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Teaching and learning tricky topics
Teaching and learning tricky topics

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1.1 Cultivating communities

You probably already know quite a lot about learning communities but have you ever thought about creating, or cultivating, a new community? To understand how to develop a community within your organisation you need to clearly understand what makes an effective learning community. There has been a lot of research into learning communities over recent years which can help you to envisage what a new tricky topics community within your organisation might look like.

Who we are is very tightly interwoven with what we have learned (Lave and Wenger, 1991). This has been a clear argument behind learning for centuries as students seek to develop themselves through learning. However, as Lave and Wenger (1991) emphasise, learning within any domain is more than a formal acquisition of knowledge, it has a strong social element also. The concept of situated learning highlights how learning and its development relates to sociocultural contexts and how this impacts on our identities. Goffman (1969) similarly highlights that our identities are not fixed commodities that can be simply traded up or down after learning occurs. Students are one person inhabiting multiple social worlds. Each individual has complex identities and one adapts and presents alternative sides for different social situations or communities.

The concept of ‘Communities of Practice’ emerged from a learning theory developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) called ‘legitimate peripheral participation’. Learning, it argued, should be through a process of participation in communities of practice. The theory details how new members are brought into knowledge communities and how knowledge communities both transform and reproduce themselves. This participation is, at first, peripheral but may gradually increase in both engagement and complexity.

However, some people in a community of practice will remain peripheral either because they do not feel fully competent or because they have insufficient time to fully engage. Unlike other groups and societies where half-hearted engagement may be frowned upon, people on the sidelines of a community of practice are important peripheral members (Wenger et al., 2002). For example, teachers who observe a new innovative teaching method or theory may not interact with the designers of that method/theory but it may still impact on their teaching practice. The act of sharing the knowledge is a key component to improving teaching and learning in tricky topics. However, as you have seen throughout this course, the feedback of developing practice is also very important. So a feedback mechanism is required in your community of practice which will encourage fuller participation and improve the sharing of knowledge.

Lave and Wenger (1991) argue that an emphasis within learning should be on the whole person and that learning equally involves an agent, an activity and a world. Wenger (1998) extends this to a framework in which two basic streams are practice (from collective social norms of practice to accounts of meanings) and identity (from impacts of organisational power and social structures to those of personal subjectivity). This emphasis on identity within communities of practice indicates the importance of both psychological and sociological factors which must be considered within any situation.

Wenger (1998) suggests that focusing on participation of communities of practice ‘has broad implication for what it takes to understand and support learning.’

  • For individuals, it means that learning is an issue of engaging in and contributing to the practices of their communities.
  • For communities, it means that learning is an issue of refining their practice and ensuring new generations of members.
  • For organisations, it means that learning is an issue of sustaining the interconnected communities of practice through which an organisation knows what it knows and thus becomes effective and valuable as an organisation.’ (pp. 7-8)

If this concept is new to you, or you would like to refresh your memory of learning communities then you may wish to read further on the subject (please see further reading section at the end of this week).

It would be useful for you to think through these elements of communities of practice with regard to your own organisation.

Activity 2 Sharing and championing of tricky topics

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Review your own organisation with regard to what you’ve learned from this course and how other colleagues approach their teaching and learning.

Identify, within your own organisation, how you could develop a tricky topics community in which you can lead the sharing and championing of tricky topics and learning design. Make some notes in the box below.

Feedback on IRIS Connect group about how you plan to lead (or already have led) sharing and championing tricky topics and Learning Design within your organisation or community of practice. See Week 8, Activity 2 in the Activities Tab.