Communities of Practice
“Communities of practice” is both a cornerstone concept in social learning theory and the title of the seminal book in which Etienne Wenger (now Etienne Wenger-Trayner) lays out the theory (1998).
Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: 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.
Etienne Wenger-Trayner and his partner, Bev Wenger-Trayner (https://wenger-trayner.com/etienne/), provided the social theory foundation for our Astronomy Research Seminars and Experiences.
The social learning theory of communities of practice provides a foundation for our Astronomy Research Seminars and Experiences at two levels:
In the development of a new pedagogy, it allows us to theorize what students learn with our approach and why it is important.
To support this pedagogy, applying the theory also suggests ways we can expand scientific communities of practice to offer new opportunities for young students to participate in scientific practice.
Science instruction has traditionally taken a cognitive approach. It has consisted of classroom lectures and laboratory exercises that allow students to move through many subjects within a single discipline, exploring all of the essential knowledge of the field. The students listen and apply concepts in laboratory exercises, often under the supervision of teaching assistants. Laboratory activities develop student skills in measurement, analysis, and report writing. In contrast with this approach—where learning takes place when knowledge is successfully transmitted from a source of knowing to someone who doesn’t know—social learning takes place in the process of becoming a member of a community that defines what competence means in a specific domain of expertise. As Wenger (1998) points out:
Learning is a matter of engagement: it depends on opportunities to contribute actively to the practices of communities that we value and that value us, to integrate their enterprises into our understanding of the world, and to make creative use of their respective repertoires … Practice is a process of interactive learning [that] enables newcomers to insert themselves into existing communities. It is the learning of mature members and of their communities that invites the learning of newcomers (277).
A key pedagogical implication of communities of practice is that they naturally have a spectrum of participants, from core members to more or less peripheral participants. In any specific scientific research community of practice, such as astronomy, there is a gradation of participation and learning that takes place as people move toward full participation. Full participation generally reflects the degree to which the conduct of scientific research is one’s primary vocation. Research scientists at research institutes and universities are normally in charge of most research projects. Under their leadership, much of the work on these projects is accomplished by graduate students working on their doctoral degrees (as well as a variety of support staff). Graduate students often also assist research scientists in their teaching duties. More peripheral are serious amateurs, and sometimes undergraduate or even high-school students. Unlike science graduate students working toward their doctoral degree, undergraduate and high-school students are not normally granted professional standing and are therefore not given access to the full range of research instrumentation, professional societies, and meetings.
We are endeavoring to change that, and to grant these students a role as peripheral participants in selected scientific research communities of practice. The students in our seminars are learning by developing actual proficiency in the practices of a community of scientists, and publishing their work in places where it can be accepted or rejected by experienced members of that community. The process of introducing students to a specific practice of that community (writing a scientific paper) is not simply a matter of teaching them a set of writing conventions that they then apply, it involves expert members of that community acting as gatekeepers to the dynamic practices of the community.
For these students, learning scientific practice is not just learning a skill but developing a new identity, which Wenger (1998) describes as a core dimension of learning in a community of practice:
Learners must be able to invest themselves in communities of practice in the process of approaching a subject matter. Unlike in a classroom, where everyone is learning the same thing, participants in a community of practice contribute in a variety of interdependent ways that become material for building an identity. What they learn is what allows them to contribute to the enterprise of the community and to engage with others around that enterprise … Learning [within a community of practice] transforms our identities: it transforms our ability to participate in the world by changing all at once who we are, our practices, and our communities.
More recent work in social learning theory has situated learning in communities of practice in a broader landscape of practice (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2014). In a complex, dynamic world, the boundaries between scientific disciplines also become potential places of learning, as in multi-disciplinary approaches to problem solving and exploration, or in new scientific areas where traditional disciplines converge. In this case, focusing on a community of practice and its boundaries is a significant part of the learning process. This is all the more important because some students may never become scientists in their core discipline, but rather, they may develop an identity that traverses several communities in that landscape. They become sufficiently competent in one or more communities to develop enough legitimacy and knowledgeability to navigate the landscape successfully, and perhaps transform it. Wenger et al. (2002) have provided a useful guide to cultivating communities of practice
The primary goal of our approach is to open new avenues for students to engage with scientific practices through personal experience. But in doing so, we are also changing the relationship of scientific communities to the broader landscape of practice in which they are located (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2014). In particular, emerging social-media technologies have the potential to open new forms of periphery around scientific communities where students can have legitimate forms of participation in scientific work. As Wenger (1998), suggests, the benefit of involving peripheral participants also serves the community:
There are all sorts of reasons to shelter newcomers from the intensity of actual practice, from the power struggles of full participation … Similarly, there are all sorts of reasons to shelter old-timers from the naiveté of newcomers and spare them the time and trouble of going over the basics. … When old-timers and newcomers are engaged in separate practices, they lose the benefit of their interaction. … Communities are thus deprived of the contributions of potentially the most dynamic, albeit inexperienced, segment of their membership – the segment that has the greatest stake in their future.
Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge
Wenger, E., McDermott, R., and Snyder, W. 2002. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing
Knowledge. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Wenger-Trayner, E. and Wenger-Rayner, B. 2014. Learning in landscapes of practice: a framework. In Wenger-Trayner, E., Fenton-O’Creevy, M., Hutchinson, S., Kubiak, C., and Wenger-Trayner, B. (eds.) Learning
in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, Identity, and Knowledgeability in Practice-based Learning. London: Routledge.