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Communities of Practice #altsep12

October 11th, 2012 by Cristina Costa

Thursdays have now become one of my favourite days of the week. … this because it is the day we meet colleagues participating in the ALT Module and I am having a ball taking part in this (having said that, I must say I have started to like Wednesday a lot too – that’s the day I work with the GTAs :-) )

These last weeks have brought me back to my days in the Navy where I used to teach. I missed having contact with a group of people from different backgrounds for an extended period of time. I like the experience. I enjoy the interaction.

OK, back to the title of this post…

This week we explored the concept of Communities of Practice (CoP) and what it means in education. [I didn’t mention it, but CoPs is one of my pet topics. I did research on an online CoP for my MPhil and this has always been a topic very close to my heart because it is about people, and how they come together to learn with and from each other.]

Five of the ALT participants (Action Learning Set 1) facilitated the entire session. It was a magnificent experience. Not only did they negotiate the planning of the session and the different activities amongst themselves, they approached the topic with class. I liked the diversity of activities, the risks they took, and the way they managed and encouraged discussion. I loved it. I thought it was a huge success!

Some points I would like to reflect on:

  • Building on last week’s topic, participation is a key aspect of communal learning.  When Lave and Wenger (1991) started looking at how learning happens in social and informal contexts they noticed that learning involves participation, active participation!

“Participation refers not just to local events of engagement in certain activities with certain people, but to a more encompassing process of being active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities” (Wenger 1999, p.4)


As part of their research Lave and Wenger (1999) also noticed that individual’s participation in a community evolves as individuals become more confident to contribute to the development of the community. At first individuals engage in what Lave and Wenger call legitimate peripheral participation. Individuals remain at the margin of the community life, participating in low risk activities until they develop the confidence to fully participate.


  • Identity: as individuals move into the core of the community, individuals acquire a strong sense of belonging. In so doing, they develop an identity as a member of that community.  They identify themselves with the epistemologies of practices shared by the community. Consequently, they share similar approaches to practice.

  • Learning networks are different from CoPs in that CoPs feature stronger social bonds amongst  CoP members than members of a network. Networks can be defined as people sharing the same social space but who are not necessarily driven by the same practices. Yet, this offers something that is often lost, or at least less evident in communities: diversity. In networks individuals congregate around different interests and not necessarily around common practices. As a result, networks may feature a wider range of critical approaches regarding the same topic of discussion given the diversity of its members.

With the emergence of the web as a social space for interaction and collaboration, we are able to tap into different networks, learn from them, and bring that learning into our communities. Individuals belonging to the same community will be linked to different networks. The knowledge acquired in those networks can benefit and shape the learning of the community members.


  • As part of my research, I looked at curriculum within a community of practice. Given that communities of practice as usually informal social learning systems, there isn’t a set curriculum or planned activities. As such, the community is the curriculum, i.e., its members set their own learning outcomes which are motivated by their own learning needs regarding their own purposes or the reasons that brought them together in the first place. In so doing, community members develop a shared repertoire based on a joint enterprise and mutual engagement.


  • Socialisation is the glue of a CoP. People develop trust, and identify affinities that go beyond their initial purpose of learning something together. The CoP  I studied, the Webheads in Action, a CoP of EFL educators have come up with a saying that expresses it very well: sharing is caring.And indeed it is. Only if we contribute with our ideas, experiences and even questions will people acknowledge our presence. That is sharing. And at the same time it is also caring, because in the process of sharing our knowledge and developing our learning we not only take (what others know) but we also give (what we know) back to the community.

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