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Posted on February 10, 2020
Updated on October 13, 2021

Learning and Meaning

Learning is arguably one of the most central and important skills for us as human beings at every stage of our lives. It is the means by which we meet, make sense of and manipulate our environment.  

More specifically, it contributes hugely to the ways in which we relate to the people with whom we make relationships. Although there are physiological processes and changes also involved, a large part of child development involves learning about self, others and the world.


Learning Theories

There are many theories of learning, and Wenger (1998) summarises some of these into groups:

Behaviourist theories – e.g. Skinner – learning by stimulus-response, adaptation and reinforcement.

Cognitive theories – focusing on the differing ways in which individuals process information – Kolb’s learning styles are an example of this approach.

Constructivist theories – focusing on the ways in which we construct meaning rather than that this meaning is something fixed and objective.

Social Learning theories – focusing on imitation and modelling as the way in which we shape ourselves and are shaped.

How we view learning also depends on whether we focus on the outcome of learning – the product – or on the process by which we achieve that outcome.

Etienne Wenger (1998) argues that the most important factor in our learning is the social one. He is credited with coining the term Communities of Practice. He puts forward a number of premises:

We are social beings - far from being trivially true this fact is a central aspect of learning

Knowledge is becoming competent with respect to valued enterprises – activities which we regard as important, such as singing in tune, growing up as a boy or girl etc

Knowing is a matter of participating in the pursuit of such enterprises, that is of active engagement in the world

Meaning - our ability to experience the world and our engagement with it as meaningful - is ultimately what learning is to produce

(1998, page 4)

He therefore starts by looking at the components of this social model of learning:


Practice - learning as doing - a way of talking about the shared historical and social resources, frameworks and perspectives that can sustain mutual engagement in action

Community - learning as belonging  - a way of talking about the social configurations in which our enterprises are defined as worth pursuing and our participation is recognisable as competence

Identity - learning as becoming - a way of talking about how learning changes who we are and creates personal histories of becoming in the context of our communities

Meaning - learning as experience - "a way of talking about our (changing) ability - individually and collectively - to experience our life and the world as meaningful

(Wenger 1998, page 5)

So what Wenger is arguing is that it is by moving in various “communities of practice” that we learn – and that our learning is primarily through involvement with other people with whom we share a common interest, concern or activity. These communities of practice can range from, for example, a group of people who work together, to a family, to participants on a course, to a group of friends sharing a passion for some activity or other.

He argues that we never operate either totally from theory or practice – that there is always a mix of these polarities. Possibly to get away from the pre-conceptions of “theory” and “practice”, he uses two alternative terms – which have additional meaning:


Participation

“to have or take a part or share with others (in some activity or enterprise”

Our relationship with others is important in this process. We recognise ourselves in each other.


Reification

"making into a thing"

This is the way we give form to our experience.

The “object” starts becoming alive when used. An example that Wenger uses here is “the economy” – we talk about it as though it were a real object, rather than a concept. Reification is also the way we project ourselves onto the world.

Wenger argues that we are in a balance between both of these all of the time – we are participating and reifying. In contrast, he give the example of the flower – which is fully participating, but not able to work with concepts (as far as we know!) – and the computer – which is able to deal in abstractions, but not participate in any way.


Organisational Applications

The relevance of this theory for organisations is that it points to the need to recognise that groups of people will develop their own version of ”the way to do things” and “the way to understand... ”, and that this will always be beyond anything laid out in a book or a procedures manual. We have tended to see knowledge as something that is “codified” – fixed for all time, rather than something that at the end of the day only has relevance in terms of what we do in conjunction with other people.


References

Bloom, B.S. (Ed.) (1956) Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals: Handbook I, cognitive domain. Toronto: Longmans, Green.

Craig, Y. (1994). Learning for Life, Mowbray

Craig Y. and Green, S. (1996). Six Styles of Education in Tomorrow is another Country Church of England Board of Education

Newton, T. (1998). How does your Training Programme say Hello, Conference Presentation.

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Wenger, E. and Snyder, W. (2000). Communities of Practice: The Organisational Frontier, Harvard Business Review, Vol 78, No.1, Jan-Feb pp 139-145