At the end of the twentieth century in America there has developed a learning-communities approach to education. In a learning community the goal is to advance the collective knowledge and, in that way, to support the growth of individual knowledge. The defining quality of a learning community is the presence of a culture of learning in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding.
There are four characteristics that such a culture must have: (1) diversity of expertise among its members, who are valued for their contributions and given support to develop; (2) a shared objective of continually advancing the collective knowledge and skills; (3) an emphasis on learning how to learn; and (4) mechanisms for sharing what is learned. It is not necessary that each member assimilate everything that the community knows, but each should know who within the community has relevant expertise to address any problem. This marks a departure from the traditional view of schooling, with its emphasis on individual knowledge and performance and the expectation that students will acquire the same body of knowledge at the same time. Classrooms organized as learning communities differ from most classrooms along a number of dimensions.
Because the goals focus on fostering a culture of learning, the activities of learning communities must provide a means for (1) both individual development and collaborative construction of knowledge,(2) sharing knowledge and skills among members of the community, and (3) making learning processes visible and articulated. The learning activities described in a learning-communities approach and those found in most classrooms may share some similarities. For instance, methods such as cooperative learning can be used to support a learning community's goals, but they can equally well support more traditional learning aimed at inculcating particular knowledge among students.
Teacher Roles and Power Relationships
In a learning-communities approach the teacher takes on roles of organizing and facilitating student-directed activities, whereas in most classrooms the teacher tends to direct the activities. The power relationships shift as students become responsible for their own learning and the learning of others. Students also develop ways to assess their own progress and work with others to assess the community's progress. In contrast, in most classrooms the teacher is the authority, determining what is studied and assessing the quality of students' work.
As members of a learning community take on different roles and pursue individual interests toward common goals, students develop individual expertise and identities. In contrast, in most classrooms students work on the same things and are all expected to reach a base level of understanding. Students tend to form their identity through being measured or by measuring themselves against this base level. In a learning-communities approach there is also the notion of a community identity. By working toward common goals and developing a collective awareness of the expertise available among the members of the community, a sense of "who we are" develops.
Both a learning-communities approach and many traditional classrooms use resources outside of the classroom, including disciplinary experts, telementors, the Internet, and so forth. However, in learning communities both the content learned and the processes of learning from the outside resources are shared more among members of the community and become part of the collective understanding. A further distinction between learning communities and most classrooms is that in learning communities, both the members themselves and the collective knowledge and skills of the communities are viewed as important resources.
In the learning-communities approach, the language for describing ideas and practices in the community emerges through interaction with different knowledge sources and through co-construction and negotiation among the members of the community. Also, learning communities develop a common language for more than just content knowledge and skills. The community develops ways to articulate learning processes, plans, goals, assumptions, and so forth. In contrast, in most classrooms the teacher and texts tend to promulgate the formal language to be learned.
In learning communities the development of both diverse individual expertise and collective knowledge is emphasized. In order for students to develop expertise, they must develop an in-depth understanding about the topics that they investigate. There is also a circular growth of knowledge, wherein discussion within the community about what individuals have learned leads individuals to seek further knowledge, which they then share with the community. In most classrooms the goals tend toward covering all the topics in the curriculum (breadth over depth) and teaching everyone the same thing.
In a learning-communities approach, members work together to produce artifacts or performances that can be used by the community to further their understanding. There is sustained inquiry and development of products over months. In contrast, most classrooms tend toward individual or small group assignments with little sharing or collective products. Usually work is produced in short periods of time.
A key idea in the learning-communities approach is to advance the collective knowledge of the community, and in that way to help individual students learn. This is directly opposed to the approaches found in most schools, where learning is viewed as an individual pursuit and the goal is to transmit the textbook's and teacher's knowledge to students. The culture of schools often discourages sharing of knowledge by inhibiting students talking, working on problems or projects together, and sharing or discussing their ideas. Testing and grading are administered individually. When taking tests, students are prevented from relying on other resources, such as students, books, or computers. The whole approach is aimed at ensuring that students have all the knowledge in their heads that is included in the curriculum. Thus the learning-community approach is a radical departure from the theory of learning and knowledge underlying traditional schooling.
BIELACZYC, KATERINE, and COLLINS, ALLAN. 1999. "Learning Communities in Classrooms: A Reconceptualization of Educational Practice." In Instructional Design Theories and Models: A New Paradigm of Instructional Theory, ed. Charles M. Reigeluth. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
BROWN, ANN, and CAMPIONE, JOSEPH. 1996. "Psychological Theory and the Design of Innovative Learning Environments: On Procedures, Principles, and Systems." In Innovations in Learning: New Environments for Education, ed. Leona Schauble and Robert Glaser. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
SCARDAMALIA, MARLENE, and BEREITER, CARL. 1994. "Computer Support for Knowledge-Building Communities." Journal of the Learning Sciences 3:265–283.
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