Sunday, July 04, 2010

Schools as Communties of Practice: Learning Communities

This rural innovative school spent considerable time in dialogue to work out a set of agreed teaching beliefs to implement it's vision of being a creative school. Such beliefs are of little use unless all teachers hold themselves accountable to what they have agreed to and are prepared reflect on their individual and collective achievements and then to acquire new skills as required.This is the essence of a learning community. Mind you the 'office' signpost could be replaced with the schools vision!

In this fast changing age schooling can no longer be seen as preparation for a future job - the ability to learn is the job! Something John Dewey wrote about early last century- the best preparation for the future is to live well today.

With this in mind the obsession with the current government to insist on all students being assessed and graded against doubtful standards is completely wrong as it diverts teachers from focusing on negotiating authentic learning challenges for their students.

If students are to to be able to develop their gifts and talents and become active 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge' then this ought to be the focus for schools not the standards. Student need to be equipped with positive attitudes and key competencies ( 'habits of mind' or 'learning power') so as to become their own navigators able to seek information, evaluate it, make sense of it, and to be able to collaborate with their peers.

The question is what would this mean for teachers? As with their teachers students need to be learning from skilled colleagues and experts in the field, modeling for their students the very qualities they would want their students to acquire. Teachers and students together make up a 'learning community' - or a 'community of shared practice'.

To achieve such a 'community of practice' teachers need to share explicit habits of learning and teaching. All too often though basic teaching belief are taken for granted and all too often teachers, once they enter their classrooms work as individuals - often disconnected from their fellow teachers. Innovative schools have worked hard developing shared beliefs as one way to ensure this isolationism is broken down.

Fragmentation seems an innate feature of our schooling system making it hard to develop a coherent body of shared knowledge of teaching within the school. All too often practices ( e.g time allowances for subjects) are implemented as the way they have aways been done - an often unquestioned 'default mode'

It is time to change this situation and to focus on the kind of teaching that will equip students for future challenges; the kind of teaching implicit in the new New Zealand Curriculum but not in the backward looking standards.

What is required by an innovative government is to develop the collaborative capacity of schools and teachers - one that links the demands of future work with the fabric of the schools. A collaborative system that is premised own continual evolution as required.

Six ideas to assist such a development are:

1 For schools to spent time developing a common vision of how students learn and how their collective capabilities can be aligned to meet their needs. These needs should not be determined by politicians imposing simplistic solutions.

2 Team members should hold themselves collectively responsible for each others mutual success.

3 Success for students should be based on authentic assessment of what students can do, demonstrate or exhibit .
Teachers need to be skilled at providing real time feedback to their students.

4 Teachers need to be open for feedback on their own teaching effectiveness.
If teaching beliefs have been defined then self reference and appraisals against such beliefs ought to be part and parcel of being a teacher at the school.

5 Successful learning teams need to function in stable settings.Successful teams need space and time to work.

6 Successful teamwork must be supported by a school leadership style that supports, trusts and empowers members to make decisions with the agreed school beliefs. Support given to teams must be balanced with appropriate positive pressure and expectations all focused on assisting the specific learning needs of the students.

Developing the learning capacity of schools by developing networks of communities of practice is a better concept than pushing conservative educational standards on schools.

In community of shared practice members pursue common interests and help each other do so. And as they work they solve problem together so their learning habits and attitudes rub off on each other. New members watch carefully to how the more established members talk, respond and deal with challenges just as children do when they want to join someones 'gang'.

The context one teaches in really matters. It is how we all learn. Creating such a positive community is the number one role of the leader.

To ensure students feel part of this community means schools have to develop programmes that build on students interests in a collaborative way. Teachers need to develop this sense of community in their classrooms by placing an emphasis on learning rather than teaching. All involved must feel they are able to 'seek, use and create their own knowledge'. Learners must be encouraged, through a collaborative inquiry approach, to be responsible for their own learning.

Learning communities, or communities of practice, are constantly evolving to solve whatever problem emerge.

This is the kind of world our students are entering.


Mr Wood said...

I found myself nodding and agreeing all the way through, although getting all the teachers to this stage is perhaps a first step.

As I sit preparing to plan my next term, I wonder how I could change some of the expected structures to allow my students to become active 'seekers, users and creators of their own knowledge'. Timetables are powerful chains!

room2 said...

I find it hardest to comment when I agree with what I read... so firstly yes, yes and yes - I agree.
One challenge is to make the time to develop and maintain that shared vision and 'community of practice'.
I guess identifying the need is a first step. Tina Donnell

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Bruce Hammonds said...

Kia ora Mr Woods and Tina.

I appreciate it is easy to write about 'learning communities' but not always as easy to put such ideas into practice.

It seems to me the way we arrange the school day ( those timetables)and the priority we place on certain areas limits the idea of children becoming 'seekers, users and creators'. All too often they are listeners and followers who get credit for giving teachers what they want - all those WALT things. Creativity is going out the window with such predetermined teaching.

As for develop a learning community in a class the idea would be to involve the students in negotiating their own studies, what they need to do, and how they know it is finished.

But first literacy and numeracy need to be reframed so as to contribute to inquiry. Until this happens there is simply no time.