Give or take? Cooperate or defect? Connery or Moore?

Is collective learning really a good thing? Can more be achieved by doing something together than can be achieved individually?

In my adopted disciplines – Art and Design – there is a romantic notion of the lone pioneer scratching at the canvas, animating frame-by-frame, or discovering innovative methods of sucking up dust/drying hands/flinging toast etc. The pioneer and their ‘eureka’ moments plays well to the crowd (‘oh look, a falling apple. Hang on a minute…;). However, I don’t think it holds true.

When great discoveries are documented there is nearly always a story of iteration, of people building on and refining the ideas of others. In Stephen Johnson’s book ‘Where Good Ideas come from’ he researches the environments where innovations spring from. He concludes that most innovations emerge when information is freely exchanged, which is why urban environments produce disproportionally more innovation than rural ones, and universities fare better than corporations.

I suspect the same prisoners dilemma is at play in education whereby more can be achieved by agreeing to co-operate over the longer term than can be achieved by pursuing your narrow interests in the shorter term. Your peer group is one of the most important resources that you can draw on, inasmuch as you have a wealth of thoughts and experiences swirling around to inform your own perspective. If we can design learning so that it taps into those many to many relationships rather than the one to one relationships between student and teacher I suspect that we will be rewarded. In a time of rising class numbers it might also release some of the pressure on teachers to support more and more people without the use of a time machine or cloning technology.

However peer learning does not need to be a community of practice. There doesn’t need to be shared sense of identity or endeavour to enable student to contribute to and benefit from each other’s perspective on stuff. There does need to be a sense of reciprocity. If I am going to commit my time and energies to working with you I want you to do the same. Quid pro qou. This for that. Tit for tat.

PS Connery. Obviously.


We want to be together

Communities of practice sounds good. It sounds like something that we should be doing. Doing together. All for one, and one for all.

However, there is a snag, a hitch, a catch, an it’s-not-me-it’s-you sort of thing lurking in the shadows. It is the issue of commitment. According to Wenger membership to a community of practice ‘implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people’. This is the small print that I think many teachers don’t like to read. You need to both want and feel that you are part of a community in order for it to qualify as a community of practice (henceforth COP for short).

Do student feel committed to being part of a community? Is learning seen as a communal thing, whereby what it good for me is also good for you? I’m not so sure that they do. I think that in many cases this is because peers are not seen as a resource, they are seen as competitors.

Assessment plays a large part in this. At some point in your scholastic career it is highly likely that someone is going to judge whether you have learned something or not. They are likely to be assessing you alongside dozens of other people.  Other people that they can they can compare you with, potentially unfavourably.

To some extent, it will depend on how you are assessed. In a criteria-based model it should not matter what someone else has done. In principle, I should be no less or more likely to pass my driving test if the person before me has passed. The assessor is judging my competence to drive a car safely and proficiently, not whether I am better than who comes before or after. In a norm-based model that is not the case. I get an A because I am in the top 10%. It doesn’t whether I am competent or not. It matters whether I am more competent than you.

Even when a criteria-model is employed it is difficult not to invite comparisons. That is one of the reasons that I think that students are reluctant to sign up to learning as a collective endeavour. They do not want to commit to a COP because they feel that the rewards for doing so are not shared equally. I don’t blame them.

02. You have my sword…

It’s February. I have a stinking cold so I – and everybody I know – would like me to be in splendid isolation. Therefore the concept of choice for February will be Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger’s ‘Community of Practice’.

A community of practice is about collective learning (i.e. learning that you do with other people). Wenger says that they are “formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavour“. So, you need three things to be in a community of practice:

  • Thing 1: The domain. A common interest in something that binds you as a group
  • Thing 2: The community. People that you regularly interact with.
  • Thing 3: The practice. Something that you do together.

Essentially, we are talking about the Fellowship of the Ring. That merry band of hobbits, men, dwarf, elf and wizard is a perfect example of a community of practice. Their domain was the possession of a ring of power. Their community was the Fellowship. Their practice was the slog from happyville to Mount Certain Doom. However, the Fellowship turned sour, leaving poor Frodo and Sam to tramp through half of New Zealand on their own. Is this collective learning such a good thing?

When discussing the potential of communities of practice Lave and Wenger focus less on the jealousies, betrayals, and hordes of slavering orcs and more on the benefits of:

  1. collective responsibility
  2. a direct relationship between learning and ability to perform
  3. the dynamic nature of knowledge creation and sharing
  4. the lack of reliance on formal structures

From experience, a lot of colleagues have been enthusiastic about introducing communities of practice into their classroom, forgetting that you need a collective practice to give that relationship focus. Studying for an individual exam is not as likely to result in a community of practice as the examples given by Lave and Wenger (nurses, engineers, street gangs and Borg).

This, for me, is the biggest challenge in making use of this idea in an educational context. A shared interest in something, and people to interact with are relatively easy things to engineer. How do we make them work together if the product of that work is separate?

In summary…

It’s the end of month one. What have I learned?

Those who defend surface/ rote-learning tend to argue that this knowledge provides the scaffolding necessary to demonstrate the higher levels of learning. The issue with this argument is that it presupposes that someone will want or need to do so. In adult life I have never wanted to label a plant. I have never needed to do so. Therefore that knowledge has been lost in time, like tears in rain.

It could have been different. I could have become a biologist, and potentially I would have lauded the process which provided me with the necessary grounding in what bits are next to other bits. However, I’m not so sure. As I hope I’ve argued facts aren’t stable, they change as interpretations change. Even if I have perfect recall – which I don’t – if I wasn’t continuing to interrogate what it is that (I think) I know that knowlege would become irrelevant. As an example, I once went to the doctor for an injection. They didn’t know what the side-effects were so they looked it up. At first I was a a little disappointed (don’t you kow this?) but then I realised that I wasn’t visiting the doctor for an encyclopedic knowledge of medicine. I was visiting them to get the benefit of a judgement informed by years of specialised training and experience.

Learning can be frustrating, hard and befuddling (as well as fun and illuminating) but if I want to learn, and feel that it is in my professional and personal interest to do so, I think I can. Therefore, designing learning which emphasis deep learning qualities such as context, experience and mearning has the greater chance of inspiring and/or sustaining someone’s motivation to learn, which – to my mind – is the principal aim of education.