The Power of a Community of Practice – Building the Case

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Group of Three Professionals - Ashford University

The extraordinary power of people coming together to support each other and learn together can be observed on a daily basis. For a physician, this power may come in the form of sharing, teaching, and learning from and with other physicians to save more lives. For a young parent, this power may come in the form of a parent support group where they learn about raising a child. For an educator, this power may be rooted in collaborative professional learning with colleagues to study their craft (DuFour, 2011). No matter what the content, topic, or focus, people sharing knowledge and skills about which they are passionate, can have a dynamic influence upon individuals and provide a means of support within a community of people who understand, who “get it” (Warren, 2009).

Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002) described a Community of Practice (CoP) as a group of people who come together voluntarily to share their knowledge about a particular topic, concern, or challenge. A CoP has three elements: domain, community, and shared practice.

  • The domain refers to the common interests and passions of the members. The domain of a CoP provides purpose and focus to the community’s interactions.
  • Wenger et al. (2002) noted that the community component of a CoP “creates the social fabric of learning” that helps to cultivate trusting and respectful relationships among CoP members (p. 29). Learning through the development of new ideas is enhanced through social interactions and engagement in the content matter with other learners.
  • Finally, shared practice is the set of common ideas, beliefs, tools, and information that the CoP shares and utilizes to advance members’ knowledge base.

Often, through the experience of challenges and tribulations, the people within the community develop strong interpersonal ties and trust, which contributes to their success – both collectively and as individuals. The community leads them not only to their success in striving for a goal, but also toward learning about a domain for which they have deep passion and commitment. Their learning together may lead to a powerful transformation in the individuals who evolve from mere “participants” in a group to a powerful community (Warren, 2009; Wenger et al., 2002).

Educators in any institution and at any level, from early childhood to post-secondary, can benefit from collaborative interaction where they can learn and solve problems together. However, educators often do not work together and there is often little sense of collective inquiry among educators (Reeves, 2009). Very frequently, educators work in isolation, with little outside support from each other (Schmoker, 2006). A consequence of educator isolation is that it impedes the shared knowledge of various individuals, which could be combined and leveraged to the advantage of all educators (Saint-Onge & Wallace, 2003; Sergiovanni, 2004).

The type of learning that makes the most significant difference in organizational improvement is not individual learning, but rather shared collective thought and practice (Sergiovanni, 2004). Educational organizations and students benefit when there is a shift to a collaborative culture and culture of inquiry within the organization. In fact, the number one predictor of higher student achievement is the level of positive relationships that exist among the adults within the school (Barth, 2001).

Some of the factors contributing to the challenges within the academic communities in higher education are generated by the need for academic freedom, research, and publishing conducted in more isolated environments (Smith & Rust, 2011). However, the advantages of conducting and sharing research as a collaborative practice among educators with an interest in the same field of study can be facilitated through a CoP approach. The benefits from instructors working together in a true academic community of practice would be more exposure to team or partner generated research and greater focus for study within specific areas of interest.

As higher education continues to develop the eLearning approach to teaching, the need to collaborate between educators to share best practices, knowledge, and standards will continue to evolve (Laxton & Applebee, 2010). The ability to share practices and knowledge can be supported through engaging in a CoP approach to this developing format for learning and instructing. In a CoP approach within higher education, there is a need to develop a common language to define the practices and outcomes of a community of practice method to collaboration for faculty members to attach value to their participation in this approach (Blanton & Stylianou, 2009).

These practices and outcomes will be defined in Part 2.

Written by: Dr. Denise Maxwell
Dr. Maxwell earned her EdD in Educational Leadership from the University of Phoenix, an MA in Educational Leadership from University of Northern Colorado, an MA in Education and Educational Psychology from Ball State University, and a BS in Special Education and Elementary Education from Central Oklahoma State University. Her professional experiences range from classroom teacher, special education teacher, professor developer, mentor, administrator, principal, educational consultant, to her current roles as Assistant Professor and Program Chair for BA in Education and Public Policy for Ashford University.

Written by: Dr. Gina Warren
Dr. Warren serves as an academic department chair and program chair for a graduate program in the College of Education at Ashford University. She has worked in higher education since 2006, teaching in face-to-face, online, and blended learning environments. Prior to her experience in higher education, she worked in the K-12 public school setting as a special education teacher and instructional coach. Dr. Warren’s areas of expertise are special education, communities of practice, alternative certification, clinical practice in education, professional development, online learning, and teacher leadership and innovation.

Barth, R. S. (2001). Learning by heart. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Blanton, M. L. & Stylianou, D. A. (2009). Interpreting a community of practice perspective in discipline-specific professional development in higher education. Innovative Higher Education, 34, 79-92. doi:10.1007/s10755-008-9094-8
DuFour, R. & Marzano, R.J. (2011). Leaders of Learning: How District, School, and Classroom Leaders Improve Student Achievement. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (2001). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Laxton, R. & Applebee, A. C. (2010). Developing communities of practice around e-learning and project management. Journal of Distance Education, 24(1), 123-142. Retrieved from EBSCOhost database.
Reeves, D. B. (2009). Leading change in your school: How to conquer myths, build commitment, and get results. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Saint-Onge, H. & Wallace, D. (2003). Leveraging communities of practice for strategic advantage. Amsterdam: Butterworth-Heinemann.
Schlichte, J., Yssel, N., & Merbler, J. (2005). Pathways to burn out: Case studies in teacher isolation and alienation. Preventing School Failure, 50(1), 35-40.
Schmoker, M. (2006). Results now. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Sergiovanni, T. J. (2004). Collaborative cultures and communities of practice. Principal Leadership (High School Ed.), 5(1), 48-52.
Smith, P. & Rust, C. (2011). The potential of research-based learning for the creation of truly inclusive academic communities of practice. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 48(2), 115-125. doi:10.1080/14703297.2011.564005
Solution Tree. (2011). Solution tree: Rick DuFour on the importance of PLCs [Video file]. Retrieved from
Warren, G.M. (2009). Supporting Teach For America Special Educators Through Professional Development: The Journey to a Community of Practice‬. (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest (1109147201‬).‬‬
Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

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