The power of communities of practice

The power of communities of practice
Photo by Elaine Casap / Unsplash

I'm three months into a two-year appointment in the president's office of my university, with the title of Presidential Fellow for the Advancement of Learning. It's a fancy title for a job that sounds simple: I work with the president and her team on large-scale university initiatives that innovate and improve teaching and learning on our campus. It's simple until you actually do the work. Then you find that for every good initiative that needs advancing, there is a suite of histories, politics, and dependencies that have to be navigated. And there are so many of these projects that it's hard to know what should be done first.

But, as I've been working with projects ranging from installing active learning classroom to reimagining our dual-enrollment offering to broadening adoption of research-based pedagogies, the complexities of each of those have started to fall away and I am seeing that there's something very simple in the middle of all of them: Communities of practice.

The formal concept of communities of practice goes back to Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in their book Situated Learning[1] (which I'm reading currently). It simply means a group of people who "share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly"[2]. Lave and Wegner make the point in their book that all learning is situated in communities of practice.

I started thinking about communities of practice 2-3 years ago, out of frustration with my workshop and speaking gigs. I enjoyed doing these and still do, but I started getting worried I wasn't having a lasting impact -- that I'd evangelize about these big ideas in teaching and learning with enthusiasm and passion, but then things on the campus would go right back to their resting state once I left for the airport. So I started orienting my talks and workshops more around building those communities of practice: getting faculty who might not have known they have shared interest to work together and be safe and vulnerable and seen, at least for a couple of hours. With luck, and prodding, they might stay connected and work together as they put the workshop ideas into practice.

The effectiveness of that approach has been mixed. Faculty on some campuses are starving for community; others just aren't interested. Still others show a lot of interest right up until the point that some action has to be taken, then they are "too busy" or "too tired" or they just sort of forget that my time with them ever happened in the first place.

And I get it; times are tough right now and all expenditures of energy have to be severely audited. But I'll also say this: Communities of practice could very well be the cure to what ails us in higher education -- a keystone practice that does a great amount of the work that needs to be done to make higher education the best possible version of itself.

For example: Back on my campus, the president had authorized funds to build three new active learning classrooms (ALCs) and this general area was one space where the president wanted me to focus as a Presidential Fellow. I soon learned that there were at least three different groups of people who had been putting in significant time, energy, and passion around this, over the course of several years -- but they were only partially aware of the others, and not fully coordinating their practices. We've had isolated moments of forward motion on ALCs, and ongoing interest, but without coordination, the movements of one group often duplicate or even cancel out the movements of another. So I have been the person in the middle, the node that connects all the separated networks. As we've all come together and worked in the same direction, the unlocking of energy has been infectious as we finally get things done. It's not my doing: It's the latent potential energy of people who simply hadn't been connected into a community.

Being part of an ongoing community of practice seems to address one of the key issues with people in higher education today: A perceived lack of recognition or valuing of one's work. (Sometimes it's definitely more than just "perceived".) Some people have worked very hard and had excellent ideas about ALCs, or reforming grading practices, or doing flipped learning, etc. for many years as free agents, unaware of and disconnected from others who have similar interests. But when you are fully engaged with others who want to learn, and you can give and take as part of that engagement, you are anything but unrecognized or devalued.

Communities of practice also address something that often doesn't get said: Innovation is lonely work. When you're disconnected from a community, you are more than just unrecognized or devalued --- you're also desperately lonely. I know; I experienced this myself during the first 14 years of my career when I was, as far as I knew, the only person on my campus doing flipped learning, or peer instruction, or a number of other teaching techniques. You can only survive so long by telling yourself you're being innovative and doing the best thing for students, when you feel like you're the only one doing it.

In fact, this blog exists because fifteen years ago, I was desperate to find and connect with other people who shared my beliefs and interests about teaching and learning. So I created a blog as a message in a bottle for educators on the internet to find. Although I love blogging, how I wish I could have had a community of colleagues around me at the time, to connect with in real life.

Not only do communities mitigate against loneliness and devaluation, they are also positively compelling. The community itself draws you in. A single person enthusiastic about a teaching or learning idea is not remarkable. A group of people, on the other hand, has gravity. The mastery grading Slack that I administer -- which anybody can join -- has that gravity. It's nothing earth-shattering, and most days there are no new messages on it; but somehow we keep adding people every day. I think it's because people crave community -- a safe space to explore new ideas, to be vulnerable without fear, to find a sense of purpose that perhaps their formal institutions aren't providing.

All of the initiatives I am working with as a Presidential Fellow seem to be boiling  down to finding isolated pockets of excellence -- the faculty member who's the only person in their department doing flipped instruction, or the four-person network in a corner of the university doing peer instruction, and so on -- and pulling them together into communities of practice where they can indulge their innate need to learn and grow. I never expected this position to become that of a "community organizer" but that seems to be what it's turning into, and I'm liking it.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge university press. ↩︎ ↩︎

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.