Many of the ways we have of talking about
learning and education are based on the assumption that learning is
something that individuals do. Furthermore, we often assume that learning 'has a
beginning and an end; that it is best separated from the rest of our
activities; and that it is the result of teaching' (Wenger 1998: 3). But
how would things look if we took a different track? Supposing learning is
social and comes largely from of our experience of participating in daily
life? It was this thought that formed the basis of a significant
rethinking of learning theory in the late 1980s and early 1990s by
two researchers from very different disciplines - Jean Lave and Etienne
Wenger. Their model of situated
learning proposed that learning involved a process of engagement in a
'community of practice'.
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger
Jean Lave was (and is) a social anthropologist with a strong interest
in social theory, based at the University of California, Berkeley. Much of
her work has focused on on the 're-conceiving' of learning, learners, and
educational institutions in terms of social practice. Etienne Wenger was a
teacher who joined the Institute for Research on Learning, Palo Alto
having gained a Ph.D. in artificial intelligence from the University of
California at Irvine. (He is now an independent consultant specializing in
developing communities of practice within organizations). Their
path-breaking analysis, first published in Situated Learning:
Legitimate peripheral participation (1991) and later augmented in
works by Jean Lave (1993) and Etienne Wenger (1999) set the scene for some
significant innovations in practice within organizations and more recently
within some schools (see Rogoff et al 2001).
Communities of practice
The basic argument made by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger is that
communities of practice are everywhere and that we are generally involved
in a number of them - whether that is at work, school, home, or in
our civic and leisure interests. In some groups we are core members, in
others we are more at the margins.
Being alive as human beings means that we are constantly
engaged in the pursuit of enterprises of all kinds, from ensuring our
physical survival to seeking the most lofty pleasures. As we define
these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we interact with
each other and with the world and we tune our relations with each other
and with the world accordingly. In other words we learn.
Over time, this collective learning results in practices
that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant
social relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of
community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared
enterprise. It makes sense, therefore to call these kinds of communities
communities of practice. (Wenger 1998: 45)
The characteristics of such communities of practice vary. Some
have names, many do not. Some communities of practice are quite
formal in organization, others are very fluid and informal. However,
members are brought together by joining in common activities and by 'what
they have learned through their mutual engagement in these activities'
(Wenger 1998). In this respect, a community of practice is different from
a community of interest or a geographical community in that it involves a
According to Etienne Wenger (1998), a community of practice
defines itself along three dimensions:
What it is about – its joint enterprise as understood
and continually renegotiated by its members.
How it functions - mutual engagement that bind members
together into a social entity.
What capability it has produced – the shared repertoire
of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artefacts, vocabulary,
styles, etc.) that members have developed over time. (see, also Wenger
A community of practice involves much more than the
technical knowledge or skill associated with undertaking some task.
Members are involved in a set of relationships over time (Lave and Wenger
1991: 98) and communities develop around things that matter to people
(Wenger 1998). The fact that they are organizing around some particular
area of knowledge and activity gives members a sense of joint enterprise
and identity. For a community of practice to function it needs to generate
and appropriate a shared repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories. It
also needs to develop various resources such as tools, documents,
routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some way carry the accumulated
knowledge of the community. In other words, it involves practice (see praxis): ways of doing
and approaching things that are shared to some significant extent among
The interactions involved, and the ability to undertake
larger or more complex activities and projects though cooperation, bind
people together and help to facilitate relationship and trust (see the
discussion of community
elsewhere on these pages). Communities of practice can be seen as
self-organizing systems and have many of the benefits and characteristics
life such as the generation of what Robert Putnam and
others have discussed as social
Jean Lave's and Etienne Wenger's concern here with learning
through participation in group/collective life and engagement with the
'daily round' makes their work of particular interest to informal
educators. These are themes that have part of the informal education tradition
for many years - but the way in which Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have
developed an understanding of the nature of learning within communities of
practice, and how knowledge is generated allows educators to think a
little differently about the groups, networks and associations with which
they are involved. It is worth looking more closely at the processes they
Legitimate peripheral participation and situated
Rather than looking to learning as the acquisition of certain forms of
knowledge, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have tried to place it in social
relationships – situations of co-participation. As William F. Hanks puts
it in his introduction to their book: ‘Rather than asking what kind of
cognitive processes and conceptual structures are involved, they ask what
kinds of social engagements provide the proper context for learning to
take place’ (1991: 14). It not so much that learners acquire structures or
models to understand the world, but they participate in frameworks that
that have structure. Learning involves participation in a community of
practice. And that participation 'refers not just to local events of
engagement in certain activities with certain people, but to a more
encompassing process of being active participants in the practices
of social communities and constructing identities in relation
to these communities' (Wenger 1999: 4).
Lave and Wenger illustrate their theory by
observations of different apprenticeships (Yucatec midwives, Vai and Gola
tailors, US Navy quartermasters, meat-cutters, and non-drinking alcoholics
in Alcoholics Anonymous). Initially people have to join communities and
learn at the periphery. As they become more competent they move more to
the ‘centre’ of the particular community. Learning is, thus, not seen as
the acquisition of knowledge by individuals so much as a process of
social participation. The nature of the situation
impacts significantly on the process.
Learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners and…
the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward
full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a community.
"Legitimate peripheral participation" provides a way to speak about the
relations between newcomers and old-timers, and about activities,
identities, artefacts, and communities of knowledge and practice. A
person’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is
configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a
socio-cultural practice. This social process, includes, indeed it
subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills. (Lave and Wenger 1991:
In this there is a concern with identity, with learning to speak, act
and improvise in ways that make sense in the community. What is more, and
in contrast with learning as internalization, ‘learning as increasing
participation in communities of practice concerns the whole person acting
in the world’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 49). The focus is on the ways in
which learning is ‘an evolving, continuously renewed set of relations’
(ibid.: 50). In other words, this is a relational view of the person and
learning (see the discussion of selfhood).
This way of approaching learning is something more than simply
'learning by doing' or experiential learning.
As Mark Tennant (1997: 73) has pointed out, Jean Lave's and Etienne
Wenger's concept of situatedness involves people being full participants
in the world and in generating meaning. 'For newcomers', Jean Lave and
Etienne Wenger (1991: 108-9) comment, 'the purpose is not to learn
from talk as a substitute for legitimate peripheral participation;
it is to learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral
participation'. This orientation has the definite advantage of drawing
attention to the need to understand knowledge and learning in context.
However, situated learning depends on two claims:
- It makes no sense to talk of knowledge that is decontextualized,
abstract or general.
- New knowledge and learning are properly conceived as being located
in communities of practice (Tennant 1997: 77).
Questions can be raised about both of these claims. It may be, with
regard to the first claim, for example, that learning can occur that is
seemingly unrelated to a particular context or life situation.
Second, there may situations where the community of practice is weak or
exhibits power relationships that seriously inhibit entry and
participation. There is a risk, as Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger
acknowledge, of romanticizing communities of practice. However, there has
been a tendency in their earlier work of falling into this trap. 'In their
eagerness to debunk testing, formal education and formal accreditation,
they do not analyse how their omission [of a range of questions and
issues] affects power relations, access, public knowledge and public
accountability' (Tennant 1997: 79). Their interest in the
forms of learning involved communities of practice shares some common
element with Ivan
Illich's advocacy of learning webs and informal education. However,
where Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger approached the area through an
exploration of local encounters and examples, Ivan Illich started with a
macro-analysis of the debilitating effects of institutions such as
schooling. In both cases the sweep of their arguments led to an
under-appreciation of the uses of more formal structures and institutions
for learning. However, this was understandable given the scale of the
issues and problems around learning within professionalized and
bureaucratic institutions such as schools their respective analyses
Learning organizations and learning communities
These ideas have been picked-up most strongly within
organizational development circles. The use of the apprenticeship model
made for a strong set of connections with important traditions of thinking
about training and development within organizations. Perhaps more
significantly, the growing interest in 'the learning
organization' in the 1990s alerted many of those concerned with
organizational development to the significance of informal networks and
groupings. Jean Lave's and Etienne Wenger's work around communities of
practice offered a useful addition. It allowed proponents to argue that
communities of practice needed to be recognized as valuable assets.
The model gave those concerned with organizational development a way of
thinking about how benefits could accrue to the organization itself, and
how value did not necessarily lie primarily with the individual members of
a community of practice.
Acknowledging that communities of practice affect performance is
important in part because of their potential to overcome the inherent
problems of a slow-moving traditional hierarchy in a fast-moving virtual
economy. Communities also appear to be an effective way for
organizations to handle unstructured problems and to share knowledge
outside of the traditional structural boundaries. In addition, the
community concept is acknowledged to be a means of developing and
maintaining long-term organizational memory. These outcomes are an
important, yet often unrecognized, supplement to the value that
individual members of a community obtain in the form of enriched
learning and higher motivation to apply what they learn. (Lesser and
Lesser and Storck go on to argue that the social capital
resident in communities of practice leads to behavioural change—'change
that results in greater knowledge sharing, which in turn positively
influences business performance'. Attention to communities of practice
could, thus enhance organizational effectiveness and profitability.
For obvious reasons, formal education institutions have been
less ready to embrace these ideas. There was a very real sense in which
the direction of the analysis undermined their reason for being and many
of their practices. However, there have been some significant
explorations of how schooling, for example, might accommodate some of the
key themes and ideas in Jean Lave's and Etienne Wenger's analysis. In
particular, there was significant mileage in exploring how communities of
practice emerge within schooling, the process involved and how they might
be enhanced. Furthermore, there was also significant possibility in a
fuller appreciation of what constitutes practice (as earlier writers such
Carr and Kemmis 1986, and Grundy 1987 had already highlighted: see curriculum and praxis). Perhaps the
most helpful of these explorations is that of Barbara Rogoff and her
colleagues (2001). They examine the work of an innovative school in Salt
Lake City and how teachers, students and parents were able to work
together to develop an approach to schooling based around the principle
that learning 'occurs through interested participation with other
Conclusion - issues and implications for educators
The notion of community of practice and the broader conceptualization
of situated learning provides significant pointers for practice. Here I
want to highlight three:
Learning is in the relationships between people. As
McDermott (in Murphy 1999:17) puts it:
Learning traditionally gets measured as on the assumption
that it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their
heads… [Here] learning is in the relationships between people. Learning
is in the conditions that bring people together and organize a point of
contact that allows for particular pieces of information to take on a
relevance; without the points of contact, without the system of
relevancies, there is not learning, and there is little memory. Learning
does not belong to individual persons, but to the various conversations
of which they are a part.
Within systems oriented to individual accreditation,
and that have lost any significant focus on relationship
through pressures on them to meet centrally-determined targets, this
approach to learning is challenging and profoundly problematic. It
highlights just how far the frameworks for schooling, lifelong learning
and youth work in states like Britain and Northern Ireland have drifted
away from a proper appreciation of what constitutes learning (or indeed
society). Educators have a major educational task with policymakers as
well as participants in their programmes and activities.
Educators work so that people can become participants in
communities of practice. Educators need to explore with people in
communities how all may participate to the full. One of the implications
for schools, as Barbara Rogoff and her colleagues suggest is that they
must prioritize 'instruction that builds on children's interests in a
collaborative way'. Such schools need also to be places where 'learning
activities are planned by children as well as adults, and where parents
and teachers not only foster children's learning but also learn from their
own involvement with children' (2001: 3). Their example in this area have
particular force as they are derived from actual school practice.
A further, key, element is the need to extend associational life
within schools and other institutions. Here there is a strong link here
with long-standing concerns among informal educators around community and
participation and for the significance of the group (for
schooling see the discussion of informal education and
schooling; for youth work see young people and
association; and for communities see community
There is an intimate connection between knowledge and activity.
Learning is part of daily living as Eduard Lindeman
argued many years ago. Problem solving and learning from experience are
central processes (although, as we have seen, situated learning is not the
same as ‘learning by doing’ – see Tennant 1997: 73). Educators need to
reflect on their understanding of what constitutes knowledge and practice. Perhaps one
of the most important things to grasp here is the extent to which
education involves informed and committed action.
These are fascinating areas for exploration and, to some
significant extent, take informal educators in a completely different
direction to the dominant pressure towards accreditation and
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate
peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge
Press. 138 pages. Pathbreaking book that first developed the idea
that learning 'is a process of participation in communities of practice,
participation that is at first legitimately peripheral but that increases
gradually in engagement and complexity'.
Rogoff, B., Turkanis, C. G. and Bartlett, L. (eds.) (2001)
Learning Together: Children and Adults in a School Community, New
York: Oxford University Press. 250 + x pages. Arising out of the
collaboration of Barbara Rogoff (who had worked with Jean Lave) with two
teachers at an innovative school in Salt Lake City, this book explores how
they were able to develop an approach to schooling based around the
principle that learning 'occurs through interested participation with
Etienne Wenger (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning, meaning and
identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 318 + xv pages.
Extended discussion of the concept of community of practice and how it
might be approached within organizational development and
Allee, V. (2000) 'Knowledge networks and communities of learning',
OD Practitioner 32( 4), http://www.odnetwork.org/odponline/vol32n4/knowledgenets.html.
Accessed December 30, 2002.
Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory, Englewood Cliffs, NJ:
Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical. Education,
knowledge and action research, Lewes: Falmer.
Gardner, H. (1993) Intelligence Reframed. Multiple intelligences for
the 21st century, New York: Basic Books.
Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or praxis, Lewes:
Lave, J. (forthcoming) Changing Practice: The Politics of Learning
and Everyday Life
Lave, J. and Chaiklin, S. (eds.) (1993) Understanding Practice:
Perspectives on Activity and Context, Cambridge: University of
Lesser, E. L. and Storck, J. (2001) 'Communities of practice and
organizational performance', IBM Systems Journal 40(4), http://www.research.ibm.com/journal/sj/404/lesser.html.
Accessed December 30, 2002.
Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in Adulthood. A
comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Murphy, P. (ed.) (1999) Learners, Learning and Assessment,
London: Paul Chapman. See, also, Leach, J. and Moon, B. (eds.)
(1999) Learners and Pedagogy, London: Paul Chapman.
280 + viii pages; and McCormick, R. and Paetcher, C. (eds.) (1999)
Learning and Knowledge, London: Paul Chapman. 254 +
Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education,
Salomon, G. (ed.) (1993) Distributed Cognitions. Psychological and
educational considerations, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Smith, M. K. (1999) 'The social/situational orientation to learning',
the encyclopedia of informal education, www.infed.org/biblio/learning-social.htm.
Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning, London:
Tennant, M. and Pogson, P. (1995) Learning and Change in the Adult
Years. A developmental perspective, San Francisco:
Wenger, E. (1998) 'Communities of Practice. Learning as a social
system', Systems Thinker, http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml.
Accessed December 30, 2002.
homepage: has some material on communities of practice.
of Practice discussion group: maintained by John Smith at Yahoo.
How to cite this article: Smith, M.
K. (2003) 'Communities of practice', the encyclopedia of informal
Last updated: 30
© Mark K. Smith
published January 2003. Last