Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Quakers as a Community of Practice

A circle of hands and feet of many people, laid on grass
When I was studying educational research, there was a particular model, generally applied to informal education, that I became particularly taken with. From the first, I though that it may be applicable to liberal Quakers. Communities of Practice are a theoretical model developed by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, hereafter referred to as Lave & Wenger. It is a model of what is called situated learning, wherein learning is not considered the transfer of knowledge and skills from those who already possess them to those who do not, but rather the development of knowledge and skills within a social situation.
A community of practice is, unsurprisingly given the name, defined by commonality of practice. Where a community of practice has many units, such as local branches, one characteristic that determines that it is truly a single community of practice is that someone who normally participates in a single branch could participate in any branch without special notice or preparation, and that practice would be sufficiently similar between the two that the visitor can fully participate. It is this compatibility and centrality of practice that differentiates a community of practice from a community of interest, which the community is bound primarily by a common interest of some sort. In addition, most knowledge is tacit, gained from some sort of experience, rather than delivered in a didactic manner or reified in documentation.
The classic examples covered by Lave & Wenger include Yucat√°n midwives, Liberian tailors, Alcoholics Anonymous groups, and (perhaps most surprisingly) American insurance claim processors. In all of these groups, learning is not through reading documentation or classroom-style learning, but through things picked up from the community itself in less formal ways. The insurance clerks are something of an exception, by which they become a particularly interesting case, especially relevant to the case of Quakers. While they did receive training in the official procedures, and all of the forms they process have official documentation, this training and documentation fails to fully prepare them for practice, in which many shadow procedures developed – seemingly spontaneously within the community. Codings are not used precisely as defined, elements of official procedure supplemented or circumvented, in order to lead to a system that works in practice, not only more smoothly than that described in official documentation, but that covers up the gaps in that system, whereby things would become stuck or be found unclassifiable.
One of the key characteristics of a well-functioning community of practice is the role of legitimate peripheral participation. The community can be viewed as a well-defined space, with people inside that space when they are members of the community. Legitimate peripheral participation is the means by which new members are drawn into the community. They thus engage in some activity which is permitted to new people, but is a key factor in the practice – hence legitimate – but which does not require great experience or expertise – hence peripheral. As they develop competence and comfort with this peripheral activity, with appropriate support from seasoned members of the community, they become able to legitimately move into activities that are more central to the community.
So a participant in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting will start by attending meetings, and witnessing the story-telling that is key to the practice of that community; they will start attempting to tell their story themselves, and develop competence in that participation; they will become attached to a sponsor, a seasoned member of the community, who will give them personal support both in their recovery and in their centripetal motion within the community. As they move to more central activities, they may become a sponsor themselves, and take on informal leadership roles – or in some cases, move into more formal roles, or take on the duty of becoming part of the nucleus of a new meeting.
Likewise, an apprentice tailor will observe a master tailor at work, possibly with the master giving some explanation of what they are doing, in some simple task – such as cutting material to a pattern. They will then be invited to do the cutting themselves, with some oversight, and eventually do it independently, at the same time as being invited to observe and begin working on more advanced tasks. As they engage in more advanced tasks, and are subject to less supervision, they move towards the centre of the community of practice, and will eventually be trusted with the supervision of new apprentices, finally reaching the status of master themselves.
In both cases, much of what is learned is tacit. By seeing how an experienced member of the community of practice undertakes the activities of that community, they see how it is done; by having their own efforts corrected, they identify their errors and understand them. Whether they can articulate why something was a mistake is secondary, but they will generally understand some of those reasons without being able to articulate them. Likewise, it would be very difficult to communicate this sort of knowledge by the methods of formal education, classes and lectures and texts.
Now, we Quakers are pretty fond of texts, by and large. Any British Quaker Meeting House is likely to have a collection of books, starting with Quaker faith & practice and one or more Bibles, but generally continuing to books on the history of Quakers, books offering advice on Quaker roles, books discussing theoretical and theological explanations for Quaker activities. Likewise, courses are offered at various places to help understand Quaker practice, including Woodbrooke courses on Quaker roles or theology, or the extended courses like Equipping for Ministry or the Young Adult Leadership Programme. On the other side of the Atlantic, we see similar offerings at Pendle Hill, and there are smaller venues around the world offering a range of courses. However, I understand it to be the experience of many Friends that handbooks and courses are most useful as introductions or summaries, or to deepen the understanding of people who already have a good handle on the practical aspects; I have known more Quakers than I could count who have asserted that the only way to really understand Quaker practices, especially the more spiritual ones, is to do them – a clear indication that the knowledge and skills involved in becoming competent in those practices is largely tacit.
In fact, a lot of role courses at Woodbrooke include participatory or role-play elements; the longer-term courses involve major project work and long-term reflective learning. The role training I have been on was best appreciated, in my opinion, by people who had already done a bit of work in that role before coming to Woodbrooke for training, even the largely technical training for Quaker Trustees. Participatory elements are just good learning theory being applied – people learn better how to do things when they do them. However, if my perception is correct that one can get more out of the courses when one has experience actually doing what you are being trained to do, that is strongly indicative of the importance of tacit knowledge in the practice in question.
The existence of these texts, and these elements of formal training, juxtaposed with the clear need to develop tacit knowledge that is not adequately communicated – I would say, cannot be adequately communicated – in the form of texts and formal training, sets clear parallels with the case of the insurance claim processors. Texts and training form a useful beginning, which it can be difficult to get along without, but they must be supplemented by experiential learning developed in the community. This is developed by observing the practice of others, participating in it, and receiving feedback where appropriate. I would hope that, unlike the claim processors, there is not an erroneous assumption organisationally that the informal, tacit development is central, and only optionally supplemented by community-based informal learning.
So, are Quakers a community of practice? Well, not all Quakers around the world. Practices across the different Quaker traditions are very different, and even between different Yearly Meetings in the same tradition there are differences in terminology and practice that would make transplantation more difficult than in an ideal community of practice. But I can certainly see how a single Yearly Meeting comes closer to that criterion. While there will always be local traditions and variations in practice, the essential basics of the practice are such that those differences can be picked up on and adapted to quite quickly.
If we are a community of practice, our smooth functioning and perpetuation are dependent on legitimate peripheral participation and practices leading to centripetal motion within the community. The most basic legitimate peripheral participation is the foundation stone of our entire practice – Meeting for Worship. Our Meetings are open to the public, and anyone can come along and start to see what is happening. By continuing to come along, they will ideally get a sense of what is being done – we may supplement this with explanations, pamphlets and handbooks, but you can never understand it properly without the tacit knowledge brought by experience. Centripetal motion comes with various activities: ministering in worship, participating in Meeting for Worship for Business, taking on informal voluntary tasks (like doorkeeping or bring flowers for the Meeting Room table), being nominated to formal roles. Becoming an elder or overseer, a treasurer, a clerk, or serving on the myriad committees it seems to take to run a Meeting.
So, we can see suitably-sized units of the Religious Society of Friends each as a community of practice. It's a pleasant enough intellectual exercise, but what good does it do? Well, it gives us an extra set of tools for looking at what we're doing and what we could do better. Does the support we give newcomers in, around, before and after Meeting for Worship provide good legitimate peripheral participation? Are they encouraged to identify as part of the community as they become involved at this early stage, and given the support needed to develop the tacit knowledge we have almost forgotten learning ourselves? Do our outreach activities properly interest people and open the door to this peripheral participation? Is there an audience that may be interested in being part of our community for whom this form of peripheral participation is not suitable, and do we offer appropriate alternatives in ways that they will be aware of and able to find?
I don't have the answers to all of these questions. I have some thoughts and ideas, but they are no more valuable than other people's, and I'd really like to hear what other people think. Does this model make sense to you? What can we learn from it, and how do we shape up when we examine ourselves though this lens?
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