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?

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