Learning Communities in Schools – What Hinders and Why

“I think a summary of what worked in BC schools along with what didn’t and why would help others build from these experiences” was a part of a comment to my July 2013 blog post.  Last week I gave a brief response to the first part of that and will attempt this week to give a brief response to the second part…..

What doesn’t work in BC and Why doesn’t it work….

As in my last post, my response comes in part from the stories told to me by practicing BC educators (mostly teachers) while researching  (see dissertation here for a more fulsome story if desired http://summit.sfu.ca/item/11268 – teachers stories are in chapters 4 and 5) and in part from my own personal experiences.

There are a number of conditions that are helpful for creating and sustaining learning communities.  If these conditions are not present, it is possible that the learning community will falter.  The following is a taste of some, but not all of these conditions.

  • capacity – If there is not enough capacity to nourish the development of a positive learning community within the system  it can be like “traveling into a headwind” (Robinson).  Also, capacity at differing levels can have an impact on success – individual educator, school community, as well as district community, and provincial community.
    • some teachers I interviewed spoke of former staffs they had belonged to that had too many members that were entrenched and not willing to consider change.  Furthermore, while researching, I found that this phenomenon was not specific to any one school system, and was not effectively addressed by the school systems in which schools were embedded generally.  A positive cultural change was noted only when enough “entrenched” people left/retired.
      • teachers I interviewed overwhelmingly did not feel that their union was helpful when a staff wanted to develop a learning community.  (They did find their union helpful for other reasons.)  Teachers reported that being a fairly apolitical staff (more open minded in nature) was more likely what allowed them to be part of developing a life enhancing learning community.
    • A former (recently retired) school superintendent offered this comment after hearing me speak on the topic….”I would move people if I knew that was happening, but I probably would not know about it because people would be too afraid to say anything”.
  • A balance between autonomy and professional obligation – can be a delicate thing.  There are many differing interpretations of what autonomy is, and sometimes this gets in the way of developing learning communities.
    • there were teachers I interviewed who spoke of colleagues who would not work with others, who tenaciously hung on to the notion of “teacher as solitary practitioner”, for a variety of reasons.  This was most unhelpful for developing a learning community, especially if there was a large core group with this orientation on the staff.
    • I like the notion of autonomy being bound to professional obligation.  In other words, teachers must act autonomously because they are the ones working most closely with students and therefore know them best, but there is an obligation to work with others and to keep abreast of new research and promising new practices. Research has clearly shown (Marzano) that collaborative practices amongst educators have a strong positive effect on student learning, and I would say on adult/educator learning as well.
  • Structured time – can be seen as positive or negative.  For example, time to meet that had a structure (i.e. would you like 45 minutes to meet with your colleague about X), but was not prescriptive ( i.e. you will meet every Wednesday afternoon with X and your meeting will cover this..), was more appreciated.  Time that is too prescriptive is seen by some as an infringement on autonomy.

Overall, there is no correct or incorrect “recipe” to follow that will take into account the capacity and readiness of the individual/school/district to help…. This is why a living systems lens is most helpful…..as it is likely that things outside your control may have impact upon your ability to move forwards.  You may need to “zig or zag” in order to move, and then again you may be in a stuck system that does not have the understanding or the capacity to move forwards yet.

So how do you build the capacity needed?….and how quickly do you need to move forwards?…. and do you have any support within your smaller and broader community?… are questions to ask yourself.

I hope the above is helpful and makes sense.  Hopefully it resonates with you.  It is not meant to be a fulsome description, but rather a taste of some of the highlights.  Perhaps it has generated more questions for you…If so…please let me know if there is something else you would like to explore…

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One Response to Learning Communities in Schools – What Hinders and Why

  1. Pingback: The Secret Garden – Keys to Success | jmlauman

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