User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Learning Communities: The Future (the Now?) of Education

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I am lucky to have found a great passion in my life (in addition to being an educator) and that is pottery making.  Due to local opportunities, I have mostly worked on my pots in community pottery studios.  The key word is community.  We are more than a group of potters working in the same space or room.  We ask and share information about techniques used to create the pots.  We are a learning community.  What strikes me most about this pottery learning community is its diversity in terms of gender and age range – from mid-teens to late 70’s.  The experts are not necessarily the elders of our group.  The expert is the person who understands and could explain a technique about which another member wants to know.  It is situational expertise.

A useful and descriptive definition of learning communities comes from Etienne Wenger in his discussion of communities of practice:

Communities of practice are formed by people who engage in a process of collective learning in a shared domain of human endeavor: a tribe learning to survive, a band of artists seeking new forms of expression, a group of engineers working on similar problems, a clique of pupils defining their identity in the school, a network of surgeons exploring novel techniques, a gathering of first-time managers helping each other cope. In a nutshell, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Some of the characteristics of  learning communities include:

  • Self-organizing
  • Not limited by age barriers
  • High levels of interaction, sharing of resources, and collaboration
  • Driven by intrinsic motivation


What happens when groups of people gather together to provide mutual support for learning and performance? How would that work? Rather than being controlled by a teacher, learners might “self-organize” into functioning communities with a general goal of supporting each other in their learning. That is to say, the function of guidance and control becomes distributed among group participants. Specific roles of group members are not assigned but rather emerge from the interaction of the whole.

Not Bounded By Age Level

Grouping students by age and advancing them in lock step is an artifact of the agrarian calendar and factory model of schooling that emerged in the late 19th century. That it is still with us is a commentary on just how conservative schooling is.  As every parent and teacher knows, children’s developmental trajectories vary widely, and the notion of grouping children by age is a convention without meaning.

Currently, our society is mostly marked by age segregation –  both imposed (in school) and self-selected (through leisure time pursuits). A major advantage of learning communities driven-by-interest is that members of all ages choose to join.  Young people learn from the life experiences of elders,  Elders learn to view things from the fresh eyes and often idealist thinking of young people.  Online learning communities organized through Facebook, forums, and massively multiplayer online game have dramatically increased these mixed age groupings.

High Levels of Interaction, Sharing of Resources, and Collaboration

The ultimate payoff for involvement in a learning community is developing more expertise in one’s area of interest.  As such, there tends to be an ease of sharing knowledge, information, and resources.  A simple example is when a request for information is broadcasted on Twitter or Facebook with the result often being a poring in of information to address this request.  This is why I believe concepts-areas such as crowdsourcing and the open education movement have become so popular.

Intrinsic Motivation

As stated, the payoff for being involved in a learning community is increased expertise and skills – and the possibility of leveling up.  Intrinsic motivation as discussed in the context of learning communities can be viewed as the following:

  • Anticipated reciprocity. – A member is motivated to contribute to the community in the expectation that he or she will receive useful help and information in return.
  • Increased recognition –  The desire for prestige is one of the key motivations for individuals’ contributions in a learning community.
  • Sense of efficacy – Individuals may contribute because the act results in a sense that they have had some effect on the community. (Adapted from

Learning networks have always existed with groups of people organizing around their interests and passions within community centers and  clubs focusing on books, games, sports, etc.  How the Internet and Web 2.0 have changed learning communities is through the ability to announce face-to-face meetings and through online forums-networks. As such, one of the greatest gifts we could offer to our learners is how to find, join, and interact with their own personal learning communities – online and face-to-face.

As kids have more connectivity and access to resources than ever, one challenge is to develop new practices and tools to support them in how they choose to manage learning opportunities.

The challenge presented to us (as educators) is to empower them to consistently share those interests and activities that happen elsewhere and that paint a fuller portrait of who they are as learners.

Some resources for assisting students in learning about and developing their own learning communities:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 29, 2011 at 2:54 am

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