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???