Spike Hall

March 19, 2005

“Communities of practice are the shop floor of human
capital, the place where the stuff gets made. “

Brook Manville, Director of Knowledge Management at McKinsey & Co., defines a community of practice thus: “a group of people who are informally bound to one another by exposure to a common class of problem.” Most of us belong to more than one, and not just on the job: the management team; the engineers, some in your
company and some not. ”

The Invisible Key to Success

Fortune Magazine , August 5, 1996

by Thomas A. Stewart
Members evolve more creative practice

A community of practice is “a diverse group of people
engaged in real work over a significant period of time during which they
build things, solve problems, learn and invent…in short, they evolve
a practice that is highly skilled and highly creative.” Robert Bauer,
Ph.D., is director of strategic competency development, Xerox PARC, in
Customer Inspired Innovation: Creating the Future

From water coolers to commitment

More than a “community of learners,” a community of practice is also a
“community that learns.” Not merely peers exchanging ideas around the
water cooler, sharing and benefitting from each other’s expertise, but
colleagues committed to jointly develop better practices.

George Pr, Community Intelligence Labs

short–it is the power of the group to which all subscribe and within which
each grows. The measure of a Community of Practice’ success is NOT the individual
and her or his accomplishments and rewards; the measure of success is found
in the learning community as a whole, its enhanced ability to achieve desired
ends and rewards.

The Differences Between Three Distinct
Approaches to Learning

Learning Approach

Teacher Function
Group Function

In this approach it is generally assumed that there
is a knowledge base. The structure of that knowledge base is well enough
known, at least by the teacher, to allow a sequential instruction/learning
sequence to be constructed. ideally, exposure to nonmastered material
is controlled by the teacher and only occurs when the probability of
acquisition with instruction (a small number of well constructed and
extremely focused lessons) is high.

Teacher is to: a)place learner
in optimal learning sequence,

b) determine when new material in a progression toward final mastery of
the end knowledge should be presented and c)to design and/or choose, as
well as deliver the lesson(s) as appropriate to the chosen objectives within
the sequence.

Within the frame used in
instructivist thinking ‘group’ is a neutral to negative factor; group
influence is generally perceived to be a peripheral, even a distracting,
element in the process.

The central relationships are student-to- teacher student-to
learning-foci.The relationship of student to specific learning materials
is of real but discretionary importance(i.e., if material, let’s say it’s
a text, proves ineffective choose another lesson source that varies style,
medium, pacing, etc.)

With strong organization and
competent use of methods and systems that have been developed over the years
by 20th century educational psychologists… a predictable if tame learning
history is available for learners who participate in classrooms of this
(aka Metalearning and Learning to Learn)
refers to learning to be a better learner.. Reciting theory doesn’t
count. The proof of deuterolearning is in demonstrable improvement in
learning pay-off for equal effort.

For the purposes of argument I will describe a learning approach the primary
purpose of which is advancing the student’s ability to learn any material.
Specific contents will be less important than an increased mastery of
various types of learning process. (learning process examples: chain,
multiple discrimination, concept, principle, problem-solving and all of
the above whether done independently or in a group context).

Deuterolearning refers to
learning about learning
. For the purposes of argument I will describe
a learning approach the primary purpose of which is advancing the student’s
ability to learn any material. Specific contents will be less important
than an increased mastery of various types of learning process. (learning
process examples: chain, multiple discrimination, concept, principle,
problem-solving and all of the above whether done independently or in
a group context).

Since no deuterolearning occurs without some subject
being learned, the teacher will have to interact with and be aware of
the content focus of the learner’s attempts to learn. But , at the same
time as the learner engages with ‘content’ he/she could be attempting
to self-instruct, whether s/he is attempting to work with programmed learning
materials or another,as it happens,instructivist, teacher. When the (l
to l) teacher is focusing on the student’s learning-to-learn efforts his/her
purpose is to forward the efficiency and power of the student’s abilities
to learn any sort of content.

This sort of learning can be taught via lessons, as in study skills classes,
or via a additional process overlay [either a separate teacher or a separate
processing by teacher and student]; its purpose is the enhancement of
the student’s ability to recognize, categorize,assess and reconfigure
her/his own theory and practices of learning when engaging the primary

serves as backgroup and enviromental reality test for individual learning
and deuterolearning.

Predictability is harder
to “guarantee” when the l-to-l process must be responsive to
the twists and turns not only of content instruction(and the learner reactions
to both the degree and speed of primary content acquisition).

Thus the tempation to teach common techniques of learning
organziation as its own separate curriculum. When this occurs transfer
efforts and the required self-observation and problem-solving are separated
from the techniques found to be commonly successful.

My unsubstantiated impression is that the most common
separate treatment is for the learner to work it out, or not, without
help.In the event that support is given not only for theory but for practice
as well, then the presence of foundation skills that may be adjusted or
altered in response to actual success may well be easier to manage than
learning both simultaneously.

Group (or
Communitarian) Learning
Group Learning is the sort of
learning to learn that occurs when several learners find
their space, time and interactions highly conditioned by interactions with
fellow group members. Putting it another way, it is the alteration in individual
and collective behavior such that group process supports the learning of
each member and the realization of group learning or achievement goals.(The
achievement goals are , must be, real but are secondary to the enhancement
of the average rate of learning of each group member. It is , or appears
on first review to be, the opposite for successful communities of practice..Individuals
may or may not learn “better” but the final determinative measure
of success is improved production of group products.)

A teacher would treat the Group Learning
and CoPs versions of her classroom quite differently
as she pursues the optimal realization of each model.In the former case
the teacher would be problem-solving group dynamics in response to assessed
learningdepth and rates. In the case of the CoPs model, if I have it
right, adjustments will be made in response to the depth and speed of
realization of group achievement goals (production of class paper, net
proceeds from class bake sale, etc.). In each case individual supports,
relational adjustments, coaching for learning to learn will occur. But
optimal distribution of these activities will be measured against quite
different goals.

In the group learning situation the overall appearance
may be chaotic and there may or may not be any goals of the whole; this
is all fine, as long as there is a high and improving character of individual

In the CoPs interpretation a collective production
is expected; if it is achieved it may be at the expense of ignoring
some needs and overattending to otherneeds, because that appeared
to produce an optimum realization of the group achievement goal.

In the Group Learning or
CoPs lthe nature of group life and group study in the group are now center-stage,
at least co-equal with individual learning.

Take the example of a class newspaper:

CoPs: Standards of not only quality but production, possibly
income, are set and training, supplies, rewards teacher attention, etc.
are adjusted accordingly. Yes the teacher teaches as does the managing
editor of a newspaper but individual needs and interests will occasionally
be forced to take a back seat to the productivity goals of the newspaper.
Yes there will be learning, important learning, but the likelihood of
high individual growth has not been given as much attention as the group
production goals.

In the group learning version of the paper both productivity
and individual learning goals will be set. The group productivity will
be used as a reality principal, perhaps for a significant perind the only
dterminative criterion, but for the purpose of maximizing individual learningin
the long run. In some situations the paper may be an abysmal failure (as
measured by the productivity criteria) but when measured against individual
learning the failed newspaper can have been a major success.

As we move deeper and deeper
into group life to create individual and group learning the predictability
of any given group endeavor becomes less. The class successes will be
uneven even with the most gifted of group learning teachers in charge.
There are just too many variables in play.

Does the absence of a guaranteed or simple success mean
that we shouldn’t pursue group learning goals? Of course not. The measure
of each of our lives is as they are lived in groups of all kinds. Surely
some effort must be taken to make us each aware of our connectedness with
and dependence on each other for success and happiness: in our birth families,
in our schools, at our workplace, in our marriages, in our finding a place
to work and in our understanding of and participation in society.

In the face of such complexity are philosophers, parents,
teachers and students all going to say “Leave it alone, it’s too
complex, stick to the three r’s” or are they going to admit that
this complex and devious and unpredictable social reality is where individual
worth is both developed and proven.

At the least we should be admitting this reality and
supporting any institution, any individual who shows a skill at bringing
individuals onto the human stage.


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