Learning across boundaries with Robert Frost

Week 5 in ModPo was hectic. With the theme of Anti-Modernist Doubts, it covered Communist Poets of the 1930s, Haarlem Rennaissance Poets, Robert Frost and a brief look at post-war neo formalism. Poets discussed during this week were Ruth Lechlitner, Genevieve Taggard, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wilbur, X. J. Kennedy and, as mentioned, Robert Frost.  It was all fascinating, but one line of discussion caught my attention, and that was in relation to Robert Frost’s poem,  “Mending Wall’.

 Frost-wallSource of image: ModPo syllabus

Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

The story of this poem is of two neighbours who meet once a year to mend an eroding wall between their two properties – to build it up again. They each stay on their own side of the wall, walking along the wall and repairing it. The speaker’s neighbour believes that “Good fences make good neighbours” …. for the relationship to be good, they have to keep separate – there is a necessary distance between people and we try and connect through the gaps.

The suggestion in the discussion about this poem was that the two neighbours are both Robert Frost. One side of Robert Frost is conservative and wants to stick with tradition, keeping the wall up, keeping everything as it has always been, keeping the distance between neighbours, mending the wall when it begins to crumble, and preventing the chaos that might ensue if the wall was allowed to come down. This side of him liked formal restrictions, rules and the distinction between “I’ and “Other”.  The other side of Robert Frost, is the frost itself that does the eroding, that consciously tries to bring the wall down, that wants things to change and nature to take its course, that believes that the natural state of boundaries is that they erode.

This discussion reminded me of Etienne Wenger’s work on landscapes of practice and working at the boundaries of communities. I remember him saying that learning can be very effective at the boundaries of communities, i.e. if you can straddle communities having feet in more than one community of practice at a time.

Robert Frost’s poem suggests to me that it’s a question of balance – we need a bit of distance away from the boundary (i.e. more towards the core of a community of practice, or your own personal and individual ‘space’ for solitude and contemplation) but also the opportunity to meet across boundaries and to work collaboratively at boundaries, for at least some of the time.

Finally, Al Filreis raised the interesting point that in New England walls were not originally built with the intention of marking boundaries, but to get rid of glacial boulders from the earth, so that the soil could be tilled. Walls were formed when stones and boulders were moved out of the way for agricultural purposes. I suspect there’s a lot that could be read into this. We seem to live in a world where we will naturally and sometimes unintentionally build up boundaries, but they will naturally erode with time, unless we consciously maintain them.

Social Learning Capability

In the Academic BEtreat that I recently attended online and which I have been blogging about for a few days now (#betreat12) Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, shared their most thinking around the idea of social learning capability. This is ongoing work. Etienne first wrote about it in 2009  – Essays on Social Learning Capability 

My understanding of social learning capability from the discussions in the Academic BEtreat is that the ideas initially arose from a recognition that many communities of practice exist with little question of whether they are increasing the learning capability of the community.

In addition, as the affordances of Web 2.0 increase the possibilities of working across boundaries of communities of practice, the landscapes of practice of communities and across communities has become very complex. There is a need to look at the social learning capability of the whole system – to start thinking systematically.

‘Taking such a systemic view is especially critical at a time when global challenges are placing unprecedented demands on our ability to learn together. Developing social learning capability across sectors may be urgent, but it is still an elusive aspiration. We need a social discipline of learning.

Making sense of social learning capability is the great challenge of learning theory in the 21st century.’ (http://wenger-trayner.com/resources/social-learning-capability/)

Considering the work of communities of practice as a landscape of practice working within and across landscapes of practice brings with it many challenges, since very few people can see the whole landscape. We are always local, always on the hills of the landscape, always in the practice. But it will become increasingly necessary to work across landscapes of practice, as communities of practice cross borders and boundaries to work together.

A complex landscape

One of the biggest challenges is in the tensions that exist between vertical and horizontal accountability in the system. This is an inherent geographical problem since we can only connect with a certain number of people. So accountability is on both dimensions, but the relationship between them is often dysfunctional. The horizontal has to be negotiated with the vertical and recent work by Etienne and Bev suggests that there is a need for transversality i.e. people, process, practices and objects that can increase the visibility of the horizontal into the vertical and vice versa.

Vertical and horizontal accountability

The vertical is not demonised in this thinking. It serves a different function, and as shown in the diagram there is the horizontal in all levels of the vertical. Currency in the vertical is often measures/numbers because these travel easily from one practice to another and it is sometimes necessary to verticalise a discussion because it simplifies things and saves time on negotiation. A dysfunctional community, which is not increasing social learning capability, may need verticalisation. But in the horizontal, numbers and measures can ‘mess things up’ and the cost of verticalising accountability is in innovation.

Critical to transversality will be our ability to act as learning citizens and social artists.

‘Learning capability – or the ability to learn – is a paradoxical aspiration because learning by itself does not guarantee learning capability. Sometimes being successful at learning is precisely what prevents you from learning the next thing. When applied to social systems, learning capability depends on the learning capability of individuals, but in the context of the structure of the system in which they live. Networking, convening new social learning spaces, brokering across boundaries, acting as learning citizens and social artists – these are the kinds of interventions that have the potential to increase social learning capability at a systemic level.’
(http://wenger-trayner.com/resources/social-learning-capability/)

Social learning spaces….

‘……enable genuine interactions among participants, who can bring to the learning table both their experience of practice and their experience of themselves in that practice.’ (http://wenger-trayner.com/resources/social-learning-spaces/)

Learning citizens know how to engage in social learning spaces, know when to disengage from a learning space and move on, know how to work across boundaries and between spaces and know how to convene a community of practice.

Social artists know how to open learning spaces and invite learning citizenship. They are social yet intentional, collaborative yet wilful, idealistic yet pragmatic. (see http://wenger-trayner.com/all/social-artists/ and Wenger, E. (2009). Social learning capability Four essays on innovation and learning in social systems)

I have written about social artists before – Social Artistry – a new idea? , but I now realise that it makes more sense to think about social artistry in terms of networking rather than teaching.

But social learning capability is about more than just networking. A social theory of learning is about identity, meaning and practice. In this sense it differs from connectivism or networked learning. Learning citizenship, social artistry and increasing social learning capability have an ethical dimension and a different view of the landscape of practice.

(Images from Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner)

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 🙂

Academic Betreat as a landscape of practice

In preparation for the Academic Betreat 2012 , we have been asked to read a number of chapters from Etienne Wenger’s book, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity.  I have just read Chapter 4: Boundary (p.103 -121) and Chapter 5: Locality (p. 122 – 133).

I have heard Etienne speak about landscapes of practice before, most notably last year at Lancaster University – I blogged about it here  – but reading these chapters adds some new dimensions to my thinking and understanding.

Chapter 4 Boundary

Chapter 4 keywords – boundary objects, brokering, connections, boundaries, peripheries, negotiation, meaning

In Chapter 4 (p.105)  Etienne writes about two types of connections:

  1. boundary objects – artifacts, documents, terms, concepts, and other forms of reification around which communities of practice can organize their interconnections
  2. brokering  – connections provided by people who can introduce elements of one practice into another

If, as is written on p.107 ‘A boundary object is not necessarily an artifact or encoded information’, it occurred to me that the BEtreat itself might be considered a boundary object and the participants might be considered to be ‘brokers’.  ‘Brokers are able to make new connections across communities of practice, enable coordination, and – if they are good brokers – open new possibilities for meaning.’ Who will emerge as ‘brokers’? Will we all be ‘brokers’ or just some of us? What skills are required?

I also wondered whether people who work as independent consultants are more likely to be ‘brokers’. Some characteristics of brokers are:

  • they tend to stay at the boundaries of many practices, rather than move to the core of any one practice, i.e. at the permeable periphery
  • they translate, coordinate and align different perspectives
  • experience of multimembership and spanning boundaries
  • ability to facilitate transactions across practices and boundaries
  • ability to manage coexistence of membership and nonmembership
  • have enough distance to bring a different perspective,  but also enough legitimacy to be listened to.

My experience is that the last point is not always easy to achieve.

Will we see different types of boundary encounters in the BEtreat (a one-on-one conversation between two participants, immersion through visiting the practice of one participant, or delegations)?  Will the BEtreat keep the insiders in and the outsiders out, or will we be inviting outsiders in and working across boundaries ourselves?  Is this realistically possible in such a short period of time where the activity will be very intense?  What do we mean by insider and outside in this context? Do brokers necessarily work on the periphery?

Chapter 5 Locality

Chapter 5 keywords: locality, constellation, practice, landscape, geography

In Chapter 5 (p.122)  Etienne writes about how the concept of a community of practice constitutes a level of analysis, through discussing locality of practice and a constellation of practices. For me this chapter is summed up by the following two quotes:

‘My argument is not that physical proximity, institutional affiliation, or frequency of interaction are irrelevant, but rather that the geography of practice cannot be reduced to them. Practice is always located in time and space because it always exists in specific communities and arises out of mutual engagement, which is largely dependent on specific places and times. Yet the relations that constitute practice are primarily defined by learning. As a result, the landscape of practice is an emergent structure in which learning constantly creates localities that reconfigure the geography.’ (p.130)

These lines, for me, relate very closely to the work I have been doing with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau (Portsmouth University, UK) on emergent learning and emergent curriculum, in which we have developed a 3D model of landscapes of learning, for exploring the relationship between prescribed and emergent learning in any given curriculum. This paper has been submitted to IRRODL  and accepted but has not yet been published. (see Publications for further information)

The second quote is from the final lines of Chapter 5 (p.111), in which Etienne writes that communities of practice

‘… are important places of negotiation, learning, meaning, and identity. Focussing on the level of communities of practice is not to glorify the local, but to see these processes – negotiation of meaning, learning, the development of practices, and the formation of identities and social configurations – as involving complex interactions between the local and global.’

So will the Academic BEtreat be a community of practice or simply a course? It seems to fulfill many of the criteria of a CoP. What would prevent it from being a community of practice? Does it matter anyhow? What will be our experience of landscapes of practice in this BEtreat?