Using the Community of Practice Framework to Develop a More Inclusive Classroom

Olivia Aguilar, Associate Professor, McPhail Center for Environmental Studies, Denison University
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Using the Community of Practice Framework to Develop a More Inclusive Classroom

I often hear faculty members talk about the stress of trying to get participation from all students or trying to figure out the best way to have students work in groups. For me, the two often go hand in hand when you focus on creating a community of practice in the classroom. I have been able to fall back on my dissertation research to develop this community in my classes, which has also helped me to have classroom engagement among a wide spectrum of students lending to an inclusive learning environment.

Through my dissertation work (Aguilar & Krasny, 2011), I examined how Wenger’s (1998) community of practice framework could potentially be used to create more inclusive spaces for Latina/o students in science classrooms. What I learned from this research has helped me to create a sense of community in my own environmental studies classes that encourages participation and engagement from most of the students in the classroom. According to Wenger, communities of practice include:

1) a joint enterprise,

2) mutual engagement, and

3) shared repertoire.

The joint enterprise refers to how members collectively negotiate their response to the conditions and goals of the community.  Mutual engagement involves the sustained interaction of people within a community of practice and the roles and relationships that arise from this interaction.  And shared repertoire consists of signs, symbols, tools, and language that are used as resources and have meaning specific to the community (Wenger, 1998). The three dimensions contribute to a process of learning that involves participation, membership, and identity formation. These mutually reinforcing concepts allow for a student trajectory from peripheral membership or participation in the classroom to full membership or participation (if they so choose).

Encouraging Students to Choose

My goal for this application is to have my students choose to become full members. So, I apply these concepts to my own classroom by starting with a few questions. First, I ask myself, “What is the joint enterprise?”. Is it simply learning about environmental issues, or is there something more that I can get a broad spectrum of students to invest in? Because I regularly teach our introduction courses which are open to all majors and can count towards the General Education requirements, expecting everyone to be interested in environmental issues is not a given. So, I consider other enterprises in which students might be interested in engaging. For example, students might be interested in 1) having an impact on campus or 2) making a difference in society. Often times the very notion of being part of a community is a compelling enterprise for students traditionally marginalized in school settings (Gibson, Bejínez, Hidalgo, & Rolón, 2004). And let’s face it, sometimes students are simply looking to get a good grade.

While the latter example (getting a good grade) is more difficult to build a class enterprise around, I can work with the first two. This is where group projects are useful. The more group-oriented goals there are in the class, the more community building becomes part of the classroom joint enterprise. I think of it sort of like a team sport, where the goal isn’t just winning but also working as a team. So beyond learning content, the students also recognize that the enterprise involves collaboration to achieve class objectives. In some classes, I even include substantial projects that involve deep commitment and personal challenge, which then requires emotional support from peers (e.g. committing to a week of living a close to zero carbon lifestyle). I also try to involve class projects that have an impact on either our school campus or local community. Again, this is an enterprise that many students interested in environmental studies are also interested in pursuing.

Stirring Mutual Engagement

Second, I work to ensure enough mutual engagement so that students can begin to see member roles taking shape and create their own role for themselves.  Here, group work is an obvious exercise to ensure mutual engagement, but it is not the only way to ensure it. In my classrooms I intentionally create space for students to work/talk/engage with as many other students as possible. Not only do I encourage small group discussion at the beginning of most classes (sometimes with the person next to them and sometimes with a person they’ve never talked to before), but I also try to take outings where students can mingle freely with each other on the way to and back from the trip– cognizant of the fact that social interaction is also learning. Finally, when there is group work, I try to ensure that the students are not always working with the same people. I think this tends to be the scariest part for some educators, but I’ve rarely seen it go awry. In fact, I’m often inspired by the way in which students show empathy for others when I pair them up with people unlike themselves. By the middle of the semester, most of my students have worked with each other enough to know the names of their class peers. It is amazing what calling someone by their name can do for a community and a feeling of belonging.

Shared Repertoire

The last dimension, shared repertoire, can be created from things as simple as everyday assignments and activities to big overarching themes in the class. While the creation of rituals might seem a bit ancillary, it enables students to bond together over something specific to the class. For instance, my students know that they will participate in a reading question at the beginning of the class. This allows them to mutually engage in excitement, despair or even disdain for the question they know they will all be receiving! Other symbolic references might include simple things such as the way you structure your lectures or relay assignments. In one of my colleague’s classes, the bright color pants he chooses to wear to class becomes a running theme throughout the semester. Because the meaning of these symbols or rituals is shared among the students, it gives them fodder for communication, interaction and even shared emotion. The idea here is that students have something through which they can a) relate to each, b) find meaning in as it relates to the classroom, and c) use to engage in the classroom as a full member.

And here is the tricky part: students may not always choose to be a member of a community. Even after I apply these concepts, I occasionally have non-participation in my classroom. However, it is usually chosen. In other words, a student may have decided that they want to remain a peripheral member. I have found through my research and experience that this is usually due to one of two reasons: 1) not finding the enterprise useful or meaningful and/or 2) not having enough opportunities to engage meaningfully (for some it takes more than a few group interactions to make connections). The latter can become a problem for students that are different from the majority students in the classroom if it is not identified and addressed early on.  Even though some may choose not to participate, I’ve had much success with this approach, especially when I take the time to consider how the whole classroom can be structured to allow for better community building.

Design Elements for Successful Community

So, what are some things to consider when structuring the classroom as a community of practice with joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire? Some aspects I attend to for better community building are the physical classroom arrangement (does it allow for easy engagement?), contact time (are we meeting together enough to allow for a sense of community?), and group interactions (are there enough interactions for students to really get to know each other?). I also work to begin a community of practice on day 1 of classes with interactive exercises and group discussion. As with any pedagogical approach, finding the right way to include this in your teaching will likely take some experimentation. However, even small steps towards building a community-centered practice can help. And in the long run, I think educators will find this approach to teaching valuable in their relationships with their students. As we see our classes increasingly strengthened by enhanced diversity, I hope this approach to a more engaged and inclusive classroom might be of use.

Aguilar, O.M. & Krasny, M. E. (2011).  Using the community of practice framework to examine an after-school environmental education program for Hispanic youth.  Environmental Education Research 17(2) 217-234.

Gibson, M. A., L. F. Bejínez, N. Hidalgo, & C. Rolón. 2004. Belonging and school participation: lessons from a migrant student club. In School connections: US Mexican youth, peers, and school achievement, ed. M. A. Gibson, P. Gándara, and J. P. Koyoma, 129-49. New York: Teachers College Press.


Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of practice: learning, meaning and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.c

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