SCHOOLS AS COLLABORATIVE LEARNING COMMUNITIES

© by Carole Cooper and Julie Boyd

 

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With all the buzzwords and fads in education, "collaborative learning community" has the potential to lose its meaning, of losing its potency. Taken individually, each concept has incredible power and together, there is a synergy, a revolutionary force that we have not even begun to recognize yet in schools. So what is this thing called a "collaborative learning community"? It is a philosophy as well as a place; it is a way of being as well as a working model. It is a mindset as well as a map.

The foundation of a collaborative learning community is collaboration - working together for common goals, partnership, shared leadership, co-evolving and co-learning - rather than competition and power given to only a few. Collaboration, rather than isolation, unfortunately, is a foreign practice to many educators. For most teachers, the adult in the next classroom is not someone they confide in about matters of teaching practice because it is too threatening. There is no time for teachers to collaborate even if they want to. In most schools, teachers do not see each other teach; they do not know each others' disciplines. As Gene Maeroff states, "In schools, disciplines are as separate as the planets". Therefore, it is difficult for educators to even imagine the far-reaching possibilities of collaboration.

The focus of the collaborative learning community is learning - learning where students are actively demonstrating their understanding, rather than students passing written tests as the sole sign of knowing. Learning, that is based on conceptual understanding and the ability to apply this knowledge in a variety of contexts, is a primary goal within a collaborative learning community. It is a new way of thinking for most educators (and the public) to know that all students can and will learn, that learning needs to be demonstrated, that it is important to learn not only facts, but also conceptual relationships of ideas and the processes and positive attitudes of learning. There is much talk about thinking and problem-solving skills, multiple intelligences, learning styles and fostering creativity; yet, implementation of these ideas are often relegated to separate programs. They have not yet been embedded in each and everything that is taught. Putting the focus on student learning, rather than teacher telling or "covering the content", means (1) students take responsibility for their own learning, (2) learning experiences are geared to students' interests and needs, (3) students are actively engaged in learning in a variety of groups and contexts, and (4) learning is understood, applied and internalized.

Collaboration and learning happen within the context of community - a creation of unity through appreciating and celebrating diversity. In addition, the school reflects the population and background of the larger community; therefore, collaborative learning communities help students learn the attitudes, knowledge and skills that benefit all in the community and community members become partners in facilitating and expanding the learning process.The Center for the Study of Community in Santa Fe, New Mexico provides the following as the identifying characteristics of community:


To what degree are these evident in your classroom and school?


"Communities;are places or entities where each member can give something, where they can contribute something that they feel especially able to give, something that they are good at. The gift from each member is valued by the whole community and all gifts are unique and individual. The gift that community gives back to each member is that of a role and a connection."
 

Ed Margarson

 

"Community;is...a dynamic set of relationships in which a synergic, self-regulating whole is created out of the combination of individual parts into a cohesive, identifiable, unified form."

Center for the Study of Community, Santa Fe, New Mexico.


Collaborative Learning Communities - the whole of these parts - combines each of the individual elements listed above into a vital, flourishing, and thriving living system. Every living systems in nature has the following dynamics constantly at work to help it become a continually growing and renewing system:

-interdependence of members
-nourishing relationships
-structure and pattern
-sustainability through feedback loops and recycling of materials
-energy flow and cycles
-partnership, co-evolution and co-learning
-diversity through a variety of relationships and/or approaches
-flexibility and permeable boundaries, as well as
-networks that are self-organizing, self-renewing.

What if we organized schools around these ecological dynamics? Everything from teaching and learning in the classroom to relationships with the community to professional development of educators would change. In order to create a collaborative learning community, one needs to think and operate systemically. Systemic thinking is based on:

When one thinks systemically than one recognizes that you can not change one thing in a system without it affecting everything else. One can not change curriculum from fact-based to conceptual-based without changing teaching and learning strategies and assessment procedures; one can not change decision-making from district/regional-based to site-based without changing roles and relationships throughout the system.

We, at Global Learning Communities, have helped schools who are re-creating themselves into collaborative learning communities to apply the above principles of living systems throughout their school re-creation efforts. We also help schools by providing the following conceptual framework to be used in planning the components of school change. [See Illustration-School Regeneration Model]

School/District Circle:

In order to develop the school as a collaborative learning community, the entire staff community needs to have a common vision and agreed upon outcomes for student learning and performance. This is a necessary starting point for school re-creation - what is education for? what are our outcomes for students when they leave our school community? what is our school culture and desirable culture for accomplishing our vision and outcomes? However, the authors have found that it is not advisable to start with the rest of the elements of the "school/district circle". Changing the structures and policies in schools need to be addressed after the teachers have worked on refining and aligning classroom practice. There have been many schools in the past few years who have changed the daily schedule to allow teacher teaming and planning, only to find that teachers did not take advantage of the changed procedure because the staff had not built their own collegiality or had not changed their classroom practices to warrant the change in timetable. Just as a cooperative structure in cooperative learning does not make a collaborative classroom, so too, only changing the structure in a school will not make a collaborative school without a culture and collegial environment that supports it. Therefore, begin with the end in mind by establishing common vision and outcomes, then work to refine classroom practice and staff collegiality.

 

Classroom Practice Circle:

Over the past few years there have been many improvements in curriculum, effective teaching and learning strategies and assessment procedures. What is now needed in most schools is an alignment of these practices. We have cooperative learning teachers whose environment in the classroom is still very teacher-directed, rather than student-centered. We have cooperative learning teachers who are using cooperative learning with a fact-based curriculum, rather than its most appropriate use for conceptual-based curriculum. We have teachers teaching fragmented bits of the curriculum, rather than through an integrated, meaning-based approach. We have teachers using conceptual-based, constructivist curriculum with only paper-pencil test assessments, rather than having their students performing their learning. In a collaborative learning community, the classroom environment, the curriculum, effective teaching and learning strategies, and assessment procedures are aligned and reflect a core philosophy and values about teaching and learning. Everything that is done in the classroom supports the school/district mission and moves students toward the desired outcomes.

Teachers/Administrators as Teacher/Learner:

Educators cannot change who they teach, what they teach, how they teach and how they assess what they teach without opportunities to work together. The staff needs to strategize on how to break teacher/administrator isolation; they need to increase their own collegiality. In addition, each person involved in schools needs to see themselves as continuous learners modelling the love of learning and life-long learning practices they desire for their students. We cannot re-create schools as collaborative learning communities without sustained professional development and dialogue. We must have time to reflect on our craft. This simply means that we will never achieve our goals without sustained professional development and collaborative reflection practices, such as action research, coaching, mentoring, etc. Another aspect of seeing ourselves as teachers and learners in this constant process of change is accountability. Like our students, every educator in the system must grow and learn. If students are keeping journals and learning logs, why are the educators? If students are engaging in research and keeping portfolios, why aren't the teachers? We know what facilitates good learning and we need to apply it to ourselves, if we truly are to become a self-renewing learning organization.


"A;learning organization is a place where people are continually discovering how they create their reality and how they can change it."


Peter Senge

Once we are working to refine and align classroom practice and once we have built on-going dialogue about teaching and learning and collegiality on staff, then it is time to revisit the school/district circle and plan for structural changes. Changes in the schedule, changes in staffing roles, changes in student programs and opportunities, changes in teacher reconfigurations and changes in policy and procedures come once we have a clearer idea of what is specifically needed at our school.


"Successful;community building depends in large measure on each individual school defining for itself its own life and creating for itself its own practice of schooling. This inside-out strategy requires a considerable amount of searching and reflection as teachers struggle with such issues as who they are, what they hope to become for the students they serve, and how they will decide, organize, teach, learn and live together. "
Thomas Sergiovanni

Parents, Community, Business Partnership Circle:

None of this is possible without the involvement, from the beginning and continuously throughout the change process, of parents and community people Many schools and districts have made the mistake of changing aspects of classroom practice, or teachers/administrators as teachers and learners, or school/district culture, outcomes, structures and policies without involving their key constituencies - parents and students. They, then, try to work too late for "buy-in". Partnership is not about "buy-in"; it is about authentic involvement, participation, shared leadership and shared decision-making. Involving key people from "outside" the school is essential to establishing your school as a collaborative learning community. Students are learning as much in the community, in the media and in their homes as they are in schools. We must be partners in facilitating learning. Partnerships in learning usually go through developmental stages of growth, moving from sponsorship to cooperation/collaboration to true, reciprocal partnership with permeable boundaries of responsibility. Students also need opportunities to utilize their learning in the community through internships, community service, establishing enterprises themselves and through participating in community-based learning lessons. Likewise, community members need to be in schools to support and extend the students' work and learning. Schools cannot do it alone, as the African proverb says, "It takes a village to raise a child". Collaborative learning communities work to make this a reality, not rhetoric.

The Parts of the Circles to the Whole of School Re-Creation:
When we think systemically, one can not change one element of these components of school change without changing another. Change is not linear; it is cyclical. To move to become more of a collaborative learning community, we plan in each arena simultaneously. For a collaborative learning community has:


Like the tidal waves that clear island reefs and create opportunities for new, stronger and more appropriate growth, so the wave of transformation is pervading the portals of our schools. The words collaborative learning communities are now bandied around with great aplomb in meetings, classrooms and in policy and curriculum documents. We need to use this opportunity to really examine what we think education is, what we see as desired outcomes for students and how we think learning is facilitated. We need to construct our own meaning, in our own context, of a collaborative learning community. Yet, this we know, it is not a checklist of factors, it a mindset as much as a map. It is a philosophy as much as a place. It is the essence of what this magazine and association has always stood for---the synergy of collaboration, learning and community. It is taking responsibility for our craft, our own development and that of our students; it is ensuring our future.


"The;process of really being with others in a safe, supportive situation can actually change who we think we are and as we grow closer to the essence of who we are, we tend to take more responsibility for our neighbours and our planet. "


Bill Kauth

BIBLIOGRAPHY

 

Capra, Fritjof; Clark, Ed; Cooper, Carole. Guide to Ecoliteracy Berkeley, CA: Elmwood Institute, 1993. Charles, Cheryl. "Creating Community: What is It and How do We do It?" Santa Fe, NM: Center for the Study of Community, 1994.

Cooper, Carole and Boyd, Julie. Collaborative Approaches to Professional Learning and Reflection Launceston, Tasmania, Australia: Global Learning Communities, 1994.

Cooper, Carole and Henderson, Nan. Motivating Schools to Change: Integrating the Threads of School Restructuring. Launceston, Tasmania, Australia: Global Learning Communities, 1995 (In Print).

Jalongo, M. R. Creating Learning Communities: The Role of the Teacher in the 21st Century. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service, 1994.

Maeroff, Gene. Team Building for School Change: Equipping Teachers for New Roles. NY: Teachers' College Press, Columbia University, 1993.

Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. NY: Doubleday, 1990.

Sergiovanni, Thomas J., Building Community in Schools. San Francisco, CA.: Jossey-Bass, 1994.

Shaffer, C. and Anundsen, K. Creating Community Anywhere: Finding Support and Connection in a Fragmented World. NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1993.

 


Global Learning Communities International Office:

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e-mail:info@julieboyd.com.au