Etienne Wenger
Etienne Wenger
Jean Lave
Jean Lave

Though a social anthropologist, with a Ph.D. in the field from Harvard University, Jean Lave has focused much of her attention and research to education. With an interest in learner development, interaction, and social practices, she has developed significant theories contributing to pedagogical discussions. These include situated learning theory, where Lave expanded on the idea of learning being embedded within all areas of life, including personal interactions, activities, and culture. She has authored and co-authored three books covering both situated learning theory and other areas of education: Cognition in Practice (1988), Understanding Practice (with S. Chaiklin, 1993); and Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (with E. Wenger, 1991). She currently teaches education and geography at the UC Berkeley School of Information, and has continued her writing, continuing to focus on social practice and social theories, as well as taking on more ethnohistorical projects.

An active member of the academic world, Etienne Wenger (Wenger-Trayner as of 2011) has devoted his work to social learning theory. The primary focus of his writing and research has been the communities of practice theory he and Lave developed in the early 1990s. This interdisciplinary theory, with roots in both social anthropology and education, was critically examined by Wenger and Lave in their book Situated Learning; through their research on apprenticeships and relationships between student and teacher, they were able to reveal a more complex set of connections and dynamics taking place in the learning sector, including community-building between students. Wenger has expanded upon this theory in his books, including Communities of Practice: learning, meaning, and identity (1998), where he provides an academic context for the theory, and Cultivating Communities of Practice: a guide to managing knowledge (2002) a guide for educators and organization managers alike to utilize the theory in their particular setting and social structure.

With this expansion on his and Lave's original framework and ideas, Wenger has promoted the communities of practice theory through academic conferences and workplace seminars. The theory's popularity has gone beyond the traditional classroom, with Wenger called to speak on a variety of settings and contexts, including government institutions, healthcare, and businesses. He and his wife, Beverley Wenger-Trayner, currently work together as educational consultants, providing support for institutions looking to incorporate communities of practice and other learning theories into their present framework and structure.

Communities of Practice

Lave's and Wenger's communities of practice theory is based, primarily, on two fairly straightforward and, at face value, obvious concepts: the basis of situated learning theory, that learning takes place in nearly all contexts and situations, as well as the belief that learning and education are based around social interaction. As individuals who share common concerns and goals work alongside and/or with one another, learning how best to achieve these goals or examine these concerns, they create interactive and immersive communities of practice. Through regular interactions and communication, members of communities of practice will learn how to do whatever the specific focus of the community may be better, by learning from one another through a supportive environment and engaging dialogues.

Due to the nature of learning and social interactions, communities of practice are a prominent part of one's social, educational, and working life. The more overt forms of these communities include schools, with students working towards common learning goals and, it is hoped by Wenger and Lave, learning from one another, as well as the workplace, with coworkers more literally working within the same context alongside one another. Less obvious communities include the domestic space, as well as hobbies individuals may have and share with a group of others. Wenger notes that individuals' participation within a community of practice may vary, from an occasional member of a band to a new student at a school; however, so long as he or she is participating and interacting with people to some degree, that individual may be considered a member of the community.

The researchers have noted that the communities of practice theory is not, in and of itself, a new idea; however, providing a name for this concept and theory has helped better define it, and allowed them to create specific requirements for what constitutes a community of practice. Three characteristics are necessary:
  • The domain: Differentiating communities of practice from social clubs or networked connections between people, the domain is the shared area of interest which has led members of the community to join together and interact with one another. This pursuit of a particular interest, and membership in a community of practice, implies both a commitment to the specific interest as well as a competence distinguishing members from non-members of the community.
  • The community: A group of individuals in the same setting, with the same job titles or similar goals, does not constitute a community of practice. This communal relationship must be created through interactions within a shared domain, as members help each other, share information and resources with one another, and build relationships and connections which ultimately further their own abilities and learning.
  • The practice: Lave and Wenger stress the importance of this third characteristic as being what makes a community of practice a proper connective learning experience. It is not enough for individuals to share a common interest of, for example, sports or movies. Members within a domain, through ongoing communal interaction and dialogues, must develop a shared repertoire of resources, including tools and personal experiences, in overcoming mutual or recurring problems and meeting similarly shared goals. These resources and experience transition individuals to the role of practitioner, honing their particular skillsets collaboratively and supportively with one another. This characteristic as defined by the researcher also add a stipulation to the communities of practice theory, as they require time for members to build this wealth of resources and become practitioners in their own right.

In education, Lave and Wenger believe that the acknowledgement of this theory in the classroom is an extensive, though worthwhile, process. However, the researchers' observations essentially remove the traditional views of the classroom space and educational institutions as the sole realm of learning; broader communities of practice, they state, must be incorporated into the school system to both ground and benefit students' continued learning and success. Schools must also help create communities of interest between students with particular goals in mind, with students helping one another learn and develop their educational practices.

Technology has furthered the boundaries and potential limitations to the communities of practice theory, as individuals are no longer restricted by physical proximity to form a community. These groupings and connections may take place online, through chat forums and blogs, and can cover a wide range of expertise and focuses, including educational research, volunteer initiatives, and technological skills, developed through shared dialogues through a digital platform for communication.


Curricular Considerations

At present, the majority of school curriculums are focused on individual student goals; teachers are given a series of criteria from which they must evaluate and assess the work and progress of each student in their respective classrooms. Integrating the communities of practice theory into the classroom, however, would require an overhaul and redesign of this system. Though acting within a constructed and controlled domain towards honing an expected practice by the teacher, students within the classroom are nonetheless a community of practice, and should be treated via the curriculum as a cohesive, collaborative, and supportive unit. This would create a true communal goal for students to achieve and work towards, assisting one another and learning from each other as they develop their knowledge and skills. While group work provides this experience to an extent, the larger grouping of the classroom would allow students access to more opinions, skillsets, and resources provided by their classmates. The educator, in turn, would also become a member of this community, though acting more in a role akin to Prensky's partnering model, as a guide for student discovery, exploration, and dialogue. The theory of Problem-Based Learning, a component of Prensky's work, provides examples of this class-wide community of practice in action, with students problem solving and learning through collaboration.

Lave's and Wenger's assertion that other communities of practice aid in student learning should also be taken into account, and incorporated into the classroom and the curriculum. Educators should encourage students, at the secondary and particularly post-secondary levels, to share their areas of interest and goals for education, such as moving onto university, pursuing a Ph.D., or completing research in a particular area. These common goals can form a domain-within-a-domain inside of the classroom, based entirely on students' own self-motivated and initiated goals. Curriculum could then be built collaboratively between teacher and students (as recommended in Tapscott's net generation norms) to connect these goals to the learning space, with the teacher and other members of the classroom offering additional insights and resources to assist those specific members of communities in their pursuits.

Extending Questions

  1. Can communities of practice at the elementary and secondary levels be created within an entire school, or are there limits to potential large scale interactions (i.e. grade level, students' age, etc.)?
  2. Could a hypothetical classroom, with an educator and group of students who are unknown to one another, be considered a community of practice?
  3. Are there communities of practice created between faculty members at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels of education? How may these communities best hone their practice?

Researchers' External Links

Wenger's Twitter
Wenger's Blog
Interview with Lave


Lave, J. (1996). Teaching, as Learning, in Practice. Mind, Culture, and Activity 3(3). DOI:10.1207/s15327884mca0303_2
UC Berkeley School of Information. (2015). Jean Lave. Retrieved from
Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Retrieved from
Wenger-Trayner (n.d.). Etienne's bios. Retrieved from
Wenger-Trayner (n.d.). Introduction to communities of practice. Retrieved from

"A reconsideration of learning as a social, collective, rather than individual, psychological phenomenon offers the only way beyond the current state of affairs I can envision at this time." - Jean Lave
"We all belong to communities of practice. At home, at work, at school, in our hobbies - we belong to several communities of practice at any given time." - Etienne Wenger