Why We Do What We Do: Part Three

Part Two of Why We Do What We Do ended with the pronouncement, "we should not forget that there is a broader canvas to take into account when examining our practices," and this broader canvas will be explored in this entry: Part Three of this discussion.

Even if we would not like to admit it, our context influences (or frames) the range of practices to which we are exposed and/or participate in. For instance, I am not - on a regular basis - exposed to the traditional hunting practices of an Australian Aboriginal community, though it is part of my periodic experience. I do not have the frequency of exposure, the necessity, the instruction/mentoring or meaningful experiences to adopt the practice in any practical, regular or significant manner. Nor am I exposed to the recreational hunting practices that are part of the form of life of certain of my relatives in the American South. I was raised in an urban setting, and so the prevalence of recreational hunting was not as pronounced as it was for my Southern cousins, even if it was practiced by some of my urban friends. I was merely not exposed to or mentored in this practice. In fact, my upbringing taught me to challenge (or judge) the basis of recreational hunting and respect the traditional practice as it is found in Indigenous cultures.

My surroundings, my instruction, my peer relations and my own choices taught me to identify with certain practices over others. In this case, “a practice ... is intertwined with our self and sense of identity, on the one hand, and our relations and ways of interacting with other people, on the other hand.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010, pg 196). Also, as mentioned previously, part of the aim is that the initiated comes to internalise the practice, “thus changing ‘mere’ activities into practices where standards of excellence do matter.” (Smeyers and Burbles, 2010 pg 196). And to enter into a practice as an outsider in a dominant culture presents something more challenging than the acquisition of the practice itself. “[Outsiders] are continuously contested, imagined and reimagined, transformed and negotiated, both by their members and through interaction with others. The identity, and so the meaning, of any culture is, thus, aspectival rather than essential.” (Peters, 2010a, pg 21)

So, as mentioned above ... the practices in which we take part are framed by the cultures (or communities or habitus) through which we navigate.  And this journey occurs across three interacting planes: the community (and institutional) plane, the interpersonal plane, and the intrapersonal (or personal) plane. First, we have the overarching plane: the community (and institutional) plane. On this level we find the framework for the range of practices that an individual will encounter, whether it is found in institutions, such as schools, or information outlets, such as the media, or through cultural artefacts, such as literary figures or personality archetypes. In many ways, the community plane exerts a normative influence over individuals and it can also stratify participation along class or other divisions. Another plane, which is one step down, is the interpersonal plane, which contains the family, peer, and mentoring relationships which come to shape one’s introduction to, attachment to, scaffolding through,  joint engagement in and performance in practices. These engagements shed light on how tastes are formed, processes are understood and goals are set and realised. However, the presence of role models is not enough for the adoption of practices. The third level contains the intrapersonal (or personal) plane, which alludes to the deliberation within the individual who chooses, develops, selects and refines practices. At this level, we consider both attitudinal and cognitive actions that an individual takes in order to become a practitioner. In the words of Rogoff (1995), “this is the process of becoming, rather than acquisition.”

Therefore, engagement in practice is shaped through the presence of culture, access to role models and the personal adeptness and understanding to navigate the practice. Here, I want to emphasis the concept of access. Does the learner have access to the broader culture? Where is the learner and his/her practices positioned in the immediate community and broader society? Does the learner have access to role models, supportive peers and mentors? Does the learner possess and develop the perseverance and talents that are necessary? And does the learner have access to the material conditions and enabling opportunities to exercise the practice? The last question introduces us to the issue of access to the physical resources of the practice, which is encapsulated in the activity system model present within communities of practice. The model seeks to conceptualise the number of factors that impact upon what we practice, how we practice it, with whom we practice it and why.

“The whole system has certain intended and unintended ‘outcomes.’ The outer triangle contains the integration of ‘instruments’ (various tools and technologies), ‘rules’ (norms of use), and ‘division of labor’ (the differential expertise of different actors in the system). Various other relationships in the model capture the diverse ways in which ‘subjects’ (actors), the ‘object’ (goal) of the activity system, and the ‘community’ (various types of actors in the system) interrelate with each other and with the instruments, rules, and division of labor.” (Gee, 2008, pg 90, which explains the work of Engestrom, 1987)

In other words, there is a community, and in this community there is a practice or a set of practices. Let’s say this practice is reading. As part of this practice there are certain goals, purposes, or attainments, which requires one to understand the rules of engagement, the use of certain tools, and the involvement of various people to accomplish the intended and unintended outcomes. A subject working toward a goal within a community takes advantage of certain instruments, rules and people to go about their business, whether or not that business is quite clear or not. Within this division of labour, there are those who are allocated as teachers who have suitable expertise and empathy so as to guide the emerging practice. In advanced, institutional practices, the division of labour manifests itself in different roles, requiring differing identities and relationship, such as the role of speech pathologists, educational psychologists and tutors. In this picture, “an activity system as a unit of analysis connects individual, sociocultural, and institutional levels of analysis.” (Gee, 2008, pg 89 - 90). In this picture, “people, including learners in school, [are represented] as actors and not just as passive recipients of information.” (Gee, 2008, pg 93) 

Furthermore, “an activity system [or practice] does not exist by itself; it interacts within a network of other activity systems.” (Gee, 2008, pg 91) In the ideal environments, the network of activity systems reinforce one another or - at least - challenge each other to evolve and adapt. The same individual may navigate culinary practices, hygiene practices, religious practices, fitness practice, social practices, etc. Some practices may reinforce one another, others mays sit side by side one another but with little in common, and others may come to create a certain level of tension (e.g. ongoing religious practices in a context of potentially confronting scientific practices). What this all suggests is the following: the uptake of a practice is impacted by access to instruction, the culture of the practice, the agency of the learner, the network of practices and the access to the instruments and a sustainable environment in which the practice can flourish and make sense. 

“People are smarter when they use smart tools. Better yet, people are smarter when they work in smart environments; that is, environments that contain, integrate, and network a variety of tools, technologies, and other people, all of which store usable knowledge … People are always part of environments, whether they are particularly smart ones or not.” (Gee, 2008, pg 89)

It is the latter fact that people are not always part of particularly “smart environments” that raises the issue of equity, or equal access to the opportunity to learn. However, in its ideal realisation, James Paul Gee suggests that an community of practice includes:

  • Members of the community of practice who are affiliated with each other primarily through a common endeavour and shared practices and only secondarily through ties rooted in shared culture, race, class, gender, or ability. (Gee, 2008, pg 92)
  • The common endeavour is organised around a whole process (involving multiple but integrated functions), not single, discrete, or decontextualised tasks carried out outside of or without knowledge of the wider contexts that give them meaning.  (Gee, 2008, pg 92)
  • Members of the community of practice must all share extensive knowledge. By “extensive knowledge,” I mean that members must be involved with many or all stages of the endeavour; able to carry out multiple, partly overlapping, functions; and able to reflect on the endeavour as a whole system, not just their part in it. (Gee, 2008, pg 92)
  • Members of the community of practice also each have intensive knowledge; that is, specialised and deep knowledge that goes beyond the group’s shared extensive knowledge, which they have built up and can supply to others who do not share it when they need aspects of it for their own work. (Gee, 2008, pg 93)
  • Much of the knowledge in the community of practice is tacit (embodied in members’ mental, social, and physical coordinations with other members, and with various tools and technologies) and distributed (spread across various members, their shared sociotechnical practices, and their tools and technologies) and dispersed (available offsite from a variety of different sources). (Gee, 2008, pg 93)

The role of leaders and teachers is to design communities of practice, continually resource them, and help members turn their tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge to be used to further develop the community of practice, while realising that much of the knowledge will always remain tacit and situated in the practice. (Gee, 2008, pg 93)

However, real world circumstances leads to less-than-equitable distribution of resources and support. Even though Wittgenstein alludes to the diversity of practices (in the shape of language games and world pictures), he does so without entering into the politics of practice. “[Wittgenstein’s] pluralism raises thorny questions. How do we differentiate? ... What disassociations, links and possible transitions are there between different systems of thought and different world pictures? (Sluga, 2011, pg 70). It is important to recognise that our practice “is, after all, not the product of a free consensus … it is handed to us through the authority of parents, teachers, writers, academics, publishers, the media and finally even government.” (Sluga, 2011, pg 145) Hans Sluga does explore the politics of practice and this exploration is clear from Sluga’s reference to conflicts over language, 

“What if there is more than one language that lays claim to being the common medium of communication? What if the linguistic group is stratified by social and class divisions? … As with all rules of social life, we need to ask of these rules; whose rules are they? What authority do they possess? What do they demand from us? … There all kinds of institutions that regularise our everyday language (academics, textbooks, bureaucracies, churches, etc). (Sluga, 2011, page 128 to 129)

It is this political dimension that will be the central issue raised in Part Four of the discussion.



  • Engestrom, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding. An activity theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta Konsultit.
  • Gee, J. P. (2008) A sociocultural perspective on opportunity to learn. In P. Moss, D. Pullin, J.P. Gee, E. Haertel, and L. Young (Eds). Assessment, equity, and opportunity to learn (pp. 76-108). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Rogoff, B. (1995). “Observing sociocultural activity on three planes: Participatory appropriation, guided participation, and apprenticeship. In J.V. Wertsch, P. Del Rio, and A.Alvarez (Eds.), Sociocultural studies of mind  (pp.139-164). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Peters, M. (2010a). Wittgenstein as exile: a philosophical topography. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 15 - 34). London: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Sluga, H. (2011). Wittgenstein. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Smeyers, P. and Burbles, N. (2010). Education as initiation into practices. In M. Peters, N. Burbles, and P. Smeyers (Eds), Showing and doing: Wittgenstein as a pedagogical philosopher. (pp. 183 - 198). London: Paradigm Publishers.