When I realised that Etienne Wenger was going to be one of the keynote speakers at EC-TEL 2014, I was thrilled. My learning and professional development has grown with social learning theories, and Etienne Wenger has been one of the most influential learning theorists in my own learning. In fact I develop my PhD on virtual worlds and education around these social learning theories. What impressed me the most about Etienne Wenger’s talk is the clarity with which he describes his own movement within these theories and the way his thoughts have evolved in relation to our growing society and world. So Etienne Wenger started his keynote address with a question. He asked “What are the ways of thinking of people about knowing?”
Etienne Wenger at EC-TEL 2014 Keynote Address
He described how the way education has evolved deals with imparting a body of knowledge to learners. Wenger describes this as a “closed learning system”. We have always seen learning this way. Our students are used to this form of learning. During my PhD investigations, my pre-service teachers admitted that they didn’t feel they were learning because according to them learning was about listening to a lecturer, taking notes and letting the lecturer define what they should learn and how they should learn it. This defines our closed system of learning.
He describes how in the process of the development of the communities of practice theory, he together with Gene Lave (an anthropologist), started observing communities of apprenticeships in tribes. From this they emerged with a theory of organised learning where the apprentice would establish himself in a community, tracing learning as a trajectory from the periphery of the community to the centre of the community as his skills and competences develop.
So the social theory of learning questions meaning and how this drives learning. This equates to the meaningful engagement with the world. And ironically the very opposite happens in our schools. Most often we eliminate the need for meaning – we say to our children – ‘you don’t need to understand what you’re doing right now. Maybe you will understand it in the future’. So the practice of doing things which are meaningful somehow gets sidelined for the curricular content.
However, Etienne Wenger provokes – “if knowledge is a social product then it is as complex as the social world. The trajectory into the community leads to the transformation of a person. The concept of identity then becomes a central concept in the theory of learning”.
So the evolution of communities doesn’t just happen in apprenticeships and training, but communities can also be observed in other societal practices such as in work and employment. In these instances communities are formed to help survive the job. The community created by people becomes a partnership to learn how to deal with whatever they need to do. so in this way we can view trajectories in a different way than the apprenticeship community. And in these communities formed ad hoc, people’s trajectories move and they touch each other and come into contact briefly whenever people need – a constant flow of people falling out of or joining in these trajectories, still leaving an impact on the community. These communities become a constant negotiation of the socially defined competences and the personal experiences brought in by all the members. And this negotiation itself defines the community. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all the members have to agree but an equilibrium needs to be established. This equilibrium then becomes very much defined by the close relationship of power and learning. [I would really suggest reading a bit of Foucault for this purpose :
So then the communities, in this complex mesh of learning trajectories assimilate to a landscape of practice marking your trajectory in learning. So the questions now change and evolve and now we start asking ‘how do I develop an identity in a complex landscape of learning and knowledge?’ With so many communities, ‘how could we leave the mark on the community?’ ‘how can I influence the community I form part of?’
However we cannot misunderstand. Wenger says, “We’re not just moving from a collective society to an individual society – it is still socially developed. But the negotiation of identity knowledgeability becomes more distinct. The 21st century is going to be a century of identity. In the past the community defined your identity – but the burden of knowledgeability is shifting from the community to the person doing the learning trajectory. Creating identity is going to be the main learning challenge”.
Etienne Wenger then concluded his talk with a reflection followed by a provocative question: “Identity becomes a transformative invitation – a teacher’s deepest pedagogical resource. A slight breach of the low, it is almost a theorem of love, that we can invite others into our own identities… let them be what they are not, and thus start what cannot be started“.
So Etienne Wenger’s concluding question to his insightful talk was: “If you are going to be a driving force in shaping the future of learning then how can your theory and practice help learners and educators address the fundamental learning challenge of today?” … I ask myself, what am I going to concretely do to help influence teacher education?