This approach views learning as an act of membership in a “community of practice.” The theory seeks to understand both the structure of communities and how learning occurs in them.
The communities of practice concept was pioneered by the Institute for Research on Learning, a spin-off of the Xerox Corporation in Palo Alto, CA. The Institute pursues a cross-disciplinary approach to learning research, involving cognitive scientists, organizational anthropologists, and traditional educators. Communities of practice is based on the following assumptions:
Learning is fundamentally a social phenomenon. People organize their learning around the social communities to which they belong. Therefore, schools are only powerful learning environments for students whose social communities coincide with that school.
Knowledge is integrated in the life of communities that share values, beliefs, languages, and ways of doing things. These are called communities of practice. Real knowledge is integrated in the doing, social relations, and expertise of these communities.
The processes of learning and membership in a community of practice are inseparable. Because learning is intertwined with community membership, it is what lets us belong to and adjust our status in the group. As we change our learning, our identity–and our relationship to the group–changes.
Knowledge is inseparable from practice. It is not possible to know without doing. By doing, we learn.
Empowerment–or the ability to contribute to a community–creates the potential for learning. Circumstances in which we engage in real action that has consequences for both us and our community create the most powerful learning environments.
How Communities of Practice Impacts Education
This approach to learning suggests teachers understand their students’ communities of practice and acknowledge the learning students do in such communities. The communities of practice theory also suggests educators structure learning opportunities that embed knowledge in both work practices and social relations–for example, apprenticeships, school-based learning, service learning, and so on. Plus, educators should create opportunities for students to solve real problems with adults, in real learning situations.
Institute for Research on Learning, A New Learning Agenda: Putting People First (unpublished pamphlet).