Eloi LAURENT ©Philippe Matsas / Flammarion
Create a well-being or sustainability index with the students
11 January 2018
©Martin Argyroglo / Sciences Po, Paris campus
The large lecture : creating interactions between students and professors
4 July 2018

Making pedagogical innovation a collective challenge: communities of practice

Simon BOLDUC ©FORCCAST / Sciences Po

Simon BOLDUC ©FORCCAST / Sciences Po

How university professors grow pedagogically? How to stimulate a culture of pedagogical innovation in our institutions? Without proposing a one-fits-all answer to these questions, this short contribution presents the implementation of community of practices as strategies dedicated to face successfully the challenges of professors’ professional development and the setting of conditions favorable to pedagogical innovation.

In the current context of great competitiveness between universities, in which the objective is to create a brand name to attract the best students, pedagogical innovation is increasingly being considered as an asset. Yet, it requires us to reflect upon how professors make pedagogical progress, and especially, for the institutions, on how to stimulate a pedagogical culture prone to innovation. On this point, I must be clear: the call to innovation that some are making is not the best of strategies to stimulate the troops.

First of all, one must recognize that professors are foremost experts in their discipline, and this, without possessing any pedagogical training. Their professional identity is therefore intimately linked to their disciplines (they are for instance “sociologists”, “political scientists”, etc.). Consequently, pedagogy represents another discipline to discover for them. This is also true for lecturers in charge of punctual courses for which pedagogy represents often an unknown universe. In this context, any institutional strategy aiming at developing a pedagogical culture must take into account the challenges, that the professional development of professors represent and to seek to put in place facilitating conditions (making time and funding available, valorization, etc.).

It can be drawn from studies made on the professional development of professors that it is achieved through attempts and failures (Hativa and al., 2001; Murray and MacDonald, 1997), in an informal way (Knight and al., 2006) and that it relies mainly on personal thinking. Yet, despite the light brought by a reflective feedback on its practice, personal thinking led by teachers does not guarantee a teaching of quality. Everyone mistakenly believes in his or her own theories and in the illusion of their explicative capacity (Bédard, 2017). Therefore, teachers would have a lot to win in confronting their personal theories to the scientific understanding of university pedagogy. For instance, knowledge of: theories on learning, on teaching methods, on the students or about the teaching contexts. But once again, as in the case of personal reflection, access to knowledge does not guarantee alone a teaching of quality. Indeed, a central element of the development of pedagogical practices is that it relies on a knowledge that the teacher must build (Beaty 1998). The teacher must be capable to integrate and apply any new knowledge to its particular teaching context. Therefore, any strategy based upon the transmission of knowledge, as organizing seminars, risk to give few effects over the real evolution of pedagogical practices. These strategies leave the teacher with the challenge to integrate this knowledge in his or her daily practices.

In the face of these different observations, I propose the community of practices (CoP) as a strategy of pedagogical development. Of course, CoP is only a tool, and as any good tool, is not a one-fits-all solution. In fact, CoP represent mainly an excellent practical example of efficient professional development.

Briefly, CoP is a community of persons, of 6-12 members, which are eager to learn together. This community, which gathers regularly over a long period, places at the core of their meetings the improvement of their pedagogical practices. One of the strengths of the CoP is therefore to break the isolation of teachers, to open a place of dialogue and to make the improvement of pedagogical practices a common challenge. To create a CoP, it is recommended to start from existing networks, current projects and to get closer to the real needs of teachers. CoPs find their reason to exist in the grouping of teachers united by a common theme, which everyone considers urgent to address. Then one must encourage active, collaborative and voluntary participation.

However, to ensure that CoPs are dynamic and that they have an impact on professional development, these require a certain level of organization. This generally requires the presence of an animator that oversees the organization and evolution of the community. The animator allows, among other things, to welcome and integrate newcomers, to allocate responsibilities, to guarantee the respect of rules, and to monitor assiduity  (Dale and Dumont, 2014). In particular, the animator enables to make sure that the discussed pedagogical practices and knowledge are formalized. The formalization of pedagogical practices is a first step enabling to explicit practices, to characterize them, and thus as a conceptual basis to question scientific literature. Along the meetings, the objective is also to bring the members to think collectively on their own reflection (meta-reflection) and to become critical with regard to their own practices. This opening to criticism requires thus a trust feeling, each member being accountable for it. Besides, the dynamism of CoP takes support of a diversity of points of view, and, through dialogue, to enable everyone to confront its own theories, to feed on others’ perspective and to make evolve its reflection on its own practice.

Simon BOLDUC, PhD candidate, University of Sherbrooke, Quebec - Canada.

Simon Bolduc is a PhD candidate in the field of pedagogy in higher education at the University of Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada. He is undertaking his doctoral thesis with financial support from the Forccast  program, which aims at characterizing the postures adopted by teachers in the situation of active pedagogy in order to adequately support students. He focuses in particular on the practices of teachers in cartography of controversies lectures offered in different higher education institutions. He has taken several field trips to Paris to observe classes and interview teachers. During his last trip to Paris in the spring of 2017, he offered a seminar course on the collectivization of teachers’ learning as a motor of pedagogical innovation to the Forccast partners and to the Active Pedagogy Lab team. He expresses here the substance of the exchanges that took place on 22 May 2017.

Bibliographical References

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