Meaning is the driver of learning

This is a quote from Etienne Wenger when he spoke to the FSLT12 MOOC in June. The recording is on YouTube and there are further details on the FSLT WordPress site .

Etienne briefly illustrated what he meant by referring to his son’s ‘meaningless’ biology homework on cells. I found this interesting as one of the more meaningful aspects of my own education was the study of biology – for me what could be more meaningful than the study of life – and within that the study of histology – related to the study of genetics, which I remember as being fascinating, since I could easily relate it to ‘me’ – why I have brown eyes, cannot roll my tongue and so on.

Next week the Academic BEtreat  starts and we have been asked to prepare by reading at least one section from Etienne’s 1998 book.  I have read the section on ‘Identity’ and commented on that in a blog post a couple of weeks ago.  Another section that we could choose to read is on ‘Meaning’ (p. 43-71). Slow reading is required for this book. Each sentence is densely packed with ideas. It took me a two hour train journey from Lancaster to Birmingham last week to read that small section; I am now on the train again and have two hours to digest the reading and make this post. Quite a luxury!

The key words in this section for me are: Practice, reification, meaning, negotiation and duality.

Some of the key ideas (or highlights for me) as I understand them are that:

  • we experience the world and our engagement within it as meaningful through practice (p.51)
  • meaning occurs through an ongoing process of negotiation, which does not necessarily involve language
  • fundamental to the negotiation of meaning are participation and reification
  • participation is a source of identity (p.56)
  •  ‘participation is not something we turn on and off’ …’the meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57)
  • reification gives our meanings an independent existence and shapes our experience. These independent forms become a focus for negotiation. Reification as a constituent of meaning is always incomplete.
  • participation and reification are a duality, not opposites, not on a spectrum, not substitutions for each other, not translations of each other, not classificatory categories. They are complementary.
  • ‘The communicative ability of artifacts depends on how the work of negotiating meaning is distributed between reification and participation’. (p.64)

So from this can we say that cell biology for Etienne’s son was not meaningful because the requirements of practice, negotiation, reification and participation were not fulfilled, or was it just that he was badly taught, or simply that histology doesn’t capture his imagination in the same way as another discipline, such as music, might

My memory of histology is from my university days, where most of my study was solitary – working in the library for long hours – which was broken up by periods of sitting in vast lecture halls looking at the back of the lecturer writing in chalk on a blackboard so far away it was difficult to see. So I remember participation as passive. I don’t remember any overt negotiation, although I must have negotiated meaning with myself and the reification must have been the required essay, which I don’t remember discussing with anyone. According to Etienne ‘The meanings of what we do are always social’ (p.57) and even drastic isolation is given meaning through social participation. He also says that reification can be a process as well as a product.

So in the BEtreat I hope we will be able to discuss further

  • the relationship between meaning and social learning and, if I can make meaning in isolation, what exactly do we mean by ‘social’ learning and participation?
  • the relationship between meaning and identity. Do I have any control over my identity and the meaning I make and if so how does this relate to participation, negotiation and reification?
  • how is meaning affected by culture and context?

‘Identity in practice’, ‘Participation and non-participation’

These are the titles of Chapters 6 and 7 in Etienne Wenger’s Book – Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. (p. 143-172)

This is one of the sections of his book that participants in the forthcoming Academic Betreat (starting July 30th) have been asked to read and then think about Highlights, Key Words and Questions.

I have been interested in the question of Identity for the past few years, because I am aware that the many different aspects of my life have shaped my identity, just as my identity has shaped the many aspects of my life. I am also aware that I still have unanswered questions about the place of identity in learning.

On p.5 of his book Etienne defines Identity as

‘a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities’.

More recently I have heard him talk about the increasing complexity of managing your identity in multiple landscapes of practice –  which relates to the work that Bon Stewart is doing for her PhD – where she writes about ‘The unbearable lightness of being … digital’  and Digital Identities

My Highlights and Questions from the two chapters

  • Identity is not just what we say about ourselves or what others say about us. It is not about self-image, but rather a way of being in the world – the way we live day by day.

Q. So how then do I come to know who I am? How do I keep the ‘knowing who I am’ distinct from what I say about myself or from what others say about me?

  • Identity is a constant becoming, and a constant negotiation of the self through participation and reification. ‘It is not equivalent to a self-image; it is not, in its essence, discursive or reflective’ (p.151). Negotiation can be silent.

Q. If identity is not discursive or reflective, how is it negotiated? If negotiation is silent, how is it realized?

  • Identity is rich and complex because it is produced within the rich and complex relations of practice (p.162) Identity can’t be compartmentalized. You do not cease to be a parent because you are at work.  Identity results from multi-membership of many communities and associated multiple convergent and divergent trajectories. ‘…multiple trajectories become part of each other, whether they clash or reinforce each other. They are, at the same time, one and multiple.’ (p.159). Identity is an interplay between local and global and between the past, present and future.

Q. If this is the case, i.e. identity is too complex to be compartmentalized, then where does this leave work which is looking at digital identities, such as Bon Stewart’s work on ‘six key selves’  If we don’t compartmentalize identity in some way, e.g. I am a consultant, ‘team member’, mother, researcher, wife, teacher, daughter etc. how do we discuss it so that it is meaningful? It’s easy to understand that identity may be greater than the sum of its parts, but without breaking it down into parts does it have any meaning?

  • Identity is not only about knowing who we are, but also about knowing who we are not. ‘In practice, we know who we are by what is familiar, understandable, usable, negotiable; we know who we are not by what is foreign, opaque, unwieldy, unproductive’ (p.153). We define our identities through a mix of participation and non-participation.

Q. To what extent is identity related to perception and alternative perspectives, i.e. how do we know whether the perceived identity, by ourselves or by others, is ‘true’?


  • Negotiation
  • Participation, non-participation
  • Reification
  • Trajectory

Final Questions: Why is learning about identity important? How does an understanding of identity impact on teaching and learning?