Learning to change
Learning to change

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Learning to change

3.3.5 Communities of practice

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Figure 22 Lev Vygotsky

As you have seen in the overview of learning theories, it is possible to view learning as something that happens on a purely individual basis. There are other sorts of theories that question this individual focus. There are psychological theories that suggest learning is an activity that occurs in a particular social context. A good example of this is the theory put forward by Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934).

According to Vygotsky (1978), learning occurs when human beings are part of activities that are provided by the society in which they live. You may detect some similarities with Köhler’s theories. However, Köhler tended to focus on an animal’s readiness to use particular objects to carry out particular tasks. Vygotsky’s ideas are useful because they extend the scope of thinking about what is used by people as they learn. Although Vygotsky focused on what children need to learn as they grow up, here we are applying this thinking to the needs of adult learners.

Vygotsky argued that it is impossible to understand learning without taking into account the effect of living in a particular society at a particular time. One example of this would be the learning that used to occur on the Scottish island of St Kilda. The people who used to live on this island needed to collect eggs and catch some of the birds that nested on the island. These were an important source of food for a population that could be cut off from the mainland by bad weather for many weeks. However, the cliffs where the birds nest often reach 350 metres above sea level.

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Figure 23 Catching birds and eggs for food was a dangerous but important occupation

In order to collect the eggs, St Kildans had to learn how to climb these cliffs. This learning would not have been encouraged in other societies with other needs. As a young St Kildan grew up, there would come a point where they might be taken out onto the cliffs by a more experienced climber. Perhaps they would start with parts of the cliffs that were not quite as dangerous as others and gradually progress to the trickiest climbs. The point is that St Kildan society used to provide a framework to enable people to develop important skills and knowledge. This knowledge was held by the society and made available to people as they become ready for it.

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Figure 24 Etienne Wenger and Jonathan Hughes

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 because they share a hobby; it might be because they work for the same organisation; or it might be because they live in the same place. The word ‘practice’ highlights that these people do something together. For example, the St Kildans shared the ‘practice’ of collecting eggs in a very dangerous place. So the concept of a community of practice refers to the learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem 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 sort of collective store of wisdom and experience. It is not very difficult to imagine the St Kildans telling each other stories, which would be full of useful information about, for example, which cliffs were more dangerous after heavy rain.

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. Often people are involved with more than one of them. Communities of practice can be found at home, in work or in connection with leisure interests. In the example from St Kilda, you may have noticed that there seemed to be different positions within the community of practice. The experienced ‘old hands’ 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 the people who act as the store of knowledge are central to a community of practice. They are ‘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. But those on the margin of a community of practice could also include those who are in the process of moving out of the community, perhaps through age or ill health. What Lave and Wenger call the ‘periphery’ would also include those with only a slight or passing interest in the community of practice.

Many sporting clubs would meet the criteria for being a community of practice, as would local gardeners’ associations. You can probably think of other examples that also meet the three criteria.

The next activity is a good opportunity for you to reflect on how the groups in your life influence your learning and studying. By doing this you are also evaluating the relevance and usefulness of communities of practice as a theory.

Activity 36 Your groups – are they communities of practice?

Allow about 20 minutes for this activity

Lave and Wenger suggest that being a member of a group is a key part of learning in general. Such membership might also be important for your study on Learning to change. Have you told people that you have started this course? Have you tried to involve them as a result of doing some of the activities? If you have done, you might like to think about their responses. Were they positive, or just ‘not bothered’? They might even have made negative comments about your studying.

Use a chart like Figure 25. In the first column, list the groups that you belong to. In the second column, comment on how these groups support your learning. For example, you might say that your family members have done household chores to give you time to work on Learning to change. If they do not know you are studying, you could put in what you imagine their reaction would be. In the third column you could say whether the groups seem to have any of the three features of a community of practice. For example, you might note that your family knows about three or four easy-to-cook meals which they can produce when you are not able to cook for them.


This activity might have made you realise (or, possibly, realise again) that friends and family can have a big impact on you. They may already have had an impact on how you see yourself as a learner. This can have an ongoing effect on any subsequent study and on any plans for future change. It might even effect how you view this course. This is fine if you do feel supported by the groups you belong to. But what if you feel that none of these groups are on your side? Well, we hope that you find Learning to change acts as a support which helps build your confidence and belief in yourself. There is likely to be a range of community groups and associations if you want to develop a particular interest.

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Figure 25 Communities of practice, or not

Do you think that our case study subjects are involved in communities of practice? This comment from Karen suggests that she, at least, may have found one while she was studying:

There’s lots and lots of support. There is support on the computer – if you have one. There’s always someone at the end of the telephone if you are having a problem. There’s your fellow students. There’s lots and lots of support there if you come to a block and there is always someone there to help you through it …

The other result of the last activity is to give you a clearer idea about communities of practice and to make you think about the extent to which this concept applies to you at the moment. By seeing how it might apply, you are exploring its relevance and usefulness. Even if you decided that few or none of your current groups have features of communities of practice, you will have given yourself the chance to see how these key features may be applied.


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