What can the literature on communities of practice tell us about educational research? Reflections on some recent proposals.
International Journal of Research and Method in Education, 28(1),
Several writers have appealed to the literature on communities of practice as a way of thinking about the nature of educational research. In this paper, I look at the benefits and dangers of doing this. There seem to be two main sorts of lesson that have been drawn from this literature, one about research as an activity in its own right, the other about its relationship to educational practice. These ideas certainly suggest some important points about educational research itself, for example countering the notion that it could involve merely following an abstract set of methodological rules derived from the model of natural science. However, there have long been criticisms of this type of naturalism, and so there is a question about whether the literature on communities of practice adds anything distinctive in this respect, for example by comparison with the work of Kuhn in the history and philosophy of science. There is also the issue of whether educational research is a single community of practice, or is a field containing multiple such communities; and whether the literature on communities of practice effectively rules out any attempt at community building as against the organic growth of local cultures. The second strand of argument, this time about the relationship between research and educational practice, is potentially very radical in its implications. Indeed, I will suggest that it threatens to eradicate educational research as a distinctive form of activity. However, it raises some serious questions about the literature on situated learning in communities of practice, concerning the roles of reflection, propositional knowledge and narrative. While not wishing to deny the value of this literature, I conclude that any application of its central ideas to the case of research requires considerable caution.
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