One of the reoccurring elements explained to me on the first day of my Practicum at Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) was the emphasis the TLS team places on feedback and cooperation. The idea sounded helpful; colleagues working together to support one another. I don’t think I truly grasped the importance of the cooperative working environment they developed until I hosted my first meeting at TLS.
This meeting, attended by 8 of my colleagues, was a feedback session to receive advice on my current project of connecting instructors with teaching resources to Indigenize their curricula (resources will be available soon on the TLS Teaching Resources webpage!). The advice I received helped me gain a different perspective on the project I was so deeply entrenched in. I began seeing areas of improvement that I previously did not notice and was looking at my project in a new light I didn’t think possible. How did I get to this point? It’s all thanks to the cooperation of my colleagues and their willingness to share their expertise.
This might sound familiar. Plenty of offices or similar working environments share a similar style of cooperation between co-workers, so don’t be surprised when I tell you this style of learning and sharing is similar to a pre-existing concept: it’s called a Community of Practice.
I was first introduced to Communities of Practice (CoP) during my undergraduate degree in Education where this practice was discussed in the context of educators supporting one another, and sharing their experiences and expertise to help others improve their practice. The term, coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger in 1991, is not limited to Education and is one that benefits multiple environments. From researching to teaching, a Community of Practice can have real advantages for instructors.
What is it?
A Community of Practice is made of three main components: the domain, community, and practice.
- The domain: the area of interest that brings people together.
Example: this could be the domain of Librarianship (my current field of study)
- The community: the people who engage with the domain together.
Example: this could be my instructors from Information Studies or librarians working in the field.
- The practice: the active part of this concept, where real engagement and participation occur between community members
Example: this could be the collaboration between instructors in developing assignments, syllabi, or research
All three concepts are interdependent and work together as displayed in this diagram:
What differentiates a Community of Practice from a group of individuals simply sharing their interests is that a CoP is an on-going and continual process where its group members are actively engaging and reflecting upon their activities so they may help others in their domain develop competencies and succeed. The process of reflection is a secondary part of a CoP but is important nonetheless. Reflection provides the opportunity to better understand a concept and imagine its impact on the domain at hand.
This sounds familiar…
It’s true, you may have already begun developing a CoP through informal knowledge sharing with colleagues, however I urge you to move towards a true Community of Practice. Why might this official move be important? By formally labelling this process, community members may continue to actively engage with their goals and stay committed to the domain. With such a title, community members may feel comforted knowing they are recognized, respected, and part of an official group where they may continue to advance their professional development goals. Placed in solid ground, community members may begin to see real changes occurring in their environment. Since a CoP relies so heavily on intercommunity interactions, there is great potential for growth amongst the community which will only serve to benefit the surrounding environment and greater domain.
Communities of Practice need not remain static in their domain or goals. Once a group is formed, it can be simple to transition to other areas of need that instructors may have. What started out as a community focusing on improving their lectures may transition to a group sharing assessment methods or ways to support student engagement. Furthermore, a CoP is not limited to a physical environment. There is plenty of growth in online CoPs, also known as VCoP (Virtual Community of Practice), for those seeking support in different ways. New instructors can find support or inspiration in such communities while practiced teachers may find new ideas or contribute to critical discussions. For a concrete idea of what a CoP may look like at McGill, here are some examples of CoPs at Teaching and Learning Services:
Where do we go from here?
If a budding CoP exists in your surroundings, the next step forward is to continue developing the community so that it may stand on solid ground. This can include gathering like-minded colleagues in a formal group that you may call a Community of Practice. If you are looking to establish a group, communicating with compatible individuals can help formalize a domain and community, while searching online allows the opportunity to join an existing VCoP.
Plenty of opportunities exist in the world of CoPs, where will you go next?
References and Recommended Readings:
Communities of Practice (Lave and Wenger), by Learning Theories. https://www.learning-theories.com/communities-of-practice-lave-and-wenger.html
Community of Practice Development Manual: A Step-By-Step Guide for Designing and Developing a Community of Practice, by George S. Gotto IV, Ann Turnbull, Jean Ann Summers, and Martha Blue-Banning. http://ktdrr.org/resources/rush/copmanual/CoP_Manual.pdf
Communities of Practice: Knowledge Sharing Tools and Methods Toolkit. http://www.kstoolkit.org/Communities+of+Practice