A Community of Practice

Domain

I belong to a professional inquiry group comprised of five high school teachers. We are specialist teachers of different curriculum areas working in a cross-curricular way for the first time. Established in Term 1, 2017, our group’s, “shared domain of interest,” (Wenger-Trayner, 2015) was to raise Māori achievement and improve engagement in writing for Year 10 students through a collaborative inquiry.

While there was no arguing that the aforementioned goals were important, the fact they were assigned to the inquiry group as part of a mandate from a wider initiative had ramifications on our collective identity and intrinsic motivations to participate. Instead of defining goals based on a shared interest – as Wenger’s philosophy perpetuates – an external group predetermined our area of focus. Our “domain of shared interest” felt more like, “the domain of shared conformity.”

The lack of autonomy in designing our inquiry focus negatively affected the energy of our group as we struggled to connect with the top-down issued mandates. It is not surprising that we felt a bit disempowered. Timperley, Kaser, and Halbert (2014) recognise that teachers are more likely to engage when they are collaboratively involved in the decision-making and analytical process. In future, it would be wise to advocate for teacher agency when establishing a community of practice as this could help foster a sense of ownership.

Community

Our group met four times per term for periods of one and a half hours. We decided that the milestones of the Spiral of Inquiry framework would determine the nature of the conversations. The milestones drove our inquiry forward and helped to ensure that our work and conversations remained focused.

Wenger stated that a sense of community emerges through “mutual engagement” over time. The increasing familiarity that occurs as a natural by-product of regular meetings builds social capital, which changes the ways members contribute. Initially reluctant to talk about our teaching experiences beyond a surface level, the regular meetings helped establish collegial rapport. Discourse evolved from being mechanical and awkward to being relaxed and organic, which meant we became more productive over time.

I have learned that being open about your shortcomings as a teacher is a quick way to gain the respect of peers. Seeing one colleague open up about an area of concern in her practice helped us realise that teachers are fallible. Sometimes, I think we are all a little bit guilty of pretending to be perfect practitioners and part of me was relieved to discover that others really struggle with the demands of the vocation.

My favourite part of working within this community of practice was seeing diversity in action. The range of experience and expertise each individual brought to conversations was great for ideating and strategizing. More importantly, the conversations built emotional capital between us and developed our empathy for other departments, which previously did not exist.

Final Thoughts

Despite initial issues encountered in the design of this community, it is possible to overcome these through the perseverance, commitment, and courage of individuals. In the words of Knox (2009), “Success of the community will depend upon the energy that the community itself generates, not an external mandate.”

References

Knox, B.(2009, December 4). Cultivating Communities of Practice: Making Them Grow.. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhMPRZnRFkk

Timperley, H., Kaser, L., & Halbert, J. (2014). A framework for transforming learning in schools: Innovation and the spiral of inquiry. Melbourne: Centre for Strategic Education.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of practice and social learning systems. Organization7(2), 225-246.

Wenger, E., & Trayner, B. (2015). Communities of Practice: A brief Introduction. Retrieved from http://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice/

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “A Community of Practice”

  1. Hi Chris
    Thank you for sharing your blog. There are two things that resonated with me. Firstly, I whole heartedly agree that when initiatives are mandatory, no matter the significance of the goal, there is not quite the same enthusiasm and motivation to be involved. I had a similar experience as a classroom teacher and I felt the collaboration was not authentic, in fact it was more like contrived collegiality. Interestingly, now as a middle leader I have to consider that experience, learn from it and consider collaborative decision making in my community of practice. To me it aligns with the importance of sharing power with and including student voice in the classroom.
    Secondly, I respect your comments about being “open with your shortcomings”. I have also found that showing aspects of vulnerability with both colleagues and students to be effective. Being in a leadership position doesn’t mean I know it all and it is a perfect time to learn from others.
    All the best for the rest of the course
    Kind regards
    Leigh Morgan

    Like

    1. Hi Leigh, thanks for your detailed thoughts!
      Like you, I believe authenticity needs to play a bigger role in building our collaborative capacity, whether it is with colleagues or students. “Contrived collegiality” is a fairly accurate way of summarising the majority of collaboration-based PD I have experienced in recent times at my school. I think it is great (and increasingly necessary) that teachers are moving towards collaborative practice, and talking about its emerging issues will help us (hopefully) make it a more authentic experience moving forward. I really liked how the video by Knox on cultivating communities stressed that the energy created by the group is paramount to success. We all want to feel like we belong when we interact in groups and by making this a focus, it might improve our collaborative experiences. Finding ways to build a sense of belonging is the design challenge for us as middle leaders. I don’t think this means introducing the cliched team building type activities, or those really awkward games some leaders like to start their PD sessions with. Rather, we need to look at finding meaningful ways to validate the individuals within groups to foster that sense of belonging. If you have any ideas, or think that I’m missing the mark, I am really interested in what you think!

      Like

  2. Chris I can empathise with you over the top down mandate, having personally experienced the feeling of frustration and disengagement this can bring. It was great to see how your group were able to overcome this and make real progress Kai pai.

    Like

  3. Hi Chris
    It is a shame that such a powerful method for solving our puzzles of practice was so eroded in this example. I hope you have been able to solve some of these issues and that future iterations can be established under more optimal conditions.

    Like

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your comment!
      Yes, I think realising that this community is a work in progress (and will probably be a work in progress for some time to come) is important to acknowledge in order to set realistic expectations. I agree that collaborative practice is powerful and I look forward to experiencing it in its full glory at some point in the not-so-distant future.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s