Communities of Practice

communityI’ve been thinking more about the notion of “communities of practice”, as put forth by Jean Lave (an anthropologist) and Etienne Wenger (a computer scientist), two learning theorists who have published a number of books and articles on the subject.  They describe communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern of a passion for something they do and learn to do it better as they interact regularly.”

As I’ve read more about their work, I naturally started to think about the way educators engage with each other (or don’t) in a community of practice.  So, what is a community of practice? According to Lave and Wenger:

– they share a domain to which they have enormous commitment
– they have built relationships that enable them to learn from each other
– they are practitioners with a repertoire of stories, approaches, and solutions

And what are the advantages of these communities?  Certainly mutual support but beyond that, more effective learning.  Sharing common practices, exchanging advice and solutions, building each other’s knowledge base and passing along ideas that work.  Lave and Wenger talk about the situated nature of learning – that human minds and new ideas develop best in social situations. That participation provides a way to speak about crucial relations between newcomers and more experienced individuals and about their activities, identities, artifacts, knowledge and practice.  Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, we don’t have many opportunities to engage as members of a community.  What we do have are occasional faculty or departmental meeting (typically focused on immediate business) and even more infrequent regional or national gatherings like the NABT.

But the web certainly gives us an opportunity to forge and strengthen our communities of practice.  To reach out to each other and connect.  To share ideas, to answer questions, to dig into the work of teaching and come out with new solutions.  Through blogs (like this one), with social networking tools (like Twitter and Facebook), and through online content creation enterprises (wikis, online document sharing), and even through virtual worlds (like Second Life or Quest Atlantis).

I’d like to see us kick some ideas around on this blog for deepening and strengthening the biology teaching community.  What do you think?


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