How does the community we belong to help us learn, and enable us to shape our community?

Posted by sustainable on August 9, 2013 

When Ioan Fazey suggested I contribute a blog post to Sustainable Learning, it seemed like a great opportunity to interview John David Smith, whom I’ve learned so much from about learning. I recorded this interview and edited this transcription for brevity and clarity.

John David Smith was born and raised in Humacao, Puerto Rico. He first studied architecture at the University of New Mexico. He became a student of Trungpa Rinpoche in 1975 and worked at the University of Colorado for more than 20 years. He’s been the community steward for CPsquare, an international community of people who are involved in communities of practice as leaders, researchers, or consultants, conducting workshops with Etienne Wenger and others on learning from a social theory perspective.  He is the co-author of Digital Habitats; stewarding technology for communities with Etienne Wenger and Nancy White, and he currently serves as the Interim Communications Director for the Portland Oregon Shambhala Center.




HS: John, how is that your focus came to be on learning? Why learning, per se?

JS: Well, I remember as a child growing up in Puerto Rico, I listened to Americans and Puerto Ricans talking past each other. And meanwhile, missionary doctors would just show up from the States and be able to talk shop with my father. The contrast seemed completely fascinating to me.

Then, when I was working at the University of Colorado, where I focused on using administrative records to support decision making, I found that there were, in effect, communities around different data sets. There were people who understood admissions data, who had no idea about how budget or finance worked or what it really meant. So that made me want to ask: Is there a way of learning across these communities? How could it happen? And how does it not happen? What are the forces that keep one part of an organization out of the business of some other part?

Another theme was seeing how the process of bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West involved a kind of learning that was incommensurate with learning in schools. It involved personal practice and experience — and also, on a social level, a whole messy process of figuring out: Do social forms that made sense in a medieval culture work in Boulder, Colorado, or not?


HS: Were you involved in the Buddhist community in Boulder?

JS: Yes, I moved there in 1975 — having read a book! — but also with the intuition that, this isn’t quite book learning. I remember having that thought.


HS: What’s the difference between book learning and — other forms of learning? Learning as practice? What’s the appropriate counterpoint?

JS: Book learning for me, at that time, meant discussing the books as we did at St. John’s College. Whereas the whole enterprise of Tibetan Buddhism was much more “mind-in-body,” asking: “How do I show up in the world?”

Early on, the social element was not so explicit. Trungpa Rinpoche’s students were very individually motivated: “I’m here for my spiritual practice and goals.” Now, in traditional texts, a Bodhisattva vow clearly is about “all sentient beings” — and that’s a great example of book learning. It’s easy to say, “Yeah, I take that vow,” and then go back to doing my individual thing.

Then, over the years, it became more clear that there was a kind of social learning component to what Trungpa Rinpoche was talking about. He was talking about transforming society on a deep level that contested the Western notion of individualism, contested the Western stance of mind-in-opposition-to-body, and communicated the idea that “I am the product of all the causes and conditions around me.”


HS: You mentioned the notion of community, which brings up the question of how community pertains to learning or social learning. Are recognized communities necessary for social learning?

JS: Well, I think “community” is a fiction is some ways — it’s whatever we want to mean by that term. And different people have both different definitions and different experiences of community. It’s a constructed concept. But, from the other side, that construction can have real value. I find it interesting to note in retrospect how many little communities Trungpa Rinpoche spawned to hold and carry forward different facets of his teaching.


HS: And do you find that the perception of belonging to a community is correlated to a perception of learning?

JS: Well, one definition that Etienne Wenger talked about in one of the online seminars we did is that acommunity of practice is the experience of social learning that becomes expressed as a social formation. That’s a whole bunch of squishy but important ideas linked together. The experience of learning and the experience of connection can take place along different vectors. Whether I see myself as a member of the community might precede or follow other important kinds of acquisitions: of identity, of knowledge, or competence — or as membership in opposition to another community.

Last week, in a webinar with people studying social media in The Netherlands, in order to get away from the baggage that the term learning carries, I asked them to talk about how they had been influenced. In that conversation, one of the things that came out was that people did not always know when they were being influenced or not. So it’s my hypothesis that, “When did learning happen?” is a very problematic question to answer. And yet causing and even scheduling learning is conventionally taken for granted in the field of education.


HS: You’re equating learning with the perception of being influenced?

JS: Yes, through some interaction over time.

And a community itself defines what learning is — whether we’re learning to pick people’s pockets or to bring environmental awareness onto the agenda of our local community.


HS: And if the group is defined by the boundaries of an academic discipline, then competence is defined by understandings of biology or physics or whatever, and that competence is defined in relation to the world around us?

JS: Yes, the world around us as perceived by those communities, but still in relation to communities. Communities define competence. Competence, and membership, often become a contested calls.

I think part of what’s going on here is that our language inevitably floats concepts up to the status of being externally real, and what we’re trying to do in the conversation around communities of practice and — for that matter — in Buddhism, is to remind ourselves that concepts like competence are, in effect, mental events. At the same time, that doesn’t mean we can’t hone them, and fight about them, and grow them, and make them more useful.


HS: Your book with Etienne Wenger and Nancy White is called Digital Habitats, yet you place such a strong emphasis on the subtleties of learning. Do you see a lot of potential for digital habitats?

I think the digital habitat is interpenetrated with how we live. We saw it as a little more separate back when we were writing the book. Today, just look right here: you have an Air and a digital recording device; I brought an iPad and a cell phone. All of that is together in our experience and shapes our expectations and sense of meaning about this conversation, as does our environment, in your backyard, under this cherry tree.

As people’s activities move online, then looking over each others’ shoulders in those online activities becomes somewhat more feasible, but there’s always a question of, “Do I see on my screen what you see on yours?” These interfaces create illusions of what’s possible and what’s there. It’s a very difficult thing to see the technology from the perspective of an outsider or of someone who’s coming onboard to a community.


HS: What’s the value of looking over another person’s shoulder? Or of having one’s shoulder looked over?

Looking over someone’s shoulder, you get to see practice, you get to see expertise, you get to see human activity in its richness and ambiguity. And it’s definitely a collaborative thing to look over someone’s shoulder. When you do that, it’s typically not didactically organized around a linear text or curriculum. It’s organized around practice, around doing something. And the logic of doing is very rich and kind of unfathomable in some ways. Acquiring the logic of doing happens gradually and iteratively. The word apprenticeship comes to mind here.

From the other side, the value of having someone look over your shoulder is confirming, and the conversational aspect, when someone asks, “Why do you do that?” That can illuminate our own practice.

In Situated Learning, the original frame around a community of practice was somewhat hierarchical. People who are competent are at the center; those who aren’t are outside and move toward the center. A more dynamic frame that Etienne explored in his 1998 book is that the world has multiple communities of practice. Sometimes an outsider pulls the community in a different direction; and sometimes the community pulls an outsider in. That dynamic of who pulls who is very complex. It points to the idea that the center is both imaginary and emergent, changing over time. And so is the periphery.


HS: Could you talk a little about other influences on your thinking?

JS: Well, in the generation before Lave and Wenger’s Situated Learning, there was Vygotsky, who as a Marxist set the context for a lot with his focus on zone of proximal development and perfectibility of society.


HS: “Zone of proximal development”?

JS: He was getting at the notion of: What are you ready to learn? What’s in the periphery of your understanding that — if you were exposed to or interacted with — you could figure out? One of the benefits of looking over someone else’s shoulder is that you learn what you’re able to learn, picking stuff out from the many elements before you.


HS: Like an individual-scale “adjacent possibility.”

JS: Yes, exactly.

And a very important person in this whole inquiry has been Jean Lave, who looked at learning from a cross-cultural perspective. Among other things, she asked: How do people learn to reason quantitatively or — as we learn in school in the West — to do arithmetic? And what do those activities mean? And how is competence defined? And what does schooling do to our notions of competence?

Her recent book, Apprenticeship in Critical Ethnographic Practice, is a wonderful example of sustained attention — that she could focus attention over five summers in the early 80s of conducting interviews with tailors in Liberia, thinking critically about the quantitative tests she gave them, then working to make sense of it over some thirty years, and finally letting us look over her shoulder. It’s really quite a feat, it seems to me.

It’s an example of mind looking at itself, which is a fundamental theme in Buddhism as well. What are the tricks that we do to ourselves? And what enables us to see our own thinking? In Shambhala, that’s the key argument: Looking at our own thinking is not an optional thing at this point in human history.


HS: Because?

JS: Because our technical capacities to affect the planet and to affect each other …


HS: Have outpaced our ability to be reflective on these things?

JS: Yeah, right, or to organize the level of reflection that’s needed. The board of directors of a big bank can be very reflective about what they’re doing on their own behalf. But do they take a broader view?  Society as a whole has to have a way of bridging across differently focused communities. The whole community of practice conversation is about saying: If you start by looking at knowledge as a social phenomenon, competence as a social phenomenon, then you get a different picture of the world — not only of how it works, but also about its possibilities.

So, rewiring the world socially actually has great promise.


HS: “Rewiring”?

JS: Well, that’s an image from the digital habitats conversation — about inducing the kinds of conversations that have been prevented by technology or habit or social separations or jargon. One of the things that you look at in your work is the way that jargon is very powerful. When it faces one way, it’s good for digging into a subject; when it faces the other, it’s exclusionary, confusing, and can be very problematic evidence for those who “don’t get it.”


HS: And can lead to assumptions about how learning takes place, through the metaphor of “knowledge transfer.”

JS: Exactly! What’s pernicious about that metaphor — apart from the fact that it doesn’t work at all — is that it creates an illusion that we have served those who have, say, downloaded the PDF file. Maybe we have, but we just don’t know. Often, we just can’t pinpoint when learning happens.


HS: Is there such a thing as “design for learning”?

JS: I think so. I think it comes down to extending an invitation to conversation, to looking at your intentions as you participate in the conversation and in the world, and to doing all that with as much scrupulousness and precision as we can muster.

It may require a special jargon to look at our intentions. Jargon is everywhere. And jargon is sharpened in communities. But jargon is useful for asking: What am I doing in the world? And what is the sustained attention that guides my actions in the world? As actors in larger social learning systems, are we out to promote our own conclusions, our own actions and brand — or are we out to enable something larger than ourselves individually?


HS: And this takes place at an organizational level, as well as an individual level, right?

JS: Absolutely.


HS: So, what types of organizations — whether agencies, businesses, nonprofits — have been good at learning? Are there any individual examples that come to mind?

JS: Well, I don’t know. But my hypothesis would be that effective communities are sometimes contained in but often cross organizational boundaries. Organizations can do something to sustain a conversation. Organizations tend to persist beyond the conversations or communities they contain. But so do communities. The persistence of the two may be incommensurate.


HS: So, for example, if we look at the extended Silicon Valley community, it seems to be learning and — for better or worse — evolving rapidly in the last couple of decades.

JS: At that scale, it’s a persistent community that accommodates organizational birth and death. I forget who talks about how the effectiveness of that community is based on rapid organizational formation, learning — or not — and then thriving or bankruptcy. If it’s bankruptcy, those individuals and those relationships disperse and reform somewhere else. That enables other conversations in other companies to form. So it may be useful to think of organizations as platforms, just like we think of digital platforms. The problem is when we think of the organization and the community as coterminous.


HS: In Portland, as you know, there is a pretty passionate, extended community that’s focused on sustainability, and there are opportunities to look over each other’s shoulders at what others are working on.

JS: So I think questions about metrics come up. For whatever reasons, in Silicon Valley metrics emerged at the core of the ecosystem to say that what counts is innovation.

It’s much more difficult when it comes to sustainability, to agree on the metrics and to be able to say, “Look, I did it. I moved the needle.”


HS: And sustainability indicators are often organized around the three Es — ecology, economy, equity — and don’t always explicitly include learning itself as a measure of success.

JS: Well, learning is driven by some sense of life force, and if you leave that out, it’s as if you’re talking about a closed system or are ignoring how interactions can lead to inspiration or accident. You are ignoring the important ability to discern what to retain or remember versus what to abandon or forget. Without learning as a core point of awareness and self-reflection, there’s no space for, “Wow, we’re doing something really great! Or, this is terrible!”  There would be no pitched battles between different parts of the family.


HS: To wrap up this conversation, what are you looking to learn next?

JS: Well, on the community of practice side, I think that conversation has often gotten trapped at the skin or “self” boundary.  I’m thinking about questions like: How can we talk about “self” and “experience” and “learning” in more productive, integral ways? How do we create sustained, and collective, awareness about these things and about the environmental and social challenges that we think we face?

Howard Silverman teaches systems thinking in the Collaborative Design MFA program at Pacific Northwest College of Art. Formerly with Portland-based nonprofit Ecotrust, he has worked in numerous areas: food systems, fisheries and forestry, green building, climate and energy — and learned from the use of numerous approaches: scenario planning, spatial planning, market design, life cycle assessment, online-offline participatory processes, and communities of practice. He is cofounder of the scenarios, research, and design consultancy Pattern Labs and blogs at Solving for Pattern.