Engestrom, Wenger and Emergent Learning

In a recent great discussion in CPsquare about the changing role of the learning facilitator, Brenda Kaulback posted this video of Yrjo Engestrom being interviewed about his work by Chris Jones

This reminded me of the Networked Learning Conference in Aarlborg 2010, when Engestrom gave a combined keynote (fishbowl style) with Etienne Wenger (See Part 2 flash format).

In revisiting these videos, I have been struck by how much they both have to say about emergent learning, but in different terms.

Engestrom talks about emergent learning in terms of ‘expansive learning’.  At the Networked Learning Conference here are some of the things he said:

‘Learning has to deal increasingly with situations in which the outcomes of learning are not known ahead of time.’

‘Standard learning theories fail to explain processes where learning in radically transformed’.

‘Expansive learning is learning what is not yet there. The object of activity is qualitatively transformed so as to open up a horizon of wider possibilities and new actions.’

Engestrom describes how Gregory Bateson  distinguished learning as

  • Learning 1 – non-conscious, tacit
  • Learning 2 – learning the rules of the game
  • Learning 3 – expansive learning – questioning and deviance, but often thwarted or oppressed, marginalized or silenced. (Watch the video with Chris Jones for details)

For Etienne Wenger, identity in communities of practice, lies at the heart of all learning, i.e. social learning and so a learner needs to be able to learn in a landscape of practices.

‘Each practice in a landscape of practice has some claim to competence/knowledgeability’.

‘Your identity becomes a lived reflection of the landscape as you travel through the world.’

‘Interesting learning (happens) in the interaction between landscapes.’

For me these ideas from Wenger and Engestrom suggest that we cannot predict what that learning might be, so in that sense it will be emergent.

Engestrom also talks about boundary crossing as being risky but important for learning.

‘Working at these boundaries (between multidisciplinary disciplines) can be risky because (you) may end up in no man’s land’ – or as we have discussed in relation to Footprints of Emergence, ‘falling off the edge’ of the learning landscape.

Engestrom says that Level 3 learning  requires very special support and nurturing and like Etienne he talks about having ‘to pay special attention to issues of creating communities within networks’.

All this has implications for designing for emergent learning, although neither Engestrom nor Wenger explicitly mention emergent learning.

Digital Storytelling in the US Army

This week Jonathan Silk, a US Army Officer stationed at the United States Military Academy at West point, NY, shared his digital story telling practice with the CPsquare community. For this digital storytelling work he won the 2012 Pepperdine Award for outstanding work in community development.

CPsquare group shot

Storytelling is used in many organisations as a knowledge management strategy. Through storytelling tacit knowledge is elicited and shared for the benefit of the whole organization. Jonathan has shared his own story in a blog post ‘Why I tick when I run’.

In the US Army, storytelling has been used to great effect within the MILSPACE Community of Practice  to share leadership stories from the field; this has been the subject of Jonathan Silk’s action research.

The key point that came out of Jonathan’s CPsquare presentation and the discussion, was that although storytelling is a powerful tool for binding a community, it needs to be managed carefully in terms of the technology, in terms of the stories and commitment to gathering those stories, and in terms of learning from the stories.

The technology

The MILSPACE community uses an ordinary video camera. Videos are edited on a Mac with Final Cut Pro . The Army has a designated person to do this editing and to date has over 1500 video stories of 3-5 minutes in length.

The main issue for the MILSPACE community has been to make the videos easily accessible to community members, easy to search, and easy to comment on and discuss. JCarousel is used to support this and recent work has focused on tags and video titles. Appropriate titles have been found to be very influential on the number of times a video is viewed (see Jonathan’s report for further details).

Managing story collection

The MILSPACE community has over 20,900 members and focuses on the leadership development of cadets, lieutenants and captains in the US Army. Stories are collected in the field. A dedicated team went out to locations such as Iraq and Afghanistan to create the videos. Leaders were almost universally keen to be interviewed and understand that sharing their stories and learning adds value to the whole community.

Video interviews can be conducted with a single leader or with a group and are usually around a given topic, e.g. eight leaders have given video interviews on the topic of ‘Your first 30 days in a country’.

The stories can be highly emotive and elicit deeply reflective thinking. This requires careful, sensitive and experienced management by the interviewer. Trust and positive relationships are essential to the story collection process and it is understood that the videos are ‘owned’ by the interviewees. No videos are published without the consent of the interviewee, although they are carefully screened for any potential security issues.

Learning from the video stories

The collection of over a 1,500 videos does not necessarily mean that they are used effectively for learning. The MILSPACE community is currently exploring means of increasing discussion around the videos. Recent work has involved developing a more structured approach to the management of discussion around the videos, through establishing groups of topic leaders (peer panels) who make personal contact with interviewees and seed discussion and comments around the videos to build learning relationships. This is work in progress.

Final thoughts

It is not difficult to understand what a powerful effect video stories could have on the learning of a community, particularly one such as the US Army where as Jonathan Silk has put it the cycle between action and reflection is so fast and chaotic that it’s difficult to capture the learning.

This potential has been recognized and supported by the hierarchy in the US Army, which has devoted technology and manpower to the process.

Perhaps the most difficult part of the process and potentially the most interesting is yet to be fully developed, and that is an exploration of just how do video stories add value to a community of practice.  This is a process that has recently been highlighted by Wenger et al in their publication

Wenger, E., Trayner, B., and de Laat, M. (2011) Promoting and assessing value creation in communities and networks: a conceptual framework. Rapport 18, Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open University of the Netherlands.

I found Jonathan Silk’s presentation very interesting and valuable, because it helped to clarify the issues surrounding the collection and management of video stories.  It will be interesting to see how the work develops.

(This post has also been copied to the CPsquare blog).

Value Creation in Communities of Practice – further insights

I first wrote about the Value Creation Framework when I attended last year’s BEtreat in Grass Valley, California (2011) – see Value Creation in Communities of Practice

This year (Academic BEtreat 2012 ) the value creation framework has again been a topic for discussion, with the added advantage of having a few participants who are using it or planning to use it.  It was a useful discussion, which has further informed my thinking and practice; I am currently working on a project in which we are using the value creation framework to inform our approach to knowledge management in a third sector organization.

The key points for me were:

There has been a tendency (at least in my mind) to confuse value creation with evaluation. The term evaluation is not helpful in this context as it brings with it notions of assessment. I say this despite the fact that both the words ‘evaluation’ and ‘assessment’ are used on the Wenger-Trayner website.

The focus of the value creation framework on storytelling and indicators of value creation (a matrix of indicators and stories) is designed to explore what counts as value in a community of practice. The matrix is the key element of the framework.

Value Creation Matrix

(click on the image to enlarge)

Whilst some quantitative data is collected through the use of the value creation framework (e.g. website statistics as an indicator of immediate value in Cycle 1), much of the framework focuses on collecting qualitative data though story telling in answer to questions such as ‘What activities have you participated in and how has this participation changed your practice?’ or ‘What were the key things that happened that made a difference?’ Stories answer the ‘so what’ question.

My perception is that the process of collecting stories is not that easy to manage, unless it is part of a research project and the stories can be collated and analysed by a research assistant. Analysing stories is a skilled job and begs the question of who will do this in an organization without a researcher.

A number of stories will be needed to validate value creation at a collective level and this will generate a lot of data. It will also require a lot of ‘man hours’, since the story collection process will ideally involve 3 people – the person telling the story, the person responsible for drawing the story out, and the recorder. Value can of course be collected at the individual level, but this is unlikely to impress stakeholders and funders. We need to convince stakeholders and funders and maybe even the senior management team that story telling is not just ‘qualitative fluff’. The value creation matrix combines qualitative and quantitative data with causality trails between indicators. The only people who know and understand the causality links are the storytellers themselves. Thinking of stories as causal trails is more likely to lead to rigorous analysis of the stories.

Stories can also be about ‘lack of value’ and these will be just as valuable.

The value creation framework can be used both prospectively and retrospectively. It’s the negotiation of indicators of value creation in each cycle that is important. These indicators may be emergent and come through in the process of telling a story, e.g. an emerging indicator in Cycle 5 might be the renegotiation of what is viewed as success (an aspirational story), which might happen in an appraisal or performance review process. This would help to shift the appraisal process from being a vertical one to being a transversal one (see Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner’s slide – ‘Vertical and Horizontal Accountability – the need for transversality’ – in my last blog post about Social Learning Capability

Negotiation of indicators is critical to the success of the value creation process. In the negotiation of indicators stakeholders should clarify why an indicator is important.

Examples of indicators

(click on the image to enlarge)

 The following two stories illustrate why the negotiation of indicators is important and how inappropriate use of indicators can be misleading.

  1. Surgeons in New York were graded on the mortality rate of patients – but knowing this, surgeons would aim to achieve a high grade by turning away patients they couldn’t save.
  2. Russian shoe-makers were graded on the number of shoes they could make out of the least amount of leather. They responded by focusing on making Size 5 shoes which led to a shortage in larger sizes.

The value creation framework should be adapted to suit different communities of practice. Indicators of value creation may be unique to the community.

The framework should hopefully become a tool for reflection both at the individual and collective level – a dynamic tool for reflecting on learning capability and optimizing learning.

The number of case studies of how the value creation framework is being used appears to be increasing. The next challenge will be to prove to funders and stakeholders, through the analysis of the stories/data, that the time spent in applying the value creation framework has been well spent.

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 – The Work of Identity

I had hoped that we would discuss identity at the Academic BEtreat and I wasn’t  disappointed. What I hadn’t expected was that my own identity would become such a focus of my learning on the BEtreat.

In the 21st century the work of building an identity is greater than ever before. Identity is a negotiated expression of the self and these days there are so many landscapes and communities in which to do this, particularly for the young. In the past learners did not have so many choices or spaces in which to negotiate their identity and there were not the same opportunities to change jobs. Once a blacksmith, always a blacksmith, just like your father and your grandfather before you.  These days we have to manage multiple trajectories all at once. It’s hard work.

But does this mean we have multiple identities or just one identity. In our discussions we were divided on this. Some felt that we have just one identity, but that we behave differently in different contexts and that some parts of your identity come to the surface in different situations. Others do not see that one identity, just parts of it. Others thought that we have multiple identities.

We recognized that roles and identities are not the same thing and decided that we ‘play a role’, which is prescribed and comes from outside yourself, but that we ‘are a person with an identity’. But of course a role can impact on your identity.

There are also times when we may need to re-negotiate our identity. One of the BEtreat participants illustrated this with her decision to become a Muslim, which she explained required considerable re-negotiation of her identity.

Finally we discussed the ‘dark night of identity’ which I have blogged about before. There are times when your whole identity falls apart, or what you believed you could do you find you can’t, but as a learner you have to hang on in there, even though at the time you might wonder if you will ever come out of the ‘dark night’. Of course there are some people who thrive on these situations, but as Etienne said, ‘Mastery of learning requires understanding the struggle of what it takes to become something’. It is when our identities are threatened that we learn who we are.

Although we have an identity in relation to many different contexts and we may have to renegotiate our identity in different contexts, the work of identity is in one person. If we look at identity as multiple identities, we underestimate how much work goes on to keep a sense of personhood.

In the 21st century building your identity is hard work.

The Academic BEtreat, gave me plenty of opportunity to think about my identity, who I am, how others might perceive me, the meaning of identity and it’s relation to my learning and learning in general.

Modes of belonging in communities of practice

This is discussed in Chapter 8 of Etienne Wenger’s book Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity (p.173-187)

Keywords: Engagement, alignment, imagination, belonging, identity, communities

Notes:

To make sense of identity formation and learning in communities of practice, we need to consider three modes of belonging – engagement, imagination and alignment.

Engagement is the active negotiation of meaning through the formation of trajectories and the unfolding of histories of practice. Mutual engagement creates a shared reality in which to act and construct an identity. Whilst it can lead to negotiation of meaning, the shared histories can also narrow learning through their power in sustaining identity.

Alignment coordinates our energies and activities to contribute to broader structures. Through alignment we do what we need to do to become part of something big. Alignment concerns power, it can amplify our power and our sense of the possible – but it can also be blind and disempowering making us vulnerable to delusion and abuse.

Imagination is extrapolating your own experiences through time and space. It is a creative process that reaches beyond direct engagement. Imagination can create relations of identity anywhere throughout history. Imagination was very well illustrated by the experiences of two stonecutters, doing the same job who differed in the sense of what they were doing and in their sense of themselves as individual stonecutters. One was ‘cutting a perfectly square shape’; the other was ‘building a cathedral’.

On p.183 Etienne writes

‘Given a community, one might wonder what the possibilities for mutual engagement are, what material supports imagination, and how alignment is secured. Such questions focus not on classification but on mechanisms of community formation, as well as on the trade-offs and kinds of work involved’.

When working in a community of practice it is fairly easy to see concrete evidence of engagement and alignment.  Imagination seems to me more difficult to ‘pin down.’

  • Is it less visible?
  • How conscious is it?
  • Is it a shared reality?
  • What material supports imagination?

These are my questions from this Chapter.

Update 06-06-13

See also – http://prezi.com/u0gqsdob0p9h/edit/#1_195952