Effectiveness as professional development for educators

A community of practice can complement other professional learning strategies and shares attributes with both professional learning networks and professional learning communities. All three of these professional learning communities can overlap and compliment each other.

Although a series of webinars or other professional learning activities may be part of a community of practice, a CoP differs from a professional learning series because it is more collaborative in nature, and builds on the expertise and goals of the participants. Typically, a professional development series is delivered by one or more experts and works from a pre-determined agenda. A community of practice shares a number of common characteristics with professional learning communities, but typically the scope of a CoP is more tightly focused, membership is more defined, and the role of the facilitator is to encourage participation, support the building of knowledge, and capture success stories.

In The Connected Educator, Learning and Teaching in A Digital Age (2012), Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall summarized the research on the effectiveness of communities of practice as a teacher professional development strategy: (p 160)

“Although some evidence suggesting the effectiveness of communities of practice for teacher learning is anecdotal (Lai, Pratt, Anderson, & Stigter, 2006), Chris Dede, from Harvard’s School of Education, notes that the pedagogical approach underlying more than half of teacher professional development is grounded in the communities of practice theory (Dede, Breit, Ketekhut, McCloskey & Whitehouse, 2005).

Other research finds that communities of practice have significant potential to improve teaching and learning (Sherer, Shea & Kristenson, 2003) and that participation in communities of practice benefits both students and teachers (Reil & Fulton, 2001). Not only do communities of practice encourage collaboration and knowledge construction (Ardichvili, Page, & Wentling, 2002; Buysse, Sparkman, & Weket, 2003), they also have significant potential for improving teacher and learning (Sherer et al., 2003).”

A major study of school improvement in the United Kingdom recently identifies a number of characteristics of professional learning that are the most likely to benefit students. All of these characteristics align with a community of practice approach to professional learning.

  • Collaborative: involves staff working together, identifying starting points, sharing evidence about practice and trying out new approaches
  • Supported by specific expertise: usually drawn from beyond the immediate learning environment
  • Focused on aspirations for students: which provides the moral imperative and shared focus
  • Sustained over time: professional development sustained over weeks and months had substantially more impact on instructional practice that benefits students than short or one-time activities
  • Exploring evidence from trying new things to connect practice to theory, enabling educators to transfer new approaches and practices and the concepts underpinning them to multiple instructional contexts.

Adapted from: Pearson School Improvement. Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning: A report on the research evidence p.4)

What is next for communities of practice?

Communities of practice are in a growth phase. The research describes how communities of practices are being used across sectors to build knowledge and improve practice. In many of these environments prototyping is part of the development process, the life span of the community may go beyond one-year, membership may be fluid, and the work of different communities may be interconnected. For more information on communities of practice outside the K-12 education sector see: https://books.google.ca/books/about/Communities_of_Practice.html?id=KmYYXnY3_SAC&redir_esc=y

Within the education sector, communities of practices are receiving more attention. Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall describe a Powerful Learning Practice Model of connected learning communities in which participation in communities of practice is leveraged across and between professional learning communities. For more information on this work, see: http://www.21stcenturycollaborative.com/2011/09/the-connected-educator

“A burgeoning body of research suggests that virtual learning communities are becoming the venue through which change agents operate. New electronic models of professional growth inspire educators to collaborate differently, using innovative ways to share knowledge and advocate for educational change. The potential is enormous as knowledge capital is collected and the community becomes a sort of online brain trust.“

~ Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall

“If we view the world as a learning system, we can imagine a constellation of communities of practices — a “worldwide web” of interwoven communities that focus on various civic practices at different levels, including district, municipal, regional, national, and global.

This broader learning system collectively provides the foundation of social capital to foster global learning and to improve socioeconomic outcomes”.

~ Wenger, McDermott and Snyder


Cambridge, Kaplan and Suter. Community of Practice Design Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing & Cultivating Communities of Practice in Higher Education, 2005 Accessed November 30, 2014 at http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/nli0531.pdf

Centre for the Use of Research Evidence in Education (CUREE), Pearson School Improvement Understanding What Enables High Quality Professional Learning: A report on the research evidence retrieved July 30, 2015 at: http://www.curee.co.uk/files/publication/%5Bsite-timestamp%5D/CUREE-Report.pdf

Kimble, C., Hildreth, P. and Bourdon, E., editors. Communities of Practice, Volume 2. Charlotte, North Carolina: Information Age Publishing, 2008

Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter Hall. The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press, 2012

Skalicky and West (editors) UTAS Community of Practice Initiative: Readings and Resources, Centre for the Advancement of Learning and Teaching Accessed November 30, 2014 at: http://www.teaching-learning.utas.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/185605/CoP-Reader-Complete.pdf

Wenger, McDermott and Snyder. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2002. Accessed November 30, 2014 at: http,//hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/2855.html

Wenger, Etienne. Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Quick Start Up Guide. 2002