Communities of practice are a growing trend in educational circles and, according to the U.S. Department of Education, “a promising strategy for sustained, substantive school improvement.” Professor Milbrey McLaughlin is a professor of Education at Stanford University. She believes that “The path to change in the classroom lies within and through professional learning communities.”But, what exactly are they?

In education circles, communities of practice (CoP) refer to groups of teachers who coalesce around their respective subject areas to learn more together. They share information and experiences in the kind of peer-to-peer learning environment that drives the group forward in a very natural way. In CoPs, staff members can share syllabi and curriculum guidelines, best practices in teaching and problem-solving as well as new and innovative learning methods.

On-site and online
There are many ways to facilitate CoPs. For instance, in Ohio and Washington, teacher CoPs began when groups of principals met to watch videos of teachers at work and then discussed what kind of teaching is effective and ineffective. The San Diego School District does collective school walk-throughs and then facilitates discussions about what they saw.

One alternative CoP set-up is within Web 2.0 structures like social media giants Facebook® and LinkedIn®. Presently, the U.S. Department of Education is supporting a research initiative to explore the design and utility of these online CoPs in hopes of taking advantage of technology for improved teaching practices.

Founding one of your own
So how do you get a teaching CoP off the ground in your school or district? Here are some first steps to consider:

  • Explore the option. If you’re at the district level, identify a school for the pilot program. Perhaps a school where teachers are looking for a little extra support. Or, if you’re at the school level, think critically about a department that could benefit from the kind of idea and experience sharing that comes with CoPs. Then, approach the requisite people who you envision as key players to gauge their interest.
  • Build support. If the first few individual meetings with key stakeholders go well, the next step is to facilitate a group meeting. There, you can talk about the specifics of a CoP for teachers in that specific school or department. Use the group setting to have a group discussion about what kinds of objectives the CoP would hope to achieve. This time around, leave some short and sweet informational pieces for the group to really get their wheels turning.
  • Give it a go. Start with a regular meeting schedule and let the agenda happen organically. What do people want to talk about? What elements of teaching have them most miffed at the moment? Distribute some fun new notebooks as a kind of group gift. That way, if someone wants to take notes during the meeting, they can. (For those that came without pens, a free pen might be a nice surprise, too.)

CoP growth and activities
Ideally, CoPs should grow on their own, but it may take some time for your CoP to fully blossom into a thriving group. Inspire organic growth by making meetings lively and fun. Here are some activity ideas to help engage current group members and recruit new ones.

  • Take time to brainstorm. Use the notebooks and pens to do some brainstorming. Ask participants to conduct research on new teaching trends in their respective fields and then report back at the next meeting. What did they find? Any easy ideas worth trying right away?
  • Enliven collaboration. Help teachers forge closer working relationships by working together. Maybe that means observing one another’s classes and offering friendly advice. Or, maybe it means coming up with an innovative lesson plan together, trying it out and reporting back to the CoP as a pair. What did each observe? What appeared effective and what didn’t?
  • Make it competitive. Take this idea to the next level with friendly competition. Take one meeting to develop guidelines and common metrics for the lessons before teaching partners draft formal lesson plans and put them to work in the classroom. Incentivize the contest with tech-y gadgets like a digital photo frame for first place and a large tech trap for second place. Have groups report back on the progress, discuss results and collectively choose a winner.

Communities of practice retain present members and draw in new ones simply by being an open and progressive group where valuable information, ideas and experiences combine to help everyone grow. If you haven’t tried them already, now’s a good time for your pilot test.

“The Promise of Communities of Practice.” U.S. Department of Education, 11 Feb. 2011. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.

“Communities of Practice in Schools.” American Association of School Administrators, Apr. 2007. Web. 14 Mar. 2013.

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