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Community of practice — Coming together to make sense of the elephant!

Asim Auti

This article by Asim Auti, IISER Pune, explores the concept of building a​‘community of practice’ for science educators and details how it could potentially transform the teaching and learning experience for educators and students alike.

Community of practice. License: CC-BY-NC-ND.
Community of practice. License: CC-BY-NC-ND.

Stories, whether based on history, mythology or fiction, shape our thinking and provide a framework for understanding the world around us, particularly in India where they are deeply ingrained in our culture. One such parable that has transcended generations is that of the elephant and the blind men’. Fascinated and intrigued by something new that has entered the town, blind (wo)men try to grasp what it is by touching the elephant. Unable to get a holistic picture, they share subjective interpretations based on their own experiences resulting in disagreements, and the situation comes to blows. 

The story tells us that we have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on our limited, subjective experience, ignoring others’ personal experiences that may be equally true. Could something good come out of such subjective views of holistic systems?

The teacher community: thoughts and actions 

As science educators, we face new challenges in the classroom, almost every day, that require addressal, our version of the elephant’ in the (class)room. Given these varied situations, each of us carry a unique perspective on science education and practice, based on personal experience. For the teacher community, sharing these perspectives can enrich collective understanding of challenges and approaches in teaching, which in turn, would help the community innovate and create better learning experiences for students. 

The community of practice’ concept has been successfully explored in many professions, enabling practitioners to share knowledge, ideas and solutions to advance their fields. However, the teaching community, has not fully embraced this concept. Wherever sharing happens, most of the sharing gets centred around administrative workings that don’t concern us or policies beyond our purview. This article shares a few steps towards initiating and building a community of practice’ for educators in India.

Seeking support from peers

The teaching community needs platforms to discuss various concerns, including student challenges, science practice in resource-limited environments, digital pedagogy, and implementing NEP 2020 in classrooms. In today’s demanding educational landscape, a teacher cannot be expected to navigate these challenges alone, relying solely on individual abilities to guide students towards effective learning. 

One relatively low hanging approach to building a community of practice’ in education is peer-support among educators. Building in person peer-support or meet up groups with teachers in local institutions or via regional collaborations, can offer insights into varied challenges, opportunities to share success stories and solutions, and build an understanding of larger educational initiatives such as policy and program changes.

Building communities of individuals

In addition to local peer-support groups, community-led in-person or online forums or Kattas’ are good models for teachers to share ideas, concerns and solutions related to contemporary educational practice. These settings can prioritise topics that teachers want to listen to, discuss and act on. Nowadays, use of social media and communication applications like WhatsApp to engage teacher participants is very effective, and I can vouch for this via personal experience. 

Steps could be taken to converge these practitioner groups to form a large and integrated community. While these systems may exist, it is up to us practising teachers to create a critical mass and extend the benefits of community sharing to practice. What comes out of these communities should also be tried and tested by individuals in their own classrooms, as there is no one size fits all’ solution. Effectively shared ideas, concepts, and philosophies can help to enrich the academic environment and loop the feedback into the community.

Support pyramid for teacher community (created by Asim Auti)
Support pyramid for the teacher community (created by Asim Auti)

Faculty Development Programmes (FDPs)

FDPs are meant to upgrade teacher skills in select fields, but why can’t they also serve as a platform for building a community of practice? This could be done via well-designed teacher development programmes, focused on implementing a community of practice, via teacher education and training. Various educational and human resource development agencies could work together to network teachers nationwide and promote open forum environments for teachers to share practices and solutions. At the MS-DEED programme at IISER Pune, initiated with the MSFDA, Government of Maharashtra, we are trying out this approach by enabling environments for open interactions among teachers. 

We observe that FDPs, workshops and meetings that encourage networking among educators and promote a community of practice are beneficial for an educator’s growth. We have developed a few sessions and activities that facilitate open discussions on challenges and solutions for implementing new skills and knowledge gained during our workshops. Some participants have started discussions without our interventions. These learnings have allowed us to unlearn traditional teaching methods, embrace ideas of inclusivity in a diverse classroom, and explore new assessment techniques.

Roles of academic administrators 

In addition to community-led efforts, sustained initiatives will require continuous support from multiple stakeholders. Along with educators and academics, the administrators of Higher Education Institutes (HEI), such as Principals, Directors and Deans, can specify long-term visions and actions to bring teachers together to enrich local academic environments. Often, administrators belong to, or hail from, the same pool of educators working in the Indian education system, and therefore possess the insights and understanding needed to update policies and practices. 

Administrators can design nationwide networking programmes for teachers, including those based on affinities to the subject being taught, regions, or languages. These formal networks will not only encourage teachers to share their professional experiences, but also enable modes of evaluation and assessment of teaching practices and interventions. 

Taken together, community of practice’ platforms can foster the sharing of challenges, solutions, and approaches among teachers, with benefits across the teaching and learning spectrum. There’s strength in numbers, and together we can make sense of the elephant. 

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