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Developing Learning Communities

by Brock Klein


We 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 teaching.

This section will:

    • Provide a foundation for LCs
    • Clarify some terminology
    • Provide a best practices model
    • 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 another’s learning experiences.

Negotiating Norms

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 and Product

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.

Institutional Support 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 collaboration.

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 active participation.

Faculty and Student Learners

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 Learning Communities?

Teachers can form LCs in many ways. Strategies include:

  • Creating cohorts of students that will move through a sequence of courses with the same teacher(s)
  • Creating an interdisciplinary approach to learning through the development of paired (linked), block, and clustered courses
  • Team teaching
  • Offering collaborative class projects
  • Encouraging study groups, homework labs, and mentoring
  • Implementing service learning and field-trip projects
  • Employing writing-across-the-curriculum activities
  • 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

Learning Community Models

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 Communities

    1. Learning is a social event – we learn by negotiating meaning with others.
    2. 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.
    3. It takes time to become a skilled collaborator and community builder.
    4. Collaboration requires special resources and institutional support.
    5. Learning communities are most successful when the members come together willingly.
    6. 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 camping trips.
    7. When students and teachers make connections among a variety of disciplines, ideas are reinforced and integrated, and learning becomes active and relevant.

A Few Suggestions for Teachers

    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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 community.
    4. 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.
    5. 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 valued.
    6. 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.
    7. 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 don’t know or like, or with whom you feel uncomfortable working.
    8. 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.
    9. 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.
    10. 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.
    11. Learn from your mistakes. Let them lead you to newer, bigger ideas.


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