How We Learn: Communities of Practice

As a guitarist I’ve spent hundreds of hours learning alone. Most classical guitarists perform alone too. It might seem that being a part of a community of practice is unimportant in the guitarist’s learning process.

Not true.

For many guitarists there seems to be no community of practice. Musicians who study with a private instructor have a limited community composed of instructor and student. If they play in an ensemble, the community of practice is larger. Guitarists, more than most musicians, tend to spend most of their time as solitary learners.

No one ever learns in a vacuum. Though we seem solitary, we are surrounded by examples of good technique, online repositories of music, tips, tricks, and of course, the sound of our favorite players. But this is not enough.

There are plenty of amazing players out there who learned completely alone, but the learning that happens in groups is far more profound.

Communities of Practice, according to Etienne Wenger, are:

groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and (who) learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

The last piece of Wenger’s definition is crucial. Online, we see information from thousands of players who share our interests, but there is little or no interaction. When you get 5 guitarists in a room discussing their art, sharing their triumphs and challenges, and teaching each other new things, the learning process increases in ways that are amazing. And because there is regular interaction, the solitary practice has more meaning as the guitarist prepares for the next meeting.

It’s absolutely true that you can learn anything completely alone if you have the right information. Learning within a community of practice can take you to a higher level than you could ever achieve alone.

How We Learn: The Importance of Autonomy

Autonomy is independence, self-direction, freedom.

When thinking about learning, we might imagine a teacher standing before a classroom. We might even see the students as uninterested. I know that many of my students, when in school, are exactly in this situation. Being told what to learn without a hint of independence or self-direction. The learner has no choice, no autonomy.

How can we learn this way? When there is no interest in a subject it becomes difficult to pay attention, let alone actually remember what’s being discussed! There are people who can set aside disinterest and thrive under any circumstance, but for many of us it requires extra work and can even result in a total disdain for school in general.

On the other hand, when there is a real interest in a subject it’s easy to pay attention. In fact, students usually go out of their way to explore it on their own. Learning comes naturally to us because of our curiosity.

When there is no autonomy, it becomes the teacher’s role to force the student to learn. When the student has autonomy, the teacher’s role is that of a guide, introducing the students to new ideas. It’s always more fun and much more rewarding to be in this role.

I’m always surprised when my students, who come to me after hours of “traditional” education, have trouble responding when I ask them what they want to work on. It’s as if they were never asked that question and have been conditioned to never consider their own interests!

Students who have freedom in their education explore subjects that interest them. More importantly they also learn how to learn on their own and, as a result, become life long learners. Those who have been trained to never look beyond the teacher’s lessons run the risk of shutting down.

The fear is that the self-directed students won’t learn everything they need to survive but learning how to learn is probably the most important skill they will ever need. It’s one of my goals to place this among the things I help my guitar students learn while they simultaneously learn the music they’ve chosen.