Over the last few years, communities of practice have become the latest thing to be implemented in education. A concept that started as “a social learning system” (Wenger, 2010, p. 179), it has since grown to a “field of knowledge management” (Wenger et al., 2002, p. 5), thus becoming an easy way to share knowledge in the ever-evolving field of education. Simply defined, communities of practice are “groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better” (Wenger, 2002). This essay will discuss the benefits and challenges of using a community of practice for economics teachers within a high school context. After a brief discussion of what a community of practice is, the strengths and weaknesses within an educational context will be examined. Finally, the essay will investigate the sustainability of a community of practice. This essay will argue that with the constant changes to the education system, teachers need to embrace communities of practice in order to improve their knowledge, skills and understanding.
Knowledge and best practice within any field is not just about concepts, policies and procedures. In fact, in most industries, it is impossible to capture all knowledge on a topic as knowledge is not just the information but also the application of that information (McDermott, 2000). This knowledge is invisible and often only comes to mind when attempting to answer a question or solve a problem (McDermott, 2000). Within this space, there is a need to honour the history of practice and the exploration of perspectives along with the history of research, teaching, management, and regulation (Wenger, 2010). Communities of practice are required to make sense of “what researchers find, what regulators dictate, what management mandates, what clients expect and what practitioners end up deciding” (Wenger, 2010, p. 182). When they are combined, they often conflict with each other. These complex issues require multiple perspectives for practitioners to be able to solve; as such, communities of practice will develop naturally on their own within an organisation (Wenger et al., 2002). The strength of the community of practice will depend on the engagement of members and the support of management (Wenger et al., 2002).
What makes a community of practice different to a team, department, or workgroup is that communities of practice are a group of practitioners who select themselves based on passion, commitment, and expertise (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). From here, they set their own agenda and establish their own goals and leadership based on the needs of the group (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). In contrast, a team initiated by management usually to complete a project, and members are selected based on the job requirements and shared goals (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Management needs to step in to identify potential communities of practice and cultivate these communities by providing infrastructure and budget so that they can reach their full potential (Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Communities of practice can take many forms whether they begin spontaneously or intentionally; they can be small groups of under ten to large groups of hundreds that belong to the same industry or are an interindustry group (Wenger et al., 2002; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). They can exist for a few years or centuries where knowledge is passed from generation to generation, whether locally or globally, within the organisation or across organisational boundaries (Wenger et al., 2002; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). It is the shared context, concern, or issue that will determine how each community of practice will look, provided it suits the members’ needs (Monash University, 2020; Wenger et al., 2002; Wenger & Snyder, 2000).
Regardless of the type of community of practice, they all share a combination of three fundamental elements – domain, community and practise (Wenger, 2002). The domain is the common ground, the shared inquiry, the key issues (Wenger, 2002; Wenger et al., 2002). It is what motivates people to join the community of practice and ensures relevance and focus over time (Mercieca, 2016). While the domain is not always “recognisable to outsiders, it is known and valued by the members of the community of practice” (Gardner, 2020, p. 25). Community is the glue that holds the domain and practice together; it is what sustains the community of practice and ensures participation (Mercieca, 2016). A community of practice is “a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships and in the process develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment” (Wenger et al., 2002, pp. 34-35). Community is about relationships and the need for recurring connection to share an understanding of their domain and an approach to practice (Mercieca, 2016; Wenger, 2002; Wenger et al., 2002). It is the interactions which “are necessary for the advancement of knowledge” (Gardner, 2020, p. 25) and practice. Practice allows members of a community of practice to explore the existing body of knowledge, along with the latest advances in the field (Wenger, 2002; Wenger et al., 2002). It is the ongoing sharing of experiences, ways of addressing recurring problems and a repertoire of resources, working together to refine, develop and add value to the existing body of knowledge (Gardner, 2020; Mercieca, 2016). It is the honing of practice with the support and combined wealth of knowledge that crystalises the experiences and shared knowledge to develop best practice (Gardner, 2020; Mercieca, 2016). Communities of practice aim to promote positive change (Gardner, 2020), and it is through the domain, community and practise working together “to create a dynamic learning community” (Mercieca, 2016, p. 12).
Within education, communities of practice become necessary to connect educators, most notably when curriculum, assessment and the education system are changed. In 2019, the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) introduced a new certificate of education system for senior students, which included an internal and external assessment system never seen before in Queensland (Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2020). This new system saw a significant change in how the curriculum and assessment are now delivered to students (Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority, 2020). In economics, teachers are often the sole practitioner in their school. As a result, economics teachers have reached out, and there is a need to develop a community of practice to enable dialogue, capturing existing knowledge and best practice while creating a collaborative environment to help them organise and generate new knowledge around the new system (Cambridge et al., 2005).
The benefits of a community of practice for economics teachers are dependent on the individual situation of each educator. In most cases, the benefits are to the individual educator; however, there are several advantages for the school they work for and the students they teach as well. For an isolated teacher, as the only discipline practitioner or as a result of location within the state, the benefit of being able to unpack the new syllabus, emerging knowledge and practice will provide confidence that the chosen approach will be the right one (Duncan-Howell, 2007; May & Keay, 2016; Reaburn & McDonald, 2016; Wenger et al., 2002; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). Ultimately, this enhances the learning experience for students, provides a larger pool of resources, especially for topics not taught in previous syllabi, while saving time with quick answers and access to expertise, along with new strategies for handling and teaching the subject from graduates (Akinyemi et al., 2019; Fuller et al., 2005; May & Keay, 2016; Wenger et al., 2002; Wenger & Snyder, 2000). With the introduction of a new assessment system, the need for standardisation across schools has become paramount, especially when students across the state experience the same external exam (Wenger et al., 2002). Communities of practice provide economics teachers with the ability to seek advice and clarification, specifically where the initial training provided by QCAA was not attended (Fuller et al., 2005). Overall, the biggest strength a community of practice offers any educator is the “pool of goodwill” (Wright, 2007) which would be beneficial for economics teachers to improve their practice overall.
Many of the issues with communities of practice tend to be extreme versions of the qualities that make a community successful; as such, the weaknesses need to be recognised (Wenger et al., 2002). The main weakness is the issue of power and identity, which will require clear guidelines, and protocols to foster a culture of risk-taking and recognition of all (Cattaneo, 2019; Roberts, 2006; Vangrieken et al., 2017; Wenger, 2010). Powerplays can shape meaning and direction without intending to, while reducing creativity and the want to share knowledge (Cattaneo, 2019; Wenger, 2010). The installation of a coordinator role will be critical to the long term survival of an economics teachers’ community of practice (McDermott, 2000). Other issues for teachers will be time and infrastructure (Duncan-Howell, 2007; McDermott, 2000). Both can be solved through the selection of technology that easily “integrates with people’s daily work” (McDermott, 2000, p. 9) and support from school leadership (Wenger et al., 2002).
The sustainability of a community of practice is about positioning the group, dealing with the challenges and ensuring all members have buy-in (Cambridge et al., 2005). This will be achieved through effective facilitation and by building relationships of trust, and mutual respect (Akinyemi et al., 2019; Cambridge et al., 2005; McDonald et al., 2012; Wenger et al., 2002). A focus will be on cultivating a willingness to share, exposing ignorance, asking questions and listening to what others have to say (Akinyemi et al., 2019; Cambridge et al., 2005; McDonald et al., 2012; Wenger et al., 2002). Furthermore, a relationship will be developed with the Queensland Economics Teachers’ Association (QETA), as according to Cambridge et al. (2005), “successful and sustainable communities have focused, well-defined purposes that are directly tied to the sponsoring organisation’s mission.” (p. 3). QETA aims to support economics teachers in Queensland; as such, they are in the best position to assist the community of practice.
With the changes to curriculum, assessment and the education system in 2019, economics teachers have needed to embrace communities of practice in order to improve their knowledge, skills and understanding. It is through the use of the elements of domain, community and practise economics teachers can make sense of the relationship between research, regulation and pedagogy. Provided that the weaknesses are recognised and addressed, a community of practice for economics teachers will be successful and sustainable over time. Along with the relationship with QETA, this will safeguard the benefits for the school, the economics teacher and, of course, the students.
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