Summarising my reading on “communities of practice”, and my views on how this framework might be useful for thinking about change in our context, for our iEarth/BioCEED-led course on “leading educational change”…
Communities of practice are often used as a model for “learning through participation”, describing how culture influences how knowledge within organisations is built and shared, and aspired to when cultural change is worked towards. Identities, how they develop and how they influence how people behave are central in this framework: for members of a CoP, their membership in this CoP and participation in its shared practice are defining parts of their identity.
The concept of CoPs was developed by Etienne Wenger (1998) and has since been widely adopted. A brief description and definition are given in Wenger (2011):
“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”
A community of practice (CoP) has three defining characteristics:
- A shared domain of interest or expertise which brings people together (the expertise does not have to be formally recognised).
- A community in which people interact regularly, learn together, share experiences and stories, all related to the shared domain of interest.
- A practice of the shared domain of interest, which the community engages in together, thus developing a shared repertoire of skills, stories, tools, which improves their practice.
What exactly happens in a CoP can take many different forms, for example brainstorming ideas to solve a problem, sharing information, materials, experiences, combining efforts to create synergies, or building comprehensive archives of solutions.
In all cases, negotiating shared meaning is essential: “reification”, the process of creating objects that represent a more abstract concept, helps organise discussions by visualising understanding, and documenting results for future reference. However, theses simplified symbols can also be misunderstood or taken out of context, or take away agency when they are imposed on people who weren’t part of the reification process. It is therefore important that participation and reification always occur together.
Roles in a CoP
Despite CoPs often being informal in nature, in order for people to consistently do things together, they do require someone to take on the role of community coordinator.
What I really like about CoPs as a framework is that — in addition to full members which fully identify with participation in the CoP, there are many legitimate ways to participate without being a full member:
- people might be on an inbound trajectory: new members are learning to participate in the practice of a community, transforming their identity to become a full member. It changes how they participate in the world and at the same time who they are, what they do, and who they do it with
- people might also be on an outbound trajectory: students are encouraged to grow, to try on different roles and idetities, and ultimately leave when they’ve found the best fit
- people might also be brokers: peripherally participating in several CoPs and making connections across CoPs, this way create new meaning. But: “uprootedness is an occupational hazard of brokering”, and organisations are still learning to recognise and appreciate the value of brookers.
In addition to by brokers, flow of information can also happen by artefacts (which, as boundary objects, transport meaning in or out) and through interactions (for example through shared projects with other communities of practice).
Even for people who don’t identify as brokers, membership in several communities of practice is common — often with different domains of expertise, or in different, possibly overlapping communities on the same domain. Wenger (1998) describes how identifying too strongly with one CoP can hinder innovation, and how participation in any kind of learning opportunity will only have lasting effects if the home institution’s culture allows for any new aspects to be integrated with the person’s identity and in the CoP at home. Encouraging multi-membership, for example in a work-place related CoP and one that is focussed on family life, helps not tear people apart.
The existence of a CoP does not mean that there are no conflicts and disagreements: “As a form of participation, rebellion often reveals greater commitment than does passive conformity” (Wenger, 1998). However, newcomers might not lead to as much change as one might think, because their desire to become part of the community might lead to them not wanting to rebel too much too early on.
Developing a CoP
Communities of practice are not necessarily formalised in clubs or committees, they can form spontaneously or be designed purposefully. They typically go through 5 different stages (Wenger et al., 2002).
- potential: figuring out whether there is enough shared interest and the will to engage in a shared practice
- coalescence: the CoP is “launched” and members are recruited
- maturation: the CoP changes from sharing tips & tricks between friends to a formal structure
- stewardship: the CoP tries to keep on going as people might get tired and boundary conditions change
- transformation: the CoP might change dramatically or die
When designing a CoP, there are seven principles to consider (Wenger, 2002):
- Design the community to evolve naturally. A CoP is carried by the voluntary efforts of its members, their interests and goals. All of these might change with time, which will need to also change the community.
- Create opportunities for open dialogue within and with outside perspectives. Not all expertise is necessarily already available within the community, so seeking it out and welcoming it is helpful
- Welcome and allow different levels of participation. See different roles above — not everybody has to be a full member to be respected and welcomed.
- Develop both public and private community spaces. This accommodates members’ different preferred styles and keeps the community open for new ideas.
- Focus on the value of the community. Reflecting on the value of the community helps sustain motivation.
- Combine familiarity and excitement. Members need both predictability, e.g. in routines and regular meetings, as well as excitement, e.g. spontaneous events and new input.
- Nurture a regular rhythm for the community. Interacting and practising together regularly is the backbone of a CoP.
None of these are super surprising, but together they are a nice set of criteria to check against when developing a theory of change.
How communities of practices have been applied to educational change
Wenger (2011) describes three ways how educational practices are affected by communities of practice:
- Internally: Building communities of practice in which students learn in school
- Externally: Connecting in-school learning to the actual practice in the real world
- Over the lifetime of students: Making sure that students remain part of communities of practice when they transition from school into a job and then onwards
Wenger (2011) focusses on how students are involved in communities of practice, not on teachers and their learning, but for the purpose of our own change project, this is equally applicable to teachers. But communities of practice have been used to design and explain change in academia (and also in many other contexts! But my focus here is on educational settings) by many other authors in all three contexts.
Tinnell et al. (2019) report on the positive impact a specific type of CoP, a faculty learning community (FLC), had at an engineering faculty for both faculty (getting real-time feedback, better student interactions, teaching teamwork, peer collaborations) and students (changed attitudes and effort, better understanding, better teamwork), with the change persisting up to 2 years after the end of the FLC. They attribute the changes to
- monthly meetings that provided accountability and support
- the relationships developed within the FLC between peers
- sharing of ressources within the FLC
Mårtensson & Roxå (2014) look at learning and professional development through two different communities of practice, one across all of Sweden, the other international, and stress the experience of a joint enterprise in participants. A repeated, predictable, long-term nature of the project, rather than a one-off week-long workshop, is important if a long-term impact, for example on professional practice or identity development, is desired. They also show that creating artefacts is an important tool to negotiate shared meaning and build community.
Gehrke & Kezar (2017) identify the ways in which individual faculty involvement in four CoPs engaged in STEM reform efforts is associated with perceived benefits for their home departments and institutions. They find that positive outcomes for individuals hoping to influence broad organisational goals are related to involved in a CoP over a long period of time, and to presenting results from that CoP to the outside, for example at conferences, potentially giving them legitimacy at their home institutions to drive change. Another helpful strategy seems to encourage participants to join the CoP in a team with peers, thus being able to continue conversations at their home institution. And even having participated in the same workshops individually provides a shared language and trust.
From that study, Gehrke & Kezar (2017) give four recommendations to people wanting to design communities of practices to reform STEM education:
- make sure people receive enough support to stay engaged for long periods of time,
- bring people in in small teams of peers from each institution
- help community members become confident and skilled in the subject itself and in communicating about it
- bring in key leaders to support members and help change the culture
Bernstein-Sierra & Kezar (2017) identify five challenges and possible solutions that national STEM education communities of practice faced:
- Funding: Communities of practice often rely on soft money. The advice is to adopt a “self-sustaining mindset”, i.e. live within their means, merge with a larger organization with more fund, or commercialising.
- Leadership: As the CoP matures, demands on leadership change and therefore the leader might either have to develop or make space for someone else — who needs to be suited and/or developed for that role.
- Legitimacy: Recruiting new members becomes easier when there is evidence of effectivity, e.g. self-assessment data
- Staleness: When the novelty wears off, members might become tired and/or bored. This can be met with openness to criticizm, advisory boards, new leadership.
- Maintaining integrity: As things change, new acivities might not be in line with the CoP’s original mission. There needs to be reflection on and re-evaluation of goals, and transparency about this.
Still reading? Yeah, me too, will add to this point later! :-) I’m actually a bit skeptical if I will find a lot of literature here, seeing that I described above how CoPs have life cycles that end with substantial change or the end of a CoP.
For me, reading Wenger (1998) was quite a transformative experience, because it gave me language and a framework to articulate a lot of things I had observed but was not able to articulate, for example relating to the role of brokers. Purposefully building CoPs, considering especially legitimate peripheral particpants and how identities are anchored in home institutions and need to potentially change if new ideas are to be implemented back home, seems like a better way to approach cultural change than I’ve been involved in before.
But: Considering my reading of Kezar & Holcombe (2019), I am now more aware than ever that CoPs are just one lens (despite one I like a lot!) on culture change, and that there are contextual factors that need to be considered in addition, that the framework of CoP does not address. But I guess that’s why we are doing this “leading educational change” course — to figure out which other lenses we want to include to tackle the big issues the right way! :-)
Bernstein-Sierra, S., & Kezar, A. (2017). Identifying and overcoming challenges in STEM reform: A study of four national STEM reform communities of practice. Innovative Higher Education, 42(5), 407–420. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-01 7-9395-x.
Gehrke, S., & Kezar, A. (2017). The Roles of STEM Faculty Communities of Practice in Institutional and Departmental Reform in Higher Education. American Educational Research Journal, 54(5), 803–833. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002 831217706736
Mårtensson, K., & Roxå, T. (2014). Promoting learning and professional development through communities of practice. Perspectives on Pedagogy and Practice, 5.
Tinnell, T. L., Ralston, P. A. S., Tretter, T. R., & Mills, M. E. (2019). Sustaining pedagogical change via faculty learning community. International Journal of STEM Education, 6(1), 26. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0180-5.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.
Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard business press.
Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. [here]