MET:Communities of Practice in Education

From UBC Wiki

Originally authored by Jaki Braidwood (2009)

Within schools and districts, many communities of practice have emerged among teachers and administrators in the direction of professional development. These peer to peer relationships allow teachers to learn with and from each other, ultimately improving performance, highlighting their capabilities and creating agents of change within education.

So, how can communities of practice redefine a student’s educational experience? To answer this, we need to look at the traditional structure of school to see where and how communities of practice might fit into the equation.

Changing the Traditional Landscape

The assumption that learning “has a beginning and an end; that it is separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is the result of teaching” (Wenger, 1997)[1] is often predominate in educational institutions. Incorporating communities of practice into instructional design shifts the teacher from a traditional role into one as a “broker”, making him/her a link between the internal community of the classroom and the external communities associated with the specific community of practice. Embracing this new role as teacher could be a difficult and possibly overwhelming task for some, but a successful community of practice is built on the understanding that supervision and interference can threaten its potential. Where traditional classrooms focus on codified or explicit knowledge, this shift includes a new focus on the importance of tacit knowledge and how both can be nurtured through interaction. Ultimately, participants need time and space to collaborate, communicate, refine and use knowledge, both publicly and privately, within an atmosphere of security and trust.

Teachers also need to be ready to accept different levels of participation within a community. People have different levels of interest, which in turn translate into different levels of participation, but this concept has not been eagerly accepted by schools. One of the pitfalls schools fall into is that they frequently insist on equal levels of participation in a group setting. Alternatively within a community of practice, teachers play an important role in investigating how participation levels can be maximized. This may include involving students in the planning process and/or building on student interests within the community’s design. The chart below outlines the varying levels of participation that teachers need to embrace.

As a “broker” and facilitator, the teacher needs to find ways to creatively invite students to participate in the proposed communities of practice. Often, they will also need to scaffold the initial information as a starting point. This may include introducing new terminology, symbols or even the tools that may be necessary along the way, as students may not immediately recognize the benefit of coordinating tools within a project to ones that are also utilized within the external community.

Implications for Education

Communities of practice have been largely implemented by business organizations in the effort to strategically manage knowledge. As different communities of practice develop based on the organization’s specific needs, an added complexity emerges, but the overall objective of the organization remains in tact. The desire to maintain this outcome isn’t as easily realized within educational organizations and creates a different set of challenges that have impeded the inclusion of communities of practice in schools. That’s not to say that districts, schools, and individual teachers haven’t successfully developed them, but that their practical application may conflict with the current structure in place.

To begin with, successful communities are built on the foundation of voluntary participation. They cannot be mandated. How does this mesh with the content driven structure of a classroom? Inviting individuals to develop relationships and share their abilities to create and use knowledge at the school-wide level is more easily facilitated than in a classroom where a greater focus is often placed on the individual’s ability to meet prescribed learning outcomes. Realistically, covering these learning outcomes places a time factor on the classroom experience, and since communities of practice take substantial time to develop successfully, this is another possible limitation that may hinder teachers from effectively using them. To practically establish CoPs in the classroom, three considerations for instructional planning need to occur.[2]

Additionally, within K-12 schools, learning is individually assessed in relation to prescribed learning outcomes. This often means that the classroom learning is the primary focus while the future knowledge application to the outside world is expected, but secondary. Shifting the learning theory to incorporate the principles of communities of practice leads to the classroom becoming an instrument of education so that “life itself … is the main learning event.”[3] Consequently, the learning that takes place will be “in the service of the learning that happens in the world” (Wenger, 1997)[4]. This revolution of the school system will take considerable time and training to effectively implement.

Distance education schools and distributed learning environments share similar limitations with the “brick and mortar” classrooms, but could also be further complicated by their virtual environment. Although many DE schools are moving away from the historic correspondence models, they still have a long way to go in terms of incorporating effective social interaction that can begin to serve as the foundation for communities of practice.


Kerno, Steven J. Jr. (2008) Limitations of communities of practice: a consideration of unresolved issues and difficulties in the approach. Retrieved March 3, 2009 from;col1

Kimble, Chris and Hildreth, Paul M. (2008) Communities of Practice: Going One Step Too Far? Retrieved March 3, 2009 from

Smith, M. K. (2003) Communities of practice - the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved March 5, 2009 from

Wenger, E. (2007). Communities of practice--A brief introduction. Retrieved March 3, 2009 from

Wenger, Etienne (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning as a Social System. Retrieved March 4, 2009 from

Wenger, Etienne, McDermott, Richard, and Snyder, William M. (2002) Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge -Seven Principles for Cultivating Communities of Practice. Retrieved March 3, 2009 from


Community around the World [image file], retrieved March 5, 2009 from:

Types of participation [image file], retrieved April 5, 2009 from: