Last October, I posted some recommended reading that complemented one of my classes on gamification. I’ve since started writing chapter summaries (here is the first one) so people can “preview” some of the great books out there and hopefully end up reading them!
Here is this month’s chapter summary. The full chapter is available for free on Sasha Barab’s web site and I highly recommend it.
Chapter 2: From Practice Fields to Communities of Practice by Sasha Barab and Thomas Duffy (2012).
There are a range of opinions and positions within the constructivist and situativity communities regarding even the basic concepts laid out in this text. The term situativity is now more commonly used than constructivism, and it alludes to the fact that knowledge is situated through experience. There have been radical shifts in thinking in recent years that have resulted in the study of social and cultural factors that influence learning.
Situative perspectives typically consider the practice of and learning of a subject to be closely related processes, rather than two independent focuses. The text explores how to create a more supportive learning environment for students and what it means to learn as a member of a social group or community. These concepts are considered within the school environment, and it is assumed that the learner’s perception of the school environment will influence their overall learning experience.
Past learning approaches were built with the assumption that learning allows the learner to acquire knowledge, which is essentially a series of symbols. Cognitive activity utilizes the symbols to perform computations, which we define as thinking. Current learning approaches consider the value of social participation and the influence of anthropology on the overall learning experience. The framework provided by social interaction creates valuable context for knowledge.
Without context, learning provides abstract knowledge that is not easily applied to problems outside of the classroom. Rather than teaching abstract concepts, it is more effective to engage a learner in authentic tasks that use the skills and concepts being taught. It can be helpful to group learners in terms of the practice fields that apply to them, and then engage them in working on real-world problems within that field.
Problem based learning (PBL) focuses on capturing a real world problem that can be analyzed and solved by the learner. Cognitive apprenticeship is an approach related to PBL that involves a learner working alongside and observing how an expert in their field approaches and solves problems.
For a problem solving exercise to be fully useful, the learner must be actively engaged, feel the problem is worth solving, and the associated thinking skills must be coached and modeled. The dilemma must be ill structured and not overly simplified. The setting must be social and collaborative. It’s important that the learning environment not over emphasize scoring and grades. If student success is purely measured on the individual’s ability to perform well on exams, learners may form communities of practice (“nerds,” “burnouts,” etc.) based on levels of performance rather than academic interests.
According to the text, communities of practice should focus on the development of self through engagement in the community. Communities should be comprised of individuals who share practices, beliefs, and understandings. They should work together over time in pursuit of common goals. Because the group stays together long term, incorporates new members, and solves many problems, shared experience is established and an ecology of learning comes into existence.
Senior members influence and pass along knowledge to junior members, who have the opportunity to absorb not just information but the processes used by senior members to solve problems. Once a group member becomes versed in a task, they are able to pass knowledge along to more junior members, and the junior members may pass their opinions or findings back to the person who taught them, creating a cycle of learning. It is healthy to bring in outside experts to enhance the group’s knowledge and provide outside views, so that the group doesn’t become overly invested in a specific set of opinions and skills. There is a distinct difference between a group of people who come together temporarily to solve a specific problem, and a community of practice, where individuals receive value from long term shared experience.
Community members should depend on each other, work together, and recruit new members so the community is able to continue over time. It is sometimes necessary to negotiate the meaning of the group. If community members disagree over the purpose of the community, evolution may occur. This is a constructive process that ensures the community of practice continues to be of value to its current members.
A member’s participation in the community will eventually influence and become intertwined with their sense of self. This means the community of practice may provide the learner with much more than knowledge – it may in fact provide the learner with self esteem, confidence, and a sense of belonging, which may positively influence the learner as well as their ability to contribute to the group. If a community isolates itself from the rest of the world, its framework and influence may become weaker. A community that regularly interacts with the outside world will recruit new members and benefit from ideas developed by other communities.
The process of learning can influence an individual’s sense of identity if the process takes place within a community with which the learner identifies. In addition, learning within a community of practice allows a student to understand what it may be like to work in a related field, and decide whether that is something that would appeal to them as a career. The problems or assignments provided to the learner are a means to an end in the sense that they allow the learner to fully explore the subject at hand and its value to them as an individual. The goal of learning should be to produce knowledgeable users rather than usable knowledge, as the text states.
Now available online