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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Communities of learners vs. students

Here's an excellent piece by a high school teacher in Sacramento who draws a distinction between communities of "learners" versus "students." To my ear, his community of "learners" is much like a community of makers -- people who are building something. Here are a couple of the salient points -- and some interesting feedback from other teacher/readers:

In a classroom of students, a teacher does most of the talking. In a community of learners, students work in small groups and are co-teachers. In a classroom, people laugh when others make mistakes, but in a community, people are supported when they take risks. In a classroom, the teacher always has to be the one to keep people focused. In a community, students take responsibility for keeping themselves focused.

Now for a couple of reader comments:

The dispirited teacher:
I teach in a middle school, and time after time my fellow teachers report the plans of primarily ELL students to drop out and get job. That is their plan, and frequently the parents endorse the plan. The parents usually won't tell the teacher this but it is clear what their plan is. Frequently these students have cousins in Mexico who are no longer in school, but they are working. This is the culture battle, that frankly I am losing. When I showed my pre-AP students that they would have history and English classes for the first two years of college, they were shocked. The majority of middle school students regardless of background are not likely to be interested in becoming a community of learners. Maybe if our building principal were more engaged, it would be different. Right now that is not my world. I am sad.

And people who disagree:

I disagree with the poster RHE that "the majority of middle school students...are not likely to be interested in becoming a community of learners." That's not my experience at all. But how much Larry Ferlazzo has been helped and inspired himself by building-level leadership that values the collective and meaning.

Another reader:
The reason to do well "in school" is NOT to avoid a death penalty, but, instead, because it's fun. I feel so sorry for RHE and those agreeing with his despair, since it is astoundingly simple to engage kids - on their own behalf - regardless of their culture and ethnicity. In fact, THAT IS THE JOB, at least according to Horace Mann. Teaching how to learn from each other is far, far more important, with outcomes of far better test scores by the way, than teaching that older people know "stuff" more than younger ones. The anthropology of a classroom trumps everything else.

And still another:
I feel for you, RHE. Different people have different experiences, and your situation sounds hard. I also teach in a middle school, and for the most part my students are all over the idea that they can be a community of learners. A few are worried that being able to participate in choosing the topics the study, what projects they do, and how they share what they've learned with others, will not prepare them for high school where they expect to simply have to do as they are told (not always the reality, of course). But for the most part, even those kids roll with it, and the majority love it.

Bottom line: I think you can create a "community of learners" and doers, at many levels in schools. It might be easiest in 4th and 5th grade. But it's possible throughout. And this is what education should be about.

And a postscript: an excellent presentation by CoolCat teacher, Vicki Davis, who lives in Camilla, Ga.

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