Developing Learning Communities
decided to use the term learning [communities] as a general rubric,
recognizing that a variety of labels are in use for such activity:
cooperative learning, collaborative learning, collective learning,
study circles, team learning, partner learning, study groups,
peer support groups, work groups, self-help groups, and community
education circles. (Bouton and
Garth, 1983, p.4)
Recently, academic conferences
and institutions have become filled with talk about learning communities
(LCs). Nevertheless, many people are confused by what they are, how
they are formed, and how educators can assess their value. Before
teachers collaborate with colleagues and students, it is important
for them to have an understanding of LCs, collaboration, and interdisciplinary
This section will:
- Provide a foundation
- Clarify some terminology
- Provide a best practices
- Offer some suggestions
and cautions for teachers who want to create LCs at their schools
- End with a short list
of interesting and helpful readings
A Pedagogical Foundation
for Learning Communities:
A learning community
exists when teachers and students work together to help each other
learn. Communities are formed in many ways by creating
study groups, collaborating on class projects, or going on field
trips. LCs employ active, experiential teaching strategies, and
they are often theme and project-based. Finally, they take an interdisciplinary
approach to learning. Proponents of LCs believe that learners must
make connections between what they are learning in each of their
classes and relate the learning to their lives and the off-campus
communities of which they are members. The synergy that is created
when a cohort of students work with teachers in disciplines such
as composition, biology, history, and architecture, for example,
can make learning meaningful and exciting.
Learning is always
taking place -- in laundromats, speeding cars, and crowded classrooms.
In addition, it is a social event -- we learn with others. A collaboration,
therefore, may be as simple as giving directions to the beach or
as complex as asking a group of students to conduct research on
health care in California and present their findings to a group
of senior citizens. In either case, participants must share responsibility
for the learning that occurs for themselves and others.
When teachers acknowledge
the pervasive nature of communities and collaborations, they can
begin to develop techniques to maximize learning for their students
and themselves. When teachers understand that every course provides
the opportunity for learners to engage in practices with others
and share a process of negotiating meaning, they create a context
that will allow successful community-building and collaboration
to take place.
Clearly, the more time
a community is together, the greater the chances are that the members
will develop understanding, trust, and nurturing relationships.
A group of teacher can take advantage of a block of courses, a long
history with a group of students, and generations of graduates to
create a powerful community of learners. Nevertheless, one instructor
of a required math course also has the opportunity, to a more limited
degree, to do the same. Any teacher in any course at any level can
modify any model of instruction to employ community resources and
collaborative, interdisciplinary strategies.
Learning as Transforming
Students enter a classroom
community with an individual identity that has been formed by their
memberships in numerous communities. They may be highly motivated
and well-prepared, or they may be bored and uncooperative. Their
identities may transform or remain constant during the school term
-- the class clown can remain one, or she can transform herself
into a leader who inspires others. Whether or not transformation
occurs for an individual depends not only on the student or teacher,
but on the active participation of all the members of the
community. Members play a significant role in one anothers
Because of all of the
potential variables that exist within groups -- e.g. task(s), personalities,
setting(s), resources, and time -- perhaps the only characteristics
common to all communities are that they are dynamic and ever-changing.
For that reason, it is critical that community members, alone and
together, define, interpret, and strive to reach a clear set of
norms. The negotiation of norms through conversation and practice
is an essential characteristic of successful communities. Faculty
and students must value individual and mutual responsibility and
respect within the learning process and accept the challenges of
innovation and competition.
An Investment in Process
Members of a learning
community are more likely to invest in the process of collaboration
if they view the process as meaningful and essential. A sense
of personal ownership in a product is key to learning. That
is, each member must perceive the value of her participation in
a process that will contribute to the successful completion of a
useful, relevant product for herself and for the other members of
her community. Clearly, process and product are intertwined, as
are the activities of all the members of the community.
Service learning, case
study work, and other forms of project-based learning can motivate
students by creating a sense of relevancy and impact. Active learning,
through field work or presentations, will require that students
focus on real issues with authentic texts. However, none of these
will insure collaboration or develop a sense of community. Any classroom
activity must be related to the goals that the group sets to foster
interdependency and mutual negotiation. Students must define tasks
and roles, and they must create and meet deadlines together. In
the process, they will understand their need to work and learn as
a group, and they will begin to value the expertise of others.
for Collaborators and Community Builders
The establishment of
collaboration and community-building practices is a challenge for
any institution because these practices are most successful when
they develop naturally and informally. Communities constantly form,
break up, and reform. A school of expert and experienced collaborators
does not develop from administrative mandates. Rather, it is created
and flourishes in an environment that values, supports, and rewards
Schools of collaborators
develop as faculty interact with other faculty/students and develop
relationships and histories; they can develop when students move
through a program or department as a cohort and/or interact with
those who have completed the same course or program. These horizontal
planes and vertical strands acknowledge the experiences and expertise
of collaborators to teach and inspire others to do the same. It
is important to take advantage of faculty and student mentors, who
can interact with members of a community for specific and meaningful
reasons. More so than through observation, learning occurs through
Faculty and Student
Within LCs, collaboration
provides faculty and students with opportunities to redefine their
identities and relationships with others. In an atmosphere of
mutual respect, teachers become students and students become teachers.
Everyone is helping one another to reach individual and group goals.
In the process, everyone has the opportunity to learn. The classroom,
the traditional domain of teachers, becomes just one of many sites.
Through service learning or a field trip, for example, community
members move out of the classroom; teachers must rely on the skills
and knowledge of their students and other teachers. Students must
rely on teachers and classmates in ways not often explored in the
classroom. And finally, both teachers and students must rely on
people outside the school boundaries. In the process, all learners
begin to understand how communities relate and grow.
How Can Teachers Form
Teachers can form LCs
in many ways. Strategies include:
- Creating cohorts of
students that will move through a sequence of courses with the
- Creating an interdisciplinary
approach to learning through the development of paired (linked),
block, and clustered courses
- Team teaching
- Offering collaborative
- Encouraging study
groups, homework labs, and mentoring
- Implementing service
learning and field-trip projects
- Employing writing-across-the-curriculum
- Meeting periodically
with colleagues to share successful teaching strategies, materials,
and classroom activities and to discuss issues and concerns that
surround the formation of LCs
The following models
describe some of the ways that LCs can be formed on campus.
Teachers who are accustomed
to the one-teacher, one-class, one-subject model can maintain
a level of control and, at the same time, open the door to the
community outside the classroom by employing the star team
model. It is a good way to try out the collaborative, interdisciplinary
approach to teaching and learning. An example of the star-team
approach is an ESL course offered at Pasadena City College.
Mary Ryan is teaching
an intermediate ESL course, and the theme she has chosen for the
semester is the environment. In addition to a grammar text, her
students are reading Island of the Blue Dolphin. They are
involved in a service learning project that will require them
to do beach clean-up as part of the annual International Beach
Clean-up Day. The culmination of the course will be a three-day
camping trip to Santa Cruz Island, conducted by Ms. Ryan, two
other ESL teachers, a geologist, biologist, anthropologist, a
story teller, and three former (and successful) ESL students.
Ms.Ryan is guiding
her students through the semester with the help of these teachers
and students as well as others on campus, including a librarian,
who is helping them with their research, and a teaching assistant.
The students are learning grammar and writing, doing research,
and honing their communication skills. Most importantly, they
are making connections across a variety of disciplines as they
and their instructor interact with their guests. Ms. Ryan
is benefiting as well she is learning about California
history, oceanography, geology, biology, and anthropology; interacting
with college faculty; and developing innovative ESL teaching strategies.
A Few Assumptions about
- Learning is a social
event we learn by negotiating meaning with others.
- When teachers and
administrators recognize the pervasive nature of communities and
collaborations, they can begin to develop techniques to maximize
learning for their students and themselves.
- It takes time to
become a skilled collaborator and community builder.
- Collaboration requires
special resources and institutional support.
- Learning communities
are most successful when the members come together willingly.
- Collaboration and
interdisciplinary activities are not for every teacher. Teachers
should never be made to feel that they are not good teachers because
they do not, for example, team teach or take their students on
- When students and
teachers make connections among a variety of disciplines, ideas
are reinforced and integrated, and learning becomes active and
A Few Suggestions for
- Start small.
Use every class period as an opportunity to engage students
actively. Develop a classroom atmosphere in which interaction
and interdependency are valued. Help your students see you not
only as a teacher but also a fellow learner.
- Make the establishment
of class norms your primary goal. Involve all your students
in the process of defining and redefining norms. Provide opportunities
for students to intervene to help one another understand and
reach the established group goals.
- Allow your students
to make themselves known to other community members by developing
their ideas publicly, e.g., in small study groups, class presentations,
and campus-wide events. Sharing should be a norm of every learning
- Create assignments
that are useful and meaningful to your students. Help them
identify their audience. Utilize the skills within the community
to assist students in developing and completing their projects.
Invite faculty, students, and other individuals from outside
the community to interact with your students. Students must
see how their communities depend on other communities.
- Understand the
scope of your endeavors. Collaboration usually means more
work for you, your colleagues, and your students. Look for support
-- physical, emotional, and financial. Faculty, administrators,
and professionals off campus can learn and enjoy by actively
participating in your communities, but rewards (stipend, release
time, staff development credit) are important -- faculty who
collaborate must feel that their efforts are recognized and
- Seek administrative
support and advice. Involve administrators in problem-solving.
Find allies and help them understand the value of what you are
doing, but also the hurdles that everyone must overcome in order
to sustain collaboration on campus.
- Find faculty
on campus who share your values and enthusiasm for community-building
and collaboration. Never enter into a collaboration with
a colleague that you dont know or like, or with whom you
feel uncomfortable working.
- Make use of the
experiences and skills of expert collaborators. As you gain
experience and expertise, mentor other faculty. Think of ways
that you can work on a project with someone that will benefit
both of you. For example, how can an anthropology teacher collaborate
with a photography teacher? Help everyone on campus to envision
a culture of active learning through collaboration.
- Publicize the
accomplishments of your communities on campus. Discuss the
problems you have encountered. Doing so will benefit teachers
and students. Initiate a dialogue on campus that involves everyone,
including the lab technician and swim coach.
- Allow communities
and collaborations to run their course. They will struggle,
flourish, transform, and perhaps die. New faculty can pick up
on old ideas, and senior faculty can be inspired by new ideas.
- Learn from your
mistakes. Let them lead you to newer, bigger ideas.