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SAGE Musings: Communities of Practice

Carol Ormand, SERC, Carleton College
published May 1, 2017

"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" (Wenger-Trayner & Wenger-Trayner, 2015, quoted in Kastens, 2016b). SAGE 2YC faculty Change Agents form a community of practice, and I think it's worth taking a few minutes to examine this assertion.

First, our shared "concern or passion": each of us might state it a bit differently, but I think that we all share a concern and a passion for 2YC geoscience students' learning. We interact on a regular basis; these interactions vary from the work of each Change Agent team to the virtual activities we have each semester – the teaching circle on hybrid/online learning or the book club on Small Teaching, for example – to the June workshop, where we gather, discuss, and share what's happening in our classes and on our campuses over a period of several days. Less structured interactions are also part of the mix, as when someone sends a message to the Change Agent email list about a resource or a question or an opportunity. All of these activities help us learn how to improve 2YC geoscience students' learning – which, ultimately, is the reason the community exists. But they also have some "secondary" benefits: these activities help us to feel less isolated. They buoy us when we are feeling frustrated, and give us an opportunity to share our successes with people we know will be happy to hear about them. This is energizing, and allows each of us to accomplish more than we would if we were working alone (Kastens, 2016a, 2016b).

One goal of the SAGE 2YC: Faculty as Change Agents project is that you will build a regional community of practice, as well. Who belongs to each of these communities of practice may be a bit more nebulous than the SAGE 2YC project community of practice, but if someone shares the community's interest and interacts with you on a "regular" basis, they are part of the community. Our vision is that your regional community of practice will be inspired and energized by your regional activities, in much the same ways you are inspired and energized by the project activities that we organize.

As a project, we are about to embark on an adventure, and it is going to be an experiment, as well. We are going to recruit another cohort of Change Agent teams. But Cohort 2 will be different than Cohort 1 (you) in interesting ways. First and foremost, Cohort 2 won't have face to face meetings until the end of the project, in 2019. In many ways it will be analogous to an online class, with similar advantages and challenges. This has me thinking about what we can learn from the concept of communities of practice.

What distinguishes a community of practice from other communities? What makes a community of practice effective? I belong to several communities; not all of them energize and inspire me. What is it that makes some more inspiring than others?

  • Members learn from others' expertise while sharing their own. I'm a quilter, and I belong to several quilting groups. I would call one of them a community of practice: we get together at least once a year, for a few days at a time, to work on our quilts. The focused time to quilt is great, but I go primarily to see what everyone else is working on; I could spend the same time working at home, but I wouldn't get the same benefits. One person makes art quilts; another makes miniatures; many use color combinations I wouldn't think of; most know some technique I've never tried. Our gatherings always include a show-and-tell session. It's better than going to a quilt show, because we can ask each other, "How did you do that?" The best thing about this community of practice, for me, is that we don't all make the same kinds of quilts. Our strength lies in our diversity of experience.
  • Members are motivated to continue to develop their own skills. I'm an amateur musician, and I play in a band that I would also describe as a community of practice. We have a shared passion and we learn from each other through regular interaction, and that's great. But I would also be embarrassed if I didn't practice between meetings. This characteristic – caring what other members of the community think about me – is typical in communities of practice (Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner, 2015). The most valuable thing about this community of practice, for me, is that we hear each other play, every week. There is no slacking off.
  • Members are resources for each other. I'm an amateur photographer (who isn't??), and I belong to an online photography forum. When I can't get the photo I want, I have a group of peers I can ask for advice. The best thing about this community of practice, for me, is that it is online; I don't have to wait until the next time I see someone who lives near me and has the correct expertise to find out the answer to my question.

What communities of practice do you belong to? Are any of them "virtual" communities? What can we learn from your communities of practice, virtual or otherwise?

References

Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015): Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.

Kastens, K.A. (2016): Reinforcing feedback loops power effective communities of practice. Earth and Mind: the Blog. Retrieved April 26, 2017, from http://serc.carleton.edu/earthandmind/posts/commofpract.html.

Kastens, K.A. (2016): What Makes a "Community of Practice" Effective? Presentation at the Earth Educators' Rendezvous, Madison, WI. Presentation retrieved April 26, 2017, from http://serc.carleton.edu/earth_rendezvous/2016/program/morning_workshops/w3/program.html.



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