Communities of Practice (Lave & Wenger – 1991)

Bandura’s theory of social cognitive learning is focused primarily on observational and vicarious learning, or the type of learning that occurs by observing the behavior and consequences of others. A different type of social learning is found in Lave and Wenger’s (1991) theory of situated learning through legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice. This theory builds on Lave’s (1988) previous study of cognition in practice in which she set out to reexamine “the role of cognitive theory in explaining the effect of education on everyday activity” beginning with a study of how Vai and Gola tailors in Liberia learn and use math (p. xiii). From the results of this study, Lave proposed a socio-cultural view of learning in which cognition is a dialect between learners and the setting in which they are situated, and that problems and solutions are generated from disjunctions, conflicts, and contradictions that naturally occur as people are involved in various real-world activities. Lave’s study of learning in the apprenticeship of Vai and Gola tailors was later included as one of five case studies to exemplify situated learning (Lave & Wenger, 1991, pp. 59-87). Lave and Wenger described situated learning as “more encompassing in intent than conventional notions of ‘learning in situ‘ or ‘learning by doing’ for which it was used as a rough equivalent” (p. 31). They explained their view of situated learning as “an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world” (p. 35):

There is a significant contrast between a theory of learning in which practice (in a narrow, replicative sense) is subsumed within processes of learning and one in which learning is taken to be an integral aspect of practice (in a historical, generative sense). In our view, learning is not merely situated in practice—as if it were some independently reifiable process that just happened to be located somewhere; learning is an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world. (Lave & Wenger, 1991, pp. 34-35)

They applied this view using the concept of legitimate peripheral participation:

It seems all too natural to decompose it into a set of three contrasting pairs: legitimate versus illegitimate, peripheral versus central, participation versus nonparticipation. But we intend for the concept to be taken as a whole….Thus, in the terms proposed here there may very well be no such thing as an “illegitimate peripheral participant.” The form that the legitimacy of participation takes is a defining characteristic of ways of belong, and is therefore not only a crucial condition for learning, but a constitutive element of its content. Similarly, with regard to “peripherality” there may well be no such simple thing as “central participation” in a community of practice. Peripherality suggests  that there are multiple, varied, more- or less-engaged and –inclusive ways of being located in the fields of participation defined by a community. Peripheral participation is about being located in the social world. (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 35)

The concept of legitimate peripheral participation was not intended as an educational form, a pedagogical strategy, or a teaching technique, but rather, as “an analytical viewpoint on learning, a way of understanding learning” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 40). The focus is not on pedagogy, but on the structure of social practice in which learning occurs:

In considering learning as part of social practice, we have focused our attention on the structure of social practice rather than privileging the structure of pedagogy as the source of learning. Learning understood as legitimate peripheral participation is not necessarily or directly dependent on pedagogical goals or official agenda, even in situations in which these goals appear to be a central factor (e.g., classroom instruction, tutoring).  (Lave & Wenger, 1991, pp. 113-114)

In contrast with “conventional explanations [that] view learning as a process by which a learner internalizes knowledge” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 47), Lave and Wenger explained learning as “increasing participation in communities of practice” (p. 49) which involves “the whole person acting in the world” (p. 49). Learning implies “not only a relation to specific activities, but a relation to social communities—it implies becoming a full participant, a member, a kind of person” (p. 53):

In this view, learning only partly—and often incidentally—implies becoming able to be involved in new activities, to perform new tasks and functions, to master new understandings. Activities, tasks, functions, and understandings do not exist in isolation; they are part of broader systems of relations in which they have meaning. These systems of relations arise out of and are reproduced and developed within social communities, which are in part systems of relations among persons. The person is defined by as well as defines these relations. Learning thus implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations. (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 53)

Legitimate peripheral participation takes place in communities of practice, with newcomers acting first in the periphery and moving “toward full participation” (Lave & Wenger, 1991, p. 91). Lave and Wenger defined a community of practice in general terms as “a set of relations among persons, activity, and world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice” (p. 98) but left it “largely as an intuitive notion, [which] requires a more rigorous treatment” (p. 42). This was later provided by Wenger (1998; 2006):

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell: 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. (Wenger, 2006, para. 2)

Wenger listed three crucial characteristics that differentiate a community in general from a community of practice:

  1. The domain: A shared domain of interest, with membership implying commitment to the domain and “a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people” (section “What are communities of practice?”)
  2. The community: A community in which members “interact and learn together” (section “What are communities of practice?”)
  3. The practice: A group of practitioners in which members “develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems” (section “What are communities of practice?”)

Lave and Wenger (1991) summarized their perspective on learning through legitimate peripheral participation as coming closer to an understanding of the significance of learning in the human experience:

There has crept into our analysis, as we have moved away from conventional notions of learning, an expanded scale of time and a more encompassing view of what constitutes learning activity. Legitimate peripheral participation has led us to emphasize the sustained character of developmental cycles of communities of practice, the gradual process of fashioning relations of identity as a full practitioner, and the enduring strains inherent in the continuity-displacement contradiction. This longer and broader conception of what it means to learn, implied by the concept of legitimate peripheral participation, comes closer to embracing the rich significance of learning in human experience. (p. 121)

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