Posts Tagged ‘#csclintro’

Stahl, Koschmann & Suthers (2006, p. 9) write, “CSCL locates learning in meaning negotiation carried out in the social world rather than in individuals’ heads”. I think that this statement is… misguided. If learning is happening anywhere, it is happening within individuals’ heads. Individuals are definitely a part of the social world, but to point out the social aspect of learning at the expense of individual learning is nothing short of a dismissal of constructivism.

There are two main forms of constructivism, and they are mutually compatible. (Note: I wrote this post before reading Akkerman et al (2007) and that has changed my way of thinking somewhat. For an update, please read this post Cognitive and socio-cultural perspectives on group cognition: Can the two be reconciled?)

The first to appear was cognitive constructivism, as theorized by Jean Piaget1. Piaget was the first constructivist; he came up with the idea of constructivism, and he named it and described it.  At the time it was simply “constructivism” and Piaget said, “I am a constructivist. I think that knowledge is a matter of constant, new construction, by its interaction with reality, and that it is not pre-formed. There is a continuous creativity” (Piaget, n.d., in Papert, 2000, p. 2). According to Piaget, the two processes that make up the construction of knowledge are assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the absorption of new information and experiences by one’s existing cognitive structures. In this case, the new knowledge “fits” the existing structures so there is no need for modification of those structures. However, when the new knowledge does not “fit” the existing structures, the structures themselves can be altered to accommodate the new information. (Another possibility is that the new information will be ignored.) The final result of assimilation and accommodation is equilibrium, which lasts until we again experience cognitive conflict. According to Piaget, this system of assimilation and accommodation explains human learning from infant to adult.

We may ask where the new knowledge comes from. It comes from others – thru books, thru interactions with other people, thru searches on the Internet. It comes from interacting with society, and while Piaget believed the locus of construction to be in the individual, Vygotsky believed it was in society. Vygotskian constructivism is therefore known as sociocultural constructivism.

What do we find when we examine the two theories? The most crucial difference comes in the differences in weight that the two theorists placed on the role of society in learning. Piaget’s model of the social aspects of development link successful social experience with intellectual development, and referred to the importance of effective collaboration between pupils and the influence of culture and communication in learning (Smith, 1989, cited in Wood & Bennett, 1997). However, Piagetian constructivists (cognitive constructivists) focus on the individual as the cognizing subject. Individuals actively construct their own knowledge on the basis of new experiences interacting with existing cognitive structures.

For Vygotskian constructivists, the social world has primacy over the individual. Social constructivists see society as the bearer of cultural heritage without which the development of mind is impossible (Cole & Wertsch, 2004). Vygotsky saw learning as necessarily taking place within society and puts the emphasis on social interaction as the means by which learners construct knowledge.

However, both theorists did focus on the position of the individual learning in society. Piaget saw construction as taking place within the individual, who later tests his knowledge for viability by interacting with others. For Vygotsky, it occurs in the reverse order – the learning itself takes place in a social context and is then internalized by the individual (Dockett & Perry, 1996).

How, then, are we to resolve the issue of whether it is society or the individual in which the locus of learning resides? I say that it resides in the individual’s head, and that we as individuals are a part of society, and the societal impact on our learning cannot be ignored. Neither can we ignore the fact that when we walk away from a discussion from which we have learned something, either by assimilation or by accommodation, that the learning we have accomplished resides in our head. The constant comparing and contrasting of new information with our own knowledge takes place in our head. While the construction of the meaning took place with another individual, and may not have occurred without that interaction, the actual change that takes place is in the head of the individual.

So I’d like to point out that ignoring the construction of meaning in the heads of individuals is about as blind as ignoring the fact that one does a great deal of one’s learning with others. I see them as two sides of the same coin; the individual in society. You cannot take the individual out of society, and you cannot take learning out of the head of the individual.

So while we in CSCL are exploring how individuals learn in groups, I think that we must remember that groups are indeed made of individuals, and that while the construction of knowledge (i.e. learning) takes place because of and during interactions with others, that learning is quite definitely taking place within the head of the individual. We must look at both aspects of learning: the individual and the social. Social systems are made of nodes connected to each other. We cannot focus on the connections at the expense of the nodes; they are integral, and cannot be separated from each other.


Cole, M. & Wertsch (2004). Beyond the Individual-Social Antimony in Discussions of Piaget and Vygotsky.  Retrieved from

Dockett, S. & Perry, B. (1996). Young Children’s Construction of Knowledge, Australian Journal of Early Childhood 21(4), p. 6-11.

Papert, S. (1999). Child Psychologist Jean Piaget. Time Special Edition 2000. Retrieved from (audio translation provided courtesy of the University of Geneva’s Archives: Jean Piaget).

Smith, L. (1989). Changing Perspectives in Developmental Psychology. In C. DesForges (Ed.), Early Childhood Education, Monograph Series No. 4, Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press.

Stahl, G., Koschmann, T., & Suthers, D. (2006). Computer-supported collaborative learning: An historical perspective. In R. K. Sawyer (Ed.), Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences (pp. 409-426). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from

Wood, E. & Bennett, N. (1998). Teachers’ Theories of Play: Constructivist or Social Constructivist? Early Child Development and Care 140 p. 17-30.

1 Piaget’s work is impossible to summarize because of the incredible volume of it. Go to Google Scholar and type in Piaget. You don’t need to type in his first name; there was only one Piaget. You’ll notice that the first page is entirely books, articles, monographs, etc. by Piaget. On the first page of Google Scholar only, he has been cited 39,861 times. Click on page 5, and 10, and 15. Click on page 20. Really, go do it now. I was amazed when I found that there is almost no end to Piaget. Has anyone else in history produced as much as this one man from Neuchatel, Switzerland? Has anyone else in history ever been cited this much? You may note that Vygotsky has an impressive 29,980 citations on his first page of Google Scholar. And we must remember that Vygotsky died at the very young age of 37. So perhaps it is unfair to compare them. And since they both wrote about the most important theory of learning ever explained, I won’t compare them more than is necessary, for they together make the whole that is known as constructivism. But Piaget came up with it first.


Question: Can we consider ourselves (the #introcscl core group + followers) a community of practice?

My answer: No, but I’ll be very happy to engage in dialogue on this. A rather lengthy explanation follows, sorry that it is so long. Here we go…

A summary of what Lave and Wenger (1991) described originally can be found at Wenger’s website:

Anthropologist Jean Lave and I coined the term while studying apprenticeship as a learning model. People usually think of apprenticeship as a relationship between a student and a master, but studies of apprenticeship reveal a more complex set of social relationships through which learning takes place mostly with journeymen and more advanced apprentices. The term community of practice was coined to refer to the community that acts as a living curriculum for the apprentice.

This theory has changed over time but according to Wenger (2006), these characteristics remain (I have used bold text for highlighting):

1. The domain: …It has an identity defined by a shared domain of interest. Membership therefore implies a commitment to the domain, and therefore a shared competence that distinguishes members from other people….

2. The community: …In pursuing their interest in their domain, members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. The claims processors in a large insurance company or students in American high schools may have much in common, yet unless they interact and learn together, they do not form a community of practice….

3. The practice: A community of practice is not merely a community of interest–people who like certain kinds of movies, for instance. [We are a group of people who like CSCL, who find it useful. Perhaps we are a community of interest rather than practice?] Members of a community of practice are practitioners. They develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems—in short a shared practice. This takes time and sustained interaction. … [N]urses who meet regularly for lunch in a hospital cafeteria may not realize that their lunch discussions are one of their main sources of knowledge about how to care for patients. Still, in the course of all these conversations, they have developed a set of stories and cases that have become a shared repertoire for their practice.

So as I understand a CoP, it is a group of people who share a common practice, an activity, usually a work-related activity as described by most CoP examples, but also other groups that share experiences, stories, ways of dealing with problems they are face with (e.g. gangs, high school students). They share a culture: Lave was an anthropologist and Situated Learning: LPP was a sociological work. In the section titled LPP and Situated Learning (p. 4 if you printed it out), a quote by Lave and Wenger (1991, p. 29, cited on p. 4 of our Communities of Practice article for Week 1) sums it up for me.

“The meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a socio-cultural practice.”

This plus Wenger’s (2006) description of “practitioners… a shared practice… This takes time and sustained interaction” (p. 3 of the same article) to me indicates a particular meaning for CoP as being a group of people who are involved in the same trade, a trade where there is some kind of common activity. Through informal discussions, members of the community learn from each other and become joint members of a shared practice.

Wenger (2006, found in our Communities of Practice article for Week 1) goes on to explain much later the implications of CoP/LPP for education.

The perspective of communities of practice affects educational practices along three dimensions:

• Internally: How to organize educational experiences that ground school learning in practice through participation in communities around subject matters?

• Externally: How to connect the experience of students to actual practice through peripheral forms of participation in broader communities beyond the walls of the school?

• Over the lifetime of students: How to serve the lifelong learning needs of students by organizing communities of practice focused on topics of continuing interest to students beyond the initial schooling period?

All of these seem to relate to linking school activities to outside communities; in other words, the CoP exist not within school but are external to it.

On p. 6 at the end of the Learning organizations and learning communities section, the work of Barbara Rogoff and her colleagues (2001) is briefly mentioned.

They examine the work of an innovative school in Salt Lake City and how teachers, students and parents were able to work together to develop an approach to schooling based around the principle that learning ‘occurs through interested participation with other learners’.

I am not familiar with their work, but “interested participation with other learners” is representative of a socio-constructivist perspective of learning and is certainly not limited to CoP or LPP.

So, this is what I think about CoP/LPP in a nutshell:

It is a very useful theory for looking at how people learn from each other in a shared practice. Groups mentioned by Lave and Wenger (1991) and Wenger (2006) include butchers, tailors, a youth gang, claims processors in a large insurance company, Impressionist painters, and nurses all share a culture, a shared identity, and they all spend time together physically. High school students are mentioned but I think this is looking at their joining the culture of high school students rather than what happens in classes.

I haven’t yet read much about CoP in online communities; I believe that some of them are CoP and some aren’t, but I don’t think that people have to meet physically to be a CoP. For example, the PerlMonks are an example of an online CoP, but here there is a very distinct shared practice (that of PERL programming) and culture (belonging to the website and its members).

Wenger writes a lot these days about how CoP are useful within organizations, and “he is now an independent consultant specializing in developing communities of practice within organizations.” So to me, CoP occur within people who work together, either in the same company or in the same exact field.

Point 1: As a group learning together at P2PU, we do not work together, and I do not think that we work in the same exact field. As has been noted already, whether or not CSCL is a field in itself has yet to be ascertained. Is CSCL a skill that can be refined, a practice that can be improved? We come from a wide variety of disciplines and have very differing interests and goals. This makes for a very interesting group and a variety of learning experiences – great! We share a common interest, and we are learning from each other. But I do not think that we are a CoP, and I think that is just fine. I have no current need of being a member of a CoP. Being a member of a learning community like the one I belong to at P2PU is exactly what I do need now.

Point 2: I do not think that CoP relate directly to classes, in school or outside of it. CoP are related to work, a common set of shared experiences that help one to become better at one’s job or profession. In school there are so many subjects, and students are not trying to learn from each other in order to improve their job performance (or even their school performance in most cases). Neither are we – are we? We certainly do want to improve our understanding of CSCL, but is this a skill that we can refine over time by sharing experiences? I’m not sure. I do not think that CoP are related to classes, and we are a class. Not within a school, but still a class, with a curriculum and facilitators etc. I don’t think that classes are representative of CoP, so this is another reason why I do not think that we are a CoP or ever will be in our P2PU setting.

Becoming a CoP takes time – months, and later years. A shared practice is what brings members together, and may keep them together over the years of work (together physically, as in organizations, or separately, as in the PerlMonks for example). This shared practice seems to be the refinement of a skill. I don’t think that classes in school or out are representative of CoP, and I don’t think that they should try to be. For me, the learning theory that applies more to us is social constructivism. I’m also looking forward to reading more about constructionism and connectivism as well, as these may apply to us and other learning communities.