Communities Theories


Individual and collective learning through emergence and self-maintenance of groups

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … sum of situation-relevant competencies
  • Knowing is … social co-participation
  • Learner is … a novice (individual) in/or a community (defined by a state quality)
  • Learning is … participating
  • Teaching is … mentoring, suggestion, advising




Spurred by the rise in popularity of Socio-Cultural Theory, Situated Cognition, and Situated Learning in the 1990s, there was a sharp uptick in discussions of structures of collective engagement. Within education, the most prominent of these is perhaps Community of Practice, and others that have gained some significant traction are Virtual Community of Practice, Network of Practice, Learning Community, and Professional Learning Community. Others that have been proposed that are relevant to theories of learning include:
  • Community of Action – group of actors who, in contrast to participants in a self-perpetuating Community of Practice, have the opportunity (and perhaps mandate) to bring about change
  • Community of Circumstance – group of people whose principal reason for gathering has to do with a life circumstance (e.g., cancer support group, incarcerated criminals, plane passengers)
  • Community of Inquiry – group of individuals co-engaged in a problem-driven inquiry, such as those associated with Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Community of Interest (Interest-Based Community) – group of individuals who share a passion (e.g., church group, activist group)
  • Community of Place (Place-Based Community; Spatial Community) – group of people whose principal reason for gathering has to do with a geographic location (e.g., neighborhood, workplace, public space)
  • Community of Position – a relatively temporary group of individuals who, as in a Community of Practice, are collected around a common interest but, unlike a Community of Practice, are more personally focused (e.g., high school cohort, sports team)
  • Community of Practice (CoP) – a group of active practitioners of an occupation that involves expertise and has processes for sharing information and sequencing experiences in ways that afford members opportunities to develop personally and professionally
  • Community of Purpose – group of individuals whose shared purpose has to do with helping members fulfill a need (e.g., building a house) of achieve a goal (e.g., building a website on learning theories)
  • Community Psychology – a branch of psychology focused on reciprocity among individuals within communities
  • Instructional Rounds (Richard Elmore, 1990s) – a model of community engagement aimed at improving education by better understanding practices and their consequences. Based on “practice rounds” of medical schools, the Instructional Rounds model involves groups of educators seeking to generate productive solutions that begin with nuanced understandings of problems, based on visits to multiple classrooms to make low-inference, non-evaluative, and non-supervisory observations.
  • Knowledge Community – a diversely interpreted term, used to refer to a Community of Practice, a Discourse Community(see Socio-Cultural-Focused Discourses), and/or a Virtual Community of Practice. Some commentators suggest that the notion of Knowledge Community is a blend of Communities Theories, Knowledge Management (see Organizational Learning), and Social Exchange Theory (see Action Theory).
  • Learning Community – a group of learners with sufficiently compatible interests, attitudes, and circumstances to support and influence one another in the pursuit of a shared goal or compatible goals
  • Network of Practice – an umbrella notion that includes all forms of social networks that support production of knowledge and distribution of information within a group of individuals who have common, practice-related goals
  • Professional Learning Community – an approach to Collaborative Learning among professional colleagues in specific work environments.
  • Virtual Community of Practice – a Community of Practice in which most of the interaction is developed on, mediated by, and maintained through digital technologies
For each of the above, the word “community” is used in specific reference to a collective of participants. There are other Communities Theories in which “community” is used more broadly, in reference to the population of a neighbourhood or other setting in which activities occur. Examples include:
  • Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning (CETL; Community-Engaged Learning; CEL) – as the title suggests, an approach to teaching and educational programming that is meaningfully attentive to aligning emphases and outcomes with community-identified needs. Some models of CETL also emphasize scholarly inquiry, professional learning, and/or matters of social justice.

Finally, notions of “participation” and “engagement” are ubiquitous across Communities Theories. Other discourses and constructs specific to these topics include:

  • Ladder of Engagement (Engagement Ladder Theory) – any framework in which modes of engagement are distinguished, usually for the purpose of devising strategies to enhance participation. Many, many models have been developed – varying according to ranges of purposes and intentions, as illustrated by the examples below:
  • Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation (Ladder of Public Participation) (Sherry Arnstein, 1960s) – a set of eight categories of participation, organized from modes that are disingenuous to those that are real and effective. Three clusters of levels are proposed:
    • Nonparticipation (Sherry Arnstein, 1960s) – modes of public participation in which officials offer citizens only contrived and manipulative forms of engagement:
      • Manipulation – a mode of public participation aimed at engineering support among citizens for existing officials
      • Therapy – a pseudo-participatory mode of engagement in which citizens are conned into believing they need authoritarian control to manage their problems
    • Tokenism (Sherry Arnstein, 1960s) – modes of public participation in which officials appear to involve citizens in meaningful exchange of information:
      • Informing – a mode of public participation characterized by a one-way flow of information from officials to citizens
      • Consultation – a mode of public participation in which citizens are invited to contribute insights and opinions, but without assurance officials are listening
      • Placation – a mode of public participation in which citizens are brought into the spaces occupied by officials, but perhaps only to show that they are involved
    • Citizen Power (Sherry Arnstein, 1960s) – modes of public participation in which citizens are genuinely and effectively involved with those in authority:
      • Partnership – a mode of public participation involving shared responsibilities for planning, decision-making, and conflict resolution
      • Delegated Power – a mode of public participation in which citizens are able to hold officials accountable and to compel officials to engage in good faith
      • Citizen Control – a mode of public participation in which citizens hold power – that is, oversee policy, manage operation, and control engagement with other organizations
  • Ladder of Community Engagement (various, 2000s) – a 6-rung model: (1) Discovery/Observing (learning about a community); (2) Following/Subscribing (visiting regularly and deepening relationships); (3) Interacting/Contributing (becoming comfortable and indicating a readiness to join); (4) Sharing/Endorsing (engaging in activities that might entice others to join); (5) Facilitating/Supporting (strengthening the community by enabling other members to participate more deeply); (6) Leading (moderating the community through helping to organize, manage, and maintain necessary structures)
  • Ladder of Children’s Participation (Hart’s Ladder of Participation; Ladder of Youth Participation) (Roger Hart, 1990s) – a 8-level taxonomy of modes of children’s participation in projects. The first six rungs involve adult-initiated projects: (1) Manipulation – children don’t understand their roles); (2) Decoration – children are involved to bolster a cause; (3) Tokenism – children are positioned to represent their age-group; (4) Informed – children are assigned roles that they understand; (5) Consulted – children who understand the activity are informed and consulted; (6) Co-Development – children share decisions with adults. The final two rungs involve child-initiated projects: (7) Partnership – children develop and carry out the project; (8) Co-Production – children share design and management decisions with adults.
  • Wilcox’s Ladder of Participation (David Wilcox, 1990s) – a 5-rung model based on Arnstein’s Ladder (see above): (1) Information-Giving – citizens are informed of plans; (2) Consultation – citizens are invited to provide opinions on specified aspects of plans; (3) Deciding Together – citizens are involved in planning; (4) Acting Together – citizens are involved in carrying out plans; (5) Support – officials assist citizens to accomplish what they want


See Situated Learning.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Jean Lave Etienne Wenger

Status as a Theory of Learning

The above Communities Theories are not theories of learning. However, they can be understood as elaborations of theories of learning that are concerned with collective process.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

While the discourse that typically surrounds Communities Theories is more descriptive than prescriptive, these perspectives do offer advice that could be considered pedagogical in nature, especially around group dynamics, formal and informal processes, and strategies for formatting inductions (such as apprenticeships).

Status as a Scientific Theory

By virtue of its affiliation with various theories of learning, Communities Theories meets some of the requirements of a scientific theory. However, because they are more descriptive than prescriptive, they are not readily studied as effective sites of learning.


  • Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation (Ladder of Public Participation)
  • Citizen Power
  • Community-Engaged Teaching and Learning (CETL; Community-Engaged Learning; CEL)
  • Community of Action
  • Community of Circumstance
  • Community of Inquiry
  • Community of Interest (Interest-Based Community)
  • Community of Place (Place-Based Community; Spatial Community)
  • Community of Position
  • Community of Practice
  • Community of Purpose
  • Community Psychology
  • Instructional Rounds
  • Knowledge Community
  • Ladder of Children’s Participation (Hart’s Ladder of Participation; Ladder of Youth Participation)
  • Ladder of Community Engagement
  • Ladder of Engagement (Engagement Ladder Theory)
  • Learning Community
  • Network of Practice
  • Professional Learning Community
  • Virtual Community of Practice
  • Wilcox’s Ladder of Participation

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2023). “Communities Theories” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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