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Growing together: What's the key to a successful learning community?
The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai
Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”! As I am settling into my new adventure at the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale, I am trying to make the most of these first weeks, full of new ideas and reflections. After all, nothing compares to being in a new place- it gives you the chance to practice “beginner’s mind”, to challenge your assumptions and open your mind to new ways of doing things. One of the thing I noticed already after a few days is that faculty learning communities feature much more prominently among faculty development activities here than at the European universities I am familiar with. So I decided to dedicate some time to learning more about different approaches of community building and facilitation. This newsletter is only the starting point, bringing up some initial thoughts and questions I have, as well as some resources for further reading. If you have experience facilitating faculty learning communities, I would be very happy to hear from you and start a conversation!
What is a learning community?
Moving from knowledge transmission- be it pedagogical, technological or both- towards facilitating learning communities has been an important topic on the faculty development agenda for quite a while now. Nothing new here. Professional learning communities have been, at least in theory, one staff development avenue used with various degrees of success in different contexts and at different levels of the education system. They are based on the idea of creating a space for reflective practitioners to exchange and crowdsource ideas and support each other in their practice. This is my own (distilled) definition, but you can find more nuanced definitions and interpretations in some of the resources listed below.
While the concept itself is very generous and inviting, and it certainly feels suitable to the world of Higher Education, creating and maintaining learning communities is more challenging than it may sound. To begin with, it is not a straightforward, well-structured faculty development activity such as, for instance, a workshop, or even a consultation. People need to commit more time to it, which is always a tricky thing with so many competing demands on our limited time. Moreover, the immediate outcome may be less tangible than in the case of a targeted workshop. Arguably, the value of a learning community increases proportionately with the effort and commitment participants put into it. So does the perceived value. You get it, it’s a vicious circle.
So how can we start to turn it into a virtuous circle? In my first three weeks at the Poorvu Center I already had the chance to observe a few instances of learning communities. While the number of participants was not very high, the quality and depth of discussions was. So I started thinking about what it takes to nurture a learning community so that it becomes a space where faculty look forward to coming and exchanging with peers.
Faculty learning communities can be created within departments (with a more homogeneous disciplinary composition) but also across disciplines, focusing on specific topics, like assessment and feedback, use of technology, etc. Both approaches can offer benefits and in fact communities can perfectly run in parallel and cross-pollinate. The key is to plant the seeds for a culture of exchange and collaboration in teaching and learning. Having functioning learning communities, however small at first, is a valuable testimony of a cultural change. It’s something we can work with.
I wrote more about the benefits of cultivating a dialogue about our teaching practice, including some examples of how to do it here. Sanna Eronen also wrote on the importance of peer support as a tool for faculty development here, giving some great examples and tips based on her practice.
There are many good reasons why facilitating faculty learning communities is an important aspect of educational development. Here are the ones I find most important- again distilled from my perspective:
Safe space: creating a space where faculty can “come as they are”, where they can afford to be vulnerable, imperfect and share their experiences with peers. This is the most difficult thing to achieve, also the most valuable. It takes time, patience, perseverance and a gentle welcoming attitude.
Validation: providing opportunities for faculty to get their teaching practice validated: by peers, by educational developers and ultimately by the broader institutional community. We can act as cheerleaders- this role is almost as important as providing direct support.
Crowdsourcing ideas: a learning community is essentially a space where more minds come together and think through their challenges. The results are rich, sometimes surprising and definitely provide lots of food for thought.
Accountability: making changes in our practice is hard as it is. Doing it alone can be really daunting. A community can provide chances to partner up and work through changes together. Share notes. Keep each other accountable in a gentle, collegial way.
Facilitating a learning community
Creating a learning community, facilitating it and nurturing its development and growth takes commitment. Individual commitment and institutional commitment. It takes time and it requires resources (which might not be self-evident, but think about it for a minute!). Building and especially maintaining a community implies a cultural shift. And these don’t just happen overnight. I heard many colleagues at various institutions who tried to establish various formats of learning communities, and failed. No matter how passionate they were about it. It happened to me too. And all too often we give up on this informal, light touch approach that seems ever more elusive and put our efforts into highly structured programmes like workshops and certificates.
Still, there is nothing that prevents these two paths from running in parallel, and cross each other every now and then. But we need to acknowledge that successfully building a learning community requires a specific set of skills. Here is how I’d summarise it:
Reach out: proactively going to different departments/ faculties and talking to people, finding what their needs are and planting the seeds for a culture of exchange;
Connect: creating networks that bring together people with similar interests, connecting the dots, bringing people in the same room (physically or virtually);
Listen: active listening plays a key role; taking yourself out of the equation so that you can help create an atmosphere of trust;
Facilitate: conversations can sometimes be difficult; being prepared to manage those moments, knowing when to step in and when to take a step back (it’s an art);
Curate: creating a repository of resources, which is always “work in progress”; encouraging co-creating and co-curation; this is the lasting legacy of a community.
In terms of space and modality, both virtual and physical spaces work well, the key is keeping a certain degree of flexibility and technology can help with this. For instance, the curation element, but also part of the networking element can take place in the virtual environment. However, the social aspect can be enhanced by the presence of coffee and cake :)
How about engagement? We can start with the "usual suspects", people who come to us often and are enthusiastic about their teaching. Then we could try adding a "bring a friend" policy. In time, the community hopefully grows, at its own pace. Every new member is a small win. Again, we’re talking about a marathon here, not a sprint.
Last but not least, trying to build learning communities right now is a very good way to support Faculty reconnect with peers after a (too) long time of working and teaching remotely. Creating a shared space. A safe space. A sandbox. Centres for Teaching and Learning can initiate and facilitate these communities, but ideally, given time, the spirit will spread beyond their boundaries.
Faculty Learning Communities: Five Skills Every Facilitator Should Capture- a collection of useful tips for those of us aiming to build and facilitate learning communities;
Sustaining pedagogical change via faculty learning community, by Teresa L. Tinnell, Patricia A. S. Ralston, Thomas R. Tretter and Mary E. Mills- article offering interesting insights on the relation between faculty learning communities and lasting pedagogical change;
Faculty Learning Communities: A Model for Supporting Curriculum Changes in Higher Education, by Marion Engin and Fairlie Atkinson- an article reflecting on the benefits and limitations of a faculty learning community;
Professional Learning Communities: A Review of the Literature, by Louise Stoll, Ray Bolam, Agnes McMahon, Mike Wallace and Sally Thomas- A broad overview of professional learning communities as a tool for capacity building;
Community of Practice Design Guide: A Step-by-Step Guide for Designing & Cultivating Communities of Practice in Higher Education- provides a structure to help clarify the most important design elements that go into defining, designing, launching, and growing CoPs- both online and face-to-face;
Practices of Professional Learning Communities, by Markku Antinluoma, Liisa Ilomäki and Auli Toom- an article which investigates practices of leadership, culture, teacher collaboration, professional learning, and development;
Faculty Learning Communities: Making the Connection, Virtually- some thoughts on creating and maintaining virtual learning communities (written before Covid but definitely making some relevant points for the current context);
Can online learning communities achieve the goals of traditional professional learning communities? What the literature says- a literature review on online and hybrid professional learning communities.
Letter to Faculty
This week I had the chance to attend a very inspiring workshop on alternative assessment methods with Jesse Stommel. During a 4 minute writing exercise, he had us write a “letter to students” (or to faculty, for those of us in faculty development) in which we acknowledge our values, what success looks like for us and how we try to show we care. I found it a great exercise and I am sharing what I wrote not because I think it’s great, but because it captures the raw essence of my faculty development approach (also closely linked to the idea of learning community) and I hope it may serve as inspiration for some of you:
This space is your space. A space for learning. For trying new things. For failing. And again, for learning. I value your presence. I value your questions. Keep them coming. I can’t promise I have all the answers you need but I commit to do my best to support you in finding your answers. And in asking ever more questions.
Your success is not going to be measured only in student evaluations. Your value as teachers goes far beyond that. If you tried something and reflected on it. If you changed a small part of your practice and see the benefits. If you had a student coming and telling you that you did a good job. This is success.
Learn from each other. Talk to each other. Put your experiences together. This collective experience will value more than the sum of its parts. But don’t forget to take care of yourself. Be there for yourself so you can be there for your students.
What’s new @ The Educationalist?
It is my pleasure to invite you to check out three new stories, part of the “Around the world” faculty development series:
How faculty development can contribute to the well-being of academics: Reflections from practice, by Dr. Inken Gast, Maastricht University, The Netherlands, where she shares some useful tips about how we as faculty developers can make a positive impact on the well-being of academics;
“Around the world” podcast, episode 6: Digital competencies and internationalisation, with Chahira Nouira, University of Göttingen, Germany, where she talks about how the good use of virtual environments, together with digital skills development can benefit interdisciplinary collaboration and broaden the geographical reach;
“Around the world” podcast, episode 7: Institutional support for the use of educational technology, with Dr. Jenae Cohn, California State University, Sacramento, USA, where we discuss about her institutional role as a translator and bridge builder between different actors (Faculty, staff, students, IT, etc) and some lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic.