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As ParentNet evolved in the mid 1990’s in forty schools across the country, many asked, “Is this a program, a process, or an informal learning community?” The answer was fuzzy at best. It certainly was not a traditional “program” that offered parent education or predictable skill-training. We preferred to call it a “process” because it unfolded gradually as the group matured and defined itself. But it was probably best defined as a community of parent learners, coming together to help one another be better parents.
Also in the 1990’s, Etienne Wenger, a global pioneer in social learning theory coined the term communities of practice and has since influenced organizations in the public and private sector to recognize how knowledge is created through informal learning communities. His work has profound impact on understanding how parents, schools, and communities learn from one another to generate knowledge that benefits children’s growth and development.
Upon reviewing Wenger’s books, Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity (Cambridge University Press, 1998) and Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge (Harvard Business School Press, 2002), we found some astonishing synchronicity with the goals and ideas of ParentNet. We discovered that the notion of parents creating communities of practice within schools is a natural and essential part of social learning.
Wenger clearly defines how communities of practice differ from other structures in the school community. For example, where a PTA has a core administrative function that may include allocating resources and decision-making, ParentNet’s primary purpose is to steward knowledge and foster learning among parents. It is based on collegiality, not on official membership. In fact, parents who participate in communities of practice like ParentNet are those who share a passion and commitment with the group and its expertise. They view parenting as a practice from which they can grow and develop as individuals.
The model of social learning described by Wenger includes four main components: meaning, practice, community, and identity. Meaning is derived when we talk about our changing roles as parents, individually and collectively, and how we experience those roles as meaningful in our lives. Through practice, we share our historical and social resources, our framework for understanding, and our perspectives that sustain our engagement as parents. Community enables us to talk about and define ourselves as members of a specific school and grade where our children learn. Identity is a way of learning about who we are parents, creating personal histories, and developing as parents within our communities.
Communities of practice are designed to evolve naturally. Although they have structure, like ParentNet, that girds their evolution, they are usually formed from preexisting relationships within the school community. They encourage dialogue from numerous perspectives, often engaging outside experts who bring knowledge into the community. There are many different levels of participation. Some parents may attend every meeting or activity while others remain on the periphery. Because all people have different levels of needs and interests, it is unrealistic to expect all members to be involved. In fact, large portions of community members remain at the periphery and seldom participate actively. Yet they benefit from the practice through relationships with more active members.
Wenger discusses other important principles of communities of practice in his books. He emphasizes that the value of such practices reside in the web of relationships that develop. The source of value to a community is often not apparent when it is first formed and that value changes over the life of the community. After more than twelve years of observing ParentNet’s evolution in its founding school, The Overlake School, in Redmond, WA, we observed the kind of rhythm and change that Wenger says is typical with communities of practice. There is an ebb and flow as parent communities coalesce and mature. As children move through grades and graduate, so do parents move through the community of practice called ParentNet. Yet, behind them is left a body of knowledge that sustains the community, a foundation to which new parents contribute, adapt to shifting circumstances, and grow in knowledge about raising healthy and successful children in an ever-changing world.
ParentNet is one example of how a community of practice can be structured in school communities. The ideas for expanding this practice are limitless, including the creation of online spaces for conversations, sponsored events that bring expertise into the community, and much more. We are grateful to have found the work of Etienne Wenger and hope to expand our own thinking in ways that enable more schools to create valuable learning communities for parents.
Posted on May 1, 2010 by Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D.
Marilyn is the co-founder of ParentNet and ParentInvolvementMatters.Org. An advocate for family engagement in education, she writes for Psychology Today and Roots of Action. You can follow Marilyn on Twitter and Facebook.
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Tags: 2-way communication, *Educational Policy, *School-Family Partnership, Building trust & respect, Ed Reform, PTA - PTO, Theory-Research
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