Learning Communities

Published: 2023-03-28 09:32 |

Category: Reflection | Tags: grad, maet, reflection, reform, redesign

Community is still heavy on my mind this week.

It's easy to argue for authentic learning experiences. We want students to relate learning to the "real world." Ignoring, for a moment, that students already live in the real world, the sentiment is valid - students should have knowledge that will be relevant when they leave the classroom. We're all well-meaning when we dive into Project/Problem Based Learning (PBL), Challenge-based Learning (CBL), or any of the other X-based learning options that have become more popular. The goal for each is the same: students experience the content as part of the learning rather than receiving.

I've struggled for years to consider PBL as authentic and I think it is because those experiences are still missing the context critical for situated learning to take place. Students are still experiencing the material through the lens of schooling. We're prompting our students toward an end goal which isn't always connected to the domain experience and that's why some of those activities still feel so much like school. It's also telling that students typically struggle to apply ideas to novel situations. The experince is full of the school flavor, so it still feels like school.

So, how do we join communities of practice? Being immersed is critical - as a learner, we need to pick up and use the norms, language, and culture of the community as we interact. Only then, when the learning is immersed in the culture, can it be authentic. In my personal experience, this happens naturally when we’re interested in something. We start researching, looking for examples, or imitating someone around us. Our language changes naturally as we try to fit into the culture of that activity or skill. School, on the other hand, generally tries to give the experience without the culture. The experience is sanitized so we can focus on the content, and that's a mistake.

Technology is a major aid in joining communities of practice by closing distance gaps, giving us access to information about what we’re trying to learn, and connecting us to individuals already immersed in those cultures. Personally, it has helped me learn to use watercolor paints for creative work. I’ve joined Reddit boards, watched YouTube videos, and shared snapshots of my work on social media. Using technology, I’ve been able to receive feedback from people in the art world that I wouldn’t have connected with otherwise, which has helped me focus on areas of improvement that I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

Professionally, if community and culture is the missing component in schooling, I’m thinking through how I can help teachers make those connections in the planning phase. We cannot be experts in every domain, but some low-barrier things to try could be:

  • Arranging video calls with local professionals to speak with students about a topic they’re exploring
  • Approach teachers to explore redesigning some lessons to be more open-ended
  • Work with staff on methods to take advantage of distributed cognition (ie, every person in the group contributes to the group intelligence) instead of relying on individual results

This is a bigger shift than simply "doing" PBL or being a PBL school. This is recognizing that school culture still focuses on school when that is precisely what we need less of.

Comments are always open. You can get in touch by sending me an email at brian@ohheybrian.com