The Wallace Foundation’s Education Leadership Professional Learning Communities

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The Wallace Foundation’s Education Leadership Professional Learning Communities

The learning community (LC) construct is grounded in a social theory of learning that emerged in the early 1990s, when learning began to be understood as a social process mediated by relationships, not just a cognitive act in an individual's mind (Lave and Wenger, 1991).1 According to this view, participants in an LC not only learn from each other, but learn how to behave as members of the community, including how to exchange knowledge, acquire skills and change their practice. This social theory of learning also critiques conventional theories for separating learning from practice and for endorsing abstract, codified knowledge over the processes of knowing and practice (Amina and Roberts, 2008).2 These scholars argue for "learning in action" as the appropriate theoretical frame to reflect how people learn in reality. People do not stop what they are doing to learn - they learn in the act of engaging and doing.

Perhaps the most concise and inclusive discussion of the main elements of LCs that builds on earlier work by Etienne Wenger is by Snyder and de Souza Briggs


Community - who belongs to the LC. In an LC, member interaction is typically governed by mutual engagement, co-dependence and the pursuit of a joint enterprise.

Domain - what the LC is about. This means the common issues or problems that LC members wrestle with or consider essential to what they do. In doing so, the LC generates a "repertoire" (tools, documents, routines, vocabulary, symbols, artifacts, etc.) that embody the accumulated knowledge of the community (Wenger, 1998, 2000).

Practice - how the LC generates learning. This means that knowledge is generated in and through practice, abolishing the artificial separation between learning and action. Learning is generated as a result of the community doing real work together. The learning includes tacit knowledge, sometimes referred to as "know‐how" ingrained in how people do things. It is knowing how to do something "by heart." The learning also generates explicit knowledge, sometimes referred to as "know‐what." This is codified knowledge that is more easily transferrable (Griffith and Sawyer, 2010).

Source: Snyder and de Souza Briggs (2005)

Integrating the above brings us to a definition of LCs as groups of practitioners sharing a common concern or question, who deepen their knowledge and experience on a given topic or practice by learning together on an ongoing basis as they pursue their work.

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  1. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  2. "Knowing in action: Beyond communities of practice." Ash Amina and Joanne Roberts (2008). Research Policy, 37, 353-369.
  3. Communities of Practice: A new tool for government managers. William M. Snyder and Xavier de Souza Briggs (2005). Collaboration Series. IBM Center for the Business of Government.