Critiquing and Levels of Knowledge

One of the benefits of participating in a community of practice is that the community is often made up of practitioners of varying levels. I’m pretty sure I’ve written on this before, because communities of practice where there are multiple skill levels present are ripe spaces for peer teaching, for craft-related discussion, and for craft innovation and evolution.

But there are problems involved with communities of practice that come together organically. Members do not only have different levels of experience, but there’s often no uniformity in their training or skill development, which can lead to differences within similar skill levels and a lack of common vocabulary for talking to each other and to other skill levels. There is also a problem for both those who are formally trained or self-taught in that self-assessment, especially in relation to others in the group, can be cloudy. Ego and self-esteem play a part in this, but fairly often it comes down to our ability to look at our own capabilities objectively. This can lead to situations where an experienced person doesn’t share their knowledge because they don’t feel they have the right, or where a newer practitioner feels the need to offer too much advice (too often proceeded by the word, “ideally”) when they should be listening to those who’ve already made those mistakes.

There is much the experienced voice has to offer. For one, they’ve already been there. They’ve made mistakes and learned from them. That’s why advice in communities of practice often flow from the experienced to the new. They’re the voice of authority. That’s also why advice tends to flow more freely among practitioners of similar skill level. They all have this set of knowledge and skills, and can learn from each other as they talk about how they got there and what experiments they tried in getting to this level. It can be intimidating to the new practitioner, because they often think they have nothing to contribute to the conversation, or that their own experiences are silly next to that of the more experienced members.

And that’s where the new practitioner is wrong. Their voice is just as valuable. Their point of view most likely hasn’t been boxed in by traditions and expectations of the craft, giving them an opening to say something that can spark a conversation that leads to new directions for the craft. Depending on their training route, a new practitioner speaking up is in the best position to trigger a peer teaching moment as what they say demonstrates where they are in their own skill development and training. The experienced practitioner can then correct any misguided notion the new member has acquired, or give them the nudge they need to level up. This does unfortunately lead to the occasional situation where an experienced member feels threatened by someone in the up-and-coming crop and tries to troll them out of the group, but an aware community can catch this and minimize its damage to the new practitioner.

Ultimately, communities of practice are made stronger by having members of various skill levels, experience, and training, especially where there is an environment that encourages and supports all members interacting comfortably, regardless of their background and current skill level.

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