Reading: Communities of Practice

During the course of undertaking this PGCE it has become increasingly apparent to me that as learners and teachers we absorb certain orthodoxies without even noticing them, much less questioning them. One common one is the assumption that learning ‘has a beginning and an end; that it is best separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is the result of teaching’ (Wenger). As a teacher, I have found this individualised approach that most of us start with becomes increasingly problematic when one is called upon to teach large groups, something which is increasingly the norm in higher education. Through a colleague, I was recently introduced to the concept of a community of practice, articulated by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in their 1991 book Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, and later expanded by both authors separately in further books.

Lave and Wenger propose a model, where learning is the product of engagement in a community of individuals engaged in a shared activity or interests. They argue that such communities are fundamental to human activity, and as a result we are all engaged in a number of them (often indeed without realising it), in some cases participating as peripheral participants, in others as core members. Through our interactions within these communities and the things they are centred on (what Wegner terms the ‘domain’), we tune our behaviour and ideas, developing practices that relate to our area of interest. These shared practices, interests, vocabularies, and memories also serve over time to reinforce the sense of a community. As we engage and learn in a community we move from its’s periphery towards it’s centre, learning thus becomes a process of social participation as well as one of actually acquiring knowledge.

What seems key here is that because the community develops these practices collectively, the process of learning cannot be individualised in the way it is often understood to be in formal education. Measuring learning as an individual effort makes little sense when learning becomes the product of group interactions and relationships. This idea would seem to have some interesting parallels with other anti-hierarchical educational ideas, for example rhizomatic learning. However whereas the rhizomatic approach centres on a non-hierarchical approach to knowledge and the exchanges points between different forms of knowledge, communities of practice emphasise a sort of networked, integrated system of learning between individuals. As with rhizomatic learning, communities of practice might be a trendy idea to bandy about, but to truly encourage them in a university setting would seem then to require a fundamental change to a number of things, particularly assessment which remains fixated on learning as an individual activity. While collaboration is increasingly a part of the university curriculum, it’s inclusion often seems mechanistic and continues to heavily emphasise the individual’s contribution to the collaboration (I speak with UAL’s collaborative unit in mind here) over the collaboration as a whole.

While we wait (perhaps indefinitely) for a fundamental reconsideration of the priorities behind higher education assessment, there still seem to be elements of Lave and Wenger’s concept that might be useful in the classroom. Two of these that seem obviously useful to me are first, the idea of learning as a group activity rather than one that takes place between individual students and the teacher, and secondly the goal of creating a communal bond in a learning group, a bond which centres on a set of shared practices, vocabularies, and memories. In terms of learning as a group activity, this seems to be increasingly the norm in classrooms, and to some extent Lave and Wenger are articulating an existing phenomenon rather than proposing a new one. The didactic, teacher led approach to education is increasingly unfashionable, frequently  replaced (at least in pedagogic rhetoric if not in practice) with student orientated approaches, comprising small group work, student led activities and so forth. Still it seems valuable to think about ways these different strategies might be joined together to create a more encompassing sense of group learning. By introducing the idea that we learn together as professionals (and I think the teachers willing participation in the process of learning is probably key here) a community of practice might also normalise the idea amongst a group of students that learning is very much an ongoing, peer to peer activity which continues throughout one’s professional life, rather than something which mostly ends after the three years of university.

Second, the idea of creating a bond or community through learning obviously seems useful in supporting the community of learning outlined above, but also in establishing the social relations between students which will help them to be effective learners and professionals after graduation. If one regards education for a vocational and largely freelancer practice like photojournalism as partly a process of socialisation, of preparing students with the social capital they need to navigate the professional industry and community they will graduate into, a community of practice might act as something of a microcosm of the industry outside the classroom. As well as reflecting the industry outside though, a community of practice is perhaps an opportunity to augment the priorities of that real-world community, by emphasising collaborative and peer to peer learning as ideals against the traditional individualism of the industry, perhaps we can start to subtly influence it as our students graduate into and bring with them practices which celebrate collaboration and the group more, and downplay individual ownership.

Communities of practice should not be treated uncritically, and as Lave and Wenger somewhat acknowledge there are situations where such a community of practice might incorporate unhelpful hierarchies and power relations which challenge or limit participation and learning. Particularly in a financially straightened and competitive industry like photojournalism, those at the centre may well see those at the periphery as challengers or rivals, not equals. Therefore, while the community of practice model might appear to replace the traditional approach of individualised and hierarchical learning, it’s centre-periphery model can reproduce similar tensions in the round. None the less this seems like a potentially useful model with elements which might be adapted, both for the benefit of learning in the formal classroom, and for a student’s lifelong learning afterwards.

Author: Lewis Bush

Photographer, writer, curator and lecturer. www.lewisbush.com www.disphotic.com

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