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CalSTAT (California Services for Technical Assistance and Training) is a special project of the California Department of Education, Special Education Division, located at Napa County Office of Education. It is funded through the Special Education Division and the California State Personnel Development Grant (SPDG). The SPDG, a federal grant, supports and develops partnerships with schools and families by providing training, technical assistance and resources to both special education and general education.
ETIENNE: A brief, very simple definition of a community of practice is a group of
practitioners who share some challenges and interact regularly, and—in the process or
in the context of these interactions—learn both from and with each other—from because
these teachers were learning by telling each other stories about what they were doing in
their own classrooms, so they were learning from each other’s practice, but they were
also learning with each other. They were actually reframing their questions, and using
each other as a sounding board for reframing that question.
And that’s another remarkable aspect of that story—is that these
beyond simply sharing tips to thinking together, “Oh how can we rethink this situation?
How can we reframe our problems?” So that’s actually another remarkable aspect of
the story, that they were really learning with each other, and then, in the process of
doing that, improve their ability to face whatever challenges they were facing.
Now, in this definition, when I talk about practitioners, I want to specify
that I use
the term “practitioner” in a very, very broad sense—as anybody who is involved in doing
something practical in their life. So, it is not just the practitioner of a profession. So if
you have a street gang, for instance—for whom being a practitioner means “how do you
survive on the street in a city that you feel marginalized by” or something like this—
that’s also a form of practice. So I just wanted to say that the concept applies broadly
beyond a professional context.
That first story was one in which the community
of practice started very
spontaneously. [In the first example,] there was kind of a catalyzing of the process out
of her learning needs. I wanted to contrast this with another story, one in which the
process was much more intentional and cultivated.
And the second story takes
us from Italy to British Columbia. And in British
Columbia, the health care system has recently instituted a new function, one that is
familiar in the U.S. context, but is new in British Columbia. It’s the function of a nurse
practitioner. A nurse practitioner, for those of you who don’t know what that is, it’s a
nurse who is taking some of the duties of a physician in actually seeing patients and
having consultations, doing physical exams, and so on and so forth.
new function was being instituted in the interior health care region of
British Columbia, a manager there had heard about communities of practice and
thought, “Hmm, maybe these people need some kind of support in their transition.” And
she decided to bring in the idea of community of practice and see if they were
interested. So she spoke to a number of people who had just moved into this new
function, and they liked the idea.
But—British Columbia being as big as it is and this being the interior region, not
the Vancouver region, the mountainous region where people are at a great distance
from one another—it was felt that having a community like this would require some
face-to-face meetings, but that that could not be done without some kind of sponsorship
on the part of the organization. So not only did this manager have to convince her own
manager to support the idea of a community, but she actually had to talk to the
supervisors of all these nurse practitioners in these different hospitals and clinics in the
health care region to convince them it was a good idea that these new nurse
practitioners would take a little bit of time out of their own practice to function as a
community of practice.
And, actually, I met this woman in Quebec and she told
me, while we were
having this workshop, that the community was now actually having a meeting without
her and taking over some of the “driving,” the agenda [planning] that she had been
doing. So I think she was being quite successful, in that the community was now
owning it’s own learning beyond her pushing the idea. So here is a contrasting idea, a
contrasting story, of the community that [formed because of the] very intentional work
on the part of someone—who was not even a member of that community—to get it
started and put it on its way.
Moving now to the next slide and a very contrasting
story again. This is the story
of a community that we’re actually following. A group of us are following this community
for a year. Every month we have a teleconference call with the leader of the community
to see what its like to lead a community like this. And it’s called the MPD Support
Community, and it’s a community of practice. In fact, it didn’t start really as a
community of practice; it started more of mutual support community. It concerns a family
of rare blood diseases that are not fatal but not really curable either. And one of the
people afflicted by this, by one of these diseases, decided that he should start an online
discussion board on this for other patients. Today this community involves about 2,300
people all around the world. It is no longer just a mutual support community. It is really
a community of practice where the patients discuss their experience, their learning, the
treatments and strategies that work, the research that is being pursued in different
hospitals and universities. Actually not only are they’re becoming a community of
practice, but they are gaining some recognition, even in the research community.
Actually the leader of this community was invited recently to a research conference, as
a representative of the community because the community had done some surveys and
had conducted some research on itself in the context of the conversation.
here is a community that does not have face-to-face meetings—so it’s
an online community—but is very important to many of its members as a connection to
others who are facing the same health challenge. So I thought that I would give you
these three stories to set the stage to start with. I’m going to, now, take a little break as
we move to the next topic to see if there is any questions or comments at this point. If
you’re on mute, just remember to un-mute yourself before you speak, otherwise you’ll
be talking and nobody will hear.
MAUREEN: I will comment, this is Maureen.
MAUREEN: I really like the simplicity of the definition of a community of
practice. It’s something that everybody can understand. And the examples really help,
so it’s a good blend. But even just that one slide feels very helpful for sharing with other
ETIENNE: Very good.
FEMALE: I have a short question at the end. If you will talk about ... you
talked about the community moving from a support community to a community of
practice. What do you see as the major sort of elements that you would say makes the
shift from a support community to a community of practice?
ETIENNE: Well, I think the shift is really when people starting to understand
Having this disease is a practice, if you will. There are things you need to know and that
sharing those things—not just sort of the emotional support but also the sharing of the
knowledge. And so for instance, the leader of this community now has put RSS feeds
into a number of websites. And he keeps pouring resources and URLs into this
community so these people are starting to share resources. They are talking about
treatments; they are talking about doctors; they are talking about diet. You know? They
are really starting to talk about the practice of having such a disease.
FEMALE: Thanks, that helps.
ETIENNE: Okay, so let’s move on now. The next little bit of this presentation
is one that I wanted to present here—because I know that many of you are researchers
or teachers and involved in pedagogy and learning—to just make clear that the concept
of community of practice is actually part of a learning theory. So it is a concept that has
had an amazing career, actually, way beyond anything we imagined when we first
coined it. Because it has resonated with a lot of things happening in the world, and we
can talk about that if you want.
But in fact, it was born—in California
actually—in the context
of an institute called
Institute for Research on Learning. And the agenda of this institute was to re-think
learning. So it was really an institute about learning theory. It was founded in 1987,
well ’86 actually, by the Xerox Foundation in response to the Nation at Risk Report, in
1983 by the Department of Education. So I don’t know if some of you remember that
report, but, anyway, the response by the Xerox Foundation was that maybe what
needed to be done was not just some more research on the classroom techniques, but
some fundamental re-thinking about our assumptions about learning. And so they
brought together people from all sorts of disciplines. When we actually started the first
year of this institute, it was just a bunch of fights between disciplines about what we
need [in order] to give an account of human learning. And so computer sciences and
anthropologists really did not see eye to eye as to what that was going to be.
And so the context of community of practice came up in the context of the
of apprenticeship. An anthropologist and I, Jean Lave of UC Berkeley and I, were
looking at different cases of apprenticeship. And we saw that, if you look at cases of
apprenticeship—historical cases—a lot of the learning is not taking place in the
relationship between the master and a student, which is often the way that you would
think about apprenticeship; the relationship between a master and a student. A lot of
the actual learning is taking place in interaction among apprentices of different levels of
advancement. And we needed a name for this living curriculum that we saw in these
communities; and we called them community of practice.
But once we had this concept, then we started to see those things everywhere.
And we started to feel that what really captured [it was] this quote that I have here on
the slide by Einstein—a wonderful quote for me because it really captures what this
learning theory is trying to convey—that knowing really requires a relationship between
the person and human community, and that it is not a choice between the community
and individuals. Sometimes people think that, “Oh, you have a collective theory of
learning.” No. The individual is very important, but as I Einstein says, you know, the
individual is developed in the context of specific communities where knowledge exists.
And so moving onto the next slide, let me tell you another little story
happened to me a few years ago when I was still in the institute. I was invited to a
friend’s house for dinner. And he served me a glass of wine and asked me, “So, what
do you think?” And being, you know, both polite because I come from Switzerland and
not knowledgeable about wines at all, I just told him, “Well, it’s pretty good.” So he
leans over the table and says, “Listen, Etienne, this is a really good bottle,” you know?
He must have seen the kind of quizzical look on my face because he proceeded to tell
me why he thought it was a good bottle.
And what followed was this sort of
amazing symphony of tastes, you know? So,
he started to tell me that it was strawberry here, and there was chocolate there, and
there was a strong entrance and long lingering; and it was this amazing perspective on
a glass of wine that simply did not exist to me. And the one that really floored me is
when he kind of puts his nose in the glass and goes into this kind of trance state and
then tells me, “Hmm, and this one is a really good purple in the nose.” Now, I could
imagine that a wine would taste like strawberry even though I couldn’t taste it. But the
purple in the nose, really, that was beyond my imagination. And I remember that
evening kind of thinking, “Yeah, this is what we are trying to capture with this learning
theory”—is that every human community creates a kind of universe, and, unless you
have access to the participation in this community, you can hear the sentences like
“purple in the nose,” but you simply have no idea what it really means. Because what
that means implies that you have drank a lot of wine in the company of people who
understand the language, and that slowly the language has come to mean something to
And to me that was a good story to illustrate how knowledge is part of
communities even though it is actually experienced individually. So, my friend was
experiencing this glass of wine by himself, and yet the way that he was talking about the
glass of wine reflected the practice of his community and the knowledge of wine that his
community has developed. And, I guess, it was the main difference between his glass
of wine and my glass of wine, that his [glass] reflected the knowledge of the community
and mine didn't. And I can tell you this story without feeling too amorous because, in
fact, my identity is not involved in the community. Still today I decided that I was not
going to become a wine taster, even though, I think I’m sure that if I had told him, “Oh,
can I come to one of your meetings?”—he belongs to a club and they have regular
meetings—“Could I come to one of those?,” he would have welcomed me. But I
decided, no, that’s not what I’m going to do with my life; I’ll stick with beer for now, you
know? So, for me I didn't see my trajectory as really connected to that community, so I
don’t feel accountable to the knowledge of that community. To me it’s just a curiosity,
it’s like, “Wow, that was neat to see that”—to see him; it was very poetical and beautiful,
but it was not me.
So mostly what I learned that evening was, “Oh no,
that’s not me.” I’m
not one of
those people. And I still, today, cannot tell you really what “purple in the nose” really
means. Even though I’ve used this story a lot, so I know two things that I didn't discover
that evening. I know that even white wine can have “purple in the nose”—at least that
evening it was red wine, so it had this purple color—but even white wine can have
purple in the nose. And I have also learned that the nose that he is talking about is not
the nose on your face; it’s actually the nose of the wine. Apparently the wine itself has a
nose, so it’s even more mysterious today than it was at the time.
if we move, now, to the next slide as a summary of the various elements of
this learning theory, the first one is—we start at the bottom—is really the emphasis on
meaning. Meaning is an experience in living in the world. So it is not enough to teach
or learn the expression “purple in the nose.” What is important is: What does it really
mean in practice? What is the experience of the word that corresponds to the
expression? So, it’s a theory that really puts a lot of emphasis on the experience of
meaningfulness. It’s a theory that says the tool that we use to make meaning in the
world, [as it] belongs to specific practices.
So this expression, “purple
in the nose,” you could view it as
a tool of meaning
making. It’s almost like the expression itself constructs instruction. Okay, you put your
nose in there, and you imagine purple—or something like this—and you’ll have a certain
experience. So really, you could say that an expression like “purple in the nose” is a
community tool for building shared meaning. But, it is also important, another part of
this theory, to see these practices—these human practices—as part of actual human
communities that don’t float in one another. They are part of specific communities
where the social relationships also have a lot of impact on what is and what is not
learned. What is and is not. So, you know, if you want to bring a new idea into that
community—if all of a sudden you want to say, “Hmm, this wine has excellent electricity
in the temples,” or something like this—depending on who you are in that community,
your ability to change the practice of the community and have the community learn
something will be very different. If I said that, or if someone who is writing newsletters
and is a famous wine taster said that, it would have very, very different impact. So
human practices are really part of social community where the quality of relationships
really matters as to the learning capability that is embodied in those communities.
And the fourth element I wanted to bring in is this question of identity.
only is knowledge part of human communities, but then our relationship of identity, with
respect to these communities, creates relationships of accountability or non-
accountability to the knowledge of these communities. And therefore, our expression of
ourselves become almost like a filter for what meaning we seek and what meaning we
let go. So to conclude this short little window into this learning theory, learning—a
social discipline of thinking about learning—would place learning at the middle of these
four elements that, if you will, constitute the social fabric of learning. So again, a quick
little pause to see if there are some reactions, questions, comments. That was a very
brief overview of the learning theory. I thought I would give you that because the
concept community of practice does not live by itself.
FEMALE: I wanted to make a comment if I could.
ETIENNE: Yes, go ahead.
FEMALE: About how you’re pointing out the importance of your bringing
the linguistic part of the identity—
FEMALE: —how important do you think the physical experience is to the,
know, the whole communities of practice (especially when we’re looking at special ed
versus general ed; but a lot of times they’re differentiated not only for their inability to
keep up linguistically, but also a difference of appearance and also the appearance of
certain teachers to other teachers and how their “kingdom” is based on how they look
not necessarily about what they say)?
ETIENNE: Yes, well, I guess what the theory would say here ... because often
you know, people ask me, “So, if practices create a universe, is this sort of a ‘reluctavist’
theory that says each community sort of developed whatever it wants and its just a
matter of practice or a matter of interpretation?” And [how you can think about it is]
people are born in a certain body. There is a vessel that they use to enter and interact
with communities. So, you know, a realistic theory would say, “Okay, your body will
determine how you are looked at.” And so a theory like this would say, “Well, yes,
practices are not developed in a vacuum, they are developed in a context where people
live in institutions and with a certain body,” and so the context that this—the whole
context—for practices that these practices have to deal with.
At the same time, I think it is important to see that the context—whether
institutional context, the cultural context, or the physical context like the body—the
context is under interpretation. So the experience of having a different kind of body is
not deterministically caused by that body, but mediated by the practice of the
community. That doesn’t solve the problem. Because practices can be extremely cruel.
All of us who have had kids and all have worked on a playground can know how cruel
the practices of kids can be with respect to things like learning disabilities or physical
disabilities. At the same time its important to remember that those are practices and
practices are not set in concrete. Practices are frameworks of interpretations. And
these frameworks of interpretation, I mean, that the extent of meaning is not
deterministically caused by the physical world or the institutional world. They are
mediated by that practice. Am I making sense?
FEMALE: You are. Yes, definitely.
ETIENNE: And so if we have to deal with institutions like this, it’s
incumbent on us to understand exactly what is the practice and why is this practice
developing. And what are interventions that can be brought into a community that
would change those practices. Now that’s not easy to do, and, you know, often it needs
some insiders. As in the wine thing, you know, for me, it would not be easy as an
outsider to change the way a community describes a certain wine. But it is not
completely fixed either. Any other comment or question before we move on?
So a big surprise to me has been how the simple idea of a community of
practice. As you said or as someone said earlier, you know, the definition is so simple it
is almost like duh. And yet when you think about the learning theory that can be built on
it, it’s a fairly subtle learning theory in terms of how knowledge lives in the world. With a
lot of implications about what it would mean to create context in which people can learn.
But also what has surprised me is how the concept has been adopted in all sorts of
different sectors as a way to start re-thinking the institutions of learning. And when you
go ask people who belong to communities of practice, what that means to them—now
moving to the next slide called “Practitioners Need a Community” here are a list of some
of the answers that you get—people will tell you, “Well, hmm, I get help to solve a
problem,” in the same way these teachers were getting help addressing issues with her
misbehaving kids. Hearing each other’s stories so practitioners really value the stories
of practice that come from someone else doing something related in a different context.
A story, unlike maybe a principle or a best practice, is something that opens your
imagination, opens new possibilities, but leaves you with the responsibility to apply it to
your own context. So story sharing is a very important activity in communities of
[Then there’s] keeping up with change. You have communities in very
fields, for instance in the Silicon Valley in California here, where the field is changing so
fast, that, you know, you need a community to even follow. You can’t follow it all by
yourself. So I have seen communities of practice that distribute the work. I’ve seen a
community where they have a meeting the beginning of every year. They look at all the
conferences in their field, and they say who wants to go to this one, who wants to go to
that one, who wants to go to that one? And they send one or two members to each of
those conferences with the charge of bringing back the philosophies that they have
discovered. So keeping up with change is an important aspect of living in a community
that is very relevant to today’s world, where any field is becoming almost impossible for
any individual to follow.
As a practitioner it’s so easy to become so engrossed in the local practice
you find, like, “I need to talk to others who do something somewhat different. I need to,
to open my perspective.” So connecting with others in different context, but in a way
that’s relevant to what you’re doing, is really the way to avoid local blindness. And you
know these teachers were using their community as a forum for reflection—and, in the
process of reflection, trying to improve their practice together. Some communities really
have an intention to push the boundary of their fields.
So, I was working with a group, a community of practice—I’m going
to tell the
story soon about that. They were mental health practitioners trying to think about the
relationship between mental health in the community and learning disability
school. And what the community did was to list ten key issues that they felt the field
needed to address, and they created little working groups to go work on this ten issues
with the agenda of coming back to the community after awhile and reporting on what
they had found. So for them it was a way of really pushing the boundary of their own
field. That’s what the community was about. And in some context, community
becomes a way to rethink the value of their knowledge. I’m going to tell you a story
about the World Bank later. There, there was a community that had developed an
ability to build communities, to build communities of practice, and they started to see
that that capability could be used not only internally within the bank but could also be
used externally as a way to do the work of the bank with client countries. So I’m just
listing here a few of the main topics that you hear about when you talk with members of
a community of practice and what it means to them.
So this idea had been broadly adopted. Here is the next slide now, formal and
informal opportunity is actually a slide from the mode that we are still doing at the
mining company in Australia. And this mining company has had informal communities
on the Internet for a few years. Recently the technical services have decided to
reorganize. And in the process of the formal reorganization they started to focus on
domain that where actually the domains of existing communities of practice. So you
could imagine the kind of topics would be in the minding company and one of the more
successful communities there is underground safety.
So here is a community of practitioners, engineers, mining engineers around
world, who debate issues of underground safety, a very strategic issue for a mining
company. But these engineers have developed their own community. Leaders have
emerged sort of naturally out of the process of building the community, and here comes
this big redesign, and the question is: Can this informal process of these, you know,
naturally occurring communities and the formal top down process of redesigning a
service meet in a way that is going to be useful? And actually in December in Perth,
Australia, we had a meeting with the members of the design team and the leaders of
some of the informal communities to talk about this issue. And to me, I found it a very
interesting meeting, because to me it reflected one of the main challenges for
organizations in the 21st century, which is how can the informal processes, by which
people construct meaning and identity around their work, co-exist with the formal
processes, by which organizations set of context for performing what they are expected
to perform? And the 20th century has been very much sort of a history of the formal
organization. That organized and reorganized and reorganized. It’s almost like we put
all of our faith in the formal. But what many organizations are discovering now is that
there are limits to the ability to meaningfully formalized things, and you have to rely on
less formal processes, like communities and networks, to take care of a lot of the work
of the organization.
So, there was one; it was a business application of the idea of communities
practice. Here is another one about, moving onto the next slide, learning simple
transition. I’ll tell you this story very briefly. It was in July 2004. I was invited to a
conference in Pennsylvania, and that conference was entitled the Pennsylvania
Transition Communities of Practice Conference. That was an interesting mouthful. But
the idea of the conference was that the Department of Education in Pennsylvania
adopted the notion of community of practice as a way to start thinking about the issue of
transition for kids with learning disabilities from school to work. And I know that many of
you are in that field, so you know more about this than I do, but apparently it’s a very
difficult issue. It is also one that does not easily fall into any department or agency. So
the idea of community of practice was to create a horizontal set of connections among
people interested in those issues across education, vocational rehabilitation, labor,
social services, and so on and so forth. So the idea was, instead of creating a
department of transition, to create a network, a community of people who care about
this topic. And not only were they doing that at the level of the department, this is an
initiative that was actually driven by the Department of Education, but not only were they
doing this at the level of the department and interdepartmental relationships, but also at
the level of local councils—they were called transition councils—that existed in different
counties in Pennsylvania. And the idea of the conference was to bring them all together
in a state college, in a small town in the middle of Pennsylvania, so that people who
were in the government, but also people who were on the ground, could talk about
these issues together.
And another thing, another interesting thing, to say about this conference
there were representatives from different states who had heard about this conference
and come to see what Pennsylvania was doing, to see if there’s, you know, any
applicability in their own state. So actually there was a representative from California;
Ohio was there; I think Louisiana, oh no, it was Alabama. Well anyway, there were six
different states who had come to visit and actually one of my work there was to work
with the representative of the different states to say, “Okay, how can we both attend the
conference, but also learn together what relevance it has for our own states?” And
actually these people are still, today, meeting regularly on the phone once a month to
continue that learning. And the reason I’m telling you this story—this is actually part of
big project called the IDEA Partnership—the one way to express the ultimate goal of
this project would be to create a multi-scale learning system where you have learning
techniques of a very small scale, in counties and in school districts, but also at the state
level and also at the interstate level, creating communities of practice at different levels
of scale to try to form a whole learning system. I’m going to stop here. We can talk
more about this project to some of you who are interested.
And the last story
that I wanted to tell to finish today’s story telling
part is the
World Bank. So the World Bank is an organization that has, for a number of years,
adopted communities of practice as a way to connect the practitioners in different
countries around issues such as transportation, the early childhood/women’s issues,
services to slums, and so on and so forth—but also the developmental challenges that
the bank is addressing. And a group, some groups in the bank, are now thinking that
this approach that was used internally to connect bank specialists across countries
could also be used to do the work of the bank, and a few years ago a group developed
communities of practice among main offices in Central America, in the capital cities.
And they formed communities of practice across countries around issues like e-
government, eco-tourism, and so on a so forth. And actually, at the end of June, I’m
going to go to Slovenia where they are developing a community of practice among
treasurers in the Soviet satellite, former Soviet satellite, trying to create a process by
which they can learn from each other how to do public finances. So what is interesting
there is that the development work has shifted from being a vertical process where the
North is telling the South what to do, to becoming a more horizontal process by which
different countries help each other and then the experts from the bank bring in the voice
of research, if you will, but its one voice in a collective process of perfecting on the
practice of managing a city or managing the public finances in a country.
So, this was what I was hoping to do today, is to give you a number of stories
trigger your imagination, and then next week what I’m hoping to do is to talk about the
more practical aspect of community development. And I’m going to proffer a number of
models for looking at communities and the work of cultivating them. So, I think we have
a few minutes for comments and questions. And then we’ll continue this next week.
LINDA: Okay, since there are no further questions, what we’ll do is
something comes up when you’re thinking of it over the course of the week and
reflecting on what you’ve heard today, if you can email it to Marin or to Linda Blong at
CalSTAT, we will make sure that those get to Etienne so that he can know about them
as he approaches next week. And I would really like to thank you, Etienne, for this
foundational introduction to communities of practice. I know that a lot of people are
thinking about the concepts and this will give us a lot of food for thought about how to
apply it in our work here. So thank you very much. If there is no further comments, I’ll
thank Etienne and we’ll plan on meeting again in one week at 4:00 again.
ETIENNE: Okay and what I would say is that coming to the next session try to
think about a community of practice in your work or in your hobbies that you know
about, that you care about, because it would be good to have a specific case in your
own mind to apply the models that I’m going to propose.
LINDA: That’s a great idea. Okay, we all have our assignments.
ETIENNE: Very good.
LINDA: Thank you very much Etienne.
ETIENNE: Okay my pleasure.
GROUP: Thank you. Bye.