Saturday, December 12, 2009

Engaging with theory

I have recently been re-reading Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger's very influential book Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (1991) and exploring both the huge impact around, and various critiques of, Wenger's work since on communities of practice. 

Without doubt, the concept of communities of practice has a real resonance to our understanding of how learning happens. Wenger and his colleagues have moved beyond learning focused at the level of the teacher-learner and articulated it instead as a wider - and crucially social - process. 

In the context of learning spaces though, one of the most interesting aspects is Wenger's idea of repertoire - that is, the way that particular objects, spaces and procedures which 'define' a specific community of practice. As he says, this is  “the process of giving form to our experience by producing objects that congeal that experience into ‘thingness’. In so doing, we create points of focus around which the negotiation of meaning becomes organised (…) any community of this kind produces abstractions, tools, symbols, stories, terms and concepts that reify something of that practice in a congealed form.” (Wenger 1998:58-59)

Wenger is most interested in this as a means of stabilisation, where objects, spaces and procedures become unthought about  'reifications', helping to embed and normalise a community of practice. But if we are exploring what might make better learning spaces, then both the communities of practice of post-compulsory learning and different subject disciplines compulsory education have to be problematicised. Here, then, we can begin to think about learning spaces as an area of contested repertoires. Which has all sorts of potential for thinking about both conceptual frameworks and research methods. 

Image: photograph by ex-RCA group Jan Family

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