The Power of a Community of Practice – Cultivating Communities of Practice in Education

Instructors Discussing Topic - Ashford University

With some nurturing and care, many groups, teams, or networks of people are able to develop into a strong, cohesive community of practice. According to Wenger et al. (2002), there are some actions organizations or community leaders can take to help establish an emerging community of practice (CoP).

Build a case for membership.
When establishing a CoP, it is important to build a case for why individuals would want to join the community. Communicating the benefits of the community and the value of learning from others can help galvanize interest in potential community members.

Launch the community.
There are several different directions a community can take in launching their community. Some communities that have strong leadership and purpose in place may opt for a dramatic kickoff to the community to engage others in their vision and purpose. Yet other smaller communities who are emerging to solve a specific problem or to explore a topic may begin very quietly.

Initiate community events.
Once the community has been established, organize knowledge-sharing events to engage community members. These events can help generate momentum and energy as the members start to interact regularly and to see the value of learning from each other.

Build connections between core group members.
When a community is first established, it is often tempting to recruit new members right away to grow the community. However, before recruitment efforts begin, it is often beneficial to establish trusting, positive relationships between the core members or leaders of the community.

Find the ideas, insights, and practices that are worth sharing.
One of the greatest benefits early in the development of the community is to begin helping each other solve professional issues and challenges that fall into the domain of the CoP. By focusing on real world challenges and solutions, the community can explore cutting-edge topics, which generates excitement and interest in being part of the community. This interaction can also build relationships and trust among the community members.

Document judiciously.
As the community cultivates ideas and practices, finding effective ways to document the work is important, but measures should be taken to ensure that documentation is manageable for the community managers or leaders. If participation becomes a burden, community members are less likely to engage and find value in the community. Using shared spaces and collaborative tools can contribute to all members participating in documentation of the ideas and knowledge of the community.

Identify opportunities to provide value.
As the community matures and grows, community coordinators should collect anecdotes that exemplify the value of the community to the participants and to the organization. As the community matures and the members have evidence of solving real challenges and issues, it frequently leads to more tangible value to the participants and the organization (Wenger et al., 2002).

The power of a community of practice for educators at any level is dependent on the willingness of the professionals to collaborate through the sharing of information, ideas, and best practices. When a community is nurtured and intentionally cultivated, it can lead to shared learning, as well as a culture of collaborative, collective inquiry within an organization. Shifting the paradigm of learning to a CoP allows for a new form of learning – creating and sharing knowledge – a place to grow effectively. Even with varied levels of participation within a community, all members benefit from the collective knowledge and skills of the community of practice (Lave & Wenger, 2001).

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.

Resources:
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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.
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Solution Tree. (2011). Solution tree: Rick DuFour on the importance of PLCs [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MnWDJFxfAKE&feature=related
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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