Saturday, September 10, 2016

Healthy Learning Community

 It is the beginning of the school year and one of the things I think about a lot of this time of year is building strong learning communities with each of my groups. This is not a new concept and certainly educators for years have been doing just that. However, we all know that some learning communities are healthier than others and that never becomes more evident than one stops working. This whole idea feels a bit more personal to me this year, because after twenty-three years I have found myself in search of one in the form of a new church. There is a lot things that have played a role in choosing a new place of worship, and in many ways what I was looking for has mirrored what I believe a healthy learning community should be. Throughout the years I have truly been blessed to be part of several healthy learning communities and my experiences have taught me that they do not just happen, but they take work and are strategically planned. 

As a learning community is being built I believe it is important remember that not all the members are going to have the same gifts, knowledge and enter the community at the same place. This means there will need to be a scaffolding activities to meet members needs. This is why procedures and systems need to be planned and followed. It will also mean that leaders might need to relinquish some control over the details of the process. I will be the first to admit that relinquishing up control as an educator can be tough, because it is more comfortable for me to know when and how things are being done. However, by the leader remaining in control we would all miss out on so much learning and growth. Within the Gifted Laboratory we have implemented several inquiry framework, such as Genius Hour and Challenge Based Learning (CBL), where my students have been involved with everything from topic selection to their solution development. As we made our way through each of these projects we have all learned a ton. At the same time, I have been involved in "learning communities" as an adult where these same principles have applied. One example would be Discovery Educator Network (The DEN), where members are encouraged to see needs within the community and then empowered to work together  to meet those needs. By giving community members a voice it not only builds the capacity for more knowledge to be gained, but it also builds trust. 

Also in healthy learning communities there will need to be a safe place for questioning, which means all members will need to feel comfortable asking any question at anytime. Teachers/leaders will have to learn to be comfortable with true exploration and/or being asked questions they may not have the answers to. As an educator, it has taken me awhile to get to use to and relax in the fact that I don't have all the answers. If I truly believe that questions are the birth place of understanding I will need to allow myself to be seen as a fellow learner and not the dispenser of all information.

Another principle I believe is that healthy learning communities need to include a growth mindset, which means that we believe that our talents and abilities can be developed through persistence. With growth mindset there is the expectation that one "gets smarter....." by preserving through challenges and these should be embraced as learning opportunities. There needs to be grace for those who don't get things right the first time,  and we all need room to fail. All members need to be seen as having the potential and are encouraged to grow. That failure is not seen as an end result, but dealt with and learned from with integrity. 

Finally,  I truly believe that at the core of a healthy learning community is JOY.  Learning is work, but that does not mean it has to drudgery. Strong learning communities know how to laugh and find enjoyment in each other. Sure there will be disagreements and times of frustration, but how a group learns to deal with that is what is important. I believe that learning to deal with these effectively is by building a strong foundation. This can be done in part by providing fun group building activities periodically. I have heard that a family that plays together stays together and I believe that is true about learning communities as well. Here is one of my most recent experiences with that principle in mind, which occurred at the Discovery Educators' Summer Institute (DENSI 2016) in July.

As I close, I want to give a shout out to those leaders who have worked so hard to strategically plan for the learning communities I have been blessed to be apart of. I have learned way more than you know and I will be forever grateful.