The presence of a variety of independent learning theories makes it difficult for medical educators to construct a comprehensive theoretical framework for medical education, resulting in numerous and often unrelated curricular, instructional, and assessment practices. Linked with an understanding of identity formation, the concept of communities of practice could provide such a framework, emphasizing the social nature of learning. Individuals wish to join the community, moving from legitimate peripheral to full participation, acquiring the identity of community members and accepting the community’s norms.
Having communities of practice as the theoretical basis of medical education does not diminish the value of other learning theories. Communities of practice can serve as the foundational theory, and other theories can provide a theoretical basis for the multiple educational activities that take place within the community, thus helping create an integrated theoretical approach.
Communities of practice can guide the development of interventions to make medical education more effective and can help both learners and educators better cope with medical education’s complexity. An initial step is to acknowledge the potential of communities of practice as the foundational theory. Educational initiatives that could result from this approach include adding communities of practice to the cognitive base; actively engaging students in joining the community; creating a welcoming community; expanding the emphasis on explicitly addressing role modeling, mentoring, experiential learning, and reflection; providing faculty development to support the program; and recognizing the necessity to chart progress toward membership in the community.