What are Communities of Practice?

picture: http://www.sdc-migration.ch/en/Home/About_the_Network/Community_of_Practice

I seem to be going on and on about Communities of Practice (CoP). But I can already hear your questions. What are these so important-much-talked-about-in-your-blog communities of practice? Why do you spend so much energy on communities of practice? What difference do they make? A PhD about Communities of Practice for Interpreting? Are you sure?

It is only fair that I dedicate some time to explain and make you think about Communities of Practice. That's what this blog is all about; a platform to chat and bounce ideas at each other so that I can 'test' some of my findings and you may test some of yours!
I am a very down to earth person who needs to 'do' things. A PhD is a great idea but there is no way I am going to spend so much effort speaking to myself for the sake of getting a PhD. Pointless. I am using the PhD as a framework to help me think, reflect and structure my findings so that they may be applied to a project which is close to my heart; but who knows, maybe lots of 'baby projects' will follow!

My project is simple: I wish to create a virtual common platform where the interpreting profession meets to give and take, exchanges and discusses key ideas, gives and receives further training, talks to each other as one profession, in the spirit of Communities of Practice. This virtual common platform will allow (candidate/junior/senior) interpreters to join interpreting practice with peers, classes from different accredited courses and initiatives. I imagine that when teaching interpreting, web-streaming will be the norm so that resources are shared. This is something I already do for simulated interpreting conferences for conference interpreting training at London Metropolitan University. The link is advertised on Facebook and many of our interpreting alumni make the most of the simulated events to carry on practising. We use Twitter during our simulated event so that anyone can contribute and talk to each other. I am not going to reveal everything at this stage... more to follow.

I could go on and on. We could get lost in comparing technologies, e-learning platforms, techniques for interpreting using technologies... But the main question is: are we thinking like a Community of Practice? Are we behaving like a Community of Practice?

But back to the point of this post today: what is a community of practice?

Etienne Wenger and Jean Lave, two key learning theorists helped me explain in a previous published paper:

“It is often assumed 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 our experience of participating in daily life? (Smith 2003, 2009). Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger rethink the learning process with their situated learning model, involving a process of engagement in a “community of practice”.
"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[1], cited in Smith 2003 2009)."

If we summarise, here are the three main ingredients for a successful Community of Practice:

Let's go back to what seems to be the recipe:

- Can we say that we have a shared domain?  I believe so. Even though it may look very fragmented, the interpreting profession is made of committed experts who have something to say. So much so that it often may be perceived as chaos. Hence the feeling of a disorganised profession by external observers.

- Can we say there is a community for interpreters as defined by Wenger? It is true to say there are lots of groups of professionals involved in interpreting. But are they joined together in the same discussions, with the same interest at heart? Competitiveness comes to mind... The intentions may be good but you know what they say about too many cooks...

- Can we say that we share a practice? In a sense, this is easy as we could say we are all interpreters. Isn't this enough? Well... no. Sharing resources, interacting as ONE community, joining efforts and a vision... We are not there yet even though many professional interpreting organisations will claim they do just that.
You now know what the three main ingredients are for a Community of Practice to exist. More thoughts naturally come to mind; are professional organisations for interpreters Communities of Practice? Is this a model that is needed? Share your thoughts. In my next post, this is a question I will explore further.

Looking forward to your thoughts. Happy reading!

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s own and should not be taken to represent the official positions of universities, networks or associations. 

[1] <http://www.ewenger.com/theory/>, visited June 07, 2011.  


  1. I think the model is definitely relevant for Interpreter's CoP. I keep wondering what role could be played by a code (of conduct or of ethics), i.e. a set of general (or specific) principles which outlines an overarching philosophy of an interpreter's behaviour. So another 'ingredient' (on top of those three) could be a code. Or....a code could be the bond among the three ingredients, something that glues all those three elements together. Even though on a specific level (and depending on the context), each interpreter might behave differently, it may still be possible to incorporate a very generic framework within which a member of interpreting community would function.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts Lukasz. It is true that the code of practice needs to be explored further as a bond among the various 'branches' of interpreting. I also feel that this code of ethics resonates for a community of practice. In my experience you can 'feel' a community of practice by the way members act, behave, think, interact, listen... This is an aspect of the CoP which I am exploring in my research. Looking forward to your further thoughts.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Our online interpreting exam experience: students as partners

Rising to the challenge with pride: a community of practice at work

The future of teaching and learning is in our hands