Cultivate the idea
Communities of practice are dynamic social structures that require cultivation so that can emerge and grow. Organizations can sponsor communities of practice, and through a series of steps, individuals can design a community environment, foster the formalization of the community, and plan activities to help grow and sustain the community. For example, in Alberta a number of communities of practices have been developed through the sponsorship of Alberta Education, Alberta Professional Development Consortia, and individual school authorities.
Having a committed champion or sponsor who is able to envision the benefits of a community of practice over time, and has a sense of how the community can interact across sectors, is invaluable to the resourcing and sustainability of a community. In Alberta, champions of recent communities of practice have included senior managers at Alberta Education, executive directors of the Alberta Professional Development Consortia, and school jurisdiction leaders.
The sponsors of a community of practice do the preliminary work of identifying the target audience, and the purpose and vision for the community. Organizations, which could include school jurisdictions, professional learning providers or other educational groups, can sponsor communities of practice by designing the community environment and planning activities to help grow and sustain the community. But ultimately the members of the community will define and sustain the community over time.
Sample questions to explore during the cultivation phase:
- Audience: Who is this community for? Who are the community’s important stakeholders?
- Domain: Given the intended audience, what are the key issues and the nature of the learning, knowledge and tasks that the community will steward?
- Purpose, Goals and Outcomes: Given the audience and domain, what is this community’s primary purpose? What are the potential benefits to participants? To other educational stakeholders? What specific needs will the community be organized to meet?
Sample supporting activities:
- Conduct a needs assessment through informal discussions, interviews, surveys and/or focus groups.
- Define the benefits of the community for all stakeholders, including the sponsors and individual community members.
- Identify the major topic areas for community content and exploration.
- Create an estimate of the cost for the technology, technology support, facilitation, resources and supports for participants (e.g., travel costs).
Purpose is paramount
Successful and sustainable communities of practice have focused, well-defined purposes that are directly tied to both the sponsors’ mission and the priorities of the participants. Purposes need to be defined in terms of the benefits to the community’s stakeholders (e.g., students, teachers, school leaders, school communities) and the specific goals that that the community is organized to meet.
Purposes can be categorized into four overarching areas of activities:
- Developing relationships
- Learning and developing practice
- Carrying out tasks and projects
- Creating new knowledge.
These activity areas create a framework and language for the community to use to understand and document success about achieving the purpose, meeting goals, responding to needs, and making decisions about future actions. See the three examples below.
Literacy for All
This one-year project will focus on supporting emergent writers through the use of alternative pencils, making words, and a process-based instructional approach to writing which includes explicit daily instruction in both writing, and speaking and listening.
The goal of this community of practice is to identify resources and strategies to support the literacy development of Grades 1-12 students with significant disabilities.
Numeracy for All
The overall goals of the Numeracy for All communities of practice are to:
- Enhance the capacity of participating teachers in mathematics instruction and numeracy development for Grades 1 to 12 students with significant cognitive disabilities
- Explore the effectiveness and appropriateness of the AbleNet Equals Mathematics teaching resource in the Alberta context.
Learning for All
The goals of this community of practice are to:
- collaboratively develop, collect and share information and strategies for building district, school and teacher capacity to better support students with significant disabilities
- explore and share best practices related to creating meaningful learning opportunities and effective supports for students with significant disabilities
- explore ways in which learning opportunities and supports can better address diverse learner needs, including how technology can change ways in which students engage in their learning.