13 Lessons to Take Away from the National Colloquium on PLCs

pic2On 18 and 19 September the Ministry of Basic Education organized a nation-wide colloquium on Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). The Integrated Strategic Framework for Teacher Professional Development (ISPFTED) foresees the nation-wide implementation of PLCs by 2017. This colloquium was a first step towards that implementation. During the first day a wide range of speakers from academia, government, unions and subject associations provided input on international and local research, local experiences and various initiatives on PLCs.  On the second day, participants were invited to provide feedback on two draft documents: a policy document on subject committees and PLCs and a practical guideline on implementing PLCs.

Here are 13 lessons from the two days:

  1. Hardly anyone doubted the useful role PLCs could play in the South African education system.  However, it became clear that more conceptual and practical work needs to be done before PLCs can be rolled out nationwide.
  2. Any guideline on PLCs should clearly describe the concept. The prominent place of PLCs in DBE’s Strategic Framework 2011-2025 (ISPFTED) and the excitement on the ‘new’ concept make that all types of professional development are dubbed PLCs.  A clear definition of what they are, is needed to avoid losing the power of the concept. Prof. Brodie stressed that PLCs are more than sharing resources over tea. They require intensive collaboration to develop resources and prepare and evaluate classroom practice together.
  3. We should be realistic in our expectations for PLCs, both in terms of numbers and outcomes and conceptual purity.  Much depends on what kind of PLCs we want.  Do we only count PLCs that are truly teacher-led, data-driven and collaborative in nature?  Or do we include all kinds of regular teaching meetings, in order to reach ambitious quantitative targets?  As such, stating (unrealistically) high targets might water down what are considered PLCs and reduce the process-oriented and collaborative character of PLCs.
  4. Implementation of PLCs should also take into account the existing education system and school culture. Can we expect PLCs to become beacons of a collaborative, data-driven and self-driven view on professional development, if the education system in which they operate is prescriptive and bureaucratic? Could we hope for PLCs to become a Trojan horse for change of the education system? How far should we be prepared to compromise? Criteria such as teacher-driven, school-based, continuous and collaborative surfaced as key criteria without which a PLC is not a PLC any more.
  5. PLCs are as much about changes in school culture as they are about individual teacher development.  A successful PLC manages to instil a culture of ‘us-ness’.  Teaching and learning become a collective responsibility for the school rather than an individual responsibility for the teacher. pic1
  6. PLCs are inherently connected to the concept of teacher agency. Implementing PLCs raises therefore wider questions. How do we see the role of the teachers, as implementers of policy and curriculum or as education professionals? This raises the question whether the current climate in South Africa is conducive to teacher agency?
  7. Imposing PLCs on teachers and schools will result in command and control, compliance and resistance, nipping any potential of PLCs in the bud. Participation in PLCs should be voluntary, based on teachers’ assessment of what constitutes valuable professional development for them.
  8. However, PLCs are unlikely to grow spontaneously. An important role for the Department of Basic Education lies in scaffolding and providing initial support to starting PLCs. Results from the Data-informed practice improvement project (DIPIP) Project indicated that this initial support may well be needed during several years. The challenge lies in finding a good balance between prescription and support.  An important role in providing this support lies with the provincial and district administrations.  Subject advisors should focus on their pedagogical rather than judgemental role and provide the necessary resources and capacity building.  Provinces should equip them with the skills to construct knowledge and be part of PLCs themselves.
  9. Time is most prominent on everyone’s list of challenges for PLCs. Arguments whether time should be provided to work in PLCs went both ways. Professional development and preparing lessons can be considered core parts of a teacher’s job description. PLCs intend to facilitate a shift from teaching as an isolated activity to a social approach to teaching. Secondly, if teachers find PLCs a valuable activity, they will invest time in it. However, if PLCs are to make headway beyond the very motivated, it was estimated that at least 2 consecutive hours per week should be dedicated to it. The 80 hours that are currently earmarked for professional development in teachers’ schedules could form the backbone of such a system.
  10. Conceptions of what constitutes valuable knowledge are changing. Rather than providing people with a bag of facts, it becomes more important to equip learners with 21st century skills such as information fluency, creativity fluency, collaborative skills and media fluency. New conceptions of knowledge also require new forms of CPD.
  11. We should be patient and be careful not to expect immediate effects of PLCs. Moreover, defining outcomes for successful PLCs is hard. PLCs are not going to change the ANA results in one year. First, PLCs are a slow and ongoing process, as much about the process of creating trust and developing a culture of systematic enquiry, as about tangible outputs. Reporting on the activities in PLCs and the products that come out of them is only a first step. More relevant outcomes of PLCs lie in bridging the gap between educational research and practice, promoting data-informed practice, instilling an attitude of lifelong learning and creating safe spaces for addressing practical issues. Most importantly however, but also hardest to measure, are the impact PLCs have on learning outcomes, equity, teacher identity and school culture.
  12. The distinction between PLCs and Subject Committees should be made very clear. Subject committees are structures at district, provincial and national level, organized per subject and aimed at providing advice on policy and curriculum issues. PLCs are primarily school-based structures to facilitate teaching and learning. However, this does not mean there is no learning, no professional development taking place in Subject Committees. There is also a clear link between PLCs and Subject Committees, as they feed each other with information and ideas. Moreover, PLCs that are supported by a broader network have turned out to be more successful. Ideally, PLCs engage in a process of moving out of the local and back in to access and bring in external expertise in PLCs.
  13. Principals play a crucial role in supporting PLCs. They should be more than enablers, providing time and space for PLCs. Their role extends to instructional leaders within PLCs, motivating teachers to engage in them, providing guidance to resources and facilitating conditions for a culture of collaboration across grades and subjects by for example promoting team teaching, lesson observations and seminars. Hence, DBE and PED’s support to PLC should for a big part lie in capacity development of school leaders, school management teams (SMTs) and Heads of Department (HoDs).

My keynote presentation is available on Slideshare.

Measuring Pedagogical Content Knowledge for Mathematics

 

 

 

photo-1pck5ut-300x225In a previous blog post I discussed the concept of pedagogical content knowledge for mathematics.  In this post I look how it has been measured.

Many would agree intuitively with the importance of both content and pedagogical knowledge for teachers. However, scholarly evidence for the existence of PCK separate from mathematical content knowledge and its effect on learning outcomes is thin (Hill et al., 2008).  Depaepe et al. (2013) identified six main research lines in PCK: ‘(1) the nature of PCK, (2) the relationship between PCK and content knowledge, (3) the relationship between PCK and instructional practice, (4) the relationship between PCK and students’ learning outcomes, (5) the relationship between PCK and personal characteristics, and (6) the development of PCK.’  Measuring PCK is complicated. It’s hard to distinguish content from pedagogical knowledge and determine their respective effects on student learning.  Research have used both quantitative and qualitative approaches to investigate PCK with mathematics teachers.

Qualitative studies have tended to take a situative view on PCK, something that makes sense only related to classroom practice (Depaepe et al., 2013). These studies rely on case studies, classroom observations, meeting observations, document analysis and interviews, usually during a relatively short period.   Longer-term qualitative studies that investigate the relation between teacher knowledge, quality of instruction and learning outcomes have the advantage they can track evolutions and tensions between theory and practice, but are rare.  An excellent (20 years old!) ethnographic paper from Eisenhart (1993) brings to life Ms Daniels based on months on interviews and observations at the school and teacher training institute.   Unfortunately, the current dominance of ‘evidence-based’ studies, often narrowly interpreted as quasi-experimental and experimental research, crowds out this kind of valuable in-depth studies.  These studies have confirmed the existence of pedagogical content knowledge independent of content knowledge.  A teacher’s repertoire of teaching strategies and alternative mathematical representations is largely dependent on the breadth and depth of their conceptual understanding of the subject.

Most Quantitative research is based on the Shulman’s original cognitive conception of PCK as a property of teachers that can be acquired and applied independently from the classroom context (Depaepe et al., 2013).  Several large-scale studies have sought to ‘prove’ the existence of PCK for mathematics as a separate construct from subject content knowledge using factor analysis.

Hill et al. (2008) used multiple-choice questioning to look for separate dimensions of  content and pedagogical knowledge.  Questions were situated in teaching practice probing teachers for representations they would use to explain certain topics, how they would respond to a student’s confusion or what sequence of examples they would use to teach a certain topic. Questionnaires were complemented by interviews to get more insight in teachers’ beliefs and reasoning (Hill et al., 2008). Several papers contain a useful sample of survey questions.

Item Response Theory (IRT) is used by several authors to assess the validity of these surveys to discriminate between subjects at various ability levels.  IRT quantifies how well a test discriminates between teachers with various levels of PCK.  Test Information Curves (TIC) depict the amount of information yielded by the test at any ability level.  In Hill et al. (2008) a majority of questions with a below-average difficulty level resulted in a test that discriminated well between teachers with low and average levels of PCK, but less well between teachers with good and very good PCK.

Hill_2008_Test_Information_Curve

Test Information Curve from Hill et al. (2008)

 The amount of information decreases rather steadily as the ability level differs from that corresponding to the maximum of the Information Curve. Thus, ability is estimated with some precision near the centre of the ability scale, but as the ability level approaches the extremes of the scale, the accuracy of the test decreases significantly.

When evaluating their survey, Hill et al. (2008) found that teachers relied not only on PCK for mathematics knowledge for solving the questions, but also on subject content knowledge and even test-taking skills.  They used cognitive interviews for additional validity analysis, in which they asked teachers to explain why they had chosen a certain answer.  Secondly, their multiple-choice questions suffered from the fact that few teachers selected outright wrong answers, but differed in the detail of explanations of students’ problems they could give during the interviews.  The researchers found following kinds of interview items to discriminate quite well:

  • Assessing student productions for the level of student understanding they reflect
  • Use of computational strategies by students
  • Reasons for misconceptions or procedural errors

Baumert et al. (2010) analysed teachers’ regular tasks and tests, coding the type of task, level of argumentation required and alignment with the curriculum as indicators for PCK.  They complemented this with students’ ratings on teachers’ quality of adaptive explanations, responses to questions, pacing and teacher-student interaction.  Data from examinations and PISA numeracy tests were used to assess students’ learning outcomes.

Ball et al. (2001) discuss the concept of place value for multiplying numbers as a typical example of questions they used in their survey.  They found that teachers could accurately perform the algorithm – as would numerically literate non-teachers – , but often failed to provide conceptual grounding of the rule, and struggled to come up with sensible reactions to frequently occurring student mistakes.  Many teachers  using ‘pseudo-explanations’ focusing on the ‘trick’ rather than the underlying concept.  Ball et al. (2001) discuss similar examples in teachers’ knowledge of division (e.g. division of fractions), rational numbers (e.g. fractions of rational numbers) and geometry (e.g. relation between perimeter and area for rectangles).

PCK_example_Ball

Recent studies often start from teaching practice in analysing the role of knowledge.  Even teachers with strong PCK (as based on surveys) may, for a variety of reasons, not use all this knowledge when teaching  (Eisenhart, 1993).  Rowland and colleagues (2005) observed and videotaped 24 lessons of teacher trainees.  Significant moments in the lesson that seemed to be informed by mathematical content or pedagogical knowledge were coded. Codes were classified and led to the development of the ‘knowledge quartet’.  They illustrate the framework using a grade 8 lesson on subtraction from a hypothetical student called Naomi.  The framework looks promising as a guide for discussions after lesson observations.  Its focus on the mathematical aspects of lessons, rather than on general pedagogy was positively perceived by mentors and students (Rowland et al., 2005).

Various interpretations of PCK exist and it’s important to make clear which definition of PCK is used or which components are included.  A more cognitive interpretation as devised by Shulman has the advantage that it can be clearly defined, but in that case it is only one (hardly distinguishable) factor of many that affects instructional quality. A more situative approach tends to imply a wider definition of PCK beyond the scope of content knowledge, including affective and contextual factors. This may widen PCK so much that it means ‘everything that makes a good teacher’.

Few studies on measuring PCK have been done in developing countries. In their systematic review, Depaepe et al. (2013) found only one study of PCK that included an African country (Botswana, in Blömeke et al., 2008).  In Cambodia we used surveys with multiple-choice questions and lesson observations to assess teacher trainers’ PCK.  Some lessons learned are:

  • Language is a major barrier, as questions and answers were translated between English and Khmer, complicating assessing conceptual understanding and further probing during interviews and coding during lesson observations.
  • Response bias is an issue in surveys and lesson observations.  Teacher trainers tend to respond what they think the researcher likes or what they think will bring them most benefit in the future. Due to administrative requirements lesson observations are usually announced beforehand, resulting in teacher trainers applying the techniques you want them to apply for the occasion.  This makes that the picture you get is the optimal achievement rather than the average achievement.
  • The initial test we used was based on items from the TIMSS survey. However, most questions were too difficult for teacher trainers, resulting in low ability of the test to discriminate between teacher trainers’ PCK. Recent teacher graduates have much stronger content and teaching skills though.  An IRT analysis would have been helpful here to devise a valid and reliable test.
  • The small population of teacher trainers and the crowded donor landscape makes it hard to devise an experimental study. A more ethnographic approach that also investigates how PCK that is learned during teacher training is applied or fails to be applied in schools seems more useful to me.  However, care should be taken to include a variety of characters, school settings and ages in this fast-changing society.

Finally, PCK seems most useful to me as a theoretical framework to underpin sensible professional development. To be discussed in a next post.

Selected references

  • Ball, D.L., Lubienski, S.T. and Mewborn, D.S. (2001) ‘Research on teaching mathematics: The unsolved problem of teachers’ mathematical knowledge’, 4th ed. In Richardson, V. (ed.), Handbook of research on teaching, Washington, DC, American Educational Research Association, pp. 433–456, [online] Available from: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~dball/chapters/BallLubienskiMewbornChapter.pdf (Accessed 12 September 2013).
  • Hill, H.C., Ball, D.L. and Schilling, S.G. (2008) ‘Unpacking Pedagogical Content Knowledge: Conceptualizing and Measuring Teachers’ Topic-Specific Knowledge of Students’, Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, (4), p. 372.
  • Rowland, T., Huckstep, P. and Thwaites, A. (2005) ‘Elementary Teachers’ Mathematics Subject Knowledge: The Knowledge Quartet and the Case of Naomi’, Journal of Mathematics Teacher Education, 8(3), pp. 255–281.
  • Depaepe, F., Verschaffel, L. and Kelchtermans, G. (2013) ‘Pedagogical content knowledge: A systematic review of the way in which the concept has pervaded mathematics educational research’, Teaching and Teacher Education, 34, pp. 12–25.

#H809 Key Criteria for ‘Healthy’ Online Communities

Communities of Practice is one of the most used concepts in educational research these days.  Wenger (1998) has provided a theoretical basis for the concept, although his definition is quite fluid and difficult to grasp (Johnson, 2001).  Preece (2000) has  developed an operationalisation of the concept, centred around concepts of usability and sociability.  These relate to the duality, developed by Wenger, between design and emergence.

Jones and Preece (2006) distinguish between Communities of Interest (COI) and Communities of Practice (COP).  The latter, described by Wenger (1998), are reserved for communities in professional contexts.  COI refer to the more organic, loosely structured communities that centre around people’s interests.  Garrison has coined the term Community of Inquiry, focusing on groups in educational settings.  There seems to be a rich amount of literature on these Communities of Inquiry.

Preece (2000) uses a sociability and usability framework to analyse the success of COI and COP.  Usability is related to user-friendliness and consists of guidelines for the design of online spaces.  Criteria for sociability centre around the 3 P’s of people, purpose and policies.

Sociability framework

Sociability framework (Preece, 2000)

1. People

  • Reciprocity
    • requires ‘nurturing’ in young communities
    • ‘lurkers’ routinely comprise at least 50% of participants
  • Empathy and trust
    • empathy: ability to understand others and react compassionately
    • trust: expectations of positive interactions
  • Clear leadership and commitment
    • Supported by research from Wenger et al. (2011): “what makes a difference is not the quantity of users, but the passion and commitment with which a subset of users provide leadership, example and high quality content”

2. Purpose

  • Common ground
    • corresponds with ‘mutual understanding’ (Wenger, 1998) , sense of unity, a common vision & values
    • clarity of common purpose for participants  (* I’m not convinced all participants need to have a common purpose)
    • related to motivation
  • Incentives for collaboration (vs. competition)

3. Policies

  • Etiquette
    • can be realized through formal rules or through self-governance/ cultural norms
    • related to amount of social pressure and presence of leadership
  • Social presence
    • described as sense people have online of others being present
    • can be generated by short response time, not necessarily by many postings
    • is strongly positively related with etiquette
  • maturity
    • COI/COP need time to form and grow, in order to develop, in Wenger’s (1998) terms, ‘mutual understanding’, ‘common language’ and ‘reified artefacts’

Comparing these criteria with Stephen Downes’ description of characteristics of successful networks, highlights some of the differences between communities and networks:

  • autonomy
    • degree to which a network and its members can act independently
    • not a criterion for a community, rather are coherence and a sense of belonging to group (identification)
  • diversity
    • degree to which various backgrounds and opinions are represented in the network
    • communities require a mutual understanding and shared repertoire.
  • openness
    • degree to which the community is open to new members
    • * although not mentioned, I believe this was a major weakness of the COP of physics teachers in the Jones and Preece (2006) study.

References

Preece, J. (2000) Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability, John Wiley & Sons.

Jones, A. and Preece, J. (2006) ‘Online communities for teachers and lifelong learners: a framework for comparing similarities and identifying differences in communities of practice and communities of interest’, International Journal of Learning Technology, 2(2), pp. 112–137.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity, Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., Trayner, B. and De Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands, Available online

#H807 E-learning Models and their Implications for Activity Design

Copyright: Oliver Merkel

With the submission of TMA03 the focus in H807 shifts to the design of e-tivities (Salmon, 2000).  The ultimate block starts with a study of the theoretical foundations that underpin activity design explicitly or, more often, implicitly, as pedagogic assumptions.  The key text is a review of e-learning theories by Mayes and de Freitas (2004), complemented by e-books from Terry Anderson (2008) and Peter Goodyear (2001).

E-learning theories are not new theories, but rather e-enhancements of existing learning theories (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).  They form “sets of beliefs: about the nature of knowledge and competence, about the purposes of learning, about how learning occurs, about how people should and should not be treated, etc” (Goodyear, 2001, p.51)

Consecutive learning theories don’t replace, but rather complement each other, each contributing its legacy to learning.  Theories are situated at various levels of aggregation, with associative/behaviourist approaches addressing observable factors, cognitive approaches focusing on the ‘detailed structures and processes that underlie individual performance’ and situative approaches taking into account the social and cultural aspects of learning (Mayes and de Freitas, 2004).

Activity designs are usually a blend of different learning theories.  Being aware of the main learning theories helps building a consistent design and clarifying what type of learning and interaction is intended. An example provided by Goodyear (2001):

It is not uncommon to find some members of a team believing that learners are poor at organizing themselves and learn best by being fed information in small amounts, while other members of the team want to promote active, student-managed learning.

The table below summarizes key concepts of different learning theories and their implications for online learning, taken from the publications from Anderson, Mayes and de Freitas and Goodyear.

Associative/ Behaviourist approaches Design principles
Looking for observable behaviour Explicitly mentioning course outcomes
Behavioural objectives Ability to test achievement of learning outcomes
Instructional Systems Design (ISD) Decomposing learning into small chunks
Routines of organised activity
Learning hierarchies (controversial!) Sequencing learning materials with increasing complexity
Giving direct feedback on learning
Individualized learning trajectories
Cognitive psychology (constructivism)
Types of memory (sensory – short term – long term) Maximize sensations: strategic screen layout
Research on memory, perception, reasoning, concept formation. Maximize sensations: well-paced information
Learning is active Maximize sensations: highlighting main elements
Learning is individual (knowledge construction) Relate difficulty level to cognitive level of learner: providing links to easier and more advanced resources
Use of comparative advance organizers
Use of conceptual models
Importance of prior knowledge structures Pre-instructional & prerequisite questions
Experimentation toward discovery of broad principles
Promote deep processing Use of information maps zooming in/ out
Cognitive Apprenticeship (Brown et al, 1989) Interactive environments for construction of understanding
Metacognition (reflection, self-regulation) Relate to real-life (apply, analyse, synthesize)
Learning styles (controversial!) Address various learning styles
Cognitive styles Let students prepare a journal
Dual coding theory Use both visual information and text
Motivate learners (ARCS model) Use techniques to catch attention, explain relevance,  build confidence and increase satisfaction
Situated learning (constructivism)
Personal knowledge construction Personal meaning to learning
Situated learning: motivation Relate to real life (relevance)
Holistic/ Systemic approaches Conduct research on internet
Build confidence with learners
Identity development Use of first-hand information (not filtered by instructor)
Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger) Collaborative activities
Zone of Proximal Development (Vygotsky) Fostering the growth of learning communities
Learning as act of participation Legitimate (peripheral) practice, apprenticeships
Lifelong learning Authentic learning and assessment tasks
 Connectivism
Information explosion Digital literacies
Learning in network environment Keep up-to-date in field
Knowledge base Multi-channel learning
Distributed learning Build diversity, openness in learning (different opinions), autonomy
Personal Learning Environment  self-directed learning, just-in-time

Some comments on the table:

1. It’s difficult to draw sharp lines between these theories.  Some authors distinguish between cognitive constructivism (based on the work from Piaget) and social-cultural constructivism (based on the work from Vygotsky).  The work of Vygotsky formed the basis for the anthropological work from Jean Lave and the concept of ‘communities of practice’. The work of Engeström on activity theory forms a bridge between situative learning (with the activity system, it takes a more social unit of analysis than the individual) and constructivist approaches.

2 .Constructivism doesn’t really fit into the overview.  Goodyear (2001, p.75) mentions the following description of constructivism:

“…learning is a constructive process in which the learner is building an internal representation of knowledge, a personal interpretation of experience. This representation is constantly open to change, its structure and linkages forming the foundation to which other knowledge structures are appended….this view of knowledge does not necessarily deny the existence of the real world..but contends that all we know of the world are human interpretations of our experience of the world….learning must be situated in a rich context, reflective of real world contexts…” In other words, constructivism states that knowledge is relative and is different for every user.  Learning, in this position, means actively building a personal and contextualised interpretation of experience.

References

 

#H807 case-studies in elearning innovation (4): Use of e-portfolios and blogging in Teacher Education

This case study investigates the introduction of e-portfolios in three teacher education programmes at the University of Wolverhampton.  PebblePAD (http://www.pebblepad.co.uk) was used as the e-portfolio system.

The case study discusses some pedagogical principles that justified the adoption:

  • Making teacher education more authentic
  • Encouraging deeper engagement with course material by stimulating linking lesson observations with theoretical understanding
  • Stimulating learner ownership and control
  • Develop critical thinking skills, underpinned  by a ‘dialogic’ approach
  • Developing a Community of Practice that survives graduation
  • Gibbs/ Kolb reflective cycle.  This is a series of writing and thinking frames to encourage deeper levels of learning
  • Patchwork text approach.  This focuses on developing shared short formative writing into summative pieces.
  • Develop a Personal Learning Environment (PLE) (rather than a mere content repository).

The author describes the introduction as an astounding success.  Success factors include:

  • Training and support for staff and students.
  • E-mentoring system for ongoing support (system of graduated students supporting subsequent student cohorts)
  • Introduction was based on sound pedagogical principles.
  • Early online socialization
  • Expectation that reflection and analysis will continue beyond the classroom.
  • Providing a safe environment for students to share thoughts.

“Taking an approach which supports confidence and esteem building, early writing, rapid feedback moving into writing/ reflective communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991, Wenger, 2005) is hugely beneficial and supports meta-learning.”

There are drawbacks as well and the author honestly describes her feelings of isolation and frustration that befell her during the pilot programme.  She found that e-portfolios weren’t regarded as seriously as other innovations by colleagues.  “False dichotomies” were created by school directives such as content delivery vs. dialogic approach, VLE vs.  E-portfolios that divided many staff and making that the e-portfolios were often considered as an add-on rather than integral to learning.  The author found support in professional communities, leading to an invitation to contribute to a book on e-portfolios.

I found this the case study the most instructive of the four, because of the attention for the learner experience, the honest description of drawbacks and the clear links between the technology and the elements of learning theory on which the adoption of new technology was based.

Reference

Gerbic, P., Lewis, L. and Amin, N.M. (n.d.) ‘Student perspectives of eportfolios: Change over four semesters’, Available here

#H800 Reification and Participation in Wenger’s Communities of Practice

Communities of Practice are a powerful and highly influential concept, developed by Lave and Wenger (1991) and later refined by Wenger (1998).  Based on sociocultural approaches to learning, it may seem an abstract and challenging concept, but, once understood, results in a better conceptual understanding of learning and design for learning.
Identity is a socially constructed through participation (and non-participation) in a range of communities.  There can be communities at work, school, family or nation-wide.  Identity is also determined by the way how we ‘negotiate meaning’ in those communities.  In other words, how we influence activities inside them.
Negotiability refers to the ability, facility and legitimacy to contribute to, take responsibility for and shape the meanings that matter within a social configuration.
Wenger identifies two ways of influencing within a community: participation and reification.  Participation is the direct interaction between members of a community.  Reification is the creation and use of artefacts such as lesson plans, guidelines or a curriculum to impose or affect others’ behaviour.  In learning design an optimal combination of both ways is necessary to achieve learning outcomes.
The balance between and participation and reification is a key duality in communities of practice.  Wenger refers to the ‘double-edged sword of reification’.  Too much focus on reification may stifle creativity and hurt group dynamics.  However, reified artefacts such as guidelines, ‘ways of doing things’ or a specific vocabulary provide an anchor point to novice members and help creating a community identity.

In a workshop for teacher trainers a sole focus on participation may have the result that participants find it difficult to ‘transcend’ their practice, cross boundaries and develop new conceptual understanding.  Too much focus on reification, for example by imposing a rigid lesson plan template, may create alienation and stifle creativity with participants, who feel they don’t have any impact on the design process.  It lowers the status of the participants who are likely to formally comply without taking any ownership.

#H800 Communities of Practice, Networked Individualism, Network Dynamics and Mycorrizhal Networks

Communities of Practice

The concept of Communities of Practice (COP) was introduced by Lave and Wenger (1991) to highlight and conceptualize forms of learning that focus on participation and are not limited to the individual level (don’t stop ‘at the skin of the individual’).  Legitimate peripheral practice is the conceptualization of the apprentice learning a craft with a master, thereby gradually gaining mastery in the subject. Learning was an inevitable aspect of all productive practices and not limited to a formal setting within schools or institutions.  The communities in the COP can be characterised as:

Clearly bounded structure, with rules for membership.

  • Single centre of supreme skill and mastery
  • A hierarchical structure where new members (apprentices) start at the ‘periphery’ and gradually move toward the centre of the community as they obtain mastery.  Also called a ‘centripetal’ structure.

Networks

However, recent work by Engeström (2007) challenges Wenger’s analysis by pointing out oppression by dominant figures in communities and rebellion by apprentices.  He argues that learning is not smooth and necessarily centripetal. Instead, the movement of learning is shaped by learning’s participants.  Those at the hub of the learning experience exert the greatest influence.
Jones (2004) recalls the successful application of network dynamics in domains like transport and politics.  He argues that mathematical network principles like power laws, clustering and the strength of weak ties can be applied on learning networks.  Networks can be identified from the level of societies and institutions down to individuals and ideas.  Individuals can be nodes in a network, engaged in linking to other persons, agents and resources.  Or, ideas can be considered as nodes with associations between them forming the links of the network.  His ideas remind me of Connectivism – discussed in an earlier blog post– which claims to be a learning theory for the internet age.  Connectivism describes learning as building networks, not only of physical persons, but of associated ideas.
Engeström considers COP as a-historical structures (unlike activity systems in Activity Theory) , which means they are not connected with the varying dominant organisational structures in a society.  Engeström argues that COP are mainly useful in a society dominated by craft and industrial production.  Craft is characterised by a master-apprentice relationship and industrial production is characterised by teams, small groups with well-defined membership and with members who have complementary competences and work together on certain task.  Gradually, however, a ‘co-configuration’ model is evolving in which companies are becoming more susceptible for input from customers and other outside sources (co-creation of value as described by Prahalad and Rawasmamy, 2004).  Adler and Hecksher (2006, cited in Engeström, 2007) call the organisational structure for the post-industrial society a ‘collaborative community’.
A collaborative community is different from a team in 4 aspects:
  • Boundaries become more fluid;
  • Very high level of division of labour and diversity of knowledge;
  • Authority based on knowledge and expertise instead of status;
  • Values are orienting and motivating elements for members of the community.
  • Increased importance of motivation follows from looser membership rules.
Engeström points out that such a collaborative community is no longer a team, but a network.
Social production and the mycorrizhae analogy
For Engeström the organisational structure of the information society is social production. The flagship example of social production is the open source movement.  Thousands of developers and bug fixers work together in a loosely-structured network without a clear centre – although a success factor of the Linux and Moodle open source networks is arguably the role of their respective leaders -, but with a compelling common goal, called ‘runaway objects’.  Examples are global warming and a free operating system.
Engeström develops an analogy with a mycorrizhae system.  This is a symbiotic relationship between a fungus and the roots or rhizoids of a plant.  The fungus delivers nutrients and water to the plant, which returns the favour by providing the fungus with energy-rich sugars.
The analogy plays out as follows:
  • A underground network of roots with interspersed nodes resembles a loosely connected and expanding network of individuals, exchanging information and with multiple loyalties.
  • Visible fungi resemble the visible, erect, bounded and institutionalised structures that emerge from this network.  Engeström uses the term ‘wildfires’ to describe sudden bursts of activity – in the same of a different place – with long dormant periods in between.
  • There is no hierarchical structure in mycorrizhae as is the case in the root system of plants.
  • The mycorrizhae work in symbiosis with plants as informal learning networks can work in symbiosis with formal structures.
  • The mycorrizhae is hard to kill, but also vulnerable due to the lack of clear leadership.
Networked individualism
The model is very suitable for a mobile generation of learners, who form very easily temporary networks, dominated by weak bounds.  Castells (2008) calls this a ‘networked individualism’, claiming that not mobile, but individual is the defining property of the mobile generation, since people experience a much higher freedom.

Final remarks

These post-industrial organisation modes seem fit to explain learning activity in a Web 2.0 environment.  Students are developing personal learning networks (PLE) as a complement to the institution’s learning management system (LMS), in which they communicate not only with peers, but with a wider network of friends, alumni, bloggers, staff and domain experts.  Twitter seems the ultimate tool to facilitate this kind of weak-tie dominated networks, much more than Facebook, which has a more personal and bounded network structure.  An interesting analysis how Google + mixes weak-tie and strong-tie networks was made here by George Siemens.  Traditional classroom practice can be described as a community of practice, with a clear master (the teacher), a bounded membership structure (the classroom) and a clear, externally defined objective (the curriculum and assessment).  The current trends in (higher) education towards a more student-centred learning approach, with a higher responsibility for the student to create a learning network, more flexibility in courses and more fluid boundaries between formal and informal learning seem fit with a network approach and a mycorrizhae analogy.

Main references

Engeström, Y. (2007) ‘From communities of practice to mycorrhizae’ in Hughes, J., Jewson, N. and Unwin, L. (eds) Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, London, Routledge.

Jones, C. (2004) ‘Networks and learning: communities, practices and the metaphor of networks’, Association for Learning Technology Journal, vol.12, no.1, pp.81–93

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge university press.

Castells, M. et al (2004) ‘The Mobile Communication Society: A cross-cultural analysis of available evidence on the social uses of wireless communication technology, A research report prepared for the International Workshop on Wireless Communication Policies and Prospects: A Global Perspective, held at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 2004