I was interested to read Judi Moreillon’s recent post about professional learning communities. Education is a complex endeavor, and as school librarians we belong to several communities of practice including the practices of collaborative teaching and learning in our schools. What makes these communities of practice into learning communities for the participants? Etienne Wenger, a major theorist regarding communities of practice discusses three modes of belonging: engagement, imagination, and alignment and suggests that an effective combination of these three can transform a community of practice into a learning community (1998).
Engagement is the work of participation. Quite simply, in a school I think of this as “showing up” and taking part in activities that are focused on student learning including planning meetings, professional development, and committee work. It means being visible in the school: in hallways, at parent nights, in classrooms and all those spaces in a school where learning is occurring. In short: not just the library. Wenger talks about engagement as identity work, or “gaining a lived sense of who we are” (1998, p.192). We develop this sense through our work and through our interactions with others. In a learning community, members engage with each other through listening, speaking, and doing together.
Imagination is the process of moving beyond the present moment and seeing future possibilities and potential. When a school librarian and teachers plan together and envision what students will know and do differently as a result of instruction, they imagine outcomes for the work of their collaboration. Together they take the raw materials of curriculum, resources, and knowledge of learners and learning to create something new. Imagination is creative and playful and requires engagement and alignment to ground it in practice.
Alignment connects us to a broader purpose and allows us to coordinate our efforts. Content standards allow us to align our efforts as school librarians with those of classroom teachers. A school librarian’s knowledge of content standards, the school’s mission, and even the textbooks that teachers use helps to align our efforts with the overall goals of the school and community.
Wenger sees these three modes of belonging as necessarily supportive of each other. Alignment without imagination is blind allegiance. Imagination without engagement has no real application in the world. Engagement without alignment has no focus. In combination, these three modes of belonging are particularly powerful. For example, imagination combined with engagement leads to a reflective practice.
Professional learning is about shared membership in a community of practice. Our responsibilities as members of a learning community involve interactions with our colleagues that are engaged, imaginative, and aligned with a shared purpose. A community of practice framework allows us to coordinate our efforts as we engage with each other. Collaboration is work but it can also be imaginative and playful.
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.