The concept of a learning community

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At the beginning of the twenty-first centaury there was a significant shift in the way we perceive learning to occur from being an individual process to being a social process within a community. The concept of "learning community" has been written about extensively in educational and organisational literature over the passed two decades. Moreover the term learning communities has recently been defined and used in a more dynamic way. There has been a growing emphasis on accessing learning through participation in "communities of common purpose". Information technologies have facilitated the emergence and growth of learning communities with members interacting through the use of the World Wide Web creating online communities.

This report attempts to highlight the ways in which learning communities are defined, how they share common attributes and the close association with and communities of practice. The report will highlight the potential benefits that can be gained by endorsing the concepts of a learning community within my own education provision and how learning communities can be a means of creating and sharing new knowledge.

Introduction.

(Fieldman, 2000. p9) describes the twentieth centaury as the "centaury of the individual" a descriptions which builds on Piaget's developmental theories where the learner is seen as the "lone seeker of knowledge". However the influences of Vygotsky's (1978) theory of social constructivism points to a move away from this individual stance, to one that recognises the contribution of others to every individuals learning. (Fieldman, p.13) describes this transition as the "Age of the individual to the Era of Community". Learning communities are a result of this movement they aim:

"To strike a balance between individuality and social connectedness. We begin to see the essential role that that relationship, participation, reciprocity, membership, and collaboration must play in any theory of human development that aspires to guide us."

(Feldman, 2000, p. 13)

The philosophy influencing learning community is most commonly attributed to Dewy (1938) and his recognition of the importance of the social nature of all human learning. (Salomon, 1993).

Yarnit (2000) asserts that the rise in popularity of the view of learning communities, in the U.K was a response to world change in the late 1980s including global economic change, the advents of the knowledge economy and the widespread availability of information and communication technology. Yarnit describes learning communities as:

"A learning community addresses the learning needs of its locality through partnership. It uses the strengths of social and institutional relationships to bring about cultural shifts in perceptions of the value of learning. Learning communities explicitly use learning as a way of promoting social cohesion, regeneration and economic development which involves all parts of the community" (Yarnit, p. 11)

When conseptualising learning communities in this way they facilitate the sharing of knowledge and have the potential to create new knowledge that can be used for the benefit for the community or as individual members. (Lenning & Ebbers, 1999) highlights that building learners with in such a community "creates an environment that can potentially advance a whole society. This view of learning community is closely linked to the what (Tonnies 1887) terms Gemeinshaft meaning an association of people that is based primarily on shared purposes, personal loyalties and common sentiment.

Educational provision in the twentieth centaury has been viewed as formal organisations and behaviour with in them as organisational behaviour (Watkins 2009). When analysed they are viewed as mechanical rather then human. Education institutions when conceptualized in this way have an economic purpose with a clear hierarchy emphasising selection grading and standardisation. In professional teaching and learning communities "Staff students and administrators value learning, work to enhance curriculum and instruction, and focus on students" (Peterson, 2002)

The growth of interest in learning community being applied to schools has been accredited to research carried out in the 1970's and 1980's conducted into "effective schools" (Larrivee, 2000) A number of outcomes were considered desirable in shaping the concept of school and community. One of these attributes is the student's ability to be able to identify as a member of the school community. This is consistent with condition highlighted by Dreikurs (1968) as essential to healthy emotional development: the need to belong. Defining learning communities when applied to a classroom, school or campus is this definition:

"A learning community is any one of a variety of curricular structures that link together several existing courses - or actually restructure the curricular material entirely so that students have opportunities for deeper understanding of integration of the material they are learning, and more interaction with one another and their teachers as fellow participants in the learning enterprise." (Gabelnick, 1990, p. 19)

Learning communities when conceptualised in this way are primarily seen as benefiting individual learners rather then the collective. There is less emphasis on sharing knowledge and skills. This type of learning community or institution is more closely linked to resent literature on professional learning communities were members come from a professional background, and have to build a learning community with in the hierarchical constraints of organisations such as schools and collages.

Which ever model of a learning community is analysed there a common themes that link the two definitions and uses. These include: common or shared purpose, interests or geography, collaboration, partnership and learning, diversity and enhanced potential of outcomes. I have provided two diagrams illustrating the key components of both a learning community (Fig. 1) and a community of practice (Fig. 2)

Fig

Of

Provision

Justification

Active promotion

Common Goals

Through

Using

By

Vibrant

Participative

Culturally aware

Economically valuable

Socially cohesive

Regenerative

Skilled

Flexible

Create

Promote

Develop

Which

Sharing.1 - components of a learning community.

Purpose

Values

Goals

Interest

Practice

Beliefs

Geography

Region

Connected

Linked

Is any group of people

Community

City

Region

Town

Organisation

A Learning

Common

By

Perspectives

Values

Lifestyles

Members

Citizens

To enhance the potential of all

Learning Communities

Life long learning

Pro-active Partnership.

While Respecting

Environment

Society

Workers

Citizens

Community

Students.

a

In order to

Collaborates

Cooperates

Reflects

Uses social institutional relationship

Learns from experiences and those of others.

That may create new Knowledge

Compiled from (Kilpatrick, S., et al. Defining Learning communities. Faculty of education. Tasmania)

Community members give and receive feedback that supports their individual improvement and that of the organisation.

Share Personal practice

Structural factors provide the physical requirements: Time place to meet for community work, resources and policies, etc. to support collaboration.

Relational factors support the community's human and interpersonal development, openness truth telling, and focusing on attitudes of respect and caring among the members.

Collective Learning and its Application

What the community determines to learn and how they will learn it in order to address students learning needs is the bottom line.

Collective Learning and its Application

Administrators and faculty hold shared power and authority for making decisions.

Shared and supportive Leadership

The staff consistently focuses on student's learning, which is strengthened by the staff's own continuous learning hence professional learning community.

Shared beliefs, Values, and VisionFig. 2 - Components of Professional learning communities

Compiled from (Hord, S. & Sommers, W. 2008)

Theory

The main theorists attributed to a learning community is John Dewey Dewy (1938) and his recognition of the importance of the social nature of all human learning.

The learning process in recent years most attributed to a learning community is learning by building knowledge through doing things with others. This type of learning is known as co-constructivism which recognises that all human behaviour has a social dimension. (Watkins, 2008) Co constructivists emphasize the role of language and conversation in the creation and negotiation of shared meaning. The context in which meaning making happens comes to be more important with more attention being paid to the process by which learning communities are built. This view highlights working to create new and shared knowledge and an agreed focus. The main theorist attributed to this type of learning is Lev Vygotsky.

Lev Vigotsky believed social interaction plays a fundamental role in the process of cognitive development. In contrast to Jean Piaget's understanding of child development (in which development necessarily precedes learning), Vigotsky felt social learning precedes development. He states:

"Every function in the child's cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the individual (interpsychological)." (Vigotsky, 1978).

Vygotsky also highlighted the concept of The More Knowledgeable Other (MKO). The MKO refers to anyone who has a better understanding or a higher ability level than the learner, with respect to a particular task, process, or concept. The MKO is normally thought of as being a teacher, coach, or older adult, but the MKO could also be a peer.

Vygotsky's other contributions include the concept of The Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). The ZPD is the distance between a student's ability to perform a task under adult guidance and/or with peer collaboration and the student's ability solving the problem independently. According to Vigotsky, learning occurred in this zone.

Diagram Fig. 3 and Fig. 4 explains how the role these theorise play in the acquiring new knowledge through participation within in a learning community.

Fig. 3 - The role Vygotsky's concept of the More Knowledgeable Other plays in a learning community.

Circles represent members of the learning community

Here we have two members of the learning community in process of participation and collaboration, through the use of language specifically dialogue they share there experiences in an attempt to solve a problem faced by one of the members.

Language is used to share experiences through participation and collaboration. (Social interaction)

One of these members could be the Vygotsky's More Knowledgeable other (MKO), some one who has a higher ability or better understanding of a particular task.

Fig. 3 - The role Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal development plays in a learning community.

Here is a diagram illustrating two member of learning community in the process of mutual participation and collaboration with Vygotsky's ZPD model highlighting how one member's ability to resolve a problem is enhanced by the guidance of another member (MKO) with in the learning community.

Development of the learner with out the support of the More Knowledgeable other.

ZPD

More Knowledgeable other.

Development with the assistance of the more knowledgeable other.

Language is used to share experiences through participation and collaboration. (Social interaction)

Circles represent members of the learning community

Introducing PLC to my own working practice.

If we agree that professional learning communities are a good thing and that they are a process by which new knowledge can be created through collegial interaction and feedback.

Introducing such professional leaning community to your own practice can increase learning among the staff and improve the learning process among students.

This in mind I attempted to introduce the ideas of the learning community and PLC explaining all the different concepts and possible advantages for staff and learners to the manager when he had time.

Attempting to introduce the key concepts of a PLC was very difficult. I found it almost imposable to discuss the concepts of learning communities let a lone introduce some of the characteristics of a PLC with the Manager of the centre for which I work. I suggested that we should all try and learn together in a systematic way using data to inform our practice and commit our selves to reflective conversation.

He was too busy trying to keep on track of all the new learners being enrolled onto courses and keeping up with weekly and monthly target figures. He was not interested in what I had to say and was happy with the way in which the centre operated.

The difficulty I faced when attempting to discuss some of the concepts of a PLC with the manager highlighted how difficult it can be initiate a PLC with in ones own practice how introducing change to an established environment is very difficult and how leaders play a crucial role in the initiation of a PLC. Edmond in his book effective schools for the urban poor writes:

"We can whenever and whenever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven't already."

(Edmond, 1979. p.23)

This highlights the most important preconditions for any implementation is the belief that change can happen. Once the principal and other leaders believe change is possible that belief increases the likelihood that PLCs can be implemented and sustained. Implementing such practice is dependent on the attitudes of the leaders with in the education provision. Leaders have the most influence on the organisation. They make a difference through their leadership capacity to affect the system around them and on the future of the organisation.

"The role of leadership is to cause greater capacity in the organisation in order to get better results". (Fullan 2001. p65)

Any change with in the education provision must be accepted, appreciated, and nurtured by the leader. In the case of PLC, s appreciating and nurturing such change can be a difficult challenge for the leaders, as one of the defining characters of a PLC is that power, authority, and decision making are shared and encouraged which may not be in the interest of the leader.

I had got the impression that the manager at my particular centre was not interested in change and didn't value the benefits of the PLC, I therefore attempted to discuss the concept of the PLC with the other staff members, although they gave me more time to express my ideas they still weren't interested in the concept. They felt it was too much responsibility and extra work.

This highlighted that the sharing of power and authority may be difficult not only for the leader/manager but for the staff as well.

"Historically, teachers have been acculturated to see the principal as all-powerful, all wise and all competent" (Hord. S & Sommers. W. 2008 P.10)

It is difficult for teachers to propose new ways of thinking and doing when the leader is viewed in such a way. Administrators as well as teachers must be learners who together are openly discussing instructional problems and exploring solutions to the problem that they identify. (Hargreaves and Fink 2006 p.127) noted.

"The principal is not made irrelevant by the positively distributed Leadership that professional learning communities represent."

Kleine-Kracht (1993) stated that with in a PLC no longer do "teachers teach, students learn and administrators manage…. [There is] the need for every one to contribute"

The contribution that Kleine-Kracht 1993 discusses here is based on sharing decision making with all professionals in the education provision, realising that there are boundaries that reserve some decisions for the singular attention of the Leader/manager. This means that the boundaries should be determined and shared early on so that the staff understands the parameters within which they can make decisions.

After reflecting on my approach to implementing a PLC to my own education provision, I found that I was trying to do too much by discussing too many concepts at once and explaining the bigger picture rather then focusing on one specific concept of a PLC.

In hindsight it may have been better to attempt to implement one concept at a time. O'Hanlon's 1999 in her book Do One Thing Different, highlights that we are better served if we do one thing rather than trying to change everything at once.

(Hord, S 2008 p.70) highlights that when approaching the implementation process of a PLC in this way one thing will lead to another and the PLC will grow and develop over time. Figure 3.0 highlights how initiating one process of a learning community can lead to another process creating other processes of a learning community.

Fig. 4 - How initiating one process of a learning community can lead to other process of a learning community.

Initiate participation between staff by highlighting the positive effect it can have on the company outcomes.

This new knowledge and understanding is used to solve a particular problem faced by a member of the learning community.

The exchange of ideas and experiences promotes the creation of new knowledge and understanding.

Better dialogue between members promotes meaning making and debate and the exchange of ideas and understanding.

Increased collaboration improves the dialogical process between members creating fertile conversation.

Increased participation with a common goal improves the collaboration between members as they share the pursuit of the same outcomes.

Compiled from: (Hord, S. & Sommers, W. 2008)

Conclusion

The concept of learning community draws on a wide body of theory of which only small proportion could be covered in this paper. The paper has highlighted the relation learning communities have with the co-constructivist approach and Vygotsky's theory on learning, recognising the importance the interaction of others and the role of social interactions in the construction of values and identity.

A paradigm shift is needed both by teachers and leaders themselves. Many people among the education sector believe that a teacher's role entails standing in front of the class and working directly with students. (Darling-Hammond,1994, 1996) identifies such a shift in countries like Japan where teachers teach fewer classes and use a greater portion of time to plan with colleagues, work with students individually, visit other classrooms and engage in other professional development activities. Bringing about changes in perspective can be difficult and will require a concentrated effort by leaders to bring about.

In an increasingly complex environment where we cannot expect any one person to have sufficient knowledge and skills to be able to solve all the problems faced by them, learning communities play an important part in bridging this gap of knowledge.

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