The title of the introductory chapter in Etienne Wenger’s 1998 book is ‘A social theory of learning’ – not ‘A social learning theory’. Does this slight change in order of the words make a difference? I think it probably does.
There was an interesting discussion at the Academic Betreat about the relationship between theory, practice and learning. Whilst theory, practice and learning are closely entwined, I came away from the BEtreat reminded that I have always used theory to ‘inform’ my existing practice, rather than use theory to ‘form’ my practice. This question of which comes first, theory or practice, has often been the subject of discussion in my teaching career and particularly when I was a teacher trainer. Should we teach trainee teachers about learning theories before we send them into school and let them loose on children, or should we send them into school and engage them in practice, before we introduce them to learning theories? If we believe that meaning making is grounded in practice and identity, which in turn is ongoing and never perfect, then the latter would be seem to be the better option.
A social theory of learning is based on a belief that learning is social and is driven by meaningful membership of a community of practice. So another question that was raised in the Academic BEtreat was - is a school classroom a community of practice?
This led to an interesting discussion. A school classroom is not a community of practice – it’s a piece of institutional design, a space in which a community of practice might grow. A school classroom and the school itself are landscapes of practice, within landscapes of practice, in the sense that communities of practice are people sharing their practice around an identified domain.
‘As communities of practice differentiate themselves and also interlock with each other, they constitute a complex social landscape of shared practice, boundaries, peripheries, overlaps, connections, and encounters’ ………. ‘the texture of continuities and discontinuities of this landscape is defined by practice, not by institutional affiliation…….’ (p.118 Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press)
Within a classroom there will be different communities of practice, and the school will be located within a landscape of different communities of practice. A classroom is a social learning space. Thinking of it like this, as a learning space within learning spaces, rather than questioning whether or not it is a community of practice leads us to think about what this learning space might offer and the teacher’s role in this.
Will the teacher be able to motivate children to learning? Will the teacher create learning spaces for children with different learning styles? Will the teacher create a learning environment where children can discover themselves as learners? Teachers’ interventions will be different if they take on a social learning approach and will be affected by the other theories that they might ‘plug and play’ into the social theory of learning – such as motivation theory or learning styles which are not in the social theory of learning.
A teacher’s intervention will also be affected by their role. ‘Role’ is not a technical term in the social theory of learning, but a given role does have an affect on identity and might even conflict with identity. ‘Role’ is a reified function. Reifying a role is not always a good thing as you then have to live up to the role. Reification is a powerful tool and like all powerful tools is a dangerous one. It is always a simplification. The problem arises when it takes over. The danger of reification is when it gets removed from the practice – a salutory message for teachers.
So my thinking at this point in time, just after the Academic BEtreat, is that we don’t need to think about classrooms in terms of labelling them as communities of practice or not. It’s more useful to think about them as learning spaces in landscapes of practice, in which social participation as a process of learning can be facilitated through the components of meaning, practice, community and identity (p.5 Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press)
I am still processing my Academic BEtreat experience and in doing this came across this recent video of Etienne speaking to PGCE students at Manchester University. It covers some of the ideas I have reported from BEtreat discussions in this and other posts.
Etienne at his best