Reinforcing feedback loops power effective communities of practice

Posted: Jan 5 2016 by

Kim Kastens

A "Community of Practice" is a "group of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (Wegner-Trayner & Wegner-Trayner, 2015). Although this social structure has probably existed since hunter/gatherer days, it was first described and named by anthropologists in workplaces where apprentices were being inculcated into the skills and habits of mind of a craft or profession (Lave & Wenger, 1991). The community of practice (CoP) construct has since been applied to a wide range of groups, both inside and outside of workplaces, including in education. The attributes of entities labelled as CoP's vary, but important common factors seem to be:

  • Communities of practice are committed to a shared domain of interest, and value their individual and collective competence in this domain.
  • They engage in joint activities, share information, build relationships that enable them to learn from each other.
  • Individuals in the CoP care about their standing with each other.
  • The group collectively develops a shared repertoire of resources, which may include experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems (Wegner-Trayner & Wegner-Trayner, 2015).

I've been lucky enough to be a part of several groups that I think have functioned as CoP's, and have had the opportunity to observe several others through colleagues, friends, and family. Three examples, to inform our later discussion: More

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The story behind "Last Call"

Posted: Nov 1 2015 by Kim Kastens

I recently had the chance to see a documentary called Last Call, which recounts the 1970's era effort to use the new field of systems dynamics to create a computational model capable of forecasting the future of human society on planet Earth. This is the project that led to the prescient and controversial book Limits to Growth. The documentary describes some of the virulent attacks on the team and their work, and then goes on to say that the World3 standard model has, in fact, held up well when compared with the actual developments from 1970 through 2014.

Donella Meadows is one of my heroines, and I have long thought that The Limits to Growth book was brilliant. So I enjoyed the movie very much. The film-makers got interviews with systems dynamics pioneer John Forester, authors Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers, plus archival footage of lead author Donella Meadows and the instigator of the project, Aurelio Peccei of the Club of Rome.

However, I have to say that I'm not sure the movie would make much sense or have much impact for a person who wasn't already somewhat familiar with The Limits to Growth (LtG) work. And being a "show me the data" sort of a person, I can't for the life of me understand why the film-makers chose not to show any of the data that compare the LtG scenarios with empirical observations from the 43 years since the book was published.

Some friends and I are gearing up for a community showing of the film, and so I offer here a synopsis of the story behind the story, as I see it. My commentary is in three acts: Act I: Meadows et al create their model and write their book. Act II: Economists and organizations dependent on growth of the economy attack viscously, and the public is left with the impression that the work has been completely discredited. Act III: other researchers compare the model output with data accumulated in the 30 or 40 years since the book was published. More

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Pitfalls of Metaphors: Does Warm Air Hold More Water?

Posted: Jan 15 2015 by Glenn Dolphin & Kim Kastens
Topics: Metacognition, Perception/Observation, Interpretation/Inference


The following is a guest post by Glenn Dolphin (aka "Flipper"), of the University of Calgary Department of Geosciences.

This discussion first appeared in the ESPRIT list server, a lively forum for discussion of earth science teaching, mostly at the secondary school level. When Flipper's ideas below came forth, there had been an extensive multi-person, multi-day discussion of whether it was useful or misleading to tell students, during their study of weather and climate, that "warm air holds more water vapor than cold air." Although this and synonymous statements are common in popular science treatments (for example, here and here), this form of explanation has been roundly criticized in other expositions for the public (for example, here and here).

A point of view held by several teachers could be summarized by one who wrote: "As I see it, declaring that air 'holds' water isn't nearly as awful as it's made out to be." I was reminded of my blog post and followup comments about Telling Lies to Children, asking where is the borderline between a pedagogically valuable simplification and a lie. Air "holding" water is not literally true; it is a metaphor in which air is compared to a container with a limited holding capacity. Metaphors can be valuable tools for helping the human mind come to grips with (another metaphor) an unfamiliar concept. But they also have pitfalls, as explored in the guest post below.

—–Kim Kastens–Earth & Mind co-editor

Guest blog post

In my research, I am looking at the metaphors we (experts, for the most part) use in science and their effect on how students (novices) understand them. We use many metaphors (selfish gene, black hole, big bang, electron cloud, tectonic plate). As experts, we may very well be able to use "hold" if we have a good physical understanding for the air/water system. However, people who don't, like our novice students, will generate meaning based on their own physical experiences of containers that hold things. This could then lead to difficulties in understanding, most likely because they will always start from this point, and not give other meanings a chance. More

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A Curriculum by Design Part II: Student Learning Outcomes and Program Assessment

Posted: Jan 20 2014 by David Mogk, Dept. Earth Sciences, Montana State University

In an earlier blogpost (A Curriculum by Design) I outlined the philosophy and process we used in the Department of Earth Sciences, Montana State University, to revise our undergraduate curriculum. This continuing contribution describes the process we used to identify student learning outcomes (SLOs) across the curriculum, and how these SLOs have been used to develop our department assessment plan (required in anticipation of our forthcoming institutional accreditation review).


Assessment is collecting data with a purpose. The Department of Earth Sciences completed an extensive review of student learning outcomes at the programmatic level for all courses offered by the department. Our assessment plan is designed to: a) provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect on course goals, methods and expected student learning outcomes, b) aggregate these course learning goals into an overall departmental matrix of student learning outcomes, c) provide formative feedback to improve teaching and learning in Earth Sciences courses, and d) for accountability, to demonstrate that the departmental and institutional vision and mission are being addressed and that the curriculum is consistent with contemporary professional standards in the geosciences. The resulting SLO Matrix (Excel 2007 (.xlsx) 122kB Jan16 14) provides a rapid, visual map of the "landscape" of our curriculum; you can readily see areas of emphasis, and areas that might need more attention in our curricular development. This exercise also provided our faculty the opportunity to reflect deeply on the concepts and skills they emphasize in their own courses, gave them some incentives to revise courses to respond to the SLO goals, and opened the door for more extensive curricular discussions between faculty (who generally were not aware of content/skills being taught in courses related to their own). More

Educating for "Sapience"

Posted: Sep 8 2013 by Kim Kastens
Topics: Evolution, Systems Thinking, Community, Solving Societal Problems, Metacognition

I've recently been digging into the writings of George Mobus on the subject of "Sapience." Mobus begins by asking himself and his readers "If we are such a clever species, why is the world the way it is, and heading in such a bad direction?"

His answer is that most humans, even very intelligent and clever ones, have too little "sapience."

"Sapience" is Mobus' term for a human attribute that is a combination of judgement (based on life experiences), moral sense (primarily altruism, thinking about the welfare of the group as well as of yourself), taking a long view of the future (strategic perspective), and systems perspective. He thinks that sapience is present in all humans, but very unevenly distributed with a few people having a lot and most people having little. More