For the past two days, I have been a learner at the Communities of Practice training in Altoona, Iowa (#IACoPi). During the morning conversation from our facilitators Bev Trayner and Etienne Wenger, my twitter friends were having a lively conversation about how communities of practice relate to the things we are already doing in the state of Iowa with the Iowa Core. Collaborative learning teams are specifically listed in Outcome 6a of implementing the Iowa Core where "educators deepen their understanding of the Iowa Core Curriculum’s characteristics of effective instruction through collaborative teams." So how are collaborative teams and communities of practice alike or dissimilar?
From Etienne's website,"Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly." Doesn't that sound similar to professional learning communities (PLC's) or collaborative teams? Sure it does. They come from the same theory. It's the idea that together we are better. If we work collaboratively instead of in isolation, we learn more and become better.
While there are so many similarities, I walked away from the training with a few small, but important distinctions between the two. While PLC's can be communities of practice, they aren't guaranteed to be. First, PLC's group members are often assigned. Their meetings are usually structured within a school. They contain members that share common students or common content, but not necessarily the same beliefs or passions. PLC's don't usually extend beyond the school walls. They are designed to address specific student learning needs. I believe in PLC's as a critical part of a school's success, and an important part of professional development, so please don't take these differences to mean that PLC's are a bad thing.
Communities of Practice are formed by the participants. Community members have common beliefs and passion about the reason they are together. They are bound to one another around a common theme. It's self-governed, self-directed. There's no administrator holding the group accountable. The members hold one another accountable. And if I don't like it, if the community is not meeting my learning needs, I can leave.
Communities of Practice were best described by our facilitators as a first date. During the past two days we met people who were interested in changing and teaching and learning to be more student-centered, more relevant, and more flexible in delivery and choice. I am sure that some of the people who participated in the introductory event will not choose to be part of the community. They may choose to lurk on the edges as they listen and learn. They may form another community altogether.
What I've done the last two days explains what I have been part of the last 18 months as social media has connected me to people I lean on and learn from in my personal network. My twitter friends, often those I feel so close to I hug when we meet for the first time face to face, are members of my community of practice. It's the best learning experience I've ever been part of.