From individual learning to communities of practice

In research, learning can be analysed on several levels. The learning of individuals is the traditional and most typical and everyday way of thinking about learning. However, in the workplace context individual learning is just one form of learning (Tynjälä, 2008, p. 132).

In addition, we can speak about the learning of groups, the learning of communities, the learning of organisations, the learning of inter-organisational networks and even the learning of regions. As a consequence of the plurality and multilevel nature of learning, the research in the field has expanded from pedagogical and psychological studies to multidisciplinary research efforts involving fields such as adult, vocational and higher education, labour studies, organisational research, economics, management studies, economic geography and so on (Tynjälä, 2008, p. 132).

Thus, learning is not described through cognitive processes but as a process of social participation. This notion of learning as participation was elaborated by Wenger in his later work which brought the concept “communities of practice” into the everyday language of learning research. By communities of practice Wenger refers to the informal communities that people form as they pursue joint enterprises at work and during their leisure time. Through participation in these communities people share their knowledge, negotiate meanings, form their identities, and develop their work practices (Tynjälä, 2008, p. 136).

Considering learning as a participatory process is consistent with recent accounts on the nature of expertise as a collective rather than individual phenomenon. Bereiter and Scardamalia (1993) emphasise that expertise is not confined to the individual but may also be applied to groups that function as units. For example, scientific research teams, sport teams, surgical teams and teams of air traffic controllers form units that carry out joint enterprises. In Wenger’s (1998) terms, they form communities of practice. Engeström (2004) goes still further suggesting that expertise may be located and distributed not only in communities of practice but in multiple interacting communities. He argues that expansive learning producing radical transformations in and between organisations is a key process of expertise and involves what he calls negotiated knotworking as the defining characteristic of collaborative and transformative expertise. Knotworking is characterised by a pulsating movement of tying, untying and retying together otherwise separate threads of activity. People who work in separate departments or organisations come together for certain purposes, to negotiate meanings, solve problems, and then continue with other partners for other purposes, maybe to re-form again later on. Engeström argues that knotworking is a significant new form of organising and performing expert work activity (Tynjälä, 2008, p. 136).


Think for a moment about learning at the level of community. Share your thoughts with your fellow students.