Social Constructivism

Guiding Questions

  • In what ways is learning a social experience?
  • What are the fundamental concepts presented by Lev Vygotsky?
  • How does Vygostky differ from Piaget?
  • What are Communities of Practice and how do they impact learning?
  • How have Social Constructvist approaches impacted teaching and learning and what is their significance?
  • In what ways do these connect with your experience of teaching and learning?


Before attending to this week’s readings, think about the questions above. Much like you would do a K-W-L Chart with your students; determine what you KNOW about the topic and what you WANT to KNOW about the topic. Your R2R Post will indicate what you LEARNED about this week’s content. Refer to the R2R details and the success criteria outlined in the Syllabus.


  • Phillips & Soltis: Chapter 6
  • Wenger: A Social Theory of Learning Preview the document
  • McLeod: Vygotsky
  • Schunk: Chapter 6 (Read Only the Following Pages/Sections)Preview the document
    • 240 (Vygotsky S.C. Theory) – 248
    • 250 (Socially Mediated Learning) – 233
    • 269 (Peer Assisted) – 271
    • 274 (Summary) – 277

Optional Readings

  • Infed: Communities of Practice Preview the document

Begin by replying to this discussion thread and adding your R2R Post.

Post a Reflective Response (R2R)  

  • Approximately 500 words in length
  • Post should be substantive demonstrating knowledge of the readings
  • Should address the Guiding Questions for the week
  • See Syllabus for Success Criteria

    Jean Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice

    Jean Lave, Etiene Wenger and communities of practice.

    The idea that learning involves a deepening process of

    participation in a community of practice has gained

    significant ground in recent years. Communities of

    practice have also become an important focus within

    organizational development and have considerable value

    when thinking about working with groups. In this article

    we outline the theory and practice of such communities,

    and examine some of issues and questions for informal

    educators and those concerned with lifelong learning.









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    contents: introduction · communities of practice ·

    legitimate peripheral participation and situated learning ·

    learning organizations and learning communities ·

    conclusion · references · links · how to cite this article

    Many of the ways we have of talking about learning and

    education are based on the assumption that learning is

    something that individuals do. Furthermore, we often

    assume that learning ‘has a beginning and an end; that it is

    best separated from the rest of our activities; and that it is

    the result of teaching’ (Wenger 1998: 3). But how would

    things look if we took a different track? Supposing learning

    is social and comes largely from of our experience of

    participating in daily life? It was this thought that formed

    the basis of a significant rethinking of learning theory in the

    late 1980s and early 1990s by two researchers from very

    different disciplines – Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger. Their

    model of situated learning proposed that learning involved

    a process of engagement in a ‘community of practice’.

    Jean Lave was (and is) a social anthropologist with a strong

    interest in social theory, based at the University of

    California, Berkeley. Much of her work has focused on on

    the ‘re-conceiving’ of learning, learners, and educational

    institutions in terms of social practice. When looking closely

    at everyday activity, she has argued, it is clear that ‘learning

    is ubiquitous in ongoing activity, though often unrecognized

    as such’ (Lave 1993: 5).

    log in






    Etienne Wenger was a teacher who joined the Institute for

    Research on Learning, Palo Alto having gained a Ph.D. in

    artificial intelligence from the University of California at

    Irvine. (He is now an independent consultant specializing in

    developing communities of practice within organizations).

    Their path-breaking analysis, first published in Situated

    Learning: Legitimate peripheral participation (1991) and

    later augmented in works by Jean Lave (1993) and Etienne

    Wenger (1999; 2002) set the scene for some significant

    innovations in practice within organizations and more

    recently within some schools (see Rogoff et al 2001).

    Communities of practice

    The basic argument made by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger

    is that communities of practice are everywhere and that we

    are generally involved in a number of them – whether that

    is at work, school, home, or in our civic and leisure

    interests. Etienne Wenger was later to write:

    Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a

    process of collective learning in a shared domain of human

    endeavour: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking

    new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on

    similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the

    school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a

    gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a

    nutshell: Communities of practice are groups of people who

    share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn

    how to do it better as they interact regularly. (Wenger circa 2007)

    In some groups we are core members, in others we are

    more at the margins.



    Being alive as human beings means that we are constantly

    engaged in the pursuit of enterprises of all kinds, from ensuring

    our physical survival to seeking the most lofty pleasures. As we

    define these enterprises and engage in their pursuit together, we

    interact with each other and with the world and we tune our

    relations with each other and with the world accordingly. In

    other words we learn.

    Over time, this collective learning results in practices that reflect

    both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social

    relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of

    community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a

    shared enterprise. It makes sense, therefore to call these kinds

    of communities communities of practice. (Wenger 1998: 45)

    The characteristics of such communities of practice vary.

    Some have names, many do not. Some communities of

    practice are quite formal in organization, others are very

    fluid and informal. However, members are brought together

    by joining in common activities and by ‘what they have

    learned through their mutual engagement in these

    activities’ (Wenger 1998). In this respect, a community of

    practice is different from a community of interest or a

    geographical community in that it involves a shared


    The characteristics of communities of practice

    According to Etienne Wenger (c 2007), three elements are

    crucial in distinguishing a community of practice from other

    groups and communities:



    The domain. A community of practice is is something more

    than a club of friends or a network of connections between

    people. ‘It has an identity defined by a shared domain of

    interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to

    the domain, and therefore a shared competence that

    distinguishes members from other people’ (op. cit.).

    The community. ‘In pursuing their interest in their domain,

    members engage in joint activities and discussions, help

    each other, and share information. They build relationships

    that enable them to learn from each other’ (op. cit.).

    The practice. ‘Members of a community of practice are

    practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of

    resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing

    recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes

    time and sustained interaction’ (op. cit.).

    Relationships, identity and shared interests and repertoire

    A community of practice involves, thus, much more than the

    technical knowledge or skill associated with undertaking

    some task. Members are involved in a set of relationships

    over time (Lave and Wenger 1991: 98) and communities

    develop around things that matter to people (Wenger 1998).

    The fact that they are organizing around some particular

    area of knowledge and activity gives members a sense of

    joint enterprise and identity. For a community of practice to

    function it needs to generate and appropriate a shared

    repertoire of ideas, commitments and memories. It also

    needs to develop various resources such as tools,



    documents, routines, vocabulary and symbols that in some

    way carry the accumulated knowledge of the community. In

    other words, it involves practice (see praxis): ways of doing

    and approaching things that are shared to some significant

    extent among members.

    The interactions involved, and the ability to undertake

    larger or more complex activities and projects though

    cooperation, bind people together and help to facilitate

    relationship and trust (see the discussion of community

    elsewhere on these pages). Communities of practice can be

    seen as self-organizing systems and have many of the

    benefits and characteristics of associational life such as the

    generation of what Robert Putnam and others have

    discussed as social capital.

    Legitimate peripheral participation and situated learning

    Rather than looking to learning as the acquisition of certain

    forms of knowledge, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger have

    tried to place it in social relationships – situations of co-

    participation. As William F. Hanks puts it in his introduction

    to their book: ‘Rather than asking what kind of cognitive

    processes and conceptual structures are involved, they ask

    what kinds of social engagements provide the proper

    context for learning to take place’ (1991: 14). It not so much

    that learners acquire structures or models to understand

    the world, but they participate in frameworks that that have

    structure. Learning involves participation in a community of

    practice. And that participation ‘refers not just to local

    events of engagement in certain activities with certain



    people, but to a more encompassing process of being active

    participants in the practices of social communities and

    constructing identities in relation to these communities’

    (Wenger 1999: 4).

    Lave and Wenger illustrate their theory by observations of

    different apprenticeships (Yucatec midwives, Vai and Gola

    tailors, US Navy quartermasters, meat-cutters, and non-

    drinking alcoholics in Alcoholics Anonymous). Initially

    people have to join communities and learn at the periphery.

    The things they are involved in, the tasks they do may be

    less key to the community than others.

    As they become more competent they become more

    involved in the main processes of the particular community.

    They move from legitimate peripheral participation to into

    ‘full participation (Lave and Wenger 1991: 37). Learning is,

    thus, not seen as the acquisition of knowledge by

    individuals so much as a process of social participation. The

    nature of the situation impacts significantly on the process.

    Learners inevitably participate in communities of practitioners

    and… the mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a

    community. “Legitimate peripheral participation” provides a way

    to speak about the relations between newcomers and old-

    timers, and about activities, identities, artefacts, and

    communities of knowledge and practice. A person’s intentions to

    learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured

    through the process of becoming a full participant in a socio-

    cultural practice. This social process, includes, indeed it

    subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills. (Lave and



    Wenger 1991: 29)

    In this there is a concern with identity, with learning to

    speak, act and improvise in ways that make sense in the

    community. What is more, and in contrast with learning as

    internalization, ‘learning as increasing participation in

    communities of practice concerns the whole person acting

    in the world’ (Lave and Wenger 1991: 49). The focus is on

    the ways in which learning is ‘an evolving, continuously

    renewed set of relations’ (ibid.: 50). In other words, this is a

    relational view of the person and learning (see the

    discussion of selfhood).

    Situated learning

    This way of approaching learning is something more than

    simply ‘learning by doing’ or experiential learning. As Mark

    Tennant (1997: 73) has pointed out, Jean Lave’s and Etienne

    Wenger’s concept of situatedness involves people being full

    participants in the world and in generating meaning. ‘For

    newcomers’, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991: 108-9)

    comment, ‘the purpose is not to learn from talk as a

    substitute for legitimate peripheral participation; it is to

    learn to talk as a key to legitimate peripheral participation’.

    This orientation has the definite advantage of drawing

    attention to the need to understand knowledge and

    learning in context. However, situated learning depends on

    two claims:

    It makes no sense to talk of knowledge that is

    decontextualized, abstract or general.



    New knowledge and learning are properly conceived as

    being located in communities of practice (Tennant 1997:


    Questions can be raised about both of these claims. It may

    be, with regard to the first claim, for example, that learning

    can occur that is seemingly unrelated to a particular context

    or life situation.

    Second, there may situations where the community of

    practice is weak or exhibits power relationships that

    seriously inhibit entry and participation. There is a risk, as

    Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger acknowledge, of

    romanticizing communities of practice. However, there has

    been a tendency in their earlier work of falling into this trap.

    ‘In their eagerness to debunk testing, formal education and

    formal accreditation, they do not analyse how their

    omission [of a range of questions and issues] affects power

    relations, access, public knowledge and public

    accountability’ (Tennant 1997: 79). Their interest in the

    forms of learning involved communities of practice shares

    some common element with Ivan Illich’s advocacy of

    learning webs and informal education. However, where Jean

    Lave and Etienne Wenger approached the area through an

    exploration of local encounters and examples, Ivan Illich

    started with a macro-analysis of the debilitating effects of

    institutions such as schooling. In both cases the sweep of

    their arguments led to an under-appreciation of the uses of

    more formal structures and institutions for learning.

    However, this was understandable given the scale of the

    issues and problems around learning within



    professionalized and bureaucratic institutions such as

    schools their respective analyses revealed.

    Learning organizations and learning communities

    These ideas have been picked-up most strongly within

    organizational development circles. The use of the

    apprenticeship model made for a strong set of connections

    with important traditions of thinking about training and

    development within organizations. Perhaps more

    significantly, the growing interest in ‘the learning

    organization‘ in the 1990s alerted many of those concerned

    with organizational development to the significance of

    informal networks and groupings. Jean Lave’s and Etienne

    Wenger’s work around communities of practice offered a

    useful addition. It allowed proponents to argue that

    communities of practice needed to be recognized as

    valuable assets. The model gave those concerned with

    organizational development a way of thinking about how

    benefits could accrue to the organization itself, and how

    value did not necessarily lie primarily with the individual

    members of a community of practice.

    Acknowledging that communities of practice affect performance

    is important in part because of their potential to overcome the

    inherent problems of a slow-moving traditional hierarchy in a

    fast-moving virtual economy. Communities also appear to be an

    effective way for organizations to handle unstructured problems

    and to share knowledge outside of the traditional structural

    boundaries. In addition, the community concept is

    acknowledged to be a means of developing and maintaining

    long-term organizational memory. These outcomes are an

    important, yet often unrecognized, supplement to the value that



    individual members of a community obtain in the form of

    enriched learning and higher motivation to apply what they

    learn. (Lesser and Storck 2001)

    Lesser and Storck go on to argue that the social capital

    resident in communities of practice leads to behavioural

    change—’change that results in greater knowledge sharing,

    which in turn positively influences business performance’.

    Attention to communities of practice could, thus enhance

    organizational effectiveness and profitability.

    For obvious reasons, formal education institutions have

    been less ready to embrace these ideas. There was a very

    real sense in which the direction of the analysis

    undermined their reason for being and many of their

    practices. However, there have been some significant

    explorations of how schooling, for example, might

    accommodate some of the key themes and ideas in Jean

    Lave’s and Etienne Wenger’s analysis. In particular, there

    was significant mileage in exploring how communities of

    practice emerge within schooling, the process involved and

    how they might be enhanced. Furthermore, there was also

    significant possibility in a fuller appreciation of what

    constitutes practice (as earlier writers such Carr and

    Kemmis 1986, and Grundy 1987 had already highlighted:

    see curriculum and praxis). Perhaps the most helpful of

    these explorations is that of Barbara Rogoff and her

    colleagues (2001). They examine the work of an innovative

    school in Salt Lake City and how teachers, students and

    parents were able to work together to develop an approach

    to schooling based around the principle that learning



    ‘occurs through interested participation with other


    Conclusion – issues and implications for educators and animateurs

    Jean Lave’s and Etienne Wenger’s concern here with

    learning through participation in group/collective life and

    engagement with the ‘daily round’ makes their work of

    particular interest to informal educators and those

    concerned with working with groups. These are themes that

    have part of the informal education tradition for many

    years – but the way in which Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger

    have developed an understanding of the nature of learning

    within communities of practice, and how knowledge is

    generated allows educators to think a little differently about

    the groups, networks and associations with which they are

    involved. It is worth looking more closely at the processes

    they have highlighted.

    The notion of community of practice and the broader

    conceptualization of situated learning provides significant

    pointers for practice. Here I want to highlight three:

    Learning is in the relationships between people. As

    McDermott (in Murphy 1999:17) puts it:

    Learning traditionally gets measured as on the assumption that

    it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their

    heads… [Here] learning is in the relationships between people. Learning is in the conditions that bring people together and

    organize a point of contact that allows for particular pieces of



    information to take on a relevance; without the points of

    contact, without the system of relevancies, there is not learning,

    and there is little memory. Learning does not belong to

    individual persons, but to the various conversations of which

    they are a part.

    Within systems oriented to individual accreditation, and

    that have lost any significant focus on relationship through

    pressures on them to meet centrally-determined targets,

    this approach to learning is challenging and profoundly

    problematic. It highlights just how far the frameworks for

    schooling, lifelong learning and youth work in states like

    Britain and Northern Ireland have drifted away from a

    proper appreciation of what constitutes learning (or indeed

    society). Educators have a major educational task with

    policymakers as well as participants in their programmes

    and activities.

    Educators work so that people can become participants

    in communities of practice. Educators need to explore

    with people in communities how all may participate to the

    full. One of the implications for schools, as Barbara Rogoff

    and her colleagues suggest is that they must prioritize

    ‘instruction that builds on children’s interests in a

    collaborative way’. Such schools need also to be places

    where ‘learning activities are planned by children as well as

    adults, and where parents and teachers not only foster

    children’s learning but also learn from their own

    involvement with children’ (2001: 3). Their example in this

    area have particular force as they are derived from actual

    school practice.



    A further, key, element is the need to extend associational

    life within schools and other institutions. Here there is a

    strong link here with long-standing concerns among

    informal educators around community and participation

    and for the significance of the group (for schooling see the

    discussion of informal education and schooling; for youth

    work see young people and association; and for

    communities see community participation).

    There is an intimate connection between knowledge

    and activity. Learning is part of daily living as Eduard

    Lindeman argued many years ago. Problem solving and

    learning from experience are central processes (although,

    as we have seen, situated learning is not the same as

    ‘learning by doing’ – see Tennant 1997: 73). Educators need

    to reflect on their understanding of what constitutes

    knowledge and practice. Perhaps one of the most important

    things to grasp here is the extent to which education

    involves informed and committed action.

    These are fascinating areas for exploration and, to some

    significant extent, take informal educators in a completely

    different direction to the dominant pressure towards

    accreditation and formalization.

    Further reading

    Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) Situated Learning.

    Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University

    of Cambridge Press. 138 pages. Pathbreaking book that first

    developed the idea that learning ‘is a process of



    participation in communities of practice, participation that

    is at first legitimately peripheral but that increases gradually

    in engagement and complexity’.

    Rogoff, B., Turkanis, C. G. and Bartlett, L. (eds.) (2001)

    Learning Together: Children and Adults in a School

    Community, New York: Oxford University Press. 250 + x

    pages. Arising out of the collaboration of Barbara Rogoff

    (who had worked with Jean Lave) with two teachers at an

    innovative school in Salt Lake City, this book explores how

    they were able to develop an approach to schooling based

    around the principle that learning ‘occurs through

    interested participation with other learners’.

    Etienne Wenger (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning,

    meaning and identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University

    Press. 318 + xv pages. Extended discussion of the concept of

    community of practice and how it might be approached

    within organizational development and education.


    Allee, V. (2000) ‘Knowledge networks and communities of

    learning’, OD Practitioner 32( 4),

    Accessed December 30, 2002.

    Bandura, A. (1977) Social Learning Theory, Englewood Cliffs,

    NJ: Prentice Hall.

    Carr, W. and Kemmis, S. (1986) Becoming Critical.

    Education, knowledge and action research, Lewes: Falmer.



    Gardner, H. (1993) Intelligence Reframed. Multiple

    intelligences for the 21st century, New York: Basic Books.

    Grundy, S. (1987) Curriculum: Product or praxis, Lewes:


    Lave, J. (1982). A comparative approach to educational

    forms and learning processes. Anthropology and Education

    Quarterly, 13(2): 181-187

    Lave, Jean (1988). Cognition in practice: mind, mathematics

    and culture in everyday life. New York: Cambridge

    University Press

    Lave, Jean ‘Teaching, as learning, in practice’, Mind, Culture,

    and Activity (3)3: 149-164

    Lave, Jean (forthcoming) Changing Practice: The Politics of

    Learning and Everyday Life

    Lave, Jean and Chaiklin, Seth (eds.) (1993) Understanding

    Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context, Cambridge:

    University of Cambridge Press.

    Lesser, E. L. and Storck, J. (2001) ‘Communities of practice

    and organizational performance’, IBM Systems Journal


    Accessed December 30, 2002.



    Merriam, S. and Caffarella (1991, 1998) Learning in

    Adulthood. A comprehensive guide, San Francisco: Jossey-


    Murphy, P. (ed.) (1999) Learners, Learning and Assessment,

    London: Paul Chapman. See, also, Leach, J. and Moon, B.

    (eds.) (1999) Learners and Pedagogy, London: Paul

    Chapman. 280 + viii pages; and McCormick, R. and Paetcher,

    C. (eds.) (1999) Learning and Knowledge, London: Paul

    Chapman. 254 + xiv pages.

    Ramsden, P. (1992) Learning to Teach in Higher Education,

    London: Routledge.

    Rogoff, Barbara and Lave, Jean (eds.) (1984) Everyday

    Cognition: Its Development in Social Context. Cambridge

    Mass.: Harvard University Press.

    Salomon, G. (ed.) (1993) Distributed Cognitions.

    Psychological and educational considerations, Cambridge:

    Cambridge University Press.

    Smith, M. K. (1999) ‘The social/situational orientation to

    learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education,

    Tennant, M. (1988, 1997) Psychology and Adult Learning,

    London: Routledge.



    Tennant, M. and Pogson, P. (1995) Learning and Change in

    the Adult Years. A developmental perspective, San

    Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

    Wenger, Etienne (1998) ‘Communities of Practice. Learning

    as a social system’, Systems Thinker, Accessed

    December 30, 2002.

    Wenger, Etienne (c 2007) ‘Communities of practice. A brief

    introduction’. Communities of practice

    [ Accessed January 14,


    Wenger, Etienne and Richard McDermott, and William

    Snyder (2002) Cultivating communities of practice: a guide

    to managing knowledge. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard

    Business School Press.


    Etienne Wenger’s homepage: has some material on

    communities of practice.

    Communities of Practice discussion group: maintained by

    John Smith at Yahoo.

    Acknowledgements: The picture ‘Community of practice’ is

    taken from sonson’s photosream at Flickr

    [] and

    reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-

    Commercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic Licence.




    How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2003, 2009) ‘Jean

    Lave, Etienne Wenger and communities of practice’, the

    encyclopedia of informal education,

    © Mark K. Smith 2003, 2009

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