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.