Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Chapter 19: Birds of a Feather? Communities of Practice and Knowledge Communities

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Chapter 19: Birds of a Feather? Communities of Practice and Knowledge Communities

Article excerpt


Seventeenth century poet John Donne (1967) wrote that "No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main" (pp. 100-101). The notion that man, as a social creature, needs others to live and learn is certainly not new to our culture's way of thinking. When one shares commonalities with others, communities are formed. As dynamic organizations, different communities explore different commonalities and work in different ways. While no two communities are alike, some tend to take on similar characteristics in regard to their structure, operation, and goals. Quite often, the goal of a community is improvement: neighborhood development, public community service, or improvement of practice. In recent years, two distinct theories concerning communities have emerged in regard to group efforts to improve practice: communities of practice (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998a) and knowledge communities (Craig, 1992, 1995). On the surface, it would certainly be easy to believe that these two theories are basically the same--two new terms describing the same age-old ideas. However, the two concepts share more differences than similarities. The purpose of this work is to explore the two theories, their common traits, and their distinct characteristics so that others may better understand the two concepts should they choose to utilize such communities in their research and/or practice. The delineation between the two models is signifanct to those studying communities, their role in the educational process, and their impact on professional practice.


The term "community of practice" was collaboratively coined by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991) in an effort to provide a perspective on learning and knowing within a social context. This was done while the two where studying apprenticeship and situated learning. At that time, they defined a community of practice as "a set of relations among persons, activity, and the world, over time and in relation with other tangential and overlapping communities of practice" (p. 98). Subsequently, Wenger (n.d) has provided the following definition: "Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern of a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly" (para. 1).

Communities of practice exist in organizations, government, education, associations, the social sector, international development, and online communities. In other words, they are everywhere. Recognition of their existence allows the members of the community to transcend the formal structures listed above and focus on improving the practice that defines the community and brought about its existence. It is this shared practice that differentiates the community of practice from other communities. A community of practice consists of members that share more than simply an interest; a community of practice shares expertise, competence, learning, activities, discussions, information, tools, stories, experiences, and a knowledge base. A community of practice not only shares knowledge; but also it creates, organizes, revises, and passes on knowledge among the members of the community.

Wenger (1998a) describes following three dimensions of community as they relate to community of practice:

1. mutual engagement (how the community functions)--"people are engaged in actions whose meanings they negotiate with one another" (p. 73).

2. a joint enterprise (what the community is about)--the community's "negotiated response to their situation ... in spite of all the forces and influences that are beyond their control" (p. 77).

3. a shared repertoire (what capability the community has produced)--"Over time, the joint pursuit of an enterprise creates resources for negotiating meaning" (p. 82).

In terms of community, these three commonalities provide the formation, the cohesion, and the goal of a community of practice. …

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