Energize Your Profesional Development by Connecting with a Purpose:
Building Communities of Practice
Young Children, June 2007, pages 12 - 16
It is a cool Saturday morning as vans and carloads of teachers pull into the community college parking lot and teachers in jeans and sweatshirts haul documentation displays out of their trunks. Carefully wrapped children?s sculptures and box constructions are loaded onto a variety of carts and are dragged into the building along with display boards of paintings, drawings, and photographs of children working. Displays are assembled and teachers circulate and view each other?s work.  In animated conversations teachers ask and listen raptly to answers about topics, techniques and challenges. This is the Illinois Project Group. No one is paid to be there. No one is receiving credit. They are there to learn; they teach; they celebrate; and they support. This is a community of practice.  Professional development is happening.
The Illinois Project Group is a community of practice (COP). You, as an early childhood professional, may have experienced similar experiences with others who share your passionate interests. You may call them your group of "professional friends" or "my little support group" but not recognize the impact on you or understand the potential of these communities. You also may not realize that businesses and other organizations recognize and use COPs to improve performance and quality.
What is a community of practice?
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 (Wenger,1998).
 United by a common enterprise, people come to develop and share ways of doing things, ways of talking, beliefs, values - in short, practices - as a function of their joint involvement in mutual activity. Social relations form around the activities, the activities form around relationships, and particular kinds of knowledge and expertise become part of individuals? identities and places in the community. (Eckman, Goldman and Wenger, 1993, p. 3)    
Communities of practice have enormous potential to support and sustain quality care and education within a community and, in fact, are doing so. The Illinois Project Group, described above, began nine years ago when 25 teachers gathered to share their project work. Eight projects were displayed and discussed. A plan was made to meet regularly and share project work. Now each year, teachers communicate via email and plan all year for this teacher-to-teacher event. When Project Day starts, they gather and suggest topics for lunch table discussions. They visit each other?s displays, take photographs, and exchange contact information. For many, these are the only other teachers they know using the project approach. Steadily the group grows.  In 2006, over 200 teachers came to share project work.
COPs and the Early Childhood Community
Not all communities, or gatherings of professionals, are communities of practice. To be a community of practice, a group must have three characteristics:
a domain of interest,
a community,
and a focus on practice
(Wenger, McDermott, Snyder, 2002). 
To learn if you have a community of practice or to learn how to develop one, read the article in the June edition of Young Children. 
To learn more about communities of practice you can also read:

Eckert, P., Goldman, S., Wenger, E., 1993. The schools as a community of engaged learners", Palo Alta, CA: Institute for Research on Learning. Working Paper

Nickols, F. 2006 Two kinds of Communities of Practice, Online: retrieved February 1, 2006

Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of practice: learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., Snyder, W., 2002. Cultivating communities of practice: a guide to managing knowledge. Harvard Business School Press

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