Communities of Practice and the NQS – an alternative model for PD
This article has been submitted by our content partner, Early Childhood Specialist and Co-Founder of Paisley Park ELC Katarzyna Wieczorek-Ghisso B. Teach, B.Ed., M.Ed. (Early Childhood). Ms Wieczorek-Ghisso has been involved in the early childhood education and care sector for over 20 years and is passionate about sharing her experience through the written word on topics that directly impact ECEC professionals.
Traditional professional development approaches have long centred on the learner being in receipt of ‘knowledge’ from that of the expert educator. For most early childhood professionals, learning of this nature has typically occurred through participation in external workshops outside of the workplace context.
Whilst such approaches do have potential to yield positive results, translating what has been learned to others, as often expected, presents a real struggle for some educators.
In this article, I introduce the idea of ‘Communities of Practice’ (CoP), a professional learning approach considered more meaningful in facilitating focussed dialogue and enriching workplace relationships, a ‘space’ where participants learn how to ‘learn from within’.
The notion of CoP is not a new phenomenon.
This type of learning practice has existed for as long as people have been sharing experiences through storytelling. Inspired by scholars such as Brown and Vygotsky, interest in researching ‘groups’ has emerged to better understand the collective experience of people in a given context.
Viewed as part of both simple and complex social systems, CoP embeds learning in settings where dual processes of meaning making takes place.
Meaning making happens when CoPs are committed to working with the same collective, have a genuine connection, and share the vision of the group.
The value exists in the type of knowledge and information that is openly shared, hence the growth of the group emerges from their interaction as they engage with each other and discuss information. Members may or may not interact with each other outside of the group, but their collective interests bind them in the community.
CoPs are successful when they respect each other’s contributions and, the actions of the group have all member interests at heart. Regular discussions may bring about suggestions for changes in practice which the community agree to. Practices may or may not be concrete, however the act of the conversation between participants may result in improved practice, which in itself contributes to the community.
In essence ‘Communities of Practice’ consist of people who come together to engage in a process of collective learning.
The structural characteristics of CoP are Domain, Community and Practice:
- Domain refers to the body of knowledge which inspires participants to maintain focused discussions.
- Community refers to the social context for the learning to take place, fostering productive interaction.
- Practice refers to the topic of interest for the groups’ focus which evolves throughout the collaborative reflective process.
Engaging with others directly in conversation and reflection is but one part of this process, CoP can extend their approach to include review of various forms of documented practice and resources sharing, (Wenger, 1998).
Through regular interaction, which may take place formally or informally, CoPs succeed in reflective discussion, contribute to a review of current centre practices and encourage participants to make effective and meaningful decisions.
In respecting each other’s viewpoints, CoP participants take learning seriously and commit to the groups shared longevity. Shared decision making has been explored as a valuable approach in early education and care contexts, based on the idea that learning occurs best in groups when people share their endeavours and take collegial responsibility.
Whilst in-person discussions are highly valuable in physical settings, CoP can also exist ‘virtually’ by collaborating online or even via telephone.
In CoP, participants are intrinsically motivated and have a sense of ownership and responsibility for group tasks and group learning. However, unless groups are created and fostered, they become collectives with no real direction, purpose or long term outcome.
Successful groups involve participants who are purposely created and supported by the provision of professional learning strategies such as mentoring, modelling, coaching and scaffolding, which provide the best opportunity for participants to draw on each other’s expertise.
Learning is strengthened when educators draw on their past experience to guide their decision making and in CoP, knowledge sharing can happen. Given that knowledge is determined by previous experience, having a forum for sharing provides the opportunity for those contributing to feel valued.
As stipulated in the National Quality Standards, Quality Area 4, collaborative workplace relationships are now mandated in early childhood education and care (ECEC) services across Australia. Furthermore, assessors are expecting to observe educators working collaboratively to affirm, challenge, support and learn from each other to further develop their skills and to improve practice and relationships.
Whilst these standards don’t specifically indicate ways educators should achieve this result, they recommend the establishment of a lively culture of professional inquiry where issues relating to programs, the design of the environment and educator practices are openly debated.
It is therefore expected that educators engage in joint decision making and development of common understandings. Whilst assessors may observe collaborative practices taking place during the course of their visit, they will also expect to discuss ways the service uses each other’s strengths, talents and interests, the regularity of meetings that include collaborative work, opportunities for staff to learn from one another, how staff support and mentor each other, and how innovative ideas are shared and enacted.
Whilst collaborative relationships between staff can be demonstrated for the purpose of mandated standards in a variety of ways, this article proposes an ongoing approach formally in place to support educators learn and grow as a collective group.
Recommended to take place regularly, CoPs can be established for the purpose of regular engagement where collaborative discussions form the basis of ongoing quality improvement. Given participants commit to this process, reflective forums such as proposed here, would go a long way to demonstrate positive ways educators can learn from each other.
Successful CoPs are purposeful in their approach, use time productively and commit to drive long term success, regardless of the hurdles that may come along the way. With a mindset of regular engagement and commitment to longevity, participants can preserve the team’s identity and continue their professional journey.