Friday, March 18, 2022

Building a learning community


There's a quote about collaboration that I use when leading PYP workshops:

Members of a PYP learning community are open to new ideas, commit to capacity-building, seek a broad range of views, opinions and discussions, and follow transparent decision-making processes. They demonstrate agency through collective ownership, responsibility and accountability for learning and teaching, and transform schools into dynamic learning communities.

I thought about this quote as I was reading Chapter 5 of Onward by Elena Aguilar this morning, and I was thinking about how to best build a strong learning community in schools so that all members of the community feel connected to others, listened to, trusted, believed in and encouraged.  Such a community would be a dynamic place indeed, as we could learn together and try out new things safely.  Strong learning communities are what makes our working life rewarding - and these communities include educators, students and parents.  

Elena starts this chapter reviewing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, with physical needs at the bottom followed by safety and health.  Further up the pyramid is the need for love, a sense of belonging and feeling esteemed.  Right at the top is the need for self-actualisation and reaching our potential.  She also cites the work of Matthew Lieberman who points out that people cannot meet their basic needs by themselves - we all start our lives needing a caregiver who can provide these - so his argument is that at the bottom of the pyramid should be social connection, as this is what helps us to survive.

I've worked in a number of different schools across Europe and Asia, and for sure the most enjoyable places to work were those that were strong on social connections.  These schools were ones where teachers seemed to stay a long time, and where the students thrived.  I'm still connected to teachers (some of whom are still working at the same school) where I started international teaching in 1989.  I'm also still connected to teachers and students from my time in Thailand - 13 years after leaving that school I'm still getting news from "my" class (two of them recently got engaged, one got married,  and one - believe it or not - is still living in the same city and she has two children who now also attend that school!)

This is interesting, because teaching can be a very isolating profession - you can go into your classroom and close the door and have very little contact with others outside.  However we know that building relationships with peers and students (and their families) is essential, and in addition new teachers need mentors and coaches to support them - this not only helps them to develop their pedagogy but also enhances their commitment to teaching.

When I was training to be a Cognitive Coach  I remember reading a book by Bryk and Schneider about trust in schools.  This is fundamental to building a learning community.   I refer to this work often when leading workshops about collaboration, as it's important to understand that trust is built on integrity (aligning our actions with our words) and on competence.  Studies show that when there is high relational trust among adults in a school, the students also thrive.  When trust is evident in schools people interact with each other in kind ways, they care about each other both personally and professionally, and they believe in the abilities and willingness of others in the learning community.  

How to build a community?  Elena offers the following 4 strategies:

Refine communication - in particular listen.  Be mindful of where your mind is while you are listening - is your heart open or are you engaging in judgement and impatience, or is it that you have stopped listening because you want to jump in and offer advice and solutions?  Elena points out that listening is at the centre of healthy social relationships.  Also important is what she refers to as expansive listening, which involves asking generous questions, and inviting honesty and dignity.

Learn from body language - because non-verbal communication is stronger than our words.  This includes posture, gestures and facial expressions and trust diminishes if there is a mismatch between a person's words and his/her non-verbals.  We know that in general the physical expression of emotions look the same worldwide, but we also know that all cultures have specific meaning around different aspects of body language (when to look someone in the eye, when to shake hands etc), and we need to be aware of this.

Focus on cultural competence - be aware of your own cultural identity and beliefs about differences as well as your unconscious biases.

Address conflict - because if it is not addressed it will grow and spread.  For example gossip can fuel toxic cultures in which even the most resilient people cannot thrive.  Also worth noting here is that not all conflict is unhealthy!  Healthy conflict can be an exchange of ideas, a sincere asking of questions, and a genuine willingness to listen and learn - but healthy conflict can only survive in a situation where there is a high degree of trust, vulnerability and courage.

Finally Elena addresses fear - which she says is pervasive in schools.  Teachers are often afraid of the consequences if students don't score well in tests:  they are afraid they are not doing a good job and are afraid of being criticised.  Many teachers are also afraid that their hard work and contributions are not acknowledged, or that their experience and perspective are not welcome.  Fear needs to be tackled as it has no place in a learning community - in particular it holds teachers back from asking for help because they fear being judged or rejected.  Fear might also be holding teachers back from advocating for the changes that need to be made to transform schools.

Empathy is one of the most important components of healthy relationships.  When community members have a high level of empathy for one another, people regulate their own behaviour and there is more compassion, forgiveness, acceptance and kindness.

Image Credit:  Gerd Altmann on Pixabay

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