On Learning in Landscapes of Practice

I just finished my first read through Etienne Wenger-Trayner, Mark Fenton-O’Creevy, Steven Hutchinson, Chris Kubiak, and Beverley Wenger-Trayner’s new edited collection, Learning in Landscapes of Practice: Boundaries, identities, and practice-based learning (2014).

I’ve long been a fan of Etienne Wenger-Trayner’s theoretical and anthropological work on learning. I owe my colleague Barbara Berry a debt of gratitude for telling me about this book and for pointing me to Wenger-Trayner’s recent lecture on the content of this book.

This book is essential reading for anyone who espouses “social learning” in the industry learning and development community. Unlike many current popular approaches, Wenger-Trayner et al. offer ideas that are practical and, at the same time, based thoughtful, seminal scholarship on learning.

Wenger-Trayner et al. offer those of us who work with organizations comprised of diverse groups a whole new vocabulary and approach for facilitating change and enabling people to work at, across, and through boundaries in the organizational and societal contexts.

Professional coaches will find value the ideas on identity in social landscape

People in the higher education sector should pay attention to this text because in several places it at addresses classic challenges that universities face like students’ transition into and through higher education, and, more importantly, the tricky relationship between academic learning and work. This book would be useful for student services specialists, academic developers,  and university administrators alike.

The chapters in this book on systems convening will interest experience designers and design researchers who practice strategic design or systems design with large groups  and use methods like design charettes or other community engagement approaches. I wonder whether the framework of ideas that Wenger-Trayner et al. present around identity, multimembership and boundaries might also extend current perspectives on product and service experience design by adding a sociocultural dimension to the list of factors to consider when designing an experience or interaction. Also the landscape framework may offer systems and service designers new ways of thinking about ecosystem mapping as considering multimembership and circulating regimes of competence might reveal new value flows and relationships.

Learning to parent

My recent dive into the literature on informal learning and my friend Mark Watkins’s Pan-dad-emonium Daddy blog and piece for The Good Men Project, have inspired me to write a bit about my learning experiences as a parent. Below I’ve tried to capture and share knowledge that Fiona and I gained through practice and through interaction with nurses, doctors and other parents in the lead up to and early aftermath of the births of our twin daughters Claire and Megan. Like many parents-to-be, we took prenatal classes, but that formal learning was poor preparation for our actual experience in the hospital and at home.

Be ready for the call — it can come any time. Megan decided she was ready to be born around lunchtime on a Monday. I was sitting down to a lunch of lentil soup and green salad with two of my SFU colleagues when Fiona rang to tell me she was heading for the hospital. We had just finished renovating our townhouse, and Fiona was looking forward to a few weeks of rest before her due date. We had been back into our bedroom for only a week after spending a month sleeping on two different pull-out sofa beds. (Have I mentioned that Fiona is my hero?) We had been planning to pack a hospital bag that night. Fiona spent four days supine in the “Ladies in Waiting Ward” before the girls were born on Friday, and I had to make several trips back to our place for stuff. Learn from our mistake and have your bag ready to go.

Claire (top) and Megan (bottom), shortly after they came home.
Claire (top) and Megan (bottom) in June 2011, shortly after they came home.

My recent dive into the literature on informal  learning  and my friend Mark Watkins’s Pan-dad-emonium Daddy blog and piece for The Good Men Project, have inspired me to write a bit about my learning experiences as a parent. Below I’ve tried to capture and share  knowledge that Fiona and I gained through practice and through interaction with nurses, doctors and other parents in the lead up to and early aftermath of the births of our twin daughters Claire and Megan.   Like many parents-to-be, we took prenatal classes, but that formal learning was poor preparation for our actual experience in the hospital and at home. 

Be ready for the call  — it can come any time. Megan decided she was ready to be born around lunchtime on a Monday. I was sitting down to a lunch of lentil soup and green salad with two of my SFU colleagues when Fiona rang to tell me she was heading for the hospital. We had just finished renovating our townhouse, and Fiona was looking forward to a few weeks of rest before her due date. We had been back into our bedroom for only a week after spending a month sleeping on two different pull-out sofa beds. (Have I mentioned that Fiona is my hero?) We had been planning to pack a hospital bag that night. Fiona spent four days supine in the “Ladies in Waiting Ward” before the girls were born on Friday, and I had to make several trips back to our place for stuff. Learn from our mistake and have your bag ready to go.

Learn from the nurses. Our daughters stayed in the intermediate nursery for a couple of weeks after they were born. We spent the Victoria Day long weekend shuttling from Fiona’s room to the nursery. We were legitimate, peripheral parents. The nurses trained the girls to eat and sleep on a schedule, and they trained us to feed, bath, and care for the girls.

The nurses who cared for Fiona were equally helpful. We will always be grateful to Nurse Nancy, the charge nurse who coached Fiona through the birth,  helpfully grabbed the camera from me to take pictures after I was overcome with emotion, and directed me to the resus room to be with the girls as the paediatricians cleaned them up and prepared them to move to the nursery. One of the nurses who cared for Fiona after the birth was also a mother of twins and gave us a valuable piece of advice that we have followed:  Bake each of the girls a birthday cake every year and sing Happy Birthday twice.

Be careful what you say to partner. The worst moment of my post-natal hospital experience  occurred one day after the girls were born

David, standing at the bus stop waiting to go back to the hospital, answers his phone. 

Fiona: “There is a surgeon here looking at Claire. Come to the hospital.”

David: [All the anxiety and stress from the previous week — a marathon of waiting that culminated in 100m dash births — wells up. Near panic.]

Did she say surgeon?

What’s wrong with Claire?

“Pardon?”

Fiona: “There is a doctor looking a Claire.”

David: “I’ll be there as soon as I can.

I was a basket case. Fiona will tell you I was particularly melodramatic when I arrived at the nursery. I said something to the effect, “If you think I haven’t bonded with this baby, you are wrong.” Fiona, on the other hand, was amazingly calm and collected, thanks to her years of crisis management experience as a lifeguard and family lawyer. It was an interesting first test of our parenting skills in a crisis. Claire had to have an x-ray because she had not pooed  in her first 24 hours. Thankfully, she managed to get the job done just as they went to squirt radioactive dye up her bum.  Pity the poor intern who was standing ready in full scrubs had she had needed surgery and the thoughtless doctor who burst excitedly into the radiology department not knowing we were standing in the corner, shrouded in lead. Fiona’s comment to the intern was priceless: “I’m sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t be doing surgery on my baby today.” I am married to an amazing woman.

Go the extra mile for your partner. As I said before, we spent a long weekend in the hospital before Fiona was discharged. The hospital food was unappetizing, and I quickly tired of the bleak cafeteria offerings. So I made a point of going out and bringing back takeout from Main Street restaurants for our dinners. Fiona had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her pregnancy, so she particularly enjoyed a giant souvlaki platter including all the carbohydrates she  hadn’t been able to eat for three months. Make the hospital stay as bearable as you can for both of you.

Master the Craigslist informal economy. You won’t believe how much stuff people tell you that you need to take care of babies and toddlers. Now I understand why marketers target expectant parents so much You can save  a lot of money by buying and selling baby gear on Craigslist. The trick is to watch the sales at the major baby stores around town and the current listings to figure out how to price your stuff and to consider what you are willing to pay. My rule of thumb has always been to price gear we bought new around 45-50% of the original price unless I know the item I am sell something valuable and hard to find. Keep in mind that most gear you buy in the first year will only be useful for three months before the kids outgrow it.

Stephen Billett, Trevor Marchand and other scholars of workplace learning describe how motivated workers learn through observation, mimesis, practice, and social interaction with peers more experienced colleagues. As I dive deeper into anthropological accounts of learning, I will be curious to discover how other scholars have used ethnography and other methods to explore how parents learn.

How did you learn to parent? What principles have served you well over time? What skills and performances should expectant parents practice?