More About Learning Communities

Figure 3.9 Members of a photography club form a “community of practice”
Figure 3.9 Members of a photography club form a “community of practice”

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 organization, 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 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.

The features of communities of practice can be summarized 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. Communities of practice can be found at home, at 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 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 sports teams would meet the criteria for being a community of practice, as would local gardening groups. You can probably think of other examples that also meet the three criteria.

3.2.7 Communities of Practice Exploring Learning Communities