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Communities of Practice – as Solid as a Rock

02 May 2017

For every iPod, Nintendo Wii, Bluetooth and retinal implant, there is bacon-flavoured dental floss, the Steve Jobs pillow, the butter stick and Twitter toilet paper. Some inventions capture our imaginations and solve our everyday problems; others just seem over-engineered or appear to serve no obvious purpose.

  • Secondary Computing

Naturally, we are all excited about the opening of our MIT-inspired centres for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) subjects this autumn. It is our hope that students will develop the design thinking skills needed to solve real-world problems. But simply providing a state-of-the-art facility for students to use will not necessarily lead to the birth of brilliant ideas and exciting prototypes. It’s the manner in which we work together in these creative spaces that really counts.

Sometimes the best ideas are generated when people sit on their own, hidden away from the rest of the world. More often than not, though, it is the chance conversation on the bus or around the water cooler that provides the spark which ignites the Eureka moment. Indeed, history tells us that great ideas are often conceived and incubated with a little help from our friends.

Look no further than Gary Dahl, an unremarkable American advertising copywriter who became an overnight millionaire in the mid-1970s. Chatting with Dahl in a bar one evening, a friend mentioned the high cost and inconvenience he associated with owning a pet. This unexpected discussion led to Dahl coming up with an intriguing idea: a pet that required no feeding, no grooming and absolutely no walking. And so, the “pet rock” was born.

In 1975, Dahl packaged and sold to the American public over one million ordinary beach stones. Pet Rock even came with its own training manual, which taught owners that, ‘Your pet rock should be made to know who is the boss, and that you will demand impeccable behaviour if the two of you are to have a happy, well adjusted relationship.’ Whether all these new pet owners got the irony is another matter!

If our students are to come up with great ideas and prototypes, they will need to seek advice and constructive criticism throughout the design thinking process. From the moment the ribbon is cut on our new Secondary innovation centre, we hope to see our students creating their own groups according to the shared domains of interest they find within the world of STEAM. These so-called ‘communities of practice’ (CoPs) involve, in the words of Etienne and Beverly Wenger-Trayner, ‘people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how they do it better as they interact regularly’.

Guided by our shared philosophy of Be Ambitious, our budding innovators will be encouraged to tackle head-on even the most challenging problems thrown up in the tide of globalisation. As CoPs mature over time, their members should start to develop a shared repertoire of resources and creative solutions to share with peers in and beyond the school.

If the story of Pet Rock teaches only one thing, it is that a community of practice must first gain an empathic understanding of the problem it is trying to solve. Although we might instinctively laugh at the idea of replacing a beloved pooch with a lump of stone, on reflection, a pet rock makes sense when we consider the sense of frustration and distress that owners feel when parted from a pet - and then again when seeing the bill from the kennels.

We may not see the birth of a million-dollar invention at BISS Puxi straight away, but we can be confident that communities of practice have the potential to provide students with the right context in which to empathise with problems, develop insights, brainstorm ideas (ideate), build prototypes and test designs. The CoPs will place students firmly in the driving seat when it comes to the direction of their own innovation projects. It will be fascinating to see where the journey will take them.

Nicholas Rickford, Deputy Head of Secondary