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Cultivating a Community of Practice for Teacher Professional Development

(by Dr. Gyeong Mi Heo)

Dr. Gyeong Mi Heo is a Research Associate in the department of Educational and Counselling Psychology at McGill University in Canada. As a researcher and facilitator, she has been working in various projects related to communities of practice for teacher professional development, for example the Creating, Collaborating, and Computing in Mathematics (CCC-M) project and the Building Community through Telecollaboration (BCT) Network. She also conducted research for the KFIT International School Project (KISP) initiated by UNESCO BKK as a principal investigator and TEI coordinator. Her research inquiry focuses on how technology can support teaching and learning in different educational settings, including formal, non-formal and informal learning contexts.

For teacher professional development, a Community of Practice (CoP) is considered as an effective and situated learning environment for enhancing teachers' capacity for teaching and learning in practice through collaborative learning processes. This is in contrast to one-shot workshops or training sessions that are more individual and isolated professional development process. 

What is a Community of Practice (CoP)? The term CoP has been used in different ways by different people or in different contexts. As a narrow and concrete concept, a CoP simply refers to “a group of people” or “a space (e.g., an online platform) in which a group of people is together.” Various terms have also been associated with “community” to refer to different dimensions --or types-- of community, such as domains of knowledge and profession (e.g., communities of inquiry, knowledge communities, and learning communities/networks) and types and modes of communities (e.g., virtual/online/web-based CoPs and distributed CoPs). According to Wenger, McDermott, and Snyder (2002), a CoP is a group of people “who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interaction on an ongoing basis (p.4).” In addition, the notion of CoPs that was intensively expanded by Wenger (1998) provides a useful conceptual framework for developing and cultivating an effective learning environment for professional development. Wenger and his colleagues (2002) highlight three structural components of a CoP: Domain (i.e., a set of issues which is shared among members in a CoP), Community (i.e., people who care about this domain), and Practice (i.e., what members of the community are developing to be effective in their domain).

A CoP can be formed in a face-to-face (F2F), online, or a blend of online and F2F contexts. As Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) evolve, they can be used in a CoP for teachers, which is often referred to as professional learning community (PLC) or professional learning network (PLN), and allow teachers to have more opportunities to interact with other teachers and to participate in collaborative learning activities regardless of differences of time and place more easily and dynamically. Within a CoP, teachers can:  

●     Interact with others who have different levels of expertise in teaching practice and have various experiences in diverse contexts,

●     Share personal experiences, thoughts, information, skills, knowledge, and resources with others who have common interests, issues, concerns, and practice,

●     Reflect and develop their practice by authentic interaction with others,

●     Collaborate with others to achieve a shared common goal,  

●     Explore new possibilities, solve problems, and build new knowledge together, and hence

●     Engage in ongoing professional learning, sustained interaction and communication, and transfer of knowledge in practice.

Here is an example of a CoP for teacher professional development: The Creating, Collaborating, and Computing in Mathematics (CCC-M) project. The CCC-M project aims at cultivating a CoP for (and with) teachers in a school board in Quebec, Canada.

Following the three structural components of a CoP, first, the domains of practice highlighted in this project are mathematics as a subject, integration of technology into classrooms, and the transition from elementary to secondary school. As a joint enterprise, the leadership team (including educational researchers and consultants of the school board) and 13 participating teachers from elementary and secondary schools, share common goals in the project and develop mutual understandings and collective knowledge about the situation at different school levels.



Figure 1. Sharing, reflecting, and collaborating as a whole group and a small group



Figure 2. F2F Hands-on sessions: Sharing mini-lessons created with Educreation (Left) and Smart Math tool (Right)

Second, in terms of the community for mutual engagement, the participating teachers attend four to five face-to-face (F2F) meetings in each school year. The F2F meetings provide hands-on sessions with various ICT tools (e.g., Educreation, instaGrok, iMovie, Padlet and Smart Math tools) to develop their practice of integrating technology into their mathematics classrooms. Between the F2F meetings, the teachers interact and collaborate with each other in EdModo, which is a web-based space for K-12 social learning communities. The web-based activities on EdModo enable the teachers to engage in ongoing interaction and collaboration with each other by sharing their experiences, thoughts, and information for their professional learning. To develop the community, first, we made an effort to build trust and mutual respect among the participants. Then, we focused on fostering the teachers' engagement (from peripheral to full participation) in more reflection and inquiry processes beyond sharing by identifying lead teachers who play a role as core members with the leadership team.    

Third, practice built through the iterative processes of participation and reification is developed as the shared repertoire, for example a list of digital tools with useful annotations, outputs from hands-on sessions, organizers used at the F2F meetings, a summary book of classroom activities and the teachers’ reflection, and so on.

Overall, the participating teachers appreciate the values of sharing and collaborating with other teachers within the CoP for professional development. Compared to the F2F meeting, however, the teacher’s online engagement in Edmodo have been limited with regard to the number of postings, the level of reflection and the interaction pattern. The teachers indicate that time constraints are one of the major concerns for them to engage in online interaction and participation.

Here are some suggestions for facilitating teachers' engagement in a CoP, in particular in a web-based CoP, based on my experience working with CoPs for teachers (e.g., CCC-M, BCTN, and KISP).

a)      The shared visions and goals should be developed through group consensus. Teachers’ motivation for engaging in the CoP is derived from their needs and expectations.

b)      Building trust and creating a safe, respectful, and supportive environment are important though it takes time and persistent effort. To cultivate social relationship, F2F meetings can play a leading role for the evolution of the community.

c)       The roles of core members who are identified among the participants are crucial. They can represent the teachers’ actual needs and expectations and reflect their practical situations. 

d)      Teachers need some time to gain technological proficiency and familiarity with ICT tools applied in the CoP.  

e)      Teachers require more structured participation guidelines set out by mutual agreements in consideration of their scarce time and busy schedule. 


Contact info: Dr. Gyeong Mi Heo,



Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. M. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.