Communities of Practice and Home Education (HE) Support Groups
The Open University
Paper presented to the BERA Conference
16 – 18 September 2004
0208 969 0893
Communities of Practice and Home Education (HE) Support Groups
A common practice of families who start home educating is to turn to a home education support group for support, resources and guidance. The purpose of this paper is to examine how far the community of practice framework applies to the home education support group. The examination will be based on evidence from home educating parents collected through fifty questionnaires, followed by nineteen in-depth interviews and follow up interviews.
Home education is a growing phenomenon in the last 30 years particularly in the United States, Australasia and Britain. I will describe the main characteristics of home education and my place within the movement which led me to this research.
An overview of the community of practice framework will be presented. It will be argued that
this framework can help explain the dynamics within the home education movement as well as social aspects of learning (Wenger, 1998). This includes learning to be a home educator through the practice of home education and participation with other home educators. Using the main structures of the community of practice framework, joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire, the home education support group will be examined. The social learning required with regard to the trajectory into the home education community, becoming a „home educator‟, maturing in the community and the parent‟s trajectory out of the community will be explored.
The home education support group can take many forms from a loose informal one-off meeting to a more formal regular activity based in a particular venue. It may even take the form of an internet chat room, a newsletter, or informal contact by phone. I will be focusing on four different types of support group that have emerged from my research; a co-op, a theatre group, phone support and an informal social group. Examples from each of these will be presented and examined to show the various forms support groups take and how they conform to the structure of a community of practice. Questions about the power relations within these communities of practice, often neglected in the literature, will also be addressed (Paechter 2003a, 2003b).
The main finding emerging from the research is that home education constitutes a constellation of communities of practice as defined by Wenger. While the groups may share enterprises, historical roots, face similar conditions, have members in common, have overlapping discourses, compete for the same resources and share artefacts taken as a whole the members of each community do not usually participate with the members of other communities to share distinct and particular enterprises (Wenger, 1998). Each support group reflects and is created by the specific needs of those involved. While the groups may share a general enterprise of educating their children out of school, mutual engagement, including the form the support group takes, may vary widely between groups and shared repertoires differ across the groups. In conclusion the community of practice framework is useful for understanding home education support groups but needs to be adopted to deal with the wide diversity of groups.
Paechter, C. (2003a) Masculinities and femininities as communities of practice Women's
Studies International Forum Vol. 26,No 1, pp.69-77
(2003b) Learning Masculinities and Femininities: Power/Knowledge and
Legitimate Peripheral Participation
Women's Studies International Forum Vol. 26,No 6 pp.541-552.
Wenger, E, (1999) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge
I have come to this subject through my own personal involvement. Neither of my children have been to school and I am an active member of the home education community, founding and running a community centre for home educators for the past 11 years, called The Otherwise Club. I also edit an independent magazine, Choice in Education, and run an annual conference on home education as well as speaking and writing about it regularly.
I first experienced and then have seen many times in other home educating parents a process of moving away from a standard educational model to a more child led model. Wondering if parents learn this through the experience of home education has lead me to the topic of my PhD thesis from which this paper is taken.
To this end, through 35 in-depth interviews with home educators from Britain and the United States, I have been trying to uncover to what extent and in what way the choice to home educate has affected the parents involved. I have been looking at parents who have been home educating for more than three years as this is thought to reflect a time when families are settled into this choice. The families interviewed were mostly happy and comfortable with their decisions, therefore my thesis is not about whether this is a good choice for these families but focuses on the affects of the choice on parents lives. This paper, which represents an important research aspect central to the thesis, will explain briefly what a HE support group is, describe four examples of HE support groups and analyse their role using communities of practice framework. This framework is helpful in understanding the role of HE support group firstly, because it helps describe the HE support group through its concepts and secondly it helps to contrast different types of HE support groups.
Home Education Movement in England
The roots of the home education can be traced back to the works of Rousseau, Locke, Montessori and more recently John Dewey and Bertrand Russell. The recent move toward home education evolved from the writings of theorists such as, Friere, Paul Goodman, and Ivan IIilch. A.S. Neill and the free school movement were also influential. The most immediately significant writer is John Holt who through his book, „Teach Your Own‟(1981).
The oldest home educating organisation, Education Otherwise (EO), was formed in 1977, in England. EO produces a magazine which contains letters about various issues in home education and advertises home educating events. Most of the writing about home educating has been in this newsletter. EO, through the production of a contact list, puts home educators in touch with each other and this gives rise to local groups which meet regularly for activities and to talk about issues specific to home based education.
In England and Wales the 1996 Education Act states that ‟the parent of every child of compulsory school age shall cause him to receive efficient full-time
education suitable a) to his age, ability and aptitude and b) to any special educational needs he may have, either by regular attendance at school or otherwise‟ (Elective Home Education Legal Guidelines, 1999). It is this last
clause that allows home education in England and Wales. The Local Education Authority (LEA) has the duty to ensure that this law is obeyed but has no automatic right of inspection of the child and no right to monitor the child.
As there is no legal requirement for parents to inform their LEA‟s that they are home educating, the numbers of home educators is not known. There are estimates of 80 – 100,000 children in England and Wales being home
educated (Meighan,2000) but Petrie et al (2002) concluded that the number of home educators was not possible to gauge.
There are two main reason why families chose to home educate. The first is due to ideological reasons including ideas about educational theory and practice. Home education provides the flexibility that enables many different learning styles, from „school at home‟ with timetables and text books at its core to free range education allowing families to follow their own and their children‟s interests. The second reason families chose home education is due
to problems at school. These can be anything from bullying to failure to thrive. These families often come to home education as a last resort. Children who are home educated for either of these reasons may go to school at some point.
Home education has been studied very little partly because of the ad hoc nature of the rise of the home education movement in Britain and partly due to the prevalence of school based model of education. Most of the writing about home education is anecdotal in the form of letters to home educating newsletters and in more recent times, e-mail lists and websites. Much of the studies in Britain in recent times have been on the effect home education has on the children, their education and their social circumstances (Douty,2000, Rothermal, 2002).
Communities of Practice
The community of practice theory was first developed by Lave and Wenger in „Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation‟, (1991). In this short book Lave and Wenger moved the site of learning from formal teacher- 1 They suggest communities of learner relations to situated social learning.
practice are all around us in life. Each of us belongs to several although we may not be conscious of it. According to Lave and Wenger communities of practice are diverse and can be made up of any number of people. They are
1 Wenger in 1998 published „Communities of Practice; Learning, Meaning and Identity‟. This book is a more thorough analysis of the theories of community
of practice and situated learning. Wenger has extended his ideas since 1998 in articles, for example Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems‟, (2000).
collectively constructed and collectively maintained. The community of practice supports a communal memory and collective knowledge that allows individuals to practice within them without needing to know everything. It helps newcomers to join the community, it generates specific perspectives and terms to enable accomplishing what needs to be done and it creates and maintains a culture "in which the monotonous and meaningless aspects of the job are woven into rituals, customs, stories, events, dramas, and rhythms of community life"(Wenger, 1998,p46). People within the community of practice "act as resources to each other, exchanging information making sense of situations, sharing new tricks and new ideas as well as keeping each other company and spicing up each other's working ideas"(Wenger,1998,p.47).
Wenger (1998) outlines three main elements in communities of practice: joint enterprise, mutual engagement and shared repertoire.
A community of practice requires a 'joint enterprise', a common purpose. The joint enterprise is defined by the participants and it creates ways the participants are mutually accountable. This process is continually being renegotiated and rewritten.
Mutual engagement refers to membership of the community of practice. People work together within the community of practice creating differences as well as similarities.
It is said that each person's involvement in the community of practice further integrates and refines it. Mutual engagement also refers to the relationships created within the community of practice. Membership takes a lot of commitment and work and therefore if a person does not feel able to do this they fall away from membership of the community. In this way membership is self-selecting and the continued life of the community of practice carries on as long as members are interested in maintaining it. Engagement in communities of practice is essentially informal and the 'rules' are rewritten constantly within the community. To learn the 'rules ' you must be engaged in the practices of th