Thoughts about the characteristics of a learning community.
What is it like when people learn together? Well, let’s see.
Goes without saying that you have a group of folks. And that these people need to agree to learn something together. They probably also need to be self aware and adaptive as they go about it, too.
About that agreement part. Seems like there has to be a kind of social contract whereby the individuals give up some of their right to be protected from scrutiny and intense feedback and to generally float through life unmolested, and instead decide to make themselves vulnerable and open to being disturbed and scrutinized together, in exchange for the opportunity to learn. Fortunately they know the others are also vulnerable.
Everyone’s vulnerable, so you need a place where’s it’s OK to be vulnerable. A safe place.
What do I mean, safe? Well, when you start to learn something, you tend to be naive in some way, right, or you wouldn’t be there learning? You might do something, say something, propose something, ask a question–something, that is, for instance, wrong. Or wrong-headed. Or that might prove later to be embarrassing. “Was Valley Forge THAT important?” you might ask of fellow studiers of the American Revolution. That’s a legitimate question which you could then proceed to answer by learning something about Valley Forge. But if the space wasn’t safe, you might find people snickering. “How could she NOT know Valley Forge is important?” they might whisper, shocked. Shocked! You might be shamed into never thinking about Valley Forge again for the rest of your life. Death of learning.
And then the other part of the agreement. You probably have to have some operational norms. For what kinds of things you do and don’t do (say, when and where you meet, what stuff you’ll read together and what you won’t), and, in particular, how you will talk about what you’ll talk about. Key in the shift from teacher-centered to student-centered classroom for me is the idea that the learners might just have to own some of the responsibility for the definition of and compliance with the norms. Fellow learner not doing what we agreed we’d do? I have to say something. Can’t just wait for the teacher to do everything. That’s part of the learning.
Now to move on to the “self aware” part. Somehow in the learning group meta-level thoughts and reflections on the group and what the group is doing and learning form a big part of the information processed. Not just, “what are the facts,” but messy things like “how do we know these are facts,” and “what are we learning from these facts,” and “what else could we do to learn more or differently,” and “is how we’re talking about this helping us learn something,” and “do we think differently about this than we did before,” and “is this person engaged,” and “how do we reconcile these two alternative interpretations” and “how do I know when I’ve learned something” and then the answers to these might make you adjust the way you do things or the way you work together and so on ad infinitum.
But what about BETWEEN the classes?
So there’s a little stab at some parts of a learning group. All probably more or less in line with the idea of active, student-centered, guide-on-the-side learning that’s increasingly popular. And it’s easy enough to imagine these characteristics playing out in a classroom. Or in a self-organized team of some kind or other (say, the Citizen’s Committee to Preserve the Trees on Howard Street).
But we also need an environment like the above for the people who are creating environments like the above. That is, make sure your classrooms are safe learning spaces, OK. But then make your institution be one, too. The art of teaching being sufficiently amazingly complex and wonderful, people doing it might need to grow better at it, that is, be able to continually learn about it. And that if we want them to do that, we need to give them a group, and a safe space. And let them make some agreements. And let their feedback feed back. Etc.
We might sometimes think of the teacher as an established professional incapable of further development, a fixed cog, as we kind of do for grown-ups in general, and we when we do that we might not really go out of our way to give them the very things we would work so hard to give other learners in the very same institution. Though we should. Teachers need a class, too, I suggest. A long-term, on-going, opt-in, safe place for them to continually learn and adjust their teaching. And say naive things like, “Are grades THAT important?” This idea–of a learning community for teachers–is of course self-evident to many. But I suggest perhaps not as self-evident as it could be.
This is the kind of thing, I think, behind the Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (see the home page for the incarnation at Indiana University). A fancy name; their core idea in my paraphrase: teachers should teach in a context of thoughtful conversation about what makes for good teaching. And it’s the kind of thing Richard DuFour describes in “What is a ‘Professional Learning Community?‘” It’s also what Teaching and Learning centers probably have always been trying to do. Not be a stand-alone center for individual improvement, not a place that circulates a flyer on pedagogical theory now and then, but a place that helps create a culture where a group of teachers can collectively learn.
The Kicker. Now is the Time!
Guess what? Now is the time to put our energy into these learning groups around and outside of the classes we spend so much time thinking about. Create them if they aren’t there and reinforce them if they are.
Why? Because nobody really knows how current changes in the landscape of learning will play out. What with developments in cognitive science, new emphasis on pedagogy, new opportunities offered by technology, cultural change, economic changes, the global landscape, the apotheosis of gaming culture, the decent of national politics into new depths of rhetorical nihilsm, the challenge of for-profit education, self-organized learning via YouTube, the aging of the baby boomers, the rise of commodity technology applications, you name it. There is no clear path forward.
If you’re not sure how to move forward, learn your way forward, is my advice. If you have a culture of reflective teaching and learning, your institution will adapt quickly.
The other kicker, for Library and IT academic support staff (of whom I am one), is this (which I’ll develop in my next post): this is what our mission and purpose should be. Helping form and support learning groups that can reflect on what learning is today and thereby help guide the institution forwards. Instructional Technologists and Librarians, drop your old locally-hosted tools (our old identity) and join some learning groups (our intermediate identity), and see where they take you (our future identity). That would also be my advice.