In reflecting on the reading assigned for this week, I am again inspired by the possibilities yet confronted by the realities of circumstance. Therefore, the challenge becomes, yet again, how to find a way to resolve the two!
The work of Dewey and Vygotsky and is well quoted across the wide expanse that is the field of educational research. The idea that “[i]ntellectual development becomes a process of negotiation of meaning in every-day practice with others”, (Reil & Polin, 2004) certainly is nothing new. It is therefore little surprise that it also finds itself connected to the concept of “Online Learning Communities”. Such an approach holds at its core
“a view of learning in which there is a shift in power relationships, a respect for practitioner knowledge, and an emphasis on group learning through intentional activity, collective reflection, and participatory decision-making.” (page 16)
Seeking to make those important synapse connections for understanding, I look to my own ‘school community’ to ascertain how the three (3) different aspects of task, practice and knowledge based learning, suggested by Reil & Polin (2004), might manifest themselves within my world. As a result I find myself, again, in agreement with Annelise. Much of my work as a teacher and the work of my students would be classed as ‘task-based learning’, learning that centres around the completion of specific tasks, with a select group of people, in strict time-frames. In addition, while I belong to a community of practice that exists within the structural walls of my school environment, I am increasingly venturing beyond those walls both as a student of this course, as suggested by Andrew, and for reasons that will will no doubt become more apparent as this post evolves. As for participation in ‘knowledge based learning’ – it’s absence it clear.
In taking this time to draw connections of my own experience with communities of learning and this week’s reading, I find myself draw to the challenges of achieving these within the highly traditional structures within which I work.
The professional learning community model has now reached a critical juncture, one well known to those who have witnessed the fate of other well-intentioned school reform efforts. In this all-too-familiar cycle, initial enthusiasm gives way to confusion about the fundamental concepts driving the initiative, followed by inevitable implementation problems, the conclusion that the reform has failed to bring about the desired results, abandonment of the reform, and the launch of a new search for the next promising initiative. Another reform movement has come and gone, reinforcing the conventional education wisdom that promises, “This too shall pass.” (DuFour, 2004)
In coming across this quote in the article ‘Schools as Learning Communities’, I highlight what I believe is the initial hurdle for leadership (both formal and informal) to consider in looking to create effective learning communities with school community, that also extends beyond the physical boundaries of that environment. For these communities to be created and maintained, they must be more that a ;flash in the pan’. They must be owned by the community and therefore the communities must recognise the value within them if real change is occur and their effectiveness realised.
“[S]imply labeling a group of people as a community neither ensures that it functions as one, nor that it is a beneficial, cohesive unit in which learning will take place readily. (Reil & Polin 2004)
School do provide a unique opportunity to develop learning communities. First and foremost, perhaps is their ability to create avenues and opportunities which focus on improving the ‘practice’ of teaching and in turn, the learning outcomes for students.
“[A] practice-based learning community has a culture… in which there is a focus on continually improving one’s practices so as to support the effective functioning of the activity system. (Reil & Polin, 2004)
The danger in this lies in ensuring the focus and goals of the community are own by the participants. It is easy for well-meaning leaders within schools to push an specific initiative for reform through the guise of a ‘Professional Learning Community’.
“Sometimes a community becomes insular by demanding unquestioned conformity or because the enduring purpose of the group becomes unclear or contested.” (Reil & Polin, 2004)
Such an approach, while well-intentioned, runs the risk of failure both in achieving the central goal of improving practice to improve learning and, perhaps more significantly, losing teachers’ support and faith in the community itself. Which takes us back the essence of what makes a learning community. Leaders need to be prepared to consider critically their roles within the community they are looking to create. Such a role would perhaps best be served with less focus on management and task completion, and more on empowerment and facilitation. Adopting an approach which truly enables participants to participate in key decision making and which recognising and values both the knowledge and experience of those engaged within the community. “Practice-based learning communities need nurturing and protection.” Therefore perhaps what every community really needs is a champion…a gardener, as Wenger’s (2000) metaphor would suggest (as cited in Reil & Polin 2004). Or perhaps even better still what every community needs is a team of gardeners, who are dedicated to the philosophy behind the communities creation and strive to provide the necessary, tools, time and framework through which the community can achieve their goals together.
Ideas to assist further in the ‘nurturing’ of communities of practice can be found in DuFour’s (2004) article. Du Four suggests that there are three (3) ‘Big Ideas’ that educators should consider approaching establishing and maintaining communities of practice. I have included several direct quotes below that I believe provide a summary the ideology behind each of DuFour’s suggestions:
Big Idea #1: Ensuring That Students Learn
“The professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools.” (DuFour 2004)
Big Idea #2: A Culture of Collaboration
“Educators who are building a professional learning community recognize that they must work together to achieve their collective purpose of learning for all. Therefore, they create structures to promote a collaborative culture.” (DuFour, 2004)
“school[s]…that devote tremendous time and energy to designing the intended curriculum often pay little attention to the implemented curriculum (what teachers actually teach) and even less to the attained curriculum (what students learn) “(Marzano, 2003, as cited in DuFour, 2004)
“Are teachers and administrators willing to accept the fact that they are part of the problem? . . . God didn’t create self-contained classrooms, 50-minute periods, and subjects taught in isolation. We did—because we find working alone safer than and preferable to working together.” (Barth, 1991, as cited in DuFour, 2004)
Big Idea #3: A Focus on Results
“Professional learning communities judge their effectiveness on the basis of results…Schools and teachers typically suffer from the DRIP syndrome—Data Rich/Information Poor. The results-oriented professional learning community not only welcomes data but also turns data into useful and relevant information for staff.”
DuFour also highlights that School Learning Communities (Practice-Based Learning) require ‘Hard Work and Commitment’, further concluding that:
The professional learning community model is a grand design—a powerful new way of working together that profoundly affects the practices of schooling. But initiating and sustaining the concept requires hard work.
So where does this leave me in my quest to the resolve the conflict between ideology and reality? Grappling still with the realities!
Traditional classrooms, weighed down by the burden of a prescribed curriculum, constrained by the limitations of age and ability grouping and with compulsory attendance, lack the defining characteristics of a cohesive community (Reil & Polin, 2004)
My hands remain tied! Despite efforts to embrace a more networked and global approach to learning, without the support of leadership, individual teacher efforts may continue to be viewed as a threatening to the norm. I see the development of a community based on improving practice as a vehicle through which some of these barriers may be broken down. Change need not be a threat. Through a community united in shared understanding, true collaboration may just be possible. A place where new ideas, ways, means and modes of approaching teaching and learning may be openly discussed and where the entire community might benefit from the knowledge, wisdom and experiences of all participants, not just those in positions of authority and formal leadership with the school community.
I realise that most of my discussion has focused on the role of practice-based learning with a school learning community, perhaps this because I see this approach as the first step in unlocking the garden. Planting the seeds of possibility, gradually tending to their growth, and empowering them to play a more active role in the construction of the collective knowledge in whatever areas their passion may take them. Secretly my hope is that destination will influence Canberra! Why? Because without well-informed, intelligent people contributing to the debate about education in this country, we leave ourselves open to continuing to repeat the mistakes of the past, or worst still, simply remodeling the mistakes of others. I guess the first step is to tend to my own garden, look forward ways to develop my practice by drawing on the expertise of different communities of practice, with the hope of one day adding my voice to the debate!
There is just one problem that I foresee…I have yet to be able to keep a plant alive! Here is hoping I do a little better with a metaphorical one!
DuFour, R. (2004). Schools as Learning Communities Pages 6-11.EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP, 61(8), 6-11.
Riel, M., & Polin, L. (2004). Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments. In S. A. Barab, R. Kling, & J. Gray (Eds.), Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning (pp. 16–50). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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