Using Tools & Artifacts to Create Learning Communities

Introduction

In recent years in the United States and internationally, there has been a re-conceptualization and re-designing of education which has brought to the fore the novel approach that aims to advance the collective knowledge and, in that way, provide stabilizing support to the growth and development of individual knowledge (Bielaczyc & Collins). This approach is referred to in the education literature as professional learning communities (PLCs) (Earl et al., 2006). Extant literature demonstrates that PLCs are increasingly receiving widespread attention from scholars, educators, and commentators for not only increasing student achievement through the creation of a collaborative school culture focused on learning, but also promoting a commitment to enhancing both individual content knowledge and professional practice (Feger & Arruda, 2008). The present paper aims to identify some of the tools and artifacts that schools use to implement the learning communities approach, as well as discuss how their implementation is done.

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Tools & Artifacts used to Implement Learning Community Theory

Before identifying the tools and artifacts, it is important to mention that, historically, the trajectory used to understand the learning process has to a large extent focused on what people do within the confines of their own individual effort. More recently, however, the “learning theory has added the notion that knowledge creation is a process of participation in various cultural practices and shared learning activities, as well as a process of individual knowledge formation” (Earl et al., 2006 p. 24). It is also important to note that knowledge within the learning communities approach is developed through dialogue or conversations that make suppositions, thought patterns, convictions, and feelings open and available for critical examination. These dynamics call for the creation of tools and artifacts that can be used to implement the approach

A strand of existing literature (e.g., Bielaczyc & Collins, n.d.; Stoll et al., 2006; Swan & Shea, 2005) demonstrates that learning communities within the school context can be implemented using a multiplicity of tools and artifacts. Bielaczyc and Collins (n.d.) note that a learning communities approach is inclined to employ an allay of learning activities, such as “individual and group research; class discussions; cross-age tutoring; working together to create artifacts or presentations that make public both what is learned and ways of learning; and collaborative problem where students take on particular roles toward a common end” (p. 4). On their part, Stoll et al (2006) argue that stakeholders can utilize social learning tools such as cooperative learning and collaborative learning, along with the use of long-term projects and students’ workbench approaches, to effectively implement a learning community within the school context.

Technology is also seen as an important tool in the implementation of PLCs. Available literature demonstrates that “educators who participate in overlapping workgroups organized through online educational reform networks have the capability to recreate the scholarship of teaching” (Feger & Arruda, 2008 p. 10). Technology is important in learning communities as it does not only changes the way people communicate, work and learn but also influences how information is exchanged by members in particular communities of practice. Other tools depicted in the literature include “professional development profiles, action research, action learning, coaching, mentoring and peer-assisted learning, professional development bursaries and sabbaticals” (Stoll et al., 2006 p. 232-233).

Apart from the use of tools, the learning communities approach can be implemented using a broad range of artifacts. Extant literature demonstrates that “the term artifact, borrowed from human-computer interaction research, refers to entities designed to shape and enable organizational practices” (Halverson, n.d. p. 4). When applied to the school context, it is evident that local leaders, teachers as well as other interested stakeholders in learning communities use artifacts such as policies, programs, and processes not only to influence and maintain instructional practices in institutions of learning but also to shape the given context of instruction and point toward opportunities for leaders, teachers, and stakeholders to modify instructional practices, with the view to influencing the practices of teaching and learning in these institutions.

All members (stakeholders) within professional learning communities are charged with the responsibility of creating artifacts (e.g., breakfast clubs, school improvement plans, teacher observation processes, assessment programs, and processes, as well as reading and career day programs) that are then utilized by the community members to enhance their understanding in regards to particular issues or challenges (Bielaczyc & Collins, n.d.). Other artifacts that may be used by schools to implement the learning community approach include role-modeling, curriculum planning processes aimed at documenting collaborative design efforts in creating multidisciplinary curricula, and science fairs (Stoll et al., 2006).

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Most Effective Tools & Artifacts

The most effective tools and artifacts for use in learning communities must, according to Youngs & King (2000), be able to provide (1) a clear and coherent sense of shared purpose and collective responsibility for teacher and student learning, (2) professional inquiry among teachers and other stakeholders to attain that purpose, including openings for opportunities for sustained collaboration, cooperation, and reflection on practice, (3) deprivatization of teaching practice and values of collegiality among instructors and school leaders, and (4) opportunities for instructors and other interested stakeholders to manipulate school activities and policies. Additionally, the most effective tools and artifacts must demonstrate the capacity to provide people, groups, entire school communities, and school systems with the power to get involved collaboratively with the learning process (Stoll et al., 2006), and also sustain learning over time by shifting the power relationships to allow students become more responsible for their own learning and the learning of others (Bielaczyc & Collins, n.d).

Drawing upon the above exposition, it can be argued that the most important tools to implement and sustain the learning communities approach include technology, individual and group research, class discussions, cooperative learning, and collaborative learning. As already mentioned, technology is important in implementing the learning communities approach as it does not only changes the way people communicate, work and learn but also influences how information is exchanged by members in particular communities of practice. Individual and group research ensures knowledge is shared between community members, whereas class discussions provide an opportunity for knowledge assimilation and problem-solving. Collaborative learning and cooperative learning are effective tools in the implementation of the learning communities’ approach as the former brings to the fore a philosophy of interaction, sharing of authority, and acceptance of responsibility among group members, whereas the latter provides a structure of interaction designed to enhance the achievement of a content-specific end product.

It can also be argued that the most effective artifacts include breakfast clubs, school improvement policies, teacher observation processes, and career day programs. Breakfast clubs, in my view, have the capacity to bring concerned communities together with the view to making and discussing presentations on issues that are current to existing instructional programs, whereas school improvement policies come in handy to function as a triggering agent for local planning efforts as school leaders and teachers develop instructional programs to meet mandated student test performance objectives. Equally, teacher observation processes and career day programs are effective in implementing the learning communities’ approach as the former allows for formative and summative examination of teachers according to union guidelines, whereas the latter provides an enabling environment through which students can interact with role models as they sample existing career opportunities.

Methods of Implementation

Extant literature demonstrates that the methods adopted by stakeholders to implement the tools and artifacts within the learning community context are fundamental in determining the success of the approach (Stoll et al., 2006). This section deals with how the most effective tools (technology, individual and group research, class discussions, cooperative and collaborative learning, as well as the most effective artifacts (breakfast clubs, school improvement policies, teacher observation processes and career day programs), could be implemented to form a successful, effective and efficient learning community which not only promotes ‘learning-enriched’ teachers’ but also enhances superior student outcomes.

In the context of tools, it is imperative to highlight that technology can be implemented by creating a web-based interactive platform that not only avails a solid base of expert knowledge to school leaders, teachers, students, district coordinators, and other interested parties within the community but also encourages networking across wide geographical areas for purposes of sharing instructional knowledge and evidence-based teaching practices (Stoll et al., 2006). Individual and group research can be implemented by enabling an environment for teachers and school leaders to work individually and collectively for purposes of coming up with new knowledge and sharing such knowledge amongst themselves, with the view to enhancing student academic outcomes. Such knowledge could be disseminated through technology for faster and effective uptake (Feger & Arruda, 2008).

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Moving on, extant literature demonstrates that class discussions can be implemented easily by setting the problem agenda and then allocating resources for students to contribute constructively and share knowledge under the guidance of teachers. Teachers should only assume the role of facilitators to such class discussions rather than direct instructors (Swan & Shea, 2005). Collaborative learning within the learning community context can be implemented by “active deconstruction of knowledge through reflection and analysis, and its reconstruction through action in a particular context as well as co-construction through collaborative learning with peers” (Stoll et al., 2006 p. 233). Such an orientation will ensure the gradual absorption of community members into a culture of practice that provides them with the opportunity to share meanings, develop a common sense of belonging, and enhance their knowledge base and understanding. Lastly, cooperative learning should be implemented by creating an environment that provides support to learning and instructional change through creativity, innovation, cooperation across networks, and experimentation (Swan & Shea, 2005).

Artifacts can be implemented within learning communities using a number of ways. At the most basic level involving school leaders, coordinators, and teachers, breakfast clubs, for example, can be implemented by creating mechanisms to provide in-house professional development for the faculty in terms of ensuring that members meet at least once per month to discuss presentations on research relevant to current instructional programs. The knowledge arising from these presentations should be shared among members not only to enrich themselves on the current issues affecting the teaching domain but also to promote student academic outcomes upon sharing this knowledge with students in the classroom (Swan & Shea, 2005).

School improvement plans, as well as teacher observation processes, can be used as artifacts that institutions of learning can use to implement the learning communities approach. School improvement plans can be implemented within the learning community context by bringing together district administrators, school leaders, and teachers to create an annual local school plan aimed at aligning instructional and budgeting priorities for the upcoming school year, whereas teacher observation processes can be implemented by the same set of stakeholders to avail formative and summative examination of teachers according to union guidelines and district policies (Halverson, n.d.). A clear point of divergence that should be noted during the implementation of these artifacts is that while a school improvement plan is basically a district designed artifact charged with the responsibility of acting as a catalyst for local planning efforts as school leaders and teachers develop instructional programs to meet authorized student test performance targets (Youngs & King, 2000), a teacher observation process comprises district and locally designed forms that are implemented within the community settings to evaluate and make sense of principal-teacher observation session (Stoll et al., 2006).

Assessments, as well as career day programs, form another set of artifacts that could be used by organizations to implement the learning communities approach. Assessment programs can be implemented in the form of locally-designed testing programs that aim to provide formative data to complement summative standardized testing data (Halverson, n.d.), while career day programs can be implemented as annual events primarily designed to provide students with the opportunity to survey career possibilities and hence make informed choices regarding their future (Youngs & King, 2000).

Conclusion

From the discussion above, it is clear that the learning communities approach uses particular tools and artifacts not only to enhance student academic outcomes but also to create an elaborate learning environment where school leaders, teachers, and other stakeholders within the community can enrich their learning capacities. Understandably, therefore, this particular approach is bound to contribute positively to the education scene and create school environments with a strong sense of community.

References

Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (n.d.). Learning communities in classrooms: A reconceptualization of educational practice. Web.

Earl, L., Katz, S., Elgie, S., Jaafer, S.B., & Foster, L. (2006). How networked learning communities work. Aporia Consulting Ltd. Web.

Halverson, R.R. (n.d.) Systems of practice: How leaders use artifacts to create professional communities in schools. Web.

Feger, S., & Arruda, E. (2008). Professional learning communities: Key themes in the literature. Web.

Stoll, L., Bolam, R., McMahon, A., Wallace, M., & Thomas, S. (2006). Professional learning communities: A review of the literature. Journal of Educational Change, 7(2), 221-258.

Swan, K., & Shea, P. (2005). The development of virtual learning communities. In S.R. Hiltz & R. Goldman (Eds.), Asynchrous learning networks: The research frontier (pp. 239-260). New York, NY: Hampton Press.

Youngs, P., & Kings, M.B. (2000). Professional development that addresses professional community in urban elementary schools. Madison, WI: Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools.

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