A Social Theory of Learning, Schools and Landscapes of Practice

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)

07-08-12 Postscript

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 🙂

5 thoughts on “A Social Theory of Learning, Schools and Landscapes of Practice

  1. David Hurst August 10, 2012 / 5:14 pm

    Interesting comments on the Betreat. I liked your statement that: “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.”

    Could you enlarge on what you mean by that? I think I grasp it if it ties in with a problem I have in the field of management, where “principles” and “rules” are all the rage and practice is seen as the “implementation” of theory. This strikes me as just the wrong way around.

    It is impossible to implement theoretical abstractions in a practice like management – it is like trying to blow up a lo-res digital picture to extract detail. It can be done only in Hollywood. At best the principles represent desirable outcomes – “whats” – the “hows” will vary from one situation to another….practice comes first and from it we extract theory, which can then “inform” the practices of others. What exactly do you mean by “inform my existing practice”?

  2. jennymackness August 12, 2012 / 8:19 am

    @ David Hurst – thanks for your comments. I liked the image created by your comment – ‘it is like trying to blow up a lo-res digital picture to extract detail’.

    What exactly do I mean by ‘inform my existing practice’? I think I mean pretty much exactly what you have written, except that my context is difference.

    Mine is a teaching background – so it has always been a question of which do we do first – learn the theory and then apply it to practice, or go out there and get our hands muddy in classroom practice and then go back and see how theory informs this practice.

    Of course ultimately theory and practice always feed into each other in both directions, but from a teacher training perspective, I know from personal experience that ‘learning theory’ is virtually meaningless to trainee teachers who have not had any practical experience in the classroom. And – in my experience – trainee teachers usually complain if they have to sit in lectures about learning theory, before they have any experience of teaching in a classroom.

    I myself became a teacher in the days when people didn’t study for a degree in teaching – we studied for a degree in a subject discipline (science in my case) and then went out and taught it with the minimum of guidance. So I was not introduced to theory in those early days of teaching. I learned through practice. It was only later when studying for a Masters in Education that I realised, for example, that the rewards system that I was using in my teaching related to motivation theory. Learning about motivation theory informed me sufficiently to change my practice (my practice had been focussed on extrinsic motivation and I changed to a focus on intrinsic motivation). I don’t think the impact on my practice would have been so great had I been introduced to the theory first.

    But theory and practice go hand in hand and hopefully will always feed into each other. Practice without theory is the weaker for it; theory without practice can be meaningless. But for me learning happens in practice – hence my saying that theory informs my practice rather than forms my practice.

    I’m not at all sure that I’ve given you a satisfactory answer. I should stress that this is a personal perspective (informed by social learning theory) and no doubt there are others with alternative views.

    Jenny

  3. David Hurst August 13, 2012 / 1:19 pm

    Thanks – that’s helpful. In management the problem stems from the wish to emulate the natural sciences. In the context-free natural sciences it is enough to define the concept but in context-dependent social sciences you have to also know the context in which the concept is valid.

    Instead of practice being the application of theory, theory become a method of organizing one’s experience – a mental model that allows one to file experiences and technologies and understand under what circumstances they are useful and when they are not. Unless one understand this, you end up with a whole lot of “whats” masquerading as “hows”. Everybody knows what to do “in principle” but very few know how to do it in the particular circumstances in which they find themselves.

    Whereas management has been pursuing Plato’s episteme – conceptual knowledge – they should have been searching for Aristotle’s phronesis – practical wisdom. I can recommend Bent Fyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter for a helpful perspective here.

  4. David Hurst August 13, 2012 / 1:24 pm

    Hi Jenny, Thanks, I have posted a reply.

    In the 1960s and 70s I had a boss in South Africa, James A. Mackness. It’s an unusual name I don’t suppose that you are related in some way or are aware of a South African branch of the family?

    I have lost touch with him

    Best regards,

    David David K. Hurst, Speaker, Educator and Writer on Management,

    Website: http://www.davidkhurst.com Author Site: http://www.amazon.com/author/davidkhurst

    Adjunct Professor, Kenneth Levene Graduate School of Business, University of Regina

    Adjunct Faculty, Center for Creative Leadership, Greensboro, North Carolina

    Contributing Editor, Strategy+Business

  5. jennymackness August 13, 2012 / 1:47 pm

    HI David

    Thanks for your response.

    > Instead of practice being the application of theory, theory become a method of organizing one’s experience – a mental model that allows one to file experiences and technologies and understand under what circumstances they are useful and when they are not.

    Yes – I agree with this, i.e. theory as a mental model for asking questions about the world/context, rather than providing an answer.

    Thanks for the reference to – Bent Fyvbjerg’s Making Social Science Matter. I’ll look it up.

    Finally – no I don’t know your South African connection – James A Mackness – although my husband would love to think that we have links to South Africa. For him a Mackness can be Scottish, Irish, English, or European as the mood takes him and according to who we are talking to 🙂 I can see that South African will now be added to the list 🙂

    Jenny

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