Communities of Practice and Circles of Support for Early Childhood Education

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D.RECE.

My professional friends know my position on teaching and learning in early childhood education. I have articulated my philosophical orientation many years ago and I have not wavered from this position. As a social constructivist, I believe that we learn from each other. “It is through others, that we develop into ourselves” is the Vygotsky quote that guides my practice. I value the opportunities that I have had in my professional life to learn alongside others. To engage in a collaborative process of inquiry with others has been an ongoing professional goal. “Although it is possible to be a reflective teacher on your own, reflecting with a group … offers a richer experience of camaraderie, multiple perspectives [and] deeper learning” (Curtis, Lebo, Cividanes & Carter, 2013, p. 14). The joy that I have experienced with professional friends when we play, learn, and reflect has been a source of pure happiness. While we do engage in joint activities of collaborative professional learning, we are not a community of practice.

An Invitation to Play and Learn Together, Reggio Emilia, 2018

We are a community of professional friends who have come together to play and learn. There is not one person in charge, making decisions about agendas and group dynamics. When your professional friends form a circle of support, each person represents a circle of identity. Linked together, you form another circle which is open to more circles. There is room for others. When we are together, we generate a common identity based on our shared interests and joint activities. The graphic below depicts our common identity visually with the shaded areas. Learning with others who are professional friends is an experience of mutual affection and shared interests. To learn and grow within a circle of support is about friendships, love, and kindness. It represents a common commitment to each other and shared ownership of the circle.

I have yet to have a similar experience as a member of a community of practice (CoP). The concept of community of practice (CoP) was first introduced by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger (1991). According to Wenger (2004), “communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly (p.1). Described as a Vygotskian-influenced social cultural theory (Kuh, 2012) it is no wonder that I have aspired to be part of a CoP. I have heard of many over the years that were agency-based or specific to a community. I did not have access to them. I have received one invitation to join a CoP, which I did, but the experience was not entirely positive. So many of the decisions for the CoP were made prior to our first meeting. I did not have input in structure, logistics, and agenda-setting. Decided ahead of time by the organizers, the topic and direction of the meetings felt like an opportunity for them to deliver information. I tried to be heard but did not feel successful. It was not what I imagined being part of a CoP would feel like, it felt more like being part of a focus group. A focus group is a group interview involving a small number of demographically similar people or participants who have other common traits/experiences. Their reactions to specific researcher/evaluator-posed questions are studied. Is this the norm for CoPs in ECE? According to Kuh (2012), “there are tensions in early childhood that bear heavily on how professional learning communities may develop” (p. 20). The tension of feeling voiceless and powerless, impacted my experience. I wonder about early childhood educators working in child care, how many have had access to CoPs and what has the experience been like? Was it a top-down experience or did it produce feelings of a community where voices were heard?

Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care: https://www.childcareontario.org/roadmap

In my province, advocates of universal child care have suggested that one strategy to build a national system, is decent working conditions. In addition to sick days, planning time, and paid time for professional learning, communities of practice are part of the strategy. Will CoPs become more apparent in our sector? I have limited experience with CoPs, but I am embarking on a journey to gather and cultivate a Community of Support (CoS) and have been thinking critically about both. According to Wenger (2004) a CoP “has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain” (p.1). How is the interest identified and by whom? What are the boundaries of the interest? Who decides? Do all members of the community have similar values as related to the domain of interest? Do they have similar roles? What activities do members of the community engage in while pursuing the interest in the domain? During the pandemic face-to-face gatherings have not been possible. CoPs and CoS by Zoom is the reality. I wonder if this is another gift of COVID?

I appreciate not having to travel further than my home office to be part of a CoS. Even though we are in a virtual format, we are building and solidifying relationships. The success of both a CoP and a CoS depends on the relationships that are built. The relationships enable each member to learn from each other. When Wenger (2004) envisioned the concept, he was not anticipating the virtual world. He did suggest that in pursing the interest, members engage in joint activities, discussions, share information, and help each other. The relationships are the foundation for the learning. To understand the CoP and the CoS experience, it comes down to recognizing how we learn as professionals. I learn when I have the opportunity to experience with others. I learn when I have trusting relationships with the others that I am learning with. I learn through others engaging in joint experiences. I do not learn when I feel that I am being viewed as not having prior experience or knowledge. I learn when I have the opportunity to listen and to be heard. I do not learn when I feel voiceless and powerless. I am grateful for the experience of gathering a CoS. We have come together twice. Both gatherings were heart-centred – we opened and shared our hearts. We touched each other’s hearts as friends. We are building a group that we want to do professional life with. We are creating a CoS to be a soft space to land and to recharge. Within the circle we find a place to feel enriched and inspired by others. I wish to have an experience with a CoP that is this profound and transformational. I have wanted this for a long time, ever since first reading Reflecting in Communities of Practice: A Workbook for Early Childhood Educators by Deb Curtis, Debbie Lebo, Wendy C.M. Cividanes and Margie Carter.

Over the years, I have learned so much from Margie Carter and Deb Curtis. According to Curtis, Lebo, Cividanes and Carter (2013) in a CoP one person takes on the role of critical friend whose responsibility is to provoke critical thinking in others. “The critical friend consciously works to bring out the knowledge of the participants or thoughtfully encourages members of the community to explore their knowledge of theory, research, and best practice in order to deepen the understanding of the topic at hand. The critical friend is always listening for new knowledge that can be gained from a participant’s contribution” (p.19). This role can be taken by a member of the CoP or be an additional responsibility of the facilitator. The facilitator’s main role is to “keep the group process moving forward with the task at hand” (p.18). They do this by giving “attention to group members”, monitoring “group dynamics”, clarifying “issues or confusions”, pointing “out breakthroughs in understanding, and periodically” summarizing “the ideas generated so far” (p.18). While the facilitator tries not to dominate discussions or tell others what they need to know, their role is still one that requires leadership and management. It is a role with responsibilities and decision-making power. The critical friend also has decision-making powers in their management of the dialogue and group dynamics. As I continue to explore my interest in CoPs and CoS, I am grateful for this wonderful resource but I am wondering, why can’t everyone be a critical friend? I would love to hear from the readers of this blog. What has been your personal learning experiences with communities of practice and professional friendships?

7 thoughts on “Communities of Practice and Circles of Support for Early Childhood Education

  1. Diane I find your differentiation between COP and focus group spot on. My experience with COPs based on this difference has had me realize that I too have never really participated in a true COP but more focus groups. They all had a specific goal. For this reason I have always found myself uneasy and on edge when participating. Always second guessing what to say is it correct? However a TRUE COP (in my view) embraces all views and allows all to feel part of the community. How wonderful would it be to be part of a group not driven by complicated articles and reading. Just a bunch of passionate people talking and discussing over a cup of tea or coffee. A friendly get together.

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  2. The alignment between our work, research and practice continues to astound me Diane…Like we are the Aussie and Canadian EC research and practice twins!? Anyway, last year my 4th year honours student researched the visual arts in early childhood special interest group I am (our group has met weekly since March 2020!). Her research asked the question: Which activities and practices of a virtual visual arts early childhood education SIG align with the CoP framework elements of Domain, Community and Practice?…We have just submitted a paper for publication and interestingly the paper’s title includes the notion of the CoP/SIG being A GIFT OF COVID!!…anyway all the best and hope we can connect professionally soon.

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  3. My experience with COP had been the needed support that I required to set me forth on my journey through ECE and I will be forever grateful to that first COP group many years ago. My COP and COS now reside with professional colleagues and global peers on our graduate study journey about Reggio and of course the wonderful York Region workshop series platform. Not everyone is understandably keen to participate in COP and COS, however, the people who have contributed their time, presence, and passion in the past, have been a positive influence on and in my professional career! Thank you Diane! I include you in my gratitude!

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  4. This is an area of work I’m really interested in, Diane. In Scotland we have huge networks of support, learning and interest in Early Years but COPs is not a term we have used much. I have only experienced them through partnership work with health and think there is a huge opportunity here! Would be interesting to connect with anyone who has developed them.

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  5. Pingback: Early Childhood Educators: Are We Listening to Each Other? | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

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