Communities of Practice in ELT: Practitioners are doing it for themselves
Sarah Mount and Alan Pulverness, Transform ELT
This paper describes our experiences in setting up Globe – a set of virtual Communities of Practice (CoPs) – and explains how we have tried to remain faithful to the principles and the ethos of CoPs.
A CoP is a group of people ‘…who are engaged in a process of collective learning in a shared domain, are informally bound together by shared expertise and passion for a joint enterprise, and share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.’ (Wenger-Trayner E. & B. 2015)
This view of social learning comes from a learning theory first put forward by cognitive anthropologist Jean Lave and educational theorist Etienne Wenger (1991), who were looking at how apprenticeships in the workplace function. They found that apprentices were learning as much from other members of the workplace as they were from formal training, replacing the master-student model with a social network. Practitioners with shared professional interests learned both together and from each other, through interacting, to develop their practice.
The three key concepts in CoPs are Domain – an area of common interest; Community – a shared commitment; and Practice – developing professional action.
· Domain denotes the area of common interest of members of the community – for example, teachers working in the same context – who may have a core of similar skills and experience, but who each bring their individual contributions to build a complementary store of practical knowledge and experience.
· The community itself is more than simply a group of colleagues in a discussion forum – essentially, the community is characterized by a commitment to professional learning. The notion of a community of practice implies purposeful interaction amongst members who support each other and learn from each other.
· Finally, the concept of practice is at the heart of the CoP: the community is made up of professionals who put their ideas into action in their daily practice. This means that through their exchange of ideas and experiences, the community develops a shared repertoire of strategies and techniques and can build a shared repository of resources. And most importantly, CoPs are action-oriented, developing practical initiatives that can range from specific classroom interventions to large-scale projects.
The idea of CoPs, both in-person and increasingly online, which was already gaining currency amongst ELT professionals worldwide, has received a huge boost from the conditions imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Globe Communities of Practice
Fig 1. Padlet collection of materials provided/developed by the Materials & Resources Development CoP
Fig 1 shows a collection of downloadable resources from one CoP that have either been provided by members of that community or developed by community members within Globe. All resources are housed within a fully searchable database.
Globe Communities of Practice was created as part of TransformELT’s professional response to the pandemic. We were in close contact with colleagues around the world and were aware that practitioners everywhere were having to adapt to the unanticipated need for rapid change. We wanted to create an inclusive space for people to come together which was not limited by geographical boundaries, where they could gain a global and cross-organizational perspective, and which had a focus on collaborative learning.
Globe is a safe, supportive space which enables teachers, trainers and other education professionals to come together and work together with a shared purpose. The CoPs within Globe are made up of people looking to share their own experiences and skills in a particular field, to meet new people and to learn from them. There are also opportunities for networking across the communities, and to learn new skills in new fields.
Globe CoPs provide opportunities for coherent and ongoing support, often lacking in some forms of Continuing Professional Development. When teachers attend a course, for example, there may be no follow-up, no continued support and probably no access to relevant resources once the training has ended. In Globe, development is continuous, with constant and consistent peer-to-peer support available and access to resources that have been provided by or developed by the community.
This is a Globe-wide resource containing all the outputs of all the different CoPs (there are currently 14), and all the resources sourced or developed by members themselves. Globe also contains a Wiki – a collaborative space where documents can be edited by members. Each CoP has its own Wiki, which feeds into a larger, Globe-wide body of knowledge. The hope is that this resource will grow to become a substantial body of work with a global perspective that is a true reflection of global practice.
The ELT Incubator
In discussions with colleagues around the world, we discovered that there were a number of people with ideas for larger projects, or products that might have a commercial value, but who either lacked the expertise or the resources to realise these ideas. So we extended the boundaries of the CoP concept and developed the Globe ELT Incubator.
This is a space within Globe where small groups of people can develop their ideas, try them out and receive help and advice from specialist mentors as well as fellow Globe community members. Projects currently in development in this space include online courses for specific contexts. TransformELT has a dedicated platform available to members to help them build online courses, a resource which is beyond the means of most individuals. We also currently have one Globe member working on developing a skills-based syllabus for his own European institution, which he hopes eventually to market internationally. Again, we can provide members with advice on business strategy, marketing, publishing etc., depending on what might be needed for a specific project.
Finally, it may be that a group of practitioners, an association or an institution would like to launch their own CoP, where their members can meet and work together on specific projects or discuss context-specific ideas. For example, we have built a CoP to further support our strategic partners, Africa ELTA, where conference delegates and members from across the continent can meet and work together. It is also a great potential opportunity to join with other CoPs working in various fields and to meet and exchange ideas with colleagues around the world.
The Growth of CoPs
There is no set of rules that can be applied to the creation and growth of CoPs and it is this very characteristic that makes them so dynamic. CoPs may share the same principles, but each community develops its own organizational conventions.
CoPs may be set up by an institution or evolve more spontaneously. Many CoPs are informal, but they can often be more formal, especially if they are associated with particular institutional objectives. They can vary in size from a few members to a much larger group, though smaller numbers are likely to be more effective – and more productive. They may continue meeting and working together for indefinite periods of time, or they may have a limited lifespan, tied to a particular set of initiatives. They may meet online or face to face, though in the past 18 months many CoPs have been forced online – and have flourished in the digital space. They may be dedicated to a very specific area of professional investigation (say, dealing with the so-called intermediate plateau) or they may have a much broader field of interest (for example, teaching speaking skills). They may have a restricted membership – geographical or institutional – or they may have an ‘open door’ membership policy. And they may appoint an individual or a small group to guide / direct the community or they may be more self-regulating, although most CoPs benefit from some kind of direction or management. Good facilitation is important, but not enough in itself. Members of the community need to feel that something constructive is happening and that their continued engagement will be worthwhile.
In short, while sharing certain generic features, each CoP will have its own unique identity and as such, can provide an excellent framework for innovation. Theorists have started to talk about ‘landscapes of practice’ within which there are a plethora of different spaces, each with their own distinctive character and functionality. Whilst CoPs cannot replace other collaborative structures – professional teams, networks and other groupings – they can form an important element in an educational ecosystem.
Globe was born out of the particular set of unforeseen circumstances that suddenly faced our profession in 2020. But the digital turn in ELT provision globally triggered by the pandemic seems likely to have a lasting impact, and we hope that Globe will continue to make a significant contribution in the post-pandemic educational environment.
Blankenship S. S. & Ruona W.E.A. (2007) “Professional Learning Communities and Communities of Practice: A Comparison of Models, Literature Review” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED504776.pdf
Dufour, R. & Eaker, R. (1998) Professional learning communities at work: Best practices for enhancing student achievement. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge University Press.
Wenger-Trayner, E. et al. (2014) Learning in Landscapes of Practice. London: Routledge.
Wenger-Trayner, E. & B. (2015) Introduction to Communities of Practice https://wenger-trayner.com/introduction-to-communities-of-practice