Educational theories you must know. Communities of Practice. St.Emlyn’s.

Lave and Wenger proposed the idea of communities of practice in the 1990s. In essence a community of practice is a group of people who come together to share skills knowledge or abilities. They are different from formalised learning or professional groups as they typically grow organically through informal social interactions and groupings.

Many examples exist across healthcare and business with common themes that involvement in the group has benefits. CoPs are characterised by three elements. You may want to think about the #FOAMed community as a a CoP as you go through these features.

  • Mutual engagement. This is how the particpants relate to each other, establish norms, and build mutually supportive relationships.
  • Joint enterprise. Through discussion and iteration the community establishes a shared understanding of common ground and understanding. The community develops a domain of practice.
  • Shared repetiore. The community builds it’s own set of resources and data. This is then shared to further the joint enterprise and the community.

It’s pretty clear to me why #FOAMed has been described as a community of practice.

As an educator it’s clear to see how a community of practice could aid learners, helping them to build their own learning and in promoting social constructivism through interaction and resource creation and testing. The problem is that they are generally organically grown and not designed. However, as an educator we can help create the circumstances where a community might be able to develop. Wenger identified 7 strategies to allow communities to flourish.

From Wenger, McDermott, Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice

  1. Design for evolution: Don’t dictate how it will work but permit the technology and space to allow interactions to take place and develop.
  2. Open a dialogue between inside and outside perspectives: Allow interactions within and without the community and take external perspectives where possible.
  3. Invite different levels of participation: Ensure that the membership can develop and recognise that different members will take on different roles. Wenger describes core, active and peripheral groups within a CoP.
  4. Develop both public and private community spaces: Communities that allow open and closed discussions develop better (think direct messaging on twitter vs. public posting).
  5. Focus on value. Demonstrate how participation in the community is beneficial to participants.
  6. Combine familiarity and excitement: A combination of relatively routine/mundane issues combined with the unusual and bizarre engages participants.
  7. Create a rhythm for the community: A regular and relataively predictable flow of activity helps engagement and persistence of the community.

Why Communities of practice matter

Lave and Wenger’s ideas show how informal communities can be very powerful learning tools. Much tacit and informal knowledge is transferred through these networks and communities and they can be incredibly

Further reading

Wenger, Etienne; McDermott, Richard; Snyder, William M. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice (Hardcover). Harvard Business Press; 1 edition. ISBN 978-1-57851-330-7.

Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice.

Community of practice on wikipedia.

What are communities of practice.

More in this series

  1. Maslow’s hierachy of learning needs.
  2. Constructivism and socio-constructivism
  3. Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice
  4. Spaced repetition
  5. Miller’s assessment pyramid
  6. Bloom’s taxonomy
  7. Mastery, improvement and deliberate practice
  8. Kolb’s learning cycle
  9. Lewis change model

Before you go please don’t forget to…

Cite this article as: Simon Carley, "Educational theories you must know. Communities of Practice. St.Emlyn’s.," in St.Emlyn's, November 4, 2015,

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