User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Posts Tagged ‘unschooling

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

Reading: A Natural Human Phenomenon Given the Right Conditions

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The written word is a fairly new development in human evolution given the history of humankind.  Even so, it has become a common and natural way of communication for a lot of people in our current times.  School curriculum often presents reading and writing as a forced, unnatural skill to be acquired through hard work.

As an elementary student, I was required to do the requisite book reports.  I wasn’t interested in the books I was told to read.  I learned how to creatively tweak the book cover summaries to write these reports – receiving A’s and B’s for books never read.

Fast forward to 9th grade.  I don’t know how but somehow I picked up Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle and was hooked into reading.  Reading became my survival to my painful and boring high school experiences.  I would bring books of my choosing into class, would hide them in the class textbooks and joyful escape into the worlds of these books.  Without any prompting or direction, I located and read many of the books by the following authors during high school (note the following are direct links to websites dedicated to that author):

Fast forward – today.  We have seen this natural drive to read by this current generation of youth through the Harry Potter and Twilight series.  I recently asked a group of about 25 sixth graders if they liked to read and received a resounding, “No!”  I then asked if they had read Harry Potter and most had.

So I get frustrated when I read about all these formalized and structured ways to teach reading (and have a gut-level, nauseous reaction to discussions around Success For All and Reading First).  I understand that many kids do not have the skills and motivation to independently locate books of personal interest, but I do believe that one of the responsibilities of educators (of all content areas) is to provide learners with reading recommendations.

This past year, I started reading YA  novels, finding them intelligent, engaging, and thought provoking.  I believe if kids are introduced to the choice menu of these and similar books, then kids will become naturally interested in reading.  Some recommendations I would offer (if I was teaching middle or high school) include:

This is just my own list.  Imagine if educators and young adults shared all of their favorite books and discussions about these books became the norm in English classes.

Technology and social networking have the potential to increase interest and engagement in learning.  A few years ago I taught gifted education for elementary students.  Philip, a charismatic and sports-driven young man, said he was not interested in reading because he did not like the books the teachers gave him to read.  I introduced the class to Shelfari.

I don’t know what it was about this Web 2.0 tool but Philip totally took off, becoming motivated to read and add books of his choosing to his Shelfari. These can be viewed at

I am waiting for the day that the guiders and managers of education realize that forced education does not become lifelong learning.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

August 14, 2011 at 4:14 pm

More Disruption of Education

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Several posts this month added to the discussion of . . . . and hopefully movement towards – the disruption of institutionalized K-12 and Higher Education.

Disrupting K-12 Education

Standards-Based Accountability’s High Stakes by Ronald A. Wolk was posted in Education Week on 3/7/11.  The first part of the article provides some evidence of the failure of  the goal of the late 20th century to actualize, “All children can learn” (in school).  Wolk goes on to ask “How do we explain that nearly 30 years of unprecedented effort and enormous expenditures has not improved student performance, reduced the dropout rate, or closed the achievement gap?”

More standardization is not what our schools need. As the Harvard business professor Clayton Christensen puts it in his book Disrupting Class, applying his ideas about “disruptive innovation” to education: “If the nation is serious about leaving no child behind, it cannot be done by standardized methods. Today’s system was designed at a time when standardization was seen as a virtue. It is an intricately interdependent system. Only an administrator suffering from virulent masochism would attempt to teach each student in the way his or her brain is wired to learn within this monolithic batch system. Schools need a new system.”

Wolk proposes that disruption of K-12 education can occur through personalized education.  Some of his recommendations include:

  • Schools should be designed around the human scale because students and teachers need to know each other
  • Preschool education would be universal.
  • Beginning in middle school, multiple educational pathways would lead to college and other postsecondary programs to prepare young people for work in a complex and changing world. A student could choose a pathway reflecting his or her interests and aspirations. Each student would play a significant role in designing the curriculum, which would be anchored in the real world, not in the abstractions of most classrooms.
  • There would be no “traditional” core curriculum with typical academic courses and rigid schedules in middle and high school.
  • Teachers would become advisers who guide students in educating themselves. They would tutor students and help them manage their time and energy.
  • Technology would largely replace textbooks and worksheets.
  • Student learning would be assessed on the basis of portfolios, exhibitions, special projects and experiments, and recitals and performances—real accomplishments, not abstract test scores.


Disrupting College

A report was published entitled, Disrupting College: How Disruptive Innovation Can Deliver Quality and Affordability to Postsecondary Education (February, 2011) by Clayton M. Christensen, Michael B. Horn, Louis Caldera, and Louis Soares.

The propositions of this report revolve around the use of online learning to be the disruptive force in higher education.

This emerging disruptive innovation presents an opportunity to rethink many of the age-old assumptions about higher education—its processes, where it happens, and what its goals are.

But the major recommendations they make for policy makers (and to that I add administrators, board members, faculty, and yes, students as the consumers of higher education) are application to both online and face-to-face institutions of  higher education:

  • Eliminate barriers that block disruptive innovations and partner with the innovators to provide better educational opportunities.
  • Remove barriers that judge institutions based on their inputs such as seat time, credit hours, and student-faculty ratios.
  • Do not focus on degree attainment as the sole measure of success.
  • Fund higher education with the aim of increasing quality and decreasing cost.

An Example Grassroots Effort -An Alternative for Getting a Higher Education

Peer 2 Peer University

The Peer 2 Peer University is a grassroots open education project that organizes learning outside of institutional walls and gives learners recognition for their achievements. P2PU creates a model for lifelong learning alongside traditional formal higher education. Leveraging the internet and educational materials openly available online, P2PU enables high-quality low-cost education opportunities. P2PU – learning for everyone, by everyone about almost anything.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 14, 2011 at 8:06 pm

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