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Distinctions between communities of practice and other structures

The learning that comes from being involved in a community of practice (CoP) is often not formalised and usually unacknowledged by the workplace as a legitimate way of learning. However, the concept that learning is a social phenomenon (Wenger) leads to informal learning experiences which occur at all levels within a work environment. New knowledge allows people to act as change agents for their professions as they find new ways of doing things and have the opportunity to challenge practices, which ensures that best practice is incorporated into the workplace on an ongoing basis. If the working environment allows and encourages this type of learning experience, ‘opportunities for professional and practice development are greatly increased’ (Andrew et al., 2008).

So how does it work in the real world? Legitimate peripheral participation (LPP) is a term to describe a phenomenon whereby students are likely to learn more by being involved in the task in some small way. For example, in a clinical environment, instead of being a mere observer the student becomes involved in the consultation by way of being assigned a specific task, such as taking a history or asking the family some questions to ascertain exactly what happened to the patient before they were admitted, and so on. This distinguishes LPP from the notion of learning by apprenticeship, as it assumes that students learn from a variety of people rather than the traditional master–apprentice model.

In the clinical environment there are many examples of LPP in action and often they are not recognised as learning experiences. Recognition of LPP as a valid learning experience and perhaps a conscious effort to establish roles within the boundaries of LPP could lead to an enriched learning experience for both learner and professional, as well as providing a pathway for establishing professional identity and fully fledged membership to the CoP.

In an article on learning how to be a nurse through LPP, Spouse (1998) found that her ‘findings demonstrated the importance of a close and facilitative relationship which consequently enabled students to engage in activities contributing to their professional development... students were more likely to interact with other personnel working in the clinical environment and to become successful autonomous learners’ (Spouse, 1998).

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