Community of practice – from the classroom to the staff room

The concept and benefits of a Community of Practice (CoP) have been well publicised. Arguably, the concept was first researched by Etienne Wenger who was an educational theorist and Jean Lave, a specialist in cognition. Their findings were first published during 1991 in their book, Situated Learning.

Wenger and Lave describe a CoP as 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. They continue to discuss how this form of collaborative learning could unintentionally occur.

From my experience, I believe if we are consciously aware of the benefits of a CoP then it can be far more beneficial. This is supported by Dillenbourg (1999) who described the goal of collaborative learning as being able to assist teaching a specific learning objective through a well-coordinated and shared activity, using social interactions amongst a group of people.

I would argue that workplaces could learn a lot about cultivating a culture that is shaped around a CoP. After all, surely the most effective workplace is one where its employees can share ideas, take risks and discuss issues within an environment where you can challenge, be challenged and support one another.

Sounds ideal right? In some workplaces, I believe we can find ourselves getting too caught up in trying to individually achieve goals (I know that I am guilty of this). I would argue, where goals are achieved as a collective, they are often more creative, longstanding and have far better outcomes.

The popularity of a CoP is seen in everyday life, from a social media platform where groups of people sign up to a page that they feel passionate about to localised community groups that meet in person on a regular basis.  The key driver to establishing a CoP is to create a sense of community whether this is online, in person or both, where members are in a “safe” space to share and discuss ideas.

In my opinion, to achieve this, there must be a shared vision and clear objectives. All staff members need to be included in determining what the vision is and must be clear about how as a collective we can move towards realising it. Staff need to be actively listened to and provided with the tools they need to succeed and in return, staff will become more accountable for upholding their targets.

A CoP that is consciously used as a framework would encourage this. Staff and managers alike, would all grow and develop collectively, there would be a shared motivation–as  opposed to a culture where only the few develop and succeed, and one where individuals hold back from sharing their knowledge.

In previous roles, I have utilised a CoP to create a “HE Network” and an “Assessor Network”. One even got a positive mention in an Ofsted report!

Ofsted-specific comments included the following:

“Leaders place a very strong focus on improving teaching, learning and assessment. Managers make good use of lesson observations, and successfully assess quality and identify the strengths and areas for development of individual teachers. Teaching and learning coaches provide support to colleagues through training and development and this leads to teaching that is good. Teachers and assessors are able to access a very broad range of helpful professional development materials through a variety of media. Developments such as an assessor network have facilitated the sharing of good practice, which is now much improved.”

Its only now, on reflection, that I realise that where I have unconsciously created a CoP within the staff rooms of several teams I have previously managed, the team saw success. Where I have consciously cultivated an environment of a CoP e.g. the Assessor Network, the department and internal teams developed together, outcomes significantly improved and together we achieved a shared goal.

I would advise that a CoP should be consciously formed whenever there is a group of people with a shared goal, whether this is in a classroom, a staff room or institution. I passionately believe that this will create a sense of community, a space to enable creativity and a more productive learning/working environment.

Brendan Coulson

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