Educational establishments are often encouraged to develop ‘communities’ in which collaborative and collective learning is nurtured. This notion is based on the important idea of learning occurring through participation in activity, not through acquisition of concepts and skills. Lave and Wenger were instrumental in developing this concept in the early 1990s. The following paper by Etienne Wenger charts the development of the theory:
Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization, 7(2), 225-246.
p226: knowing is an act of participation in complex ‘social learning systems’
External definitions of competence can influence our experience OR our experience can influence the external definition of competence
Knowing always involves competence and experience. Learning takes place when the two are in close tension.
Learning is an interplay between social competence and personal experience.
Engagement, imagination and alignment coexist in all social learning systems. It is important to be aware of each and to understand which, if any is more dominant.
Participating in communities of practice is essential to our learning.
Communities of practice define competence:
- through joint enterprise (we’re all in this and understand this)
- through mutuality (we interact in a certain way)
- through a shared repertoire (we all do this and this and this)
Communities of practice should consider (231-232):
- events – to bring the community together
- leadership – in various forms and of various things
- connectivity – ongoing engagement and dialogue with each other
- membership – critical mass is necessary but too many dilute success
- projects – doing something tangible to move knowledge and learning forward
- artifacts – the ‘stuff’ that results from all above
Boundaries are important to learning systems. It is important to define the remit of a community of practice so that their is clear purpose of learning within the group AND their can be exciting learning at the fringes of the group, that is when the purpose of group A begins to overlap with purpose of group B. “A boundary experience is usually an exposure to a foreign competence.”
In social learning systems, communities of practice and their boundaries are complimentary.
Identity is crucial to social learning systems because our identities:eour ioour
- combine our competence and experience
- enable us to cross boundaries
- are the vessels through which community and boundary are realised
Participation in social learning systems…
The idea of ‘communities of practice’ has proven attractive to many professional groups, including teachers. Some have turned this idea into a notion of ‘professional learning communities’, which in some schools has been accepted as an inherently desirable objective. However many critical questions have been raised about its premises, and since the 1990s a range of empirical studies have shown problems with the theory. Communities of practice have been shown to have a tendency to reinforce the status quo, be conservative, and not generate or support innovation.
Watson C (2014) Effective professional learning communities? The possibilities for teachers as agents of change in schools, British Educational Research Journal, 40 (1), pp. 18-29.
p20: The PLC is therefore a complex phenomenon, each purposefully chosen word of which constitutes an essentially contestable concept but which holistically invites an examination of professional practices and the development of ‘teacher leadership’ in schools.
p20: For Fendler (2004) then, community becomes ‘a mechanism of governance and a forum for specifying norms and rules of participation’, which legitimises agencies of control.
p21: Bolam et al. (2005) define the ‘effective’ PLC as one which has: ‘the capacity to promote and sustain the learning of all professionals and other staff in the school community with the collective purpose of enhancing pupil learning’ (ibid., p. 30).
According to Bolam et al, there are five characteristics of PLCs (which can and should all be critiqued!)
- shared vision and values
- Collective responsibility for pupils’ learning.
- Reflective professional inquiry.
- Collaboration focused on learning.
- Group as well as individual professional learning is promoted.
p27: The pervasive discourse of the ‘effective school’ and more latterly the ‘school improvement’ movement with its drive for ‘continuous school improvement’… may impose a narrowly instrumental or technicist agenda focused on pupil attainment as the legitimate aim of the PLC which suppresses the search for diversity, creativity and adaptability, thereby reducing its effectiveness.
p27: The PLC has a potentially significant role to play in these dynamic organisational processes, destabilising the rigidities with which the school as institution surrounds itself—but in order to achieve this it might need to re-examine the meanings attached to those three purposefully chosen words.
There is a growing body of literature looking at this interesting subject area. If you want to explore further some of the critiques and ideas covered in the above see the below book selected from the module wider reading list:
Hughes, J, Jewson, N & and Unwin, L (2007). Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge
Make some notes of your thoughts in your journal in preparation for the next seminar day where we will be discussing these concepts in greater detail.
What implications do these readings have on your views of how learning occurs among a group of teachers?
These readings resonate with my evolving thinking about ‘teacher learning’. Without understanding the theory, I have valued group learning for a long time so these readings are helpful in exploring some of the underpinning theory and rationale.
I think it is interesting to consider the vocabulary (as suggested by Watkins) used and the connotations implied. I am also acutely aware of the business-fying of education and Watkins comments about the ‘school improvement’ agenda are interesting.
How might these shape your future actions in regards to the leading of professional learning within your school/college?
The ‘communities of practice’ model with the discussion of competence, experience, boundaries and identity is certainly helpful in supporting my thinking around the model of professional learning that I want to champion. I found the ‘dimensions’ tables particularly helpful and will refer to these going forward.
I think PLCs are a good concept but not to be taken too literally. The name is not as important as the function and outcome.
What actions might you take to overcome the identified limitations of communities of practice?
For individuals – do I need to consider providing multiple communities of practice that cater for differing individual needs? Each with a clear focus but with potential for boundary overlap?
For communities – is it right that I define the community or should I facilitate ‘self-definition’?
For organisation – is there enough scope within my school to create meaningful communities or do I need to look further afield? Cluster / LC?