwhelmed with everything, and you tend to let the common sense factor take over the written word because it’s like, it’s like taking tests, you study what you have to regurgitate, you regurgitate it, you get the A, and you go on. Are you going to use it later? Maybe, maybe not; you don’t know. It does help give you guidelines.”

The newsletter as a stimulus for future inquiry. “I have signed up for parenting classesoffered through the school system here.”

“Lot of times I’ll go on the Internet and put in raising a healthy child, for example, and I’ll see what it says, and I’ll click on a Web site and see what it says. I’ll go under child behavior and see what some things, you know, because if she’s acting out, there is a reason, I’m really well read. I’m very curious.”

Conclusions and recommendations

Based on focus group and interview data, we can conclude that the Family Times Newsletterfacilitates situated learning experiences for young parents because it provides learning that

  • takes place outside a dedicated learning environment
  • arises from the activities and interests of individuals and groups
  • is not always recognized as legitimate learning because newsletters are viewed as “throw away items”
  • is part of a lifelong process because the readers of the Family Times Newsletterrange in age from young parents to grandparents
  • is transferable to children of other ages
  • is easily shared with others such as spouses, family members, friends, and acquaintances
  • is skill-based, allowing learners to practice what they learned
  • awakens insights that guide personal improvements, such as the desire to gather knowledge from other sources
  • is long-lasting because learners can refer back to past issues of the newsletter as needed to find information.

The team recommends that those who produce newsletters use the following social processes to create and distribute their newsletters:

  • Gather information from a community of experts so that readers will know that the information is reliable.
  • Provide articles that appeal to the interests of readers who have similar life circumstances and interests.
  • Create a media-based virtual social group containing experts and learners. This will give the impression that others are in the “same boat” as they are. New electronic avenues such as eXtension, found at www.extension.org, can increase the “expert” factor and make newsletters more accessible to a wider audience of learners while allowing the information to be available for referral at the time of need.
  • Provide practical advice so that readers can practice new skills and share them with others.
  • Distribute the newsletter through a trusted source such as a school, religious organization, community group, or senior center.
  • Make the newsletter attractive enough that recipients will want to pass it on to others.




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Allison Nichols, Miriam Leatherman, Sue Flanagan, and Patty Morrison. 2008. Facilitating situated learning experiences for parents and guardians of young children. The Forum for Family and Consumer Issues, 13 (3).

On-line: http://ncsu.edu/ffci/publications/2008/v13-n3-2008-winter/index-v13-n3-winter-2008.php



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