Over the last couple of months, we’ve been reading about communities of practice (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002) for our Friday theory meetings. In that time, I have been busy with Project SEAL. The Model Classroom Team and I were going out to the schools to check in on the teachers and hear about their projects. There are some wonderful teachers doing wonderful projects with their students. Teachers and students are creating a thought-provoking, interactive play space, learning about beach pollution and its impact on the environment, and building a school garden.
While it was exciting to hear about how teachers and students were using the iPad minis available with the grant and to see differences students were making in their school environment, there was something that seemed to be mentioned in each meeting: the teachers needed a community. A community to share and learn within. A community where they could figure out which apps to download, how to download them, and how to use them. A community to collaborate with.
Having this experience came at a great time with reading the book. All of a sudden, I had a framework in which to think about communities of practice. Something that I’ve struggled with as the evaluator of Project SEAL is how I (and the project team) can encourage teachers to develop a community of practice without it seeming like a top-down approach.
To help me think my problem through, I turn to the part in the book about the challenge of distributed communities. Project SEAL is a distributed community – teachers are at 9 different schools throughout Lincoln County. We have a webpage, where teachers post assignments and can find resources, but as the authors write,
“Members cannot see how many other people are reading – and benefiting from – a threaded discussion. Unlike in-person meetings, teleconferences and Web sites don’t offer easy opportunities for informal networking. Because of these barriers, it takes more intentional effort for members to consult the community for help, spontaneously share ideas, or network with other members” (p. 117).
I think the key word there is easy. It can be done but needs to be encouraged and supported. As an evaluator I would recommend the project team, including the Model Classroom Team, to act as coordinators and facilitators on the Web site “to shepherd the process of connecting, passing on the request to people in the network who are likely to have helpful information or insight… Once they have found each other, members talk by phone, in person, via email, or through the community bulletin board…” (p. 127).
Hopefully, we can help build a community of practice over the second year of the project.
Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W.M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.