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3.2 Communities of practice

Two more theorists, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991), suggest that when you learn you become involved in what they called a community of practice. There are two key words in this term:

  • Community is used to suggest a group of people with a common interest. This common interest might be a shared hobby, working for the same organisation or living in the same place.
  • Practice highlights that these people do something together. For example, the St Kildans shared the practice of collecting eggs in a very dangerous place. But it can equally be something much less dramatic, like being a member of a photography club.
Figure 3 Members of a photography club form a ‘community of practice’

So the concept of a community of practice refers to the learning that occurs when people, who have a common interest, work together to share ideas and find solutions. Because people are working together, a community of practice can provide opportunities to learn how to do something or to improve and do it better.

Communities of practice can also act as a kind of collective store of wisdom and experience. It is not difficult to imagine the St Kildans telling each other stories that would be full of useful information about, for example, which cliffs were more dangerous after heavy rain. People who are members of a photography club would similarly share experiences and knowledge.

The features of communities of practice can be summarised as:

  • a common or shared interest in something
  • a group or community of members who interact and learn together
  • shared or collective resources that members have developed over time.

Lave and Wenger point out that communities of practice are widespread and can be found at home, at work or in connection with leisure interests. Often people are involved with more than one.

In the example from St Kilda, there were probably different roles within the community. There were experienced ‘old hands’ who were the people who had developed the essential knowledge and skills. They were the people who passed on what they knew to the younger St Kildans, who were just beginning to learn about the difficulties and dangers of working on the cliffs. Lave and Wenger suggest that these kinds of experienced people, who act as the store of knowledge, are central to a community of practice. They are known as core members.

There are likely to be others who are on the edge of a community of practice. These will include those who have only just become involved with the community of practice, such as the younger St Kildans or new members of the photography club. Imagining the community as a circle with the core members in the centre, these new members would be towards the edge – in what Lave and Wenger call the periphery. People with only a slight or passing interest in the community of practice, and those moving out of it – perhaps through age or ill health – would also be in the periphery.

Many sports teams would meet the criteria for being a community of practice, as would local gardening groups. You can probably think of other examples from your own life.

Activity 2 Reviewing your notes on the last section

Allow about 10 minutes for this activity.

Spend a few minutes looking back over your notes on learning communities. Do they make sense to you? Do you think you have all the main points?

Discussion

You should have identified three theorists: Vygotsky, Lave and Wenger. Lave and Wenger’s theory had a name – communities of practice; while you probably had to describe Vygotsky’s theory a bit more – that what we learn depends on the society in which we live. You might have also noted the three features (or ‘criteria’) that make up a community of practice, and the example of St Kilda in relation to Vygotsky.

Did you notice some key words which were shown in bold? If you didn’t, go back and add them to your notes.

Are you happy with the way you organised your notes? Think about whether you would change it another time.

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