Communities of Transformation: What are these Entities? Communities of Transformation


Section 4: What are these Entities? Communities of Transformation

As we described in section 2, we originally framed the study using the literatures on social networks and communities of practice (CoPs). As we studied these four groups, however, it became clear that they did not share many of the characteristics of social networks. They had more structure than most networks, they were more formal, they had stronger shared purposes and goals, and their members had closer ties. We did find that individuals in these communities formed their own informal networks of connections through their involvement. However, we also found that the ways in which members engaged with their communities were heavily influenced by the ways in which the communities themselves were fostered by the leadership and by shared philosophies. Thus, community members participated according to organizational structures, rather than according to the informal relationships that were developed through involvement. In other words, network concepts failed to explain the workings of these groups.

STEM Reform Communities in Relation to the Communities of Practice Literature

In comparison to the literature on networks, the community of practice literature was much more relevant for understanding these STEM reform communities’ characteristics. The groups each had a clear domain—a type of teaching innovation—on which they were focused. This domain created a strong identity for members, which was common in CoPs. There was also a sense of care for domain and work that is common of CoPs—not just a sense of shared interest that characterizes social networks. The communities were well formed and nurtured, additional attributes that are characteristic of CoPs. The sense of community served as a strong social fabric in each group, and it was essential to fostering the domain. Further, each community focused on a practice: teaching and developing resources and sharing relevant information. In our interviews, it became clear that participants in these groups described themselves as members of communities, and that the language of networks was foreign and did not resonate with their experiences.

The literature on CoPs was very helpful for explaining the formation of these groups and their common lifecycles and challenges. The basic design principles from the literature on CoPs were relevant for engaging members in these groups, although, as we highlight in this report, the most important design aspects we found at work to facilitate engagement were not reflected in the CoP literature. The outcomes of these groups were also similar to those found for other CoPs related to learning, leadership, networking, and re-energizing people. Thus, we found much resonance between the findings of our research and the existing literature of CoPs; the literature can be a helpful base to draw on to inform future efforts at scaling STEM reform among faculty communities.

However, the literature on CoPs did not fully describe the phenomena that we recorded in our research. For example, while communities are structured in many ways, most empirical studies tend to document CoPs that are located within organizations. CoPs in the literature thus tend to exist within a company, hospital, or government agency and be supported with space, resources, materials, staffing, and leadership through the sponsoring organization, whether formal or informal. Each of the STEM reform communities we studied was not situated in this way, which led us to describe them as non-organizationally located communities. By non-organizationally located, we mean that there is not an organization providing resources (human and financial) or other infrastructure to the communities. This position presented specific challenges to the communities studied—particularly challenges around sustainability. Perhaps as a result of this difference, the communities in this study had a divergent approach to issues of expansion, as compared to that described in the CoP literature. Therefore, we found their non-organizational status to be an important distinction for the entities we were studying—a distinction that significantly influenced results, as we examine in more detail in the ensuing sections.

Additionally, in the entities studied, we also found some meaningful differences related to engagement and design that were not captured in the CoP literature. As a result of these differences, which we describe in detail below, we labeled the groups we studied a variant or subtype of communities of practice, called communities of transformation (CoTs). In this section, we describe how the CoTs in this study resemble CoPs, but they also bring some unique features that made our results different from the more general CoP literature. A comparison of CoTs with other communities we described in section 2—CoPs and professional learning communities (PLCs)—can be found in Table 4.1.

Communities of Transformation

In this study, we believe that we have identified empirical data to support another variant of communities of practice called communities of transformation, or CoTs. To best understand CoTs, it is helpful to compare and contrast them with CoPs.

Traditional CoPs tend to work within the value system of their organizational settings to improve those settings. The practices that they put forward are not seen as entailing a dramatic departure from the status quo; rather, they offer improvements on existing efforts that can be understood within the philosophy or paradigm of existing practices. What we found in our interviews and through observing events and activities is that a CoT departs significantly from existing practices and values to create an innovative culture and reality. When people participate in these communities, they are introduced to and over time begin to live new practices that dramatically depart from the practices currently used within their institutions. Traditional CoPs also often operate in more organic, gradual ways, as people learn from each other through day-to-day practice. In the distributed communities that were the focus of this study, however, participants did not have such daily interactions to drive their learning, and they only experienced intermittent contact with the broader communities. In this setting, specific learning mechanisms were established by these communities that engaged individuals across isolated locations. This was an important design feature for the success of these CoTs.

We found three defining elements crucial for creating new or innovative cultures in CoTs, distinctive from CoPs and PLCs:

  1. A compelling philosophy;
  2. Living integration of the philosophy throughout activities and communications, creating a new world of practice;
  3. A network of peers to break the isolation, brainstorm revising practices, and help sustain changes once an individual returns to the status quo environment

The overall elements of CoTs are mapped onto a chart (Table 4.1) that also compares them to CoPs and PLCs. We will refer to this chart more specifically in the discussion, and it also captures elements presented in the findings.


First, having an engaging, well-articulated, and clear philosophy is important to ground people in a new value system and to guide novel behavior, especially when educators are in isolation, trying to learn and practice alone at their institutions. This philosophy provides an anchor for learning. In the interviews, faculty discussed how the philosophies of these four communities were the most compelling and engaging aspect of their involvement, and the survey results of these four organizations also reinforce this point (Kezar & Gehrke, 2015a). An example of one of these guiding philosophies is provided in Appendix 4A: the SENCER Ideals. Importantly, the underlying philosophies of these four CoTs challenge traditional ideas of science, not only teaching practices. For example, SENCER’s focus on relevant social problems, civic education, and interdisciplinarity is a departure from more traditional, disciplinary views of science. Similarly, BioQUEST has brought philosophers into its community and encourages creativity and interdisciplinary thinking, and PKAL examines the cultural and social underpinnings of science and the importance of being culturally relevant and student centered. By challenging traditional notions of science, these groups advance entirely novel approaches, not just the limited practice of tweaking science curriculum.

living integration of philosophy

Second, in order to help members to embrace new practices that depart from the status quo within their own institutions, it is critical that communities provide members with opportunities to live or embody their values in practice. CoTs help individuals to inhabit new possibilities by creating this novel, philosophically driven world of practice. Thus, we found it to be another core characteristic of CoTs that their philosophies be embodied through a number of activities and events. For a CoT to embody its philosophy means that its signature events operate according to the philosophy, that the leadership of the community exemplifies the philosophy in all communications (e.g., listserv, websites), and that materials (e.g., resources, texts) reflect the philosophy. As community members articulated the influence of these different areas—activities, leadership, and resources—they noted how each area distinctly contributed to the eventual transformation that the community made possible.

network of peers

Third, the relationships faculty formed in the communities helped them to maintain their new practices when they returned to their campuses, in part by allowing them to brainstorm uses for the practices on their own campuses. This feature of these CoTs is similar to common designs of CoPs in general, and of PLCs in particular, but it also introduces a different approach to mentorship and support. All communities of practice are based on the premise that interpersonal support for change and innovation in practice is important; thus, it is typical to see the importance of community and relationships within any derivative of a CoP. Yet, in traditional CoPs, relationships are often tacit, occurring naturally as people work with one another. In contrast, within PLCs, considered in this study to be a subset of CoPs, community development and learning are highly structured; it is the role of learning community leaders to arrange regular sessions for group brainstorming and sharing of information. Within the CoTs studied, however, this process has unfolded in a way unique from these two alternatives. Each CoT has developed a core of individual volunteers that provide mentorship and ongoing communication with individuals who attend events. At all times, these four communities have a group of individuals—usually 100 to 150 people—that are willing to communicate with and mentor a set of members as they begin to live the new practice. Usually these relationships develop organically based on shared or similar disciplines, institutional types, backgrounds, or concerns. At other times, these pairings can be assigned, such as when an individual member appears not to be making organic connections. These relationships are not highly structured as in PLCs, nor are they tacit as in CoPs—rather, relationships are more loosely connected and not formally dictated by overall structures. The faculty that are mentored then in turn become mentors for the next group. Each STEM reform CoT used this type of multi-generational approach, ensuring that new professionals are constantly recruited, that a middle generation is continually being mentored into more advanced roles, and that a senior group reliably works in leadership roles. Because these CoTs have been around for many years, they have reiterated this core group of individuals many different times, and they are constantly rejuvenating each group. We identify not only the importance of mentorship and relationships related to transformation, but the vehicles that emerged for developing and sustaining these volunteers over time.6

CoTs are similar to traditional CoPs in many aspects: they are organic, they share the underlying characteristics identified in the literature (domain, community, and practice), and they nurture membership and a community that mirrors that of CoPs. Yet, communities of transformation are distinctive in several key characteristics:

  1. They focus on creating and fostering an innovative space that does not exist;
  2. They rely on philosophy more than practice as they work to define the domain;
  3. The philosophy is central to their community adhesion, engagement, and action

See Table 4.1 for a summary of the qualities of CoTs and a comparison with the characteristics CoPs and PLCs. While communities of practice are typically focused on improving specific practices (e.g., improving customer service or dental hygiene), they are not often engaged in radically rethinking or altering that practice. In contrast, innovation across theory and practice—not simply modification of practice alone—is a defining feature of communities of transformation. A philosophy is the coalescing feature that serves to embed innovation. Within CoTs, the domain is more than an interest area; it is distinctly defined by a philosophy and underlying values. The community supports this philosophy by living it through various interactions and through the work that is carried out both internally in the community and externally on members’ campuses. Events, communications, and all community-related activities are defined by the task of living this philosophy. We believe that philosophy played such an important role to these communities because the practices they espoused were innovative and challenged the existing status quo. Thus, the practical innovation required a clear rationale and articulation.

Table 4.1: Comparison of Core Characteristics of Communities of Practice, Professional Learning Communities, and Communities of Transformation

Characteristic Community of Practice Professional Learning Community Community of Transformation
Definition Group of individuals who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly. Group of individuals committed to working collaboratively in ongoing processes of collective inquiry and action research to achieve better results. Distributed community of individuals that uses a core philosophy to create and foster new practices that can be integrated into the various institutions in which individuals work.
Underlying characteristics A domain, a community, and a practice that is shared across participants. A well-defined domain, a hierarchical and structured community, and often not a clear, shared practice. An innovation that is lived (domain), a distributed community, and a practice (e.g., teaching STEM).
Membership and domain Identity is defined by a shared domain of interest in current practices. Membership implies a commitment to the domain, and a shared competence that distinguishes members from others. Members are practitioners who develop a shared repertoire of resources: experiences, stories, tools, ways of addressing recurring problems, etc. Membership is defined often by a leader who created the community; thus, the identity of the PLC comes jointly from the domain as well as from the leader. In education PLCs, the domain is typically student success. The notion of a shared practice may not be a prevalent part of this model. Shared interest or domain is an innovation that does not currently exist in practice in a substantial way; members are organized around the task of bringing this vision into practice. Membership is organic, as in CoPs, and there is a shared practice (i.e.. teaching).
Community Members engage in joint activities and discussions, help each other, and share information. They build relationships that enable them to learn from one another. The focus is on improvement of the domain. Traditionally, CoPs have been physically located in one place and have expanded over time. Membership is steered toward the explicit task of bringing together teachers and administrators, or other hierarchically defined practitioners. Across this hierarchy, a sense of collective work is emphasized, such as efforts toward renewal or improvement of a school. Members engage in joint activities and helpful discussions mostly shared at a distance. Their relationships enable them to learn or share from each other. The focus is on engagement and absorption of a novel practice. Communities rely on a hybrid structure with some in-person encounters, relying mostly on distance interactions. These communities are less organic than CoPs and less structured than PLCs.
Actions Problem-solve, share information, seek and foster expertise, visit others, map knowledge. Discuss teacher work, discuss student work, discuss student data, discuss the professional literature. Hold signature events that demonstrate the new innovations; develop leadership that embodies this new goal; develop a guiding philosophy that helps support the new practices; create a guiding document.
Research background Lave and Wenger’s concept of situated learning, developed while studying apprenticeship as a learning mode. Evolution of Lave and Wenger into a highly structured, constructed, and hierarchical form of situated learning. Further evolution of Lave and Wenger, not situated in day-to-day practice, but in a distributed community. Development of idea of community that is neither fully organic nor highly constructed.
Where applied CoPs have been adopted most readily in business due to the recognition that knowledge is a critical asset that needs to be managed strategically. Also seen across multiple sectors (government, non-profit) and professions like academe and law. PLCs are mostly used in schools and in other more hierarchical institutions. Also found in other professions. To date, CoTs have only been identified in higher education, but they are likely to exist in other places. They are most likely to be useful in settings or domains where a deep or fundamental change in practice is needed or already taking place.

In terms of community, CoTs have similar activities to traditional CoPs. Each shares information, establishes mentors, seeks and fosters expertise, and solves problems. However, we saw a unique quality of CoTs in the way these community activities were all defined by enacting the philosophy to engage the community. This was reflected in the descriptions given by community members that described the philosophy as the most salient feature. Also, the community relationships were neither tacit/organic (as in traditional CoPs) nor highly structured (as in PLCs). Instead, they were intentionally designed using organic elements. This design included the emergence of leaders through several avenues, as well as the creation of structures such as key annual events, communication channels, websites, and ways to link various faculty together to brainstorm and mentor one another.

It is also striking that the four CoTs we studied were distributed (located in a network, not in a single organization) and hybrid communities. By hybrid communities, we mean that they employed a combination of virtual and in-person connections; we describe this feature under future research, as we did not have evidence that it constitutes an essential quality. The distributed nature of these CoTs, however, seems to be an essential characteristic of such communities; CoTs function through the power of a distributed community to support people in isolated status quo locations.

The findings regarding distributed structure of communities of transformation should be treated with caution, however. While we describe this characteristic as a unique aspect of CoTs, it may also be a result of the fact that traditional communities of practice have historically been studied only within organizational settings; thus, much of the empirical literature reflects this form. CoPs typically have been seen to be organizationally situated and working to modify existing practices, but largely not challenging the existing order of the organizations that support them. Thus, we would like to acknowledge that the broad definition of CoPs indeed allows for the possibility of more radically altering practice, even if this function has so far not been documented in empirical research. By elaborating on the radical innovations fostered by communities of transformation, we hope to bring to light a variant empirical example of communities of practice that has not been identified in the literature to date and to articulate and define its key characteristics.

While we identified communities of transformation within higher education settings, we imagine they may be common across many sectors, both within non-organizational settings and among more networked groups. We also imagine that philosophy may be more relevant to certain types of practices, such as teaching, that are particularly imbued with complex beliefs that define them. For example, medical practitioners might form a community of transformation to introduce a radical variation into their complex practice, such as embedding acupuncture into traditional medical practice, which would entail a dramatic departure from status quo practice in many institutions. A group that formed around this issue may also be defined as a CoT. In light of this expansive applicability, we imagine that there are other CoTs that exist in various fields that have simply not been identified to date. Our research can be instructive to such CoTs, whereas the existing research on CoPs may be misaligned for outlining the best ways to engage participants, for understanding lifecycles and challenges faced, or for best understanding the outcomes possible for such groups.


In summary, through this study we have identified a new variant of communities of practice, which we have termed communities of transformation (CoT). These communities have three distinguishing characteristics that differentiate them from CoPs. They exhibit:

  1. A compelling philosophy;
  2. Living integration of the philosophy to create a new world of practice;
  3. A network of peers to break the isolation and brainstorm revising practices

This approach to STEM reform holds promise in the ways that it can engage faculty and contribute to relevant benefits and outcomes for STEM education. In section 5, we describe these outcomes and benefits.

6. Parallel to this effective structure of mentorship and community building, participants also discussed regional networks that were created by each of these CoTs. Participants said that such sub-networks typically did not represent the CoT well, because the regional communities lacked the key leaders to embody the philosophy, did not have an infrastructure where the philosophy was built into the design, and did not have enough of a cadre of dedicated volunteers. While all those interviewed recognized that the regional networks could perhaps one day themselves become communities of transformation, at present they fell short of what the more central efforts were able to create. It is these elements that proved crucial to the success of the core communities that we capture in the narratives below. Note that PKAL was an exception to this finding, and its regional networks were stronger and more successful compared to those of the other communities studied.