I have been reflecting this morning on community and its place in my life and learning.
Communal Living and Community
My first experiences happened as a young woman living on The Farm, the largest successful commune in America. It was there that I first began to see the power of relationships in enabling others toward positive change and the concept of how identity is formed through meaningful social interaction and conversations around practice and reform.
"Utopian thought, as the basis of communal ideology, idealizes social unity and maintains that humanness exists only in intimate and collective life" (Kanter, 1972, p.32). While on the Farm, my thoughts on justice, sincerity, honesty, and humanity really started to take shape.The foundation was laid to rethink the status quo, respectfully question authority, and always stand up against unjust acts towards marginalized populations. The desire to become a voice for the voiceless was birthed.
In my late twenties, I discovered the loving community that comes from belonging to a group of people who are held accountable to one another in relationship under a set of established spiritual beliefs. I came to learn and grow so much as a mother, daughter, and individual through the vertical and horizontal relationships I developed overtime as a Christian. The molding and shaping of my character and personality through the exercise of being held collectively to a higher standard gave me the tools needed to be self-governed and disciplined. The unconditional love and friendship I received as part of the Christian community, nurtured me through the negative effects of my childhood and the untimely death of my spouse when my daughters were just one and two years old. The relationships I formed taught me through a social learning process how to be a good mother and a woman of integrity. I am still growing into someone who tries very hard to embrace personal excellence, always holding myself to this high standard, but yet allowing others to have the grace to choose their own path and way.
In my mid-thirties I got my first computer. I was running a small, innovative K-12 school at the time called Friendship Bridge, as well as teaching preservice teachers at Valdosta State University as an adjunct. Immediately, I discovered bulletin boards and IRC chat and began to establish a network of content experts and friends from around the world who became my personal learning network. We would connect at various times throughout our day sharing what we were learning. There was a solider in Germany who taught me about networking and hardware, a father and hockey enthusiast in Canada who joined me in experimenting and pushing the new tools to the limit, a brilliant young man in his 20s that was living in Florida who was trapped somewhat by his circumstance and spent his boredom at the public library, sequentially reading every book on the shelf and then sharing with me each author's ideas, and countless others who each left their mark upon my life- some for my betterment and some - well, they were not so positive, but it was community and we were all left changed by the ideas of the other.
It reminds me of Tennyson's poem Ulysses:
I am part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnished, not to shine in use!
As though to breath were life. Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this grey spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
I continue to be molded and shaped by the relationships I form around the world.
Community of Practice
When I came to Virginia in 1997, I tried to escape education. I worked for awhile as a MCSE trainer helping various network engineers get their industry certifications. I was struck by how competitive the field was and how little community existed. While the money was incredible, I missed children, teachers, and the potential for positive change (both individual and systemic) that I felt when teaching. So I took a position with a high need (many homeless children) elementary school as a computer resource teacher in hopes to give back for all I had been given.
What I observed in terms of community in our large school district was what Richard Elmore (2002) describes as a buffer- a protective barrier that discourages and even punishes close, constructive scrutiny of instruction and the supervision of instruction. Its primary effect is to protect these two—the heart of schooling—“from outside inspection, interference, or disruption” (p. 6).
The buffer prevents true communities of practice from developing and from teachers and educational leaders being able to learn more about what is working within the classroom. It prevents teachers from knowing what or how well they or their colleagues (both local and global) teach. It deprives us all of any meaningful frame of reference and discourages us from learning from each other.
I remember my mentor Greg Anderson, who served as the principal of my school, warning me that I was using technology as a rebel would. That our district used a culture of equity- all schools were equally as good as the other- even if that perceived equity meant schools simply met and perpetuated the status quo. Greg, in spirit, supported my change efforts (when he felt they were in the best interest of children) although he didn't want a "loose cannon" causing him to lose his job in the process.
I pushed the teachers at my school to see technology as a communication and collaboration tool. As a way to connect with others and remove the barriers of isolation the four walls of the classroom created. I wanted technology to provide transparency, the same transparency I had experienced on the Farm and in my small school and in the Christian community. I wanted technology to help students and teachers connect with others around the world in an effort to make lasting change in the way we live and learn in schools.
Judith Little (1993) has often talked about the private, protected world of teaching:
In large numbers of schools, and for long periods of time, teachers are colleagues in name only. They work out of sight and hearing of one another, plan and prepare their lessons and materials alone, and struggle on their own to solve most of their instructional, curricular, and management problems.
She and others see this approach of non-interference, privacy, and harmony as part of the problem in that it prevents us from getting to the root of what needs to change in schools. This culture of privacy and non-interference is fertile soil for maintaining status quo. However, she goes on to say,
Against this almost uniform backdrop of isolated work, some schools stand out for the professional relationship they foster among teachers. These schools, more than others, are organized to permit the sort of reflection…that has been largely absent from professional preparation and professional work in schools. For teachers in such schools, work involves colleagueship of a more substantial sort. Recognition and satisfaction stem not only from being a masterful teacher, but also from being a member of a masterful group.
It was this kind of community, this kind of meaningful dialog I so fervently wanted to see happen. I wanted to break through the buffer so that collectively teachers could see the status quo for what it was and through the collective wisdom and strong relationships within the community, make a courageous commitment to challenge and change the status quo.
Teacher Leadership and Community
The first opportunity I had for this to happen was within the Teacher Leaders Network (TLN). Terry Dozier, for whom I was leading the Virginia Teacher Leader Forum, sent me in her stead to a steering committee meeting for the development of a national virtual community of practice for teacher leaders across the country. The Center for Teaching quality had gotten the recommendations for 200 top educators who were not only highly accomplished but were articulate and positioned locally as change agents. What was birthed out of that meeting was TLN and under the nurturing leadership of John Norton (community of practice expert) and CTQ's president Barnett Berry (national edc. policy leader) has grown to become one of the most visible groups of teachers impacting educational policy in the nation. It is through TLN that I am personally shaped and challenged daily. This is my community of practice.
Bielaczyc & Collins (1999) describe a community of practice as:
The defining quality of a learning community is that there is a culture of learning, in which everyone is involved in a collective effort of understanding. There are four characteristics that such a culture must have: (1) diversity of expertise among its members, who are valued for their contributions and given support to develop, (2) a shared objective of continually advancing the collective knowledge and skills, (3) an emphasis on learning and how to learn, and (4) mechanisms for sharing what is learned. If a learning community is presented with a problem, then the learning community can bring its collective knowledge to bear on the problem. It is not necessary that each member assimilate everything the community knows, but each should know who within the community has relevant expertise to address any problem.
This is a radical departure from the traditional view of schooling, with its emphasis on individual knowledge and performance, and the expectation that students/teachers will acquire the same body of knowledge at the same time. Yet this is the model that not only provides systemic change, but holds the potential for a change initiative to push beyond the incremental culture of change expected in schools to one of exponential reform that produces results now- so that our kids get what they need now, not after they graduate or from their own efforts.
21st Century Community
Through John Norton, I met Cathy Gassenheimer of the Alabama Best Practice Center. Together we wrote a proposal that was funded by Microsoft that took the best of all of our experiences around using community as a vehicle of change. We created a 21st Century teaching and learning collaborative that used Web 2.0 tools to connect 40 school teams across the state in exploration and understanding of using personal networking literacies to change their practice. We are currently in the third year of the project and teachers this year are focusing on the needed changes in pedagogy that relate to the new tools and changed paradigm. Working with student teams and other stakeholders, the impact of our efforts is being seen virally in the spread of these ideas throughout schools and across the state. Most recently, the state of Alabama has been in negociations with the Partnership of 21st Century Skills to become a partnership state.
Building Community Online
Communities of practice are clusters of people who share a concern or passion for something they do and as they interact regularly, they improve (Wenger, 1998). A driving force behind a community of practice is community knowledge, in which the sum of the collective knowledge is greater the sum of the individual knowledge (Gherardi & Nicolini, 2002) therefore as the collective knowledge grows stronger, so does the individual's knowledge (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999). They operate on the premise, "None of us is as good as all of us." Wenger (2004) also suggests that by focusing on the system or the group as a whole, does not imply that the individual should be ignored.
Hall and Hord (1987) emphasized, organizations do not change - individuals do. However, it is through the relationships that learning occurs. McDermott (in Murphy 1999, p.17) describes it this way:
Learning traditionally gets measured on the assumption that it is a possession of individuals that can be found inside their heads…[Here] learning is in the relationships between people. Learning is the conditions that bring people together and organize a point of contact that allows for particular pieces of information to take on relevance; without the points of contact, without the system of relevancies, there is not learning, and there is little memory. Learning does not belong to the individual persons, but to the various conversations of which they are a part.
According to Wenger (1998) not all communities are communities of practice. Three characteristics must be in place: 1) a common commitment to the same sphere of influence (you couldn’t be in someone's community and not know it 2) community- members are engaged in activity and discussions; they help one another, and share information. 3) active practice- members are not just united by interests but by practice.
Is Twitter a Community?
So how does community fit in online? Are the relationships forged in the blogosphere and other social networking sites like Twitter, Delicious, Flickr, NING, Tapped In, and others - true community? Or are they networking or as some suggest a new learning theory all together called connectivism?
According to George Seimens, the principles of connectivism are:
- Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
- Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
- Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
- Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known
- Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
- Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
- Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
- Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.
Virtual Learning Communities
Emerging technologies such as social networking and other Web-based tools have the potential to offer opportunities for new kinds of communities of practice for teachers and students. These tools bring enormous leverage to teachers at relatively little cost — intellectual leverage, social leverage, media leverage. Virtual learning communities use technology to established connections across barriers of time and space (Johnson, 2001). Teachers can participate in discussions at their convenience- anytime, anyplace.
A burgeoning body of opinion and research suggests that virtual learning communities are becoming the venue through which agents for change operate (Palloff & Pratt, 1999: Johnson, 2001; Barab & Duffy, 1998; Dede, 2003). The potential is enormous, as knowledge capital is collected and the community becomes a sort of an online brain trust, representing a highly varied accumulation of expertise.
According to Dede (2003) the most important challenge for educational leaders today is fostering 21st Century skills and knowledge in today's students so they will be prepared to participate in our global economy. This challenge requires that teachers understand what types of knowledge and skills are required in leading edge workplaces and future careers. Teachers will also need to become adept at higher order cognitive, affective, and social skills such as systems thinking, creativity, and collaboration. This will require transformational strategies for developing deeper core content, new models of pedagogy, and development of personal learning networks (Dede, 1998).
Virtual learning communities are one
way to provide the intellectual, emotional, and social support needed for
teachers to unlearn and relearn contextually in an effort to bring about the
needed behavior changes necessary to make way for the next generation of
classroom practices (Dede, 1999).
Personal Learning Practice
Most recently, my thoughts around community are playing out in the work I am doing with Will Richardson through our new LLC Powerful Learning Practice. Both Will and I believe that a teacher needs personal experience with the new literacies, using them to learn about their own passionate interests before applying them to the classroom. The reason many 21st Century teaching and learning projects have failed to make significant changes in school culture is directly related to both the buffer concept mentioned above and a lack of ownership and nurturing teachers need for these strategies to become pedagogically sound. Learning, applying, and deepening understanding of the shifts in the changing learning landscape and how to use the new Web tools to break through the buffers of isolation occurs best in communities of practice.
It is with great excitement that I look to 2008 to see how my understanding of community will grow and the new directions I will take in my own personal learning and the relationships I will develop along the way.