Boundary Workers

Yesterday I spend an illuminating time in a workshop with Etienne Wenger , considered one of the founding fathers of Social Learning Theory and the concept of ??Practiced Communities??.

The workshop was attended by a large group of educational leaders and policy makers here in Wellington. During the workshop several things that we talked about got me thinking about how we might apply the things we were hearing to our work in planning for the educational future of NZ schools and institutions.

Etienne used the metaphor of a ‘trajectory’ as a description of learning, and emphasised that the role of teachers must be that of “trajectory managers”, not managers of “stuff” (content).

The part of the day that really got me thinking, however, was the reference to “boundary workers”. Wenger writes “insights often arise at the boundary between communities”, claiming that real learning occurs at the point where different communities intersect – or at the “boundaries” that separate them. He makes the case for the development of “boundary workers” and “brokers” in the knowledge age.

This got me thinking for two reasons. The first is that I can identify with the role of a boundary worker – I seem to have been working in this space for a number of years. It is an exciting place to be – but it is not supported by our traditional structures and institutions, so it can also be frustrating. The issue of “professional identity” becomes an issue here, as there are few ways that such a role is “valued” within our existing paradigm. Thus, in my professional career I have chosen to become part of an organisation that is attempting to position itself in the boundary spaces, and make myself availble from there to work with and sometimes within the traditional systems.

The second, and more significant reason this got me thinking is the perspective it gives to much of the work we are currently doing at a strategic level within NZ to plan for the future of education in our country. Our existing system is made up of a number of well established communities of practice, be they by subject or discipline, or the age-group classifications of ECE, Primary, Secondary, Tertiary etc. There’s been an obvious tendancy for these existing communities to be the ones around which the emerging notion of “online” communities of practice are formed – not surprisingly, as Wenger points out, the shared practice is a key part of defining such a community.

Our schools, tertiary organisations – and even our Ministry of Education, are all structured with these notions of community in mind. To strengthen the case. these communities have developed. over time, a range of behaviours and beliefs that, while intended to help define the community, have actually become the barriers that separate them. These behaviours and beliefs are now the things that are passionately defended when those boundaries are challenged.

The other thing I observe that reinforces to me the power of the existing structures is what happens to any innovative practice that is introduced into our system. Take, for instance, the introduction of the idea of online communities of practice itself. rather than adopt the idea as a “boundary” activity, I see all sorts of claims being made by existing communities to “own” it as unique to their community. The same could be said for a range of other innovations – think of inquiry learning, cooperative learning, resource-baased learning etc.

The challenge I came away with is best expressed as a range of questions at the moment – I’ll be putting more thought into it over the next few days you can b e sure!

Some of the challenges in my mind are:

– what are we doing within our organisations to recognise and value the work being done by ‘boundary workers’ and ‘brokers’?

– in our strategic work around the future of schooling in NZ, what opportunities are we creating for working at the boundaries?

– should we be re-structuring to ensure the boundaries come more clearly into focus in our activities (think what would happen in our MoE or secondary schools if we focused on teaching teams rather than discipline-specific domains?)

– what are the implicaitons of this thinking for our current policy directions in New Zealand, concerning things such as teacher training and professional learning; curriculum reform; future schooling projects; education priorities; eLearning???

4 thoughts on “Boundary Workers

  1. Having attended the same seminars Derek, I am impressed with the way this has excited your notions of the “trajectory managing” role of teachers in Etienne’s analysis and the role of boundary workers.

    I felt a great affinity for the notion of boundary work”, particularly as I view the way in which the profession has,in the past, interpreted current curriculum, assessment and teaching practice – how it has/can be used as an excuse to constrain teaching and learning.

    Those, however, who want to really provide a student centred learning focus can risk all and become the trajectory facilitators of those students who are asking for far more in their education than simply subject knowledge competence or assessments that ranks them on their ability to conform as learners.

  2. “insights often arise at the boundary between communities” This is idea of the ‘interaction’ between ‘boundaries’ is I think more thoroughly developed by Activity Theorists (, although the learning process is similar, namely the ‘creative tension’ that comes when there ‘dissonance’ between individuals who are confident in their practice.

    My understanding of the application of activity theory is that the focus is not on community but on interactions around objects or problems which opens up a slightly different angle. Rather than the ‘chance occurrence’ of boundaries coming into contact, practitioners using activity theory to inform their learning would seek to set up deliberate circumstances where professionals with different practices and from different communities come together.

  3. I’d like to add a bit of an oblique perspective. I like this concept. I see parallels to thinking on creativity and innovation, both in the mentoring and nuturing of it, and in the “boundary riding/working” role of being open to new influences.

    The idea of commuities of practice is also similar in the concept of artists communities that appear (emergent communities – either formally or informally). Historically these have congregated around strong personalities, and often as a reaction to the established norms (artists communities wedded to different ideals)…

  4. Not sure who first developed this idea of boundary workers and ??intersection??, but perhaps it doesn??t matter. Operating in the intersection zone between several cultural views of learning is something akin to walking on glass: the boundary zone is not always a safe place to be when you set about challenging those sorts of boundaries; but the very act of challenging is what puts us there of course. I took some interest in this idea as expressed by Frans Johansson in his book ??The Medici Effect: Breakthrough Insights at the Intersection of Ideas, Concepts and Cultures?? Harvard Business School Press 2004. He talks about ??intersections?? where cultures, concepts and ideas collide, despite their potential for discomfort, being the places where the most sustainable innovation occurs. Calls it the ??Medici Effect?? after the explosion of creativity ignited by the Medici family in Renaissance Italy, who actively brought together people who would thrive in such intersections. He postulates that the increase in such intersections we are seeing today is brought about by the movement of people, the convergence of scientific disciplines, and the leap in computer power. See I wasn’t in Wellington and maybe this already got a mention.

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