Communities of Practice Encourage Collective Learning

Whether purposeful or organic, communities of practice can help teachers connect and develop their skills together.

For an instructional leader, the weight of responsibility for teachers’ and leaders’ professional development can be overwhelming. It can also be exciting when we get creative, leveraging teachers’ existing interests to create multiple communities of practice. But when it comes to professional development, what does having a community of practice mean?

“Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems,” says educational theorist Étienne Wenger in “Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.” “In a nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

Some communities of practice are formed purposefully, like a rafting company whose guides spend the summer finding the best ways to give their customers an exciting, safe, and uplifting experience. Other communities of practice might exist without members’ realization, such as a group of executive administrators who meet for lunch regularly. While they discuss the partners they support informally, they also offer one another ideas and feedback that improve the way they function in their roles and provide emotional support.

Purposefully or organically formed, a community of practice, Wenger says, has three binding characteristics:

  1. The domain. A community of practice is more than a group of friends or network. It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership implies a commitment to the domain or specialty and a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people. They value collective competence and learn from one another, though few people outside the group might value or even recognize their expertise.
  2. The community. In pursuing their interest in a domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from each other. While students might have a lot in common across schools in a specific district, this doesn’t create a community of practice; however, when students from across the same district find each other on a gaming site every evening and talk about how to best navigate the game together, sharing routes and hacks, they form a community of practice.
  3. The practice. A community of practice is not just a community of shared interest—people who like a certain genre of movie, for instance. Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short, a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction.

From this lens, we can see professional development as having the ability to create cohesive communities of practice among teaching and administrative staff. The questions that follow are: How do we start these communities, what are their structures, and how do we measure success? At every step in the process, you can choose to be purposeful or open.

Starting a Community of Practice

Purposeful: Choose a starting point. Somewhere in that stack of papers, clipped into a binder, or in your laptop are lists of chronic problems that come up throughout the year. They might be related to attendance, engagement, motivation, grading, or the social-emotional health of your students. Pick one, and build a community to find practices that address the issue.

Let’s say the issue is student engagement. Invite teachers who are interested in improving their skills around getting and keeping their students connected with the content during a lesson. What if the concern is student mental health in light of abuse or violence? Invite staff members who have, or want to develop, a practice of community peacemaking or self-care to share and support one another. One goal could be to discuss and implement self-care strategies for students.

Open: Discover what’s already around you. Walk through your school, listen during your next PD session or lunch with teachers, and pay attention to your administrative staff. What are they talking about? What are they interested in? Communicate that you want to provide opportunities for them to pursue their interests. Let their ideas rise up, and consider how you might provide space for those groups.

If you hear a teacher mention they are concerned that struggling students are often seen separated from their peers, connect the teachers to one another with a clear and encouraging message that they might be interested in discussing their observations, identifying the needs of that group of students, and figuring out how they might bridge that gap through social-emotional learning activities.

Finally, don’t rule out the possibilities for communities of practice that at first seem unrelated to education. For example, imagine you have a few staff members who crochet. You might offer them a space and time to crochet together and discuss why they like the practice and how it might benefit students. What might this exploration bring to your larger school community?

Structuring a Community of Practice

Purposeful: Build specific structures. Even communities with a passion for their purpose often need specific structures to help them get started and stay focused. Provide or have the group identify a consistent space and regular time, and recommended protocol(s) they will use as they start out. Use protocols your staff is already familiar with, or adapt protocols such as the School Reform Initiative’s Save the Last Word for Me or Reflective Conversation Protocol to fit their needs.

When the group begins to take on a life of its own, it might rely less on protocols and more on organic discussions. Having practiced the protocols offers an anchoring experience, however, that they can use again if they start losing track of where they are or encounter issues such as one participant doing most of the talking.

Open: Employ a flexible approach. Communities—especially those that arise organically—might resist a more purposeful approach. If you sense or encounter this, a more open or flexible structure can be useful. Task the group itself with finding the best time(s) and space(s) to meet, as long as the community connects regularly and the details are agreed upon by all members. Rather than dismissing protocols altogether, have the community develop a set of norms and goals. Co-creating ways of working together will provide a structure and bring even more meaning, since participants built the structure themselves. Recommend that they review their norms and goals at the start of each conversation.

Measuring Success

Purposeful: Check on progress toward goals. Consider the community of teachers who are concerned about student mental health. They could spend a few meetings discussing what they have observed, what brings them to the community of practice, and what they’d like to get out of their time together. This discussion results in a list of goals. Throughout the year, they check in to see how they’re meeting or not meeting their goals, and this becomes the measure of success.

A group considering how they can positively affect the way their students process news about violence in schools across the country might take another approach. The community of practice would survey students about their concerns when it comes to hearing about school violence. After implementing ideas to help students process what they’re thinking and feeling, the community of practice would then perform a follow-up survey and compare the results.

Open: Ask what the community accomplished. The crocheting community of practice might start out with something as simple as crocheting together and sharing why they like the craft. Then they can begin to explore how crocheting relates to teaching, or how they might offer crocheting to students as a way to express themselves or manage stress. How would we measure the success of this community of practice? It might be as simple as asking, “Did this community of practice increase connection between colleagues?” or “How did the community contribute to student engagement?” You never know what might happen: An ongoing coral reef crochet project created by Margaret and Christine Wertheim ( wound up at the Venice Bienniale cultural exposition.

Starting with a question like “What happens when we explore [blank]?” can lead to unpredictable measures of success. Community members can identify evidence of success and share it. Consider a midyear and end-of-year measure using a Google form for each community of practice in your school that asks: What key concepts resonated with you? Why are they important? How did you implement them? This might result in a robust report twice a year on how communities of practice benefit the professional development of your staff.

Collective learning through communities of practice can help us overcome the overwhelming when it comes to providing effective professional development for our staff. Establishing communities of practice not only leverages the people and interests already present in your school or schools, but it can also provide a space in which all staff members are invited to explore their passions and grow in new and exciting ways.

Faith Little is initiative director for 21st Century Learning at the Center for the Professional Education of Teachers and an avid crocheter.