CoP in Education – thoughts from a workshop

I have recently attended the ASME Annual Scientific Meeting – #ASM13 – in Edinburgh and I had the luck of being involved, directly and indirectly, in few projects, including the #FOAMed workshop which I co-ran with @nlafferty and @rakeshpatel (have a look at the slides!). The other one I was directly involved with was aimed at introducing Communities of Practice (CoP) theory to medical educators and was ran by myself, @alismithies, @suzanneeve, @r_ajjawi (here are mine and Suzanne’s slides). I had had in mind to organise such a workshop for a while now,  the fact I am using CoP theory to ground my research in my doctoral studies gave me the inspiration to start writing an abstract. This does not mean that I feel necessarily confident enough to “teach” such a theory to clinicians and educators in general. My knowledge of this theory is in continuous transformation and, while the key points and assets of CoP are quite precise, I have my own views of how to apply it to my own practice and research and I wouldn’t want to influence listeners with these. However if it is true that we negotiate meaning and knowledge in any interaction with others, then I can be sure “novices” will elaborate what I said and integrate it with the information contained in books, articles and other sources.

This is why I love workshops in conferences and I tend to stick to these instead of submitting abstracts for talks or symposia. I like the informal character of these practice-based, interactive conversations, I like the idea of sharing my knowledge with others and discuss it, test it, reconfigure it. In a time where everything is going “massive” I find the comforting dimension of a small room the occasion to reflect on the dynamics of a small, newborn, maybe temporary learning network and of my ability to explain my thoughts to others while acknowledging different views and added information.

Lately I am hearing the term CoP more and more frequently. One of the aims of the workshop was to try and clarify what makes a CoP, differentiating it with a network of learners, and how/if this network can be “nurtured” to become a Community of Practice. How can we do so in educational contexts and what benefits would this bring? Would this even be possible?

My attention is currently focussed on one of the themes we touched at the workshop: the relationship between participation, learning and practice in an apprenticeship based educational environment, such as what we often have in medical education and is often not recognised as a “real” learning experience. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger studied apprenticeship as a learning model, observing that learning takes place through a complex set of social interactions where everyone learns – both experienced and less-experienced participants. These are the origins of the CoP theory (6), however the term “legitimate peripheral participation” (LLP) was coined to describe the process by which individuals learn not by observing a master performing a task but directly participating in the process and learning from all participants through social interactions.

A slide from my presentation

A slide from my presentation

It is apparent that participation – and non-participation – influences practice, which influences learning and vice-versa. When I think about this relationship and the concept of CoP in its integration in educational practice, many thoughts and questions flow in my mind:


– Learning can happen through practice
– Engagement is vital in order to have meaningful learning


– How do we make sure that practice is valued by students? How is this learning embodied?
– As educators, do we value practice and the learning that comes from it?
– Do we need to measure this learning it in order to recognise it and do we do so?
– In what extent can we “cultivate” a CoP with students?

Learning through practice is not a new concept, I have already mentioned Socrate’s method, called maieutics, which involves helping learners discovering knowledge by guiding them in a reasoning process. John Dewey‘s concept of pragmatism explains quite well that the “practice” can not only be associated with the “end product”, the “artifact”, but the practice itself determines the situation, it comes into life within a social environment where actors interact to solve a problem. So we look at the process and the end at the same time.

Is this applicable to CoP dynamics? Definitely. But, can we tell students or team members “we are now a CoP”, and just expect people start behaving like one? I doubt this would work. I think it is possible to use CoP assets to benefit students in an educationally-led intervention and observe, looking through the lenses of this theory, how to facilitate knowledge creation and flow. When I asked Etienne Wenger if he thought it was interesting to analyse an online CoP of medical students to see how learning was happening, his answer was: “I think you should first determine IF a CoP is actually emerging”. This is important and true. Critically observing students in their environment, in their interrelated activities and multiple membership in different communities of learners is probably the key to facilitate engagement in a shared practice.

I wonder if the following reflections could help introducing a CoP approach in educational practice:

– Give recognition / value learning

This can even have a simple psychological value: recognition of people’s work, effort, role or learning – in any context – brings a positive flow to the practice. This is directly linked to the engagement process, because recognition itself reinforces good practices and participation, therefore learning and identification, both personal and professional.

If practice is both learning in action and its representation then, in order to make learning apparent, do we necessarily need proper assessment? We can make a learning process apparent by observing it through an interpretive paradigm where the comprehension process will be iterative, based an a continuous evaluation and re-evaluation of the learners in their environment, acknowledging psycho-social factors, interactions and social dynamic, while making causal connections between these.

Wenger says that while many argue that knowledge resources can’t be measured, because knowledge is socially distributed, dynamic and tacit, it is possible to measure and manage the “knowledge system”, the flow through which knowledge creates value (7, p166). Wenger identifies 2 knowledge processes: production and application – if we think about these processes it is possible to manage them, identify the key people involved, coordinate their activities.

In my opinion this is a great way to help students making sense of their learning through participation, using it as a scaffolding resource for reflection and ready to be  embodied in future practices.

– Magnify opportunities for learning

This is a matter of identifying affordances and constraints for learning. I think the #FOAMed workshop gave a good overview on this. While this workshop was aimed at identifying free open access online resources for learning, its roots were pedagogically led and applicable to other educational settings. The problem is to find the appropriate way or community-oriented technology – in a critical pedagogy sense: taking into account the particular time, environment, history, student group – to support students’ engagement in order to become legitimate participants of the community of learning and help them moving towards a full, mature participation – or “from less to more competence”, whatever fits better your vision. Student-led projects can be developed by using a CoP approach, nurturing students’ individual abilities and interests and creating interprofessional relationships. 

– “Walk the hall” and transform problems in to good practice (thanks Suzanne for the inspiration)

Walk the hall is a metaphor (from Wenger) of having direct contact with people/students, talking, asking about their activities, their leaning needs, negotiating a way to work together while giving them the freedom to create and develop practices and educational resources. It seems almost assumed that educators should have direct contact with students but what if we started creating a community of learning with them, developing an “enabling leadership” which promotes student flourishing, facilitates effective learning relationships and envisages a learning environment that is actually shaped by learners.

By taking into account the complexity and uncertainty of this process we can accept that meaningful moments of learning can come from moments of impasse, where problems, such as non-participation or non-engagement can be used to create a sense of community by finding a real connection with students. Hearing and valuing their voice, their identity, their creative skills and, in particular, their awareness of their own learning needs.

These are all situated practices, embedded in a socio-cultural environment but also, and more significantly, in a knowledge process that is embodied in context and involves:

– transdisciplinarity
– eterogeneity
– social accountability

These strategies need to value and make the most of social relationships by acknowledging their dynamic nature. They also need to allow autonomy by supporting learners while nurturing their accountability to other leaners, educators and the Institution.

This is such a vast subject for a simple blog post! I have more questions than answers… Surely there is no written recipe on how to embed a CoP approach in educational settings, however the following resources can help articulating a personal approach.

References and further reading:

  1. Communities of Practice Design Guide
  2. Distinctions between Communities of Practice and other structures
  3. Gibbons, M. et al.1994, The New Production of Knowledge:The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies, SAGE, London.
  4. Laurens, H. and van Lente, H. 2008. Re-thinking new knowledge production: a literature review and a research agenda. Research Policy. 
  5. Sfard, A. 1997. On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one. Educational Researcher. 27 (2) – recommended by Rola
  6. Wenger, E., 2002. Brief Introduction to Communities of Practice.
  7. Wenger, E. et al. 2002. Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Boston, Mass., Harvard Business School Press.