Yesterday I went to a Communities of Practice event at Birmingham University led by Etienne Wenger. I first came across Etienne’s work when studying a unit for my MA on Leading and Managing Educational Innovation and researching the role of communities of practice in educational change. Our PG Cert students at UAL are often enthusiastic about CoP theory and many refer to it in their action research projects. I often worry that their application of the theory has drifted somewhat from the original literature, but I’ve lacked confidence in my ability to get them on the right track. Having the opportunity to take part in a Q&A session with the man himself really helped to get these misconceptions out into the open and to align our personal meanings for CoP theory with Etienne’s own.
Etienne kicked off by questioning the assumption that learning is the result of teaching – through exploring the concept of apprenticeship, which he nicknames ‘teaching-lite’. Apparently one of his colleagues has another phrase for it: ‘benign neglect’. The use of the word ‘benign’ puzzles me, as it only implies that the neglect is not dangerous, whereas it would appear that the remoteness of the ‘master’, the authority figure, actually serves a purpose in the system of apprenticeship. Indeed, Etienne pointed out yesterday that apprenticeship could be described as a form of scaffolding; not in Vygotsky’s sense of the scaffolding being provided by a benevolent, more capable helper, but by the apprentices themselves as they serve the needs of different stations in the production process and immerse themselves in the community. He used the example of being the person who sews the button on the final product, who, over time, and through taking on other minor, low-stakes tasks, gets a handle on the final goals and outcomes of the community, and gains an understanding of more fundamental or complex aspects of the process.
In formal education – and I’m sure UAL is no exception – we often find ourselves do things the other way around for a number of reasons; teaching technical skills in isolation from their ‘meaning’ or context, or at best within a simplified ‘mock-up’ of their context. So what can we learn from apprenticeship? I like Etienne’s description of apprenticeship as ‘rubbing shoulders with the rest of the community’, and how this can provide ‘a sense of meaning about who we are becoming’. This ontological perspective of learning is shared by many, and the idea of learning as ‘becoming’ is central to perspectives and methodologies such as action research. The ontological perspective has less of a presence in compulsory education; presumably because an awareness of ‘becoming’ is not directly factored into the league tables. You won’t catch me whinging about ‘schools these days’ though; I think schools these days are amazing – not that there isn’t always going to be room for enhancement. Perhaps it’s what’s going on outside school that has a more significant impact on the sense of personal meaning pupils have for their studies. I was talking to my mother (a remedial tutor) earlier about this, and we discussed where parents become detached from their child’s learning at home, and learning becomes isolated within the formal classroom setting. This may happen for a range of reasons but the result is that the child’s sense of meaning and context for their learning may no longer incorporate parents, siblings or the family home; significant areas of the child’s life where their studies have no immediate relevance.
Something I took away from the session with Etienne was that having ‘meaning’ is more important to learning than having ‘fun’. He used the example of one of his daughters and her piercings; she didn’t do it because it was ‘fun’ but because of the meaning it held for her. Etienne – who doesn’t share my reluctance to criticise the schooling system – described learning as ‘taking you through a dark night of your identity’ and suggested that the school system is not really set up to take students through this ‘dark night’. He feels that school is more focused on what stuff should be put in children’s heads than what experience should our children go through with their identities, and points out that at secondary level students are discouraged from being particularly interested in any one thing, lest they lose their footing and fail their other nine subjects. Etienne argues that this prevents students experiencing the transformative aspect of deep learning; I am probably misquoting but I think he said “do they know what it’s like to become really good at something? You need to cross a boundary to do this; to go through an experience that shakes your sense of who you are.” I don’t disagree with Etienne on this – quite the contrary – I just think that people expect too much of schools – particularly of the ‘formal’ curriculum. It would be interesting to do some research across the generations on key, transformative moments of childhood, and whether they took place in a classroom, on school property or outside the gates altogether