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Creating a Community of Practice: How can you apply theory to practice?

09 February, 2017Trevor Russell

Learning has been perceived historically as something achieved as individuals (Armitage et al, 2002) reflecting observed changes in behaviour however, Lave & Wenger’s ideas (1991) on learning as something undertaken within a community has challenged that paradigm. Lave & Wenger’s premise was built upon the idea that people who gather together within a shared domain of interest, for example their workplace, also will learn together. They will do this because they are interested in doing their job more effectively and improving their performance of their role, both individually and collectively.

Communities of practice

Lave and Wenger’s ideas have been encapsulated within the concept of ‘communities of practice’ generally defined as ‘groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly’.

Boud and Middleton(2003) suggested this concept of ‘learning’ within a community of practice, as part of the workplace environment, was more effective as such learning was informal, less structured and individuals wanted to improve themselves and their work-colleagues’ efforts.

Numerous research projects (Arthur, 2014, Boyd et al, 2016) has provided examples of the transference of Lave & Wenger’s initial ideas to the workplace. From a business perspective a successful community may focus on a sense of collective learning to improve performance. Individuals know what they have to achieve to complete their job effectively. The sense of community encourages a wider team-based responsibility to complete their business goals. 

Across education institutions however, learning is actually the end product leading to outcomes defined by an increase in knowledge and possibly, skills. The act of learning may thus be the greater motivator. To align a sense of community within learners, whether academics or student cohorts, practical application has seen the development of communities built around the concept of reflective practice, multiple supervisory research teams, peer-to-peer observations or various forms of mentoring or coaching as evidenced within the traditional classroom or more widely via online forums.  Such outcomes often demonstrate a greater sense of community and peer-belonging as part of a wider shared experience which Wisker (2005) suggests reflects those communities desire to acknowledge and support ‘continual learning’.

Lave and Wenger’s original ideas suggested learning may not solely focus an individual concept however, may actually be more effectively undertaken as part of a broader community.  Such a community will encourage individuals to share the concept of learning as something undertaken as a collective goal rather than merely noted as individual behaviour changes.  Across education the introduction of communities of learners has seen Lave and Wenger’s ideas transfer into reality as evidenced by increased peer learning, shared supervision of students and mentoring initiatives.

Reference List

Armitage, A., Brant, R., Dunhill, R., Hammersley, M., Hayes, D., Hudson, A. and Lawes, S. (2002). Teaching and Training in Post-Compulsory Education. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Arthur, L. (2016) Communities of practice in higher education: professional learning in an academic career.  International Journal for Academic Development. Vol 21 – 3, pp230 – 241.

Boud, A., and Middleton, H. (2003). Learning from others at work: communities of practice and informal learning. Journal of Workplace Learning. Vol 15 – 5, pp194 – 202.

Lave, J., and Wenger, E. (1991).  Situated Learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wisker, G. (2005) The Good Supervisor. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.