Social Learning and Brain Research

Aimlessly flipping through the channels on my television, I can not find anything interesting to watch.  Ah, here’s Dr. Phil; let’s see what strangeness is going on now.  Soon I find myself caught up in the life-drama of someone I don’t even know, cheering, nodding my head and thinking,  “This lady really knows the answers” (I admit, maybe even say aloud).  This is the same feeling that I had reading Etienne Wenger’s Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems.  Social learning combines the standards set by the group with each member’s personal experience.  This experience can catalyze the group to further learning and increasing standards.  I cheered as Wegner talked about three elements of the social learning system:  community of practice, boundaries, and identity.

Community of Practice.

The learning that takes place in a community of practice is so strong because it reflects what brain researchers know about how the brain learns.  In communities of practice, learning takes place through “joint enterprise,” working together on a project that builds mutual respect and understanding (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  The brain also has two ways of learning, which Caine and Caine refer to as spatial memory and rote memory (1990, p. 68).  Rote memory requires practice, but spatial memory are those things that you remember the first time they occur, those instant memories that are sometimes indeliably etched on our brains.  The spatial memory is obviously more efficient.  Communities of practice engage the spatial memory as colleagues work together, negotiating “competence through an experience of direct participation” (Wenger, 2000, p. 229).  This explains why we learn better in study groups or when working through a new software application with a co-worker.

Every community of practice has boundaries, and when different communities touch each other, learning occurs and tensions possibly mount.  We must bridge the boundaries in order to learn from each other (Wenger, 2000, pp. 233–234).  My workplace has two communities of practice—the faculty and the office staff.  We bridge these boundaries so that students have the best experience possible.  The office staff and the faculty have to negotiate the use of the computer system that tracks student scheduling and grades.  Staff should understand how faculty use the system, and the faculty need to know some of the logistics that the staff deals with.  For example, faculty want to have their class rosters several days before classes begin, which is not currently possible.  Staff need time to manually enter each student’s schedule, and this can not be done until language placement testing takes place.  On the other hand, staff need to understand that a four-day lag period, while it seems like a half-week to them, means 10-15% of the entire course for the faculty (we have a 40-day program with classes meeting five days a week).  We recently moved a faculty member into a newly-created position to bridge this boundary.

The identities of individuals are shaped by their experience:  we define ourselves by what we know and don’t know (Wenger, 2000, p. 238).  “Identity needs a place where a person can experience knowing as a form of social competence…their need to develop their competence is also part of their belonging” (Wenger, 2000, p. 241).  This mirrors Caine and Caine’s brain principle that the brain needs familiarity, as well as novelty and complexity.  The familiarity gives stability and anchors the search for meaning from the complex (Caine & Caine, 1990, p. 67).  The community of learning can provide this stability and comfort, as a home where the identity feels competent.  This allows the member to be willing to search for the complex and to expand her own personal experiential learning.

I think Wenger gets it right in his assessment of social learning, in light of both my own personal experience and the brain research highlighted by Caine and Caine.


Caine, R. N., & Caine, G. (1990). Understanding a Brain-Based Approach to Learning and Teaching. Educational Leadership, 66–70.

Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization, 7(2), 225–246. doi:10.1177/135050840072002

**To learn more about Caine & Caine’s article about brain research, see my blog post “A View from the Past: Bridging Brain Research to the Classroom” from May 30, 2014.

Imposter Syndrome?

In the article Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems, Wenger (2000) highlights the importance of organizations designing themselves as social learning systems and participating in broader learning systems. (p.226) The author suggests that within social learning systems there are different modes for belonging. (Wenger, 2000, p. 227)

Wenger (2000) reminds us “Sometimes we are a newcomer. We join a new community.   We are a child who cannot speak yet. Or we are a new employee. We feel like a bumbling idiot among the sages. We want to learn. We want to apprentice ourselves. We want to become one of them.” (Wenger, 2000 p. 227-227.) As I read this quote, it brought me back to when I first started in my current position. I was joining a new organization, had a new role and felt like an outsider. I did not feel as though I had the competence or experience to be one of “them.” During this transitional phase in my new role, I was talking with a colleague who said perhaps you have Imposter Syndrome. He was right. I felt like an imposter in this new community of practice. Even though my new role was still in the field of education, I didn’t understand the processes, artifacts or discourse within this community of practice. In fact there were so many acronyms, I felt like I was learning a new language.

As I embarked on my new role I relied heavily on what Wenger (2000) refers to as mutuality: the depth of social capital which he further describes as “people must know each other well enough to know how to interact productively and who to call for help or advice.” (p. 230) Developing these trusting relationships allowed me to ask questions about the processes, artifacts and discourse in a non-threatening way within our community of practice which increased my confidence in my competence. I slowly felt less like an imposter and more like I belonged.

As Wenger (2000) dedicated time in the article to newcomers to a community he also focused on what he calls “old-timers.” He discusses possible pitfalls in the area of competence and experience for a community of “old-timers” or people who have been with the same community for an extended period of time. One of the pitfalls the author describes is “If competence and experience are too close, if they always match, not much learning is likely to take place. There are no challenges: the community is losing it dynamism and the practice is in danger of becoming stale.” (Wenger, 2000, p. 233) This reminded me of complacency. If we are not taking risks, make changes in our experiences then we are not going to move forward in our practice. Wenger (2000) warns communities not to become a hostage of their history. (p.33) We don’t want to keep processes and artifacts in place just because that is the way we have always done things as a community. In the article, the author encourages us not to discount the role of brokers in communities of practice. Wenger (2000) defines brokers as individuals who “love to create connections and engage in ‘import-export’, and would rather stay at the boundaries of many practices than move to the core of any practice.” (p. 235)

One benefit of people who have been part of a community for an extended period of time is they are able to use their experience to introduce new ideas, artifacts or discourse and “pull their community’s competence along.” (Wenger, 2000, p. 227)
As I enter this new community of practice of doctoral students, I do feel like an imposter. Wenger’s article on Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems confirmed the benefit of mutuality and I am looking forward to learning from everyone in our journey as a doctoral student.



Wenger, E. (2000). Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization. doi:10.1177/135050840072002