Communities of Practice: Creating Learning Environments for Educators

Editors, Chris Kimble, Paul Hildreth and Isabelle Bourdon
Publisher, Information Age Publishing

As a two volume set:
Hard cover ISBN: 1593118678 , Soft cover ISBN: 159311866X

As separate volumes:
Hard Cover - Vol 1 ISBN: 1593118635 , Vol 2 ISBN: 1593118651
Soft Cover - Vol 1 ISBN: 1593118627 , Vol 2 ISBN: 1593118643


What we now call Communities of Practice (CoPs) have probably existed throughout history, however the term Community of Practice (CoP) was first coined by Lave and Wenger in 1991 who examined CoPs as vehicles for learning. Their examples were initially all apprenticeship based as they explained their theory of learning through a process called Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP). In essence, this is the process by which newcomers to the community learn from old-timers as they are allowed to undertake more and more tasks in the community and gradually move to full participation.

Although originally used to describe a mode of social learning, it is now clear that CoPs are seen as having an impact far beyond their original field. For several years, they have been attracting attention from academics, consultants and practitioners. In the commercial world, CoPs have been taken up as part of a Knowledge Management (KM) or distributed team-working strategy and it is here that they have perhaps had the most impact.

CoPs are important for learning in any organisation because learning is an act of participation and is therefore an essentially social activity. As an extension of this, we can see that knowledge is integral with the life of communities.

Communities of Practice are a theory of learning however during the preparation of the book 'Knowledge Networks: Innovation through Communities of Practice' (Hildreth and Kimble, 2004), it became clear that Communities of Practice are now having an impact far beyond that in the field of education. This impact is being felt across the world in many areas of education:

Teaching is a very personal and 'individual' activity, yet teachers benefit greatly from links with other teachers, both with colleagues in their own establishment and with colleagues in the wider teaching community. This is perhaps especially true for those teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). TEFL teachers are scattered all over the world and yet have a common interest and a large community from which they can continually learn. Teachers are clearly prime candidates to benefit from CoPs - Communities of Practice can be powerful catalysts for enabling teachers to improve their practice. The fields of teacher training, newly qualified teacher (NQT) induction and on-going professional development are fields where work is already being undertaken to develop CoPs to support teachers. Locally based CoPs and virtual CoPs are both proving valuable - new Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are making it possible for teachers to become involved in larger, distributed communities. Membership of these communities allows teachers to collaborate, to develop new knowledge, and to develop and learn about new resources. The CoPs which are available are not only supporting teachers but also administrators, district coordinators, state staff, staff developers, university faculty, graduate students, undergraduates, researchers, and educational consultants all being and providing resources for each other.

As well as support for teachers, CoPs have the potential to improve the learning experience for students. To benefit from the tremendous learning energy that comes with social membership, schools need to provide the opportunity for students to form CoPs around subject matter. This does not mean that schools should build their curriculum around rock 'n roll or video games. It most decidedly does not mean that students need to be cajoled or entertained into learning. Personal interests come into conflict with school precisely because, for many students, school offers no alternative: no opportunity to build meaningful lives around schoolwork; no opportunity to express themselves through participation in school learning.

If young people are to have opportunities for full participation in school, the school must offer communities of practice with the same drawing power as the students' other communities - the same potential for participation that is offered in families, neighbourhoods, communities, workplaces, and clubs. This drawing power depends, among other things, on possibilities for meaningful participation, and on compatibility with participation in communities of practice outside of school. If students are to take what they learn in school into the rest of their lives, they must be able to bring what they learn elsewhere into school. Thus the communities that students form in school cannot be isolated from the many other communities in which they participate; the school is a viable community for students only to the extent that it supports their participation in other communities as well (Eckert, Goldman and Wenger 1997).

CoPs have attracted so much attention in so many fields from both practitioners and researchers that the original concept has been broadened and applied in different contexts. This can be seen in this book as different authors have provided different definitions. This often leads to discussion about what constitutes a CoP. Rather than trying to find a single all-encompassing definition, it is perhaps preferable to explore characteristics which would be present in CoPs to a greater or lesser degree and regard the term 'Community of Practice' as an umbrella term, covering a range of groups which might have more of some of the characteristics than others (Hildreth, 2004).

New Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have had a major impact on CoPs and have allowed CoPs to migrate from the co-located environment. This has resulted in further research and debate as requirements and interactions change in the new virtual environment. All the examples in this book are of co-located CoPs. Virtual CoPs (vCoPs) are covered in Volume 2.

Overview of the Book

The aim in this book has been to combine current academic research in Communities of Practice in education with practitioner experience to provide teachers and academics with guidance and an incentive to develop and work in their own Communities of Practice.

The result is a wide mix of authors from around the world who are relating their experiences in their own words. The chapters and styles range from reports into research to very personal accounts and thus provide a fascinating view of Communities of Practice in Education.

This book is divided into 2 volumes with Volume 2 addressing the issue of CoPs in a distributed environment. This volume is divided into 3 sections and contains 21 individual chapters. A brief description of each section and each chapter follows.

Section 1

This section consists of four chapters and forms an introductory section giving some theoretical background and explaining why CoPs are important in education.

In Chapter 1, Networking Knowledge to Achieve Transformation in Schools, Brian Caldwell sets the scene by addressing the change in education and the need for CoPs. He explains that teachers tend to be comfortable working in an informal environment and in many cases already benefit from learning from CoPs; however, Brian draws on research to demonstrate that CoPs can have a wider impact and become a serious strategy to drive real transformation in schools to result in high achievement for students.

Ralf St. Clair in Chapter 2, Educational Research as a Community of Practice, gives more of a theoretical basis as part of the introductory section. He discusses CoP theory and then applies it in an educational context - i.e. he takes the field of educational research and uses CoPs as a way of exploring and examining the field.

Continuing the theoretical introduction, Robbin Chapman presents The Reflective Mentor Model: Growing Communities of Practice for Teacher Development in Informal Learning Environments. In this chapter, she goes back to the roots of CoPs and explores constructionism and how it can be extended to promote learner engagement in critical reflection of the learning experience. Although the chapter has a very theoretical, base it explores this in a practical environment.

Jonathan Klein and Con Connell conclude the introductory section and provide a link to the chapters that follow by specifically looking for CoPs in education. Their chapter The Identification and Cultivation of Appropriate Communities of Practice in Higher Education is specifically concerned with Communities of Practice of teachers, rather then students, in Higher Education. They present a short introduction to CoPs and then present a classification of CoPs. This is followed by a discussion of how CoPs may be cultivated, specifically within Higher Education.

Section 2

The nine chapters in Section 2 cover the use of CoPs in training in education. This includes both teacher training and Continued Professional Development (CPD) at different levels of education.

Valerie Anderson introduces the section with her chapter Communities of Practice and Part-Time Lecturers: Opportunities and Challenges in Higher Education. This chapter addresses the need for support for part-time lecturers in Higher Education as they often have limited access to formal development processes. She considers how CoPs can play an important role in supporting these lecturers and assisting their professional development.

Chapter 6, ''Teaching with Technology': A Multifaceted Staff Development Strategy by Tony Carr, Glenda Cox, Andrew Deacon and Andrew Morrison is also concerned with Higher Education and describes a formal staff development programme which crosses boundaries within the institution and is dedicated to growing active educator CoPs. They describe a number of activities used to grow the CoPs and illustrate the processes by three vignettes from interactions with educators who have learnt new practices.

John Mitchell, Suzy McKenna and Susan Young move the focus from Higher Education to Further Education in Chapter 7, Improving Practice in Australia's Vocational Education and Training Sector through Communities of Practice. They focus on vocational education in Australia and report on a number of CoPs that were established to help practitioners establish productive relationships across boundaries with a wide range of stakeholders. The theme is continued by Roger Harris and Michele Simons in 'Becoming One of Them': The Experience of Institution-Based Educators Providing Training in Companies in Australia. In this chapter, Roger and Michele also explore boundary-crossing CoPs in vocational education and training (VET) in Australia, however in this case the focus is on VET practitioners in companies. VET teachers have been increasingly encouraged to shift their practice from the classroom to the workplace. The chapter examines ways in which a group of VET teachers learned how to work in companies and navigate the spaces between Communities of Practice in the company and those in their 'home' institute. The findings highlight how CoPs might be used as an explanatory framework to assist teachers to make meaning of their work with industry, and of the challenges they confront as the move between different sites of practice.

Chapter 9, Reaching Beyond the "Boundaries": Communities of Practice and Boundaries in Tertiary Education, by Gerlinde Koeglreiter, Luba Torlina and Ross Smith is also based in Australia but is again in Higher Education. This chapter examines a self-directed CoP that has problems and reports on the CoPs boundary-spanning attempts to resolve the problems. Amongst a number of insights gained, the authors conclude that when seeking to facilitate the spanning of boundaries between a CoP and the wider organisation in which it exists, it must be understood that boundaries are multi-dimensional and that cultural differences must be appreciated and addressed.

A self-directed CoP is also the focus of Chapter 10, Space, Resistance and Identities: University Based Teacher-Educators developing a Community of Practice, a very personal account by Margaret Herrington, Rachel Baig, Vanessa Dye, Julie Hughes, Alex Kendall, Cathie Lacey, Matt O'Leary and Rob Smith. They describe the coming together, at a particular moment and for a particular purpose, of a group of teacher-educators in a British university, to form a readers' and writers' group. Central government policy change regarding the nature of post-16 teacher education in England and Wales was the catalyst, and over an eighteen month period, the group analysed the impact of such change on their personal and professional identities and devised authentic ways of responding to it. Here they attempt to make sense of this experience within the theoretical frames offered by notions of Communities of Practice.

Chapter 11 moves the professional development theme into secondary education and looks at informal professional development by exploring how teachers learn in the workplace. Saïda Habhab, in her chapter, Workplace Learning in Communities of Practice: How Do Schoolteachers Learn? examines the relationship between workplace learning and Lave and Wenger's (1991) theory of Communities of Practice. Drawing on research with schoolteachers, she presents two case study accounts of two CoPs in two different French schools. She focuses on the practices of mathematics and science schoolteachers to support the development of their learning and uses this to show teachers that their own learning can be made more effective by linking the individual learning to collective or social learning.

Chapter 12, Adopting Communities of Practice as a Framework for Teacher Development, by Rana Yildirim is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it examines a CoP that is partly self-directed and partly organised and secondly it arose out of the project described in Chapter 8, Global vCoPs for EFL Teachers through Asynchronous CMC, of Volume 2. Rana reports on a CoP that was created among a group of primary school teachers for this study aimed at enhancing teachers' knowledge and perceptions of teaching English to young learners. Her findings strongly suggest that a CoPs approach to teachers' professional development is more beneficial than the so-called traditional learning opportunities envisaged by many in-service teacher training models in creating a powerful learning environment where teachers can find opportunities to share, cooperate, understand and support each other; and become aware of their weaknesses and strengths.

The last chapter in Section 2, Launching a Cross-Organizational CoP for School Leaders: Overcoming Barriers to Engagement and Meeting Diverse Needs by Naava Frank and Abbey Keith focuses on learning for headteachers. The chapter describes the early unfolding of a cross-organizational Community of Practice (CoP) for heads of school of 14 independent Jewish day schools. It articulates the challenges faced by the community facilitators to a) help school leaders overcome the initial barriers to engagement; b) meet the diverse needs of members; and c) engage heads in system-wide and individual school improvement. It also identifies the strategies used by facilitators to overcome these challenges and help the heads of school develop a shared sense of identity and purpose.

Section 3

Section 3 moves away from CoPs as environments to help educators learn and concentrates on the use of CoPs in the classroom, i.e. the use of CoP principles in the practice of teaching. The eight chapters in this section cover a range of contexts from doctoral studies to sport in primary schools.

The first chapter, Bridging Two Worlds: Identity Transition in a University Consulting Community of Practice by Gazi Islam, examines a completely student-run consulting practice within a business school and attempts to use the concept of Communities of Practice to describe the process of professional learning in a student-run consulting group. The central thesis put forward is that Communities of Practice within educational settings can act as intermediary zones between university and professional settings, providing students with opportunities to learn social and professional norms that would be difficult to acquire in traditional classroom settings.

Catherine Hansman's chapter, Adult Learning in Communities of Practice: Situating Theory in Practice, is also based in Higher Education and uses doctoral students as an example in a discussion of adult education and the roles self-directed learning, learning through experience, and Communities of Practice (CoPs) play in modern concepts of Adult Education. The major conceptions of CoPs, particularly as they relate to adult education practice, are examined, as well as the intersection of major ideas concerning adult education, self-directed learning and CoPs.

Jeanne Bitterman continues the theme of doctoral students in Higher Education. Her chapter, Utilizing CoP - Concepts in Adult Education Doctoral Study, describes a case study of a CoP initiative to support student learning and success in a cohort designed adult education doctoral programme in the United States. It addresses how a CoP framework can help students adjust to the rigors, demands and responsibilities of academic study the experiences described unearth some of the tensions that evolve from the emergent versus the designed when implementing CoPs in academia and the findings culminate with ten recommendations for education practitioners.

Petra Cremers and Rianne Valkenburg conclude the look at Higher Education by looking at CoPs in a more general light. In their chapter, Teaching and Learning about Communities of Practice in Higher Education, they report on a research project that investigated the functioning of CoPs by way of action research. Three questions are answered: How do CoPs work; what are the success factors? What are the success factors of CoPs in Higher Education as compared to those from literature? Can working as a CoP be taught, and if so, how should we go about this? The results are translated into an educational model for teaching and learning about CoPs, with the conclusion that teaching and learning about CoPs helps to start and nurture CoPs in an educational institution.

Bregje de Vries and Jules Pieters shift the context to the Secondary School. Their chapter, 'The Knowledge-Creating School Proudly Presents ...' - A School Community Sharing Its Story, explores the idea of the whole school as a community and uses the metaphor of a play in a theatre to describe how a school community that became aware of its know-how, disseminates its knowledge to others outside the school. The authors report on a case study that illustrates two future trends of schools acting as communities: (1) the redefinition of roles and tasks in the school, and (2) the increased visibility of the school in its expanding network.

Toni O'Donovan and David Kirk focus on a specific subject, the teaching of sport, and how CoP principles can help in teaching in both primary and secondary schools. Their chapter, Sport Education: Facilitating Lifelong Participation in the Community of Practice of Sport, examines how several major concepts from situated learning can be used to set up educational experiences that facilitate young people's trajectory from peripheral to full participation in the Community of Practice of sport. They examine the potential benefits of enabling young people's participation in sport as a CoP with relevance to physical education and argue that Sport Education has the potential to overcome the alleged abstraction of school learning in a range of subjects including physical education.

The context remains in the secondary school in Jean-François Marcel's chapter, Innovative Projects in French Secondary State Schools: A Comparative Analysis of Two Communities of Practice. The school in question is in an Education Priority Zone and the chapter explores two CoPs in the school, each of which was to implement a project that was considered innovative. Of the two CoPs, one failed to perform well while the other was successful. The analysis of the results provides a better understanding of the content of the project, teaching practices (especially in their collective form) and the professional knowledge constructed and mobilized within a CoP. These results are used as a basis to uncover various elements that can be transferred to other contexts with regard to understanding how CoPs are set-up and operate.

Amon Daran Millner and Shaundra Daily conclude the book by looking at secondary age students but exploring the use of CoP principles in learning in an out-of-school context. Their chapter, Creating an Educational Ecosystem for Design, Personal Fabrication and Invention, describes Learn 2 Teach: Teach 2 Learn (L2T:T2L), a program mobilizing teens in their out-of-school time to gain knowledge in technology-rich domains and to create their own ways to share knowledge with their younger peers The program is examined with a Community of Practice lens to show how participants share understandings of designing with technology amongst themselves and with others in their community. Applying such a lens to this community's evolution from 2003 to 2006 reveals multiple, interconnected Communities of Practice that create an ecosystem for engaging youth with hands-on activities related to emerging technological ideas such as personal fabrication in ways that United States public schools, in the main, have not widely adopted.