Monday, January 17, 2011

A Community of Learners

What a joy it was to join everyone at the January Institute last week. The opening plenary session with Joye Hardiman and Greg Hinckley was inspiring. Focused on the latest research and practice in learning communities, we experienced two incredible teachers (she from Evergreen State and he from Seattle Central Community College) talking about incredible teaching in an energetic and engaging manner.

The Learning Community is an instructional strategy that has been around for more than thirty years and has recently emerged as an active academic initiative at MVCC that I'd like to see made into a priority. Research has demonstrated increased student learning and success rates among students who participate in Learning Communities compared to those who do not. Perhaps the biggest take away from their presentation, for me, was that the Learning Community (LC) definition has evolved from “model-based” to “assignment-based."

When I worked with Learning Communities in Denver and Omaha, there were eight different models emphasized nationally. The definition has evolved, with research over the years, to emphasize the conditions necessary for deep learning to occur through the power of community. As our speakers said, “at the heart of all learning communities is an intentionally designed integrated assignment.” The other interesting shift that’s occurred is that LCs have moved from being primarily identified by faculty interest (e.g. two faculty get together and identify some curriculum they have in common, etc.) to include curricular trouble spots (e.g. students struggling with the developmental math, etc.) – powerful stuff.

The change in conditions necessary for deep learning is powerful information as well. By this point in the presentation, my mind was racing and I couldn’t write fast enough to capture the multiple applications flooding my head (Ah, the joy of learning)! As I wrote, I thought about how these conditions not only apply to the student experience, but also to our work with each other, as members of the MVCC family. Read these four primary conditions with that in mind – applying to students and applying to the entirety of MVCC.
Active, collaborative strategies – people working together rather than working in isolation.
Fluid teacher-student roles – everyone learning from each other.
Integrated services and programs – everyone working in the same direction, toward the same goals; with the other vs. against.
High expectations and high levels of encouragement and support – that’s what makes community colleges special! We should not be that school where it is said, "Look to your left and right. One or two of you will certainly fail." If anyone at MVCC is thinking or, worse, is practicing that "philosophy", they have it wrong. Adapting the Learning Community approach to our work, MVCC should say, "Look to your left and your right…we’re all in this together and it's our commitment to you that everyone will get all the support we can muster to give each of you every opportunity to succeed!"

Even the LC's five secondary conditions can help us carry out our mission better:
Intentional strategies – assignments are coordinated in an intentional manner. I don’t know if our speakers said it or I heard something that sparked it, but I wrote down the phrase, “a framework for brainwork” – I like that.
Naming – understanding how and why things are named, and the notion that knowledge is not neutral.
Accountability – contracts and covenants created to clarify expectations among/between parties (students & faculty; students & students; students & staff; faculty & staff; faculty & faculty; staff & staff, etc.).
Testimonies – appreciative inquiry used to emphasize the power of autobiographical sketch and reflection on “lessons learned and wisdom earned” from the peaks and valleys of life.
Reframing – the importance of process and learning to interact with and expand knowledge.
Creating and sharing – channeling our collective creativity to solve problems, rather than maintaining a status quo (it works in the classroom and committees alike!)

Learning in Community creates a collective energy and understanding that surpasses individual growth. Imagine these basic principles expanding to improve student learning while, at the same time, improving our organizational ability to meet our mission of "promoting student success and community involvement through a commitment to excellence and a spirit of service" – the power of learning together as the magnetic core that binds us.

If you have any thoughts or comments on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.