Communities of Practice: The Buzz and the Buzzword, Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
As educators, we frequently hear about a new form of instruction or a new learning theory that will revolutionize teaching and the teaching profession. Often our colleagues in administration and teaching positions use the terminology from a new learning theory in just about everything they do, without stopping to deeply reflect on the meaning of the underlying framework. While it is very easy to accept an administrator's and colleagues' explanations of these educational buzzwords, sometimes it is quite rewarding to check the theory out for oneself. In fact, further examination of a buzzword could even provide a couple of instructional ideas and techniques that require more than "add flour, water and stir."
In his book, Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger offers up the theory behind a buzzword that is currently making its way around the field of education. Administrators state that they want to develop an environment that incorporates a "community approach." Our peers may state that they want their classroom to be a "community of learners." What the heck does this really mean? Wenger discusses learning communities and provides an alternative perspective on learning that should be of interest to many teachers of vocational-technical subjects. Wenger describes a social learning theory that some might argue has been around for many years. However, Wenger deviates from most psychological and social learning theories by introducing the concept of "communities of practice." A community of practice is defined as a social construct that places learning in the "context of our lived experience of participation in the world" (p. 3).
Before getting into the main part of Wenger's learning theory, it is important to provide some background information with regard to Wenger and his previous work. Wenger is widely known for his work, in collaboration with Jean Lave, a UCLA anthropologist, on what became known as situated learning theory. Their background in anthropology is reflected in many of their writings. In situated learning theory, they advocate learning in specific context and focus on how individuals come to be members of a community of practice. This process was named legitimate peripheral participation. It is the movement of an individual from outside into the core of the group. Lave and Wenger believe that this process is an essential aspect of learning, which "traditional education" fails to recognize and utilize. Wenger began to notice the importance of communities through practice. This theory has relevance to educators as they strive to improve their teaching.
The concept of Communities of Practice as an instructional tool is no different from any new instrument. Like the owner's manual for any new tool, this book can be frustrating to read and understand. It is at times an excruciatingly difficult read, because of the different way that Wenger looks at and defines his underlying concepts. However, the book is worth every penny, just for Wenger's discussion on educational design, presented in the last chapter of the book. This review will focus on just a few of the underlying concepts of this new instructional tool, by presenting a brief overview of the key components of learning within communities of practice.
Wenger begins by discussing education, as we know it today, and its misguided focus on the individual. However, he views communities of practice as supplementing and enhancing traditional education. Thus, he proposes that learning is not entirely an individual endeavor but is a "fundamentally social phenomenon." It is upon the concept of learning as a social phenomenon that he frames his theory. According to Wenger, there are four major components of social learning theory. The first two components are termed theories of social structure and theories of situated experience. However, these theories are not of key interest to Wenger. He chooses to instead focus his energies on the remaining two components: theories of social practice and theories of identity. Thus, the book is divided into three major segments. The first segment is a discussion of social practice, the second segment centers on the concept of identity, and the final segment brings both together in a discussion of the practical implications of the Wenger's learning theory.
In his discussion of practice, Wenger focuses on practice as "meaning", practice as "community", practice as "learning", practice as "boundary", practice as "locality" and "knowing in practice". But it is in his discussion of practice as meaning that Wenger makes a profound statement for education. According to Wenger, the goal of education is to develop meaning within the student. The process of such development is "negotiation of meaning." The two components of this process are "participation" and "reification". According to Wenger, "participation refers to the social experience of living in the world in terms of membership in social communities and active involvement in social enterprises" (p. 55). On the other hand, reification is treating an abstraction as substantially existing. Wenger reification by noting that everyday abstractions, such as "democracy," are often talked about as active agents, as when a newscast reports that "democracy took a blow during a military coup." Wenger asserts that both concepts work in concert to provide meaning, thus they are not opposites; they do not substitute for one another, and they are not classificatory categories. Should one be exposed to too much participation, "then there may not be enough material to anchor the specifications of coordination . . .. This is why lawyers always want everything in writing" (p. 65). On the other hand, if one is exposed to too much reification, "then there may not be enough overlap in participation to recover a coordinated, relevant, or generative meaning" (p. 65). This helps to explain why putting everything in writing does not seem to solve all our problems." However, participation involves the interaction with others, while reification is a form of participation through an intermediate medium. From this brief explanation, one can infer that to assist students in finding meaning, a teacher must devise a classroom experience that incorporates just the right blend of participation and reification (social interaction and use of textbooks).
After discussing meaning, Wenger reviews the impact of a community of practice on the negotiation of meaning. He states together with meaning, the community interacts to promote learning. He notes that communities of practice are "not intrinsically beneficial or harmful . . .. Yet they are a force to be reckoned with, for better or worse" (p. 85). Thus, communities can either hinder or assist the learning process. This is an important implication, because it yields some explanation of why two classes composed of students with the same educational ability, the same instructor, and the same course content may have two opposite educational outcomes. Wenger defines a community of practice and its effect on the acquisition of meaning. Wenger states that a community of practice can be defined by its three dimensions: mutual engagement, joint enterprise, and shared repertoire. Mutual engagement is important, because practice does not exist in the abstract, but instead exists because "people are engaged in actions whose meanings they negotiate with one another" (p. 73). Thus, the aforementioned participation and reification are "interwoven" through mutual engagement. Joint enterprise is a process through which people work together toward a common goal. According to Wenger, these enterprises create mutual accountability, which plays a central role in members attempt to or neglect to seek new meanings. The final dimension is a shared repertoire, which represents the common resources that members of the community use to negotiate meaning. Mastery of these dimensions results in a "locally negotiated regime of competence" (p. 137).
The second segment of Communities of Practice examines the social theory of identity and its relationship to learning. Learning transforms "who we are and what we can do, it is an experience of identity. It is not just an accumulation of skills and information, but a process of becoming or avoiding becoming a certain person" (p. 215). Wenger notes that the close interaction of experience (meaning) and competence (communities) is a fertile ground for learning, but the two must remain in constant tension. "If they settle down into a state of locked-in congruence, then learning slows down, and practice becomes stale" (p. 214). Thus, identity helps to keep this tension alive. When discussing tension, Wenger employs many of the same concepts that underlie legitimate peripheral participation. He notes that some participants choose to stay on the periphery of a community, while others tend to take on the identity of the community and move to the core. The interaction between these two sets of community members allows the community to create a richer context for learning. Those that are on the periphery do not generally get caught in the trappings of the core members. Thus, they provide a point of view of that which is lost to more involved participants. One could say that they see the forest and the trees.
Wenger concludes with a discussion that focuses on the consolidation of the first two segments and their implications for the field of education. This segment proved to be the most thought-provoking passage in the entire book. He breaks down his educational design into four dimensions: participation and reification, the designed and the emergent, the local and the global, and identification and negotiability. Each of these dimensions was discussed in great detail in the first two segments, but Wenger actually applies them. It is through this application that the theory finally gets its legs and results in "meaning" for the reader. Once again, this book is not an easy read; but neither is a Tom Clancy novel. Like Clancy, Wenger tends to go a little overboard with the use of jargon and is greatly involved with descriptions. However, after reading a Tom Clancy novel you feel like you have a greater appreciation of the world around you. This book provides an appreciation for the possibilities of socialization learning theories. The reader is given a fresh alternative that promotes appreciation of social views of learning. Who knows, this book may even change the way you think about your own learning and your instruction.
Gillespie is a Doctoral Student in Occupational Studies at The University of Georgia (Athens). He teaches at Truett-McConnell College in Toccoa, Georgia.