A Tale of Two Communities of Practice: Part One by Peter Frey

Abstract: With solid economic growth and a large number of universities that offer degrees with course content in English, the need for qualified English language teachers has been a problem since 2001, according to Kabilan (2007). International House (IH) Malyasia and Limkokwing English Language Centre (LEC) both function on the same premises at Limkokwing Univeristy in Cyberjaya as one of the bigger English language departments in the region – with IH immersion courses and LEC courses in English for Academic Purposes, respectively. Working with four female teachers from both IH and LEC in a focus group, this study uses an exploratory approach (Allwright, 2005) to investigate the impact of teachers’ understanding of their identity on professional development within this specific context. This first of two articles briefly describes how innovation and transformation are taking place as two professional communities of practice coexist and become part of one another in the process.

Introduction, Contextual Background and Current Practice

At Limkokwing University in Cyberjaya, Malaysia, International House (IH) and the Limkokwing English Language Centre (LEC) operate as two distinct companies with their own branding and logo. Entry qualifications for teachers in each programme are different; for IH, it is the CELTA or Trinity. For LEC teachers, they must have a relevant degree in TESOL. Furthermore, teachers wear Limkokwing University access badges that identify them as being in either IH or LEC. IH teachers sit on the right side of the teachers’ room and LEC teachers on the left. All of these differences struck me immediately when I arrived for my first day of work last May.

At the same time, both groups or teams of teachers (18 in LEC and 26 in IH) overlap and interact on a daily basis, with access to the same resources, library and lounge area for lunch, as well as the same overall Director, Director of Studies and Teacher Trainer, who conduct formal observations and annual appraisals using IH guidelines as the benchmark.

Although this writer does not agree with Hofstede’s (1997) more essentialist view of cultural relativism, that author’s observations on different symbols (brands and access cards), heroes (R. R. Jordan for the EAP teachers and Jim Scrivener for the IH teachers), rituals (separate weekly meetings held at fixed times) and routines (different teaching schedules) is another way of emphasising the differences between the two communities.

Communities of Practice

For the purposes of this reduced version of an assignment for the EdD TESOL Programme at the University of Exeter, these two groups of teachers can be defined as ‘communities of practice’ or COPs, according to Wenger (1998), with the teachers as:
‘active participants in the practices of social communities and constructing identities in relation to these communities’ (author’s italics).

COPS are all around us both personally, for example in clubs, and professionally, as outlined above. The challenge in this particular situation as an IH Director is the presence of two professional COPS that coexist both separately and together at the same time, in the same place.

Research Questions

Based on the above contextual background, current practice and literature review, the following research questions were formulated:

1. What is the impact of teachers’ understanding of their identity on professional development at International House Malaysia/Limkokwing English Language Centre?
2. What are the implications of this impact on a programme for professional development?

The following section will look very briefly at the literature review and theoretical framework for this investigation.

Literature Review and Theoretical Framework

Teacher Identity

For this research, the most useful concepts of teacher identity are to be found in Varghese, Morgan, Johnston and Johnson (2005) in an article that is frequently cited throughout the literature. The work of Varghese, in particular, with its focus on ‘language teacher identity through situated learning – as a process of becoming part of a community of practice’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) underpins the concept of teacher identity in this work. In other words, teacher identity is neither internal, nor fixed – rather, it is ‘a process of becoming’.

Professional Development

Bailey’s (2006) five principles for professional development (PD), according to Rueda (1998:1) will be used in this paper and are:
1. ‘Joint productive activity among leaders and participants.’
2. ‘Promote learners’ expertise in professionally relevant discourse.’
3.’Contextualize teaching, learning, and joint production activity in the experiences and skills of participants.’
4. ‘Challenge participants toward more complex solutions in addressing problems.’
5. ‘Engage participants through dialogue, especially the instructional conversation.’

‘Teacher Identity and Professional Development’

Regarding teacher identity and professional development together, Connelly and Clandinin (1999) state that there is a gap in teacher education programmes between teacher educators’ identities and pre-service teachers’ identities. Evidence of this gap is clear to this author in the case of teachers in both IH and in LEC. To address this issue, Duff and Uchida (1997) encourage both pre-service teacher education and in-service teacher programmes to support teachers’ ability to negotiate between changing roles and identities. Accordingly, in this particular study the focus will be on the impact of teachers’ understanding of their identity on PD within the in-service context of International House Malaysia and Limkokwing English Language Centre in order to promote transformation.

The following section will look very briefly at the theoretical framework for this investigation.

Theoretical Framework

In addition to Varghese, Morgan, Johnston and Johnson (2005) describing teacher identity as ‘a process of becoming part of a community of practice’, the authors also remind us that ‘learning is located in coparticipation’ in which ‘members of the COP share understandings concerning what they are doing and what that means for their lives and for their communities’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991). This theoretical perspective of situated learning will be the window through which we look at this study.


An effective research design is like a well-constructed house. Due to the limited scope of this article and the research project itself, a brief outline of the research design will begin with the interpretive paradigm, which is concerned with the ‘individual’ and ‘the subjective world of human experience’ (Cohen, Manion and Morrison, 2007). In defining knowledge from a social constructionist view as the result of ‘daily interactions between people (Burr, 1995), combined with the methodology of exploratory practice, I hope in this modest paper to begin a process cited by Allwright (2005) in which ‘all persons involved in the COP have the right to develop their own understandings, and to expect others to help them in this, not get in their way.’ (Lave and Wenger, 1991).

Due to limits of time and scope, a focus group, which would give teachers from the two COPs the opportunity to interact with each other, was selected as the method for my investigation. Due to the fact that 60% of the total teaching staff in both COPs are female, I selected only women to take part in this project – two are involved in only the IH courses, one is involved in only the EAP courses and one is involved in both. Using Wellington’s (2000) guidelines for focus groups, participants were not coerced in any way to participate, were given two weeks advance notice and signed forms of consent. The facilities used were suitable for the purposes and included a white board for group discussion and notes.

Results and Discussion

Findings and analysis for the two research questions in this modest study will now be supported by data from the transcript of the focus group.

1. What is the impact of teachers’ understanding of their identity on professional development at International House Malaysia/Limkokwing English Language Centre?

In response to the first question, two of the IH teachers understand their identity as teachers in terms of self reflection on the part of the individual.

R: ‘I find that every Friday in IH all immersion teachers we have to write a self reflection on what we did in class. And I found that to be a very, very strong basis for self as a teacher... So I found that to be a very good practice to develop professionally.’

L: ‘I agree. You can’t just expect someone to come and observe you, just to tell you what to do. I agree that you have, it has to come from within and I do. I will always reflect back on what worked.’

At the same time, two of the teachers involved in EAP understand their identity more in terms of being motivated, in the passive voice. Self is mentioned in terms of feeling, rather than self-reflection.

K: ‘ .....She mentioned something about motivation and I think it’s very, very important when it comes to development because the teacher has to be motivated, feel that she wants to develop herself...’

F: ‘ Yeah.’

2. What are the implications of this impact on a programme for professional development?

From the perspective of two of the participants, R from IH and K from LEC, there are two concrete, yet different, suggestions for professional development below, as well as the tacit agreement of F and L. Furthermore, R seems to be addressing the question of motivation raised by K.

R: ‘ The first one is actually a workshop that we and immersion joined together, so we’d be able to actually have to, because all the workshops that have been held this far has always been immersion/EAP. So, a common workshop, something that has to do with motivation, perhaps.’

K: ‘uh, another one that I came up with was probably a workshop on designing materials for the classes... Because for immersion, you’re using a book, right?... But for EAP, we’re actually using our own materials for students.’

Conclusion and Reflection

In brief, from participant responses to the research questions, we can see that teachers’ understanding of their identity is focused on the individual level, rather than at the level of a community of practice.

The impact this has had on current PD so far has been an emphasis on PD as something personal that can involve self reflection or being motivated.

The responses to the second question show that there is a genuine desire on the part of the two COPs to collaborate together in their PD. However, it is also clear that there may be different needs from the two COPs that need to be addressed, such as materials development for EAP teachers.

Therefore, the next step forward, which comes from the teachers themselves in this study, is to provide support as they become better ‘understanderers’ Allwright (2005). After discussing the results of this project with the four teachers from the focus group, a workshop with both COPs will be held as the first step that will contribute to what Wenger (1998) calls:

‘the construction of an identity that can include these different meanings and forms of participation into one nexus.’

It is within this nexus that innovation and transformation will take place, with the support of both International House and Limkokwing University, and it is hoped that these suggestions will be a way forward to construct an identity that allows for crossing between the two communities, thereby contributing to a mutual and sustainable professional development programme for all.

The author may be contacted at peter.frey@ih-malaysia.com for a copy of the bibliography and references