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.
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.
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.”
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. Organization, 7(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/