- My CoI experience continued and how it worked
Let me elaborate on my previous point that ‘teaching presence’ in a Community of Inquiry (CoI) means leadership rather than administration. The key element that distinguish a CoI from an ordinary social community lies in the element of ‘inquiry’, which means scrutinising and critically questioning each other’s work. However, if the critique triggers self-protection within the person being questioned, the defensive attitude might spread through socialisation around the CoI; then the ‘inquiry’ element of the CoI will soon be disabled. An open-sharing culture is to be sustained by the teacher’s intellectual leadership. If the leader is being constantly delighted by critical inquires and new knowledge constructed through the inquiry, (s)he directs students’ attention away from ego-protection to the interesting dynamics of knowledge construction process and discoveries. This is not something that can be achieved by administration, i.e., setting rules and correcting students’ behaviours.
Continuing my personal CoI story, Prof A later left our CoI when he changed his profession from academic to administration. In the absence of his leadership, the CoI broke into smaller groups by culture, interest or acquaintance. I ended up continuing a few micro-CoIs by individual contact, but the critical inquiry element and intellectual inspiration were never missing in any of the micro-CoIs. This is wonderful, and the origin of this wonder is Prof A’s intellectual leadership which has a life-long influence on his students’ thinking structure.
2. My CoP experience and how it worked
On Prof A’s departure, I was dropped off into Prof B’s research team of 5 to 20 researchers. Prof B’s group is a typical Community of Practice (CoP). Here the intellectual leadership was not so prominent as in my previous CoI. Maybe this is a deliberate withdrawal in order to make the students flourish. Prof B had the sensitivity of recognising people’s hidden talents and their developing capabilities, generosity of giving opportunities of ‘peripheral participation’ (Lave and Wenger 1991), capacity to create new opportunities, and patience to tolerate and make up the messes made by his inexperienced apprentices. When he was young, he was recommended to become an administrator, but he said he wanted to continue to do with his research; so he turned down that opportunity and never went on that track. He ended up a leader of an academic discipline, which does take diligent engagement with so many CoP members internationally for a lifetime. At this point, we’ll need to expand the boundary of the CoP from the immediate research group to Prof B’s entire professional network.
Prof B’s mind was on matching his research students with opportunities of participating in his CoP. Through peripheral and progressive participation, students were developed into mature academics. He involved his students in big and small tasks in his teaching according to their levels of development, through which they could participate in all his teaching preparation and communication with the coursework students. In every major conference, he would bring two of his students. During the conference breaks he would invite his international colleagues to his apartment for a cheese-and-wine party. The two travelling students, if they were very junior and shy, might start from collecting name cards for him in the party. If they were more mature, they would be among the guests and socialise with them. For even more mature students who had graduated to work as a junior faculty, he occasionally was absent from the committee meetings of his duty, asking the apprentice to join the meeting in his place, which was beyond their seniority but gave them a scaffolding experience of what (s)he would be responsible for in the future. He delegates important responsibilities as soon as the student appears to be able to do it; – unsurprisingly he spent much time to catch up the work when the apprentices constantly let him down. In this way all the apprentices who survived his training have substantial capacities and experiences. Note, none of these was out of deliberate effort. All were naturally brought forth as part of his playful personality. He simply enjoyed what he was doing and the people of his CoP, and didn’t think he was so important to be indispensable in every of his committee meetings. An ecology of ‘personal mastery’ (Senge 1990) around him inspired people to find their places in the ecology and strive to be part of the CoP.
Once a high profile summer school in our domain was advertised worldwide and Prof B received a personal invitation for sending his students. Prof B thus offered two scholarships to his students for this summer school. He sorted out the money from his research funds and asked who were interested. At the time he had about seven research students. Of course all of them (except one) wanted the scholarship dropped from heaven. A meeting was held to make a decision…. Students came to the meeting nervously, speculating who would be the two lucky ones and by what criteria?
Guess what? Prof B came in and declared, “So all of you are interested in the summer school? Alright! I’ll let all of you go.” And he sorted out the resource. -For the student who was not interested in the summer school, he later arranged another paid opportunity to give him equivalent experience. We were so amazed to hear his decision. You are never confined in a box.
I would say this is entrepreneurship – always focusing on innovation and creating new resources and opportunities to bring out the potential of people. This is also leadership in contrast to managerialism that often restricts bottom initiatives by enforcing rigid structures. Yes, it takes entrepreneurship-leadership to make a CoP work.
If we compare the approaches of Prof A and Prof B, I may define, in general terminology, the former an education approach and the latter a management approach. The education approach is to identify people’s weakness and teach them to improve. The management approach is to identify people’s strength and use them so that they can develop further. To be more specific to Prof A and Prof B’s personal approaches, I would see the former was a CoI approach and the latter a CoP approach.
In the CoI approach, knowledge is primarily assumed external to the learner (although Socrate taught by asking questions); learning is an independent activity split from work and everyday life (therefore ‘student’ is a distinctive identity); intellectual input or inspiration is an explicit effort to make students learn. In the CoP approach, knowledge (or capability) is primarily assumed to be generated within the learner. There is no explicit ‘teaching’. Apprentices learn by doing and experiencing. This might be better explained by Matthew 25: 14-30 in the Bible – that whoever is willing to use his talents to help others and diligently does so will have more talents. In a CoP model, the master’s job is to create and match opportunities for his apprentices to use their talents so that they can multiply their talents. The teaching is implicit. Through the CoP lens, there is no such identity as ‘student’ – everybody is a student and a teacher throughout their life journey in every encountering with other human beings.
Is one better than another? I would say they are complementary rather than comparable for a student’s development. To me, both were exactly what I needed at the specific stage of my academic life. I think all students need first the inspiration of a good CoI then the experience of a welcoming CoP to grow into the community.
To this point I invite colleagues to reflect: what is the purpose for academics doing research projects in university? I think the main purpose is still for education. If we put our own performance or reputation at the centre of the work, there is little chance for junior people to have a pathway to grow into a CoP. To enable such a pathway, we need to shift our focus from “ensuring a perfect research work” to “educating people involved in the project” – including the research students and assistants, industry partners and participants of our survey”. To develop the research students, we need to have in our personal characters (1) proficiency of the area of research work; (2) empathetic understanding of people’s strength and need of development; (3) dare to delegate the work and grant autonomy to the apprentices; (4) willingness to pay the reputation cost constantly incurred by junior people’s immature work result and patience and capacity to restore the work quality when the junior people fail. More broadly, research projects are also vehicles for educating the research team, our collaborators, reviewers and the CoP we are situated. Research is also an education for the industry sector we are researching, not by a research report, but by engaging the practitioners in our CoP, and they learn through participation of our research process.
4. Community of Practice (CoP)
In this series of Posts I have not introduced the CoP framework so far. I assume readers are well familiar with this concept. Briefly, the CoP concept was invented by Lave and Wenger (1991) expressed in their book ‘Situated Learning’ and more specifically developed by Wenger (1998) ‘Community of Practice’. Personally, I feel the first book is very original and sufficient; the second book is overkill. Learning in this model happens through learners’ ‘legitimate peripheral participation’ in a CoP and progression toward the core of it. Figure 1 illustrates the layers.
Below is an excellent lecture by Prof Jean Lave explaining how her ethnographic observation of apprenticeship collapsed her education paradigm to arrive at this concept.
Lave, Jean; Wenger, Etienne (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Senge, Peter (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Arts and Practice of A Learning Organisation, London/Sydney, Random House.
Wenger, Etienne (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.