This post contains some of my fledgling ideas around learning communities. My interest in learning communities started with this passage from When Teaching Becomes Learning by Eric Sotto:
It is possible to read current books on teaching and find a hundred references to 'the needs of the student', and not find a single reference to 'the needs of the community'. Yet in all the humanities, a common theme is the frequent tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community.
Today there tends to be a strong emphasis on self. There is, it often seems to me, a kind of unexamined assumption that happiness or satisfaction is a matter of achieving 'one's potential'. It is a kind of 'cult of the self'. One would have to look for a long time today to find some expression of the idea that our needs, and their satisfaction, are profoundly social in nature. It is even rare today to find an expression of the old-fashioned idea that there is a deep reward to be found in working towards something that transcends one's own needs.
I have been watching and talking to my colleagues about their teaching, and one of the most common issues they face is the need to differentiate to meet the needs of all students in their classroom, which might be coupled with another common difficulty, that of encouraging participation of all students.
I have watched many teachers working very hard to cater for varying speeds of learning and prior understandings of their students: How can we meet the needs of all our students with our limited resources? I have seen many teachers trying various approaches to coerce students into participating more fully in lessons: How can we encourage all students to participate?
Then, last Saturday, I went to mathsconf5 where I watched @mrreddymaths talk about the Numeracy Gap. Bruno explained how an unacceptably large number of students leave primary school with poor numeracy skills (below level 4), while others leave with strong numeracy skills (level 5 and above).
I wondered whether in trying to meet the individual needs of our students, we may be widening the gap. Is differentiation the problem rather than the solution to meeting the needs of our students?
Can we raise the attainment of all students by utilising them more skilfully as a resource to work with other, rather than striving for personal progress? Can we create a community of learners where knowledge is shared and no one is left behind?
Following Bruno's talk, I started talking to @michellemacd about these ideas; we resolved there and then to aim to create learning communities in our classrooms. Michelle, @MichaelOllerton and I began emailing each other regarding some of our initial ideas and concerns.
One of my main desires was to identify some underlying principles and themes before building a learning community; I like the four concepts described by Bruner in The Culture of Education:
The first [concept] is the idea of agency: taking more control of your own mental activity. The second is reflection: not simply "learning in the raw", but making what you learn make sense, understanding it. The third is collaboration: sharing the resources of the mix of human beings involved in teaching and learning. Mind is inside the head, but it is also with others. And the fourth is culture, the way of life and thought that we construct, negotiate, institutionalise...
In Communities of Practice, Etienne Wenger describes the importance of mutual engagement in a learning community:
[Practice] exists because people are engaged in actions whose meanings they negotiate with each other.
Mutual engagement involves not only our competence, but also the competence of others. It draws on what we do and what we know, as well as our ability to connect meaningfully to what we don't do and what we don't know - that is, to the contributions and knowledge of others. In this sense, mutual engagement is inherently partial; yet in the context of shared practice, this partiality is as much a resource as a limitation.
Because [we] belong to a community of practice where people help each other, it is more important to know how to give and receive help than to know everything yourself.
Wenger goes on to describe a learning community as a joint enterprise, which resonates with my desire to value students as sense-makers:
Defining a joint enterprise is a process, not a static agreement... An enterprise is a resource of coordination, of sense-making, or mutual engagement; it is like rhythm to music.
With these ideas in mind, I took the first steps towards building a learning community today.
Although I might have liked to carry out some further research before putting my admittedly vague ideas into practice, the timing felt good; many of my students were absent for two lessons at the end of last week due to Eid - I asked those who were present last week to share the knowledge they gained through solving exam-style questions.
We developed some maxims that would help build the community, such as "If they person next to you is finding it difficult, what could you do to help them?" We developed the language of "sharing knowledge" rather than helping others, and appropriated the phrase "social mobility" to describe how students might move around the class sharing expertise. We talked about the simile of school as a sieve, and how we could choose to do things differently in our classroom: "The classroom is our community; we can shape it how we like."
These ideas will develop further over the coming weeks through conversations with Michelle and Mike, through reading more about learning communities, and most importantly through negotiation with my students. However, there was an immediate tangible effect; students were working together as a community, and by the end of the lesson, every student had met the objectives I had set for them.
Further to this, in viewing the students as a community of learners, I began to see them not as a group of individuals who I need to help and teach, but rather as a changing society with a shared knowledge that will be moulded and shaped by our collective actions.
Here are some of the comments they wrote in their feedback on the lesson: