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It's vital staff feel part of the gang

Developing communities of practice among teachers can create a sense of belonging which engages and motives them, reports Su Clark

Teachers may stand alone in front of a sea of eager, and sometimes not so eager, young faces, but most have a strong sense of belonging to a community within school.

They are part of a staff, which is reinforced with every meeting and communication. They may be involved in curriculum development projects or cross-school projects. They may even be part of a small gang that goes to the pub every Friday.

However, in a world where communication increasingly takes place through new technologies, the sense of being part of a homogeneous group is at risk. For instance, how many teachers make use of the staffroom these days?

"One of the traditional places for nurturing a community within a school has gone," says David Byars, the principal teacher of information technology at Castlemilk High in Glasgow, but currently seconded by the local authority to a Microsoft-funded Innovative Teachers programme. "We used to all meet up in the staffroom but lack of time has destroyed that.

Some schools don't even have staffrooms any more."

The loss of identity with a set of people could have far-reaching consequences.

"Homogeneity used to be the glue of a community," says Etienne Wenger, a Californian-based pioneer of communities of practice, along with anthropologist Jean Lave. "As that homogeneity lessens, so does the sense of identity which binds the community together."

Mr Wenger, who is an expert in artificial intelligence, is a proponent of a growing group in the United States which is convinced that learning is not something individuals do, but more a social exercise people embark upon throughout life, sometimes with a teacher and sometimes without, but almost always with a group of learners. So, the loss of engagement with others could undermine learning.

Ms Lave and Mr Wenger developed their model of "situated learning", proposing that learning involves a process of engagement in a "community of practice", while working together at the Institute for Research on Learning in Palo Alto.

Research shows that in the short term, communities of practice can help members overcome immediate challenges, increase professional confidence, improve relationships with colleagues and produce some meaningful work. For their organisation, the benefits include problem solving, time saving, knowledge sharing and re-use of resources.

In the long-term, individuals can experience enhanced professional identity, raised reputation, improved networking and increased marketability, while their organisation keeps abreast of innovation, improves staff retention and can develop new strategies.

The notion that communities of practice - when properly understood and cultivated - can be an organisation's most versatile and dynamic resource for knowledge is one many organisations, corporations and especially educationists are accepting.

Earlier this month, Mr Wenger met representatives from the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Learning and Teaching Scotland, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Education, Careers Scotland and the Scottish Executive. He also addressed the opening conference of the Microsoft Innovative Teachers programme to help the delegates become a community themselves and to help them form communities in their local authorities, which will function mostly online.

In many schools, communities of practice already exist, within departments and within the staff as a whole. How cohesive these groups are and how well the members identify with one another as a community may be down to the co-ordination of the community and the light-handed touch of the management team.

"The success of communities can often be down to a skilled co-ordinator who knows how to encourage members to participate," says Mr Wenger.

It is necessary to establish the reasons for the community to exist, how it will communicate and what its goals are.

Many exist without premeditated design, but research shows that taking a more considered view towards the creation and cultivation of a community can make all the difference to its effectiveness. And when it works, it can motivate and engage a workforce, allow for shared practice and problem solving, provide a conduit for other experts and, ultimately, create a sense of belonging that stops a teacher feeling on their own when in front of 30 pupils.

www.microsoft.comukeducation BUILDING COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE

* Set the strategic context; perhaps identify problems that need to be solved.

* Educate members so they see how they fit in with the structure.

* Ensure light-handed support and technology infrastructure, including IT coaching and logistic assistance.

* Start with a few pilot communities where there is an identifiable need and readiness to participate.

* Proactively encourage participation and publicise success.

* Integrate the community within the formal organisation of the school.

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