" Community " and " learning " are familiar words which have been used in a great variety of ways, but rarely have they met in the same vicinity. For years on end, these words have acquired a meaning of their own through a multitude of experiences with reality. Now through a set of circumstances, largely influenced by the combined impact of scientific research and various social forces, these words have come to share the same living space. When located in a context where the accent is placed on the education of the young, ranging from 4 and 5 to 17 years of age, these words have developed in harmony, and while retaining a life of their own, are mutually re-enforcing their capacity to send a message.
The notion of " learning community " issued from the concepts of " community " and of " learning " is now brought up for public consideration. However, this notion is presented on a trial basis; it has not yet acquired a definitive meaning or to use a common expression, it has not yet received its credentials. Nevertheless, this notion delineates a fairly well defined area and gives rise to a sufficiently clear understanding making it now possible to put forward a definition. Reduced to its fundamental elements, that definition could be articulated as follows: a group of students and at least one educator who, for a while and motivated by common vision and will, are engaged in the pursuit of acquiring knowledge, abilities and attitudes.
Let us try to size up the significance of the terms in this proposed definition.
A GROUP OF STUDENTS AND AN EDUCATOR
At the elementary stage, a learning community could include only a few students and an instructor. However, such a community would be recognized as more meaningful if it is made up of many teams or groups involved in an exchange of the results or fruits of their respective undertakings. Furthermore, the very dynamics of such a learning community calls almost irrevocably, at one stage or another of its evolution, for a contact with other communities of a similar making. In a telecommunication environment, that contact could create eventually a link with other more or less remote communities.
The personnel associated with such a learning community made up mainly of students, assumes a responsibility of its own within such a community, but it is equally committed to his own professional development. What each member of that personnel has to live as a professional experience and the type of questions that he or she raises calls for a sharing and research solution approaches with colleagues, administrators and eventually with other educators such as those working for schools of education or social organizations, etc.
THE ACQUISITION OF KNOWLEDGE, ABILITIES AND ATTITUDES
Before going into the specific conditions inherent to this proposed definition of a real learning community, it is imperative to outline the nature of its raison d'Être, namely the acquisition of knowledge, abilities and attitudes.
As far as the nature and types of knowledge, abilities and attitudes that a learning community is capable of developing, there is in principle, no limit a priori. However, as a matter of fact, every learning community has to function within certain limits: well defined study programs, already accumulated students' knowledge, competence and experience of the professional staff associated with the community, the time and available training tools at its disposal, etc...
The knowledge in question could be made up of letters of the alphabet as well as the history of music, the principles of electronics or the living conditions of the students. The term " ability " could encompass a wide interpretation: it would of course, include intellectual abilities (such as how to outline a specific problem and suggest solutions, develop a reasoning pattern or absorb new learning, etc.) but equally, as participating members of specific learning communities, acquire additional ability as regards the development of interpersonal relations, the absorption of working methods, the operations of machinery and the execution of body skills. Finally, it might be in order to note that, necessarily, many of the attitudes inherent to the definition of the learning community are likely to take roots in specific values (such as honesty, freedom, responsibility, truth, respect for others, solidarity, etc.) and are likely to become parts of various comportmental attitudes which are to be reflected in the lives of each person's lifelong behavior.
As regards the acquisition of knowledge, abilities and attitudes, it could be required at different degrees. In certain cases (i.e. the knowledge of the alphabet, the ability to perform basic mathematical calculations or the ability to manipulate dangerous products), the only acceptable level of knowledge is a complete understanding. In most cases, the required level of understanding is dependent upon many factors (i.e. the type of learning required, the need for the learner to acquire completely a given degree of understanding in order to be in a position to have access to a higher level of learning, etc..). However, the evaluation of a given degree of understanding must however be based on explicit norms and criteria, determined in advance and relevant to the considered learning level.
THREE SPECIFIC CONDITIONS: A COMMON VISISION, A COMMON WILL AND THE TIME ELEMENT.
A learning community is made of people who, in the field of knowledge, of abilities and attitudes, are geared to consult, elaborate, seek linkages, assimilate, transpose, confront with reality, aim at implementation and, in the process, refine gradually their understanding of the world, of their own self and of their capacity for individual and collective action. Such an enterprise whose principal activity is learning, finds its place in the search to meet fundamental human needs, more specifically, in its desire to know, to communicate and to act, but it calls for,
in order to grow harmoniously, the presence of the next three conditions: a common vision, a common will and the time element.
The vision at the very start and thereafter, constantly revised and enriched, requires a foundation based on clearly defined values and principles, in addition to a clear understanding of the major implications it entails. These values and principles constitute the main ingredients of the conception that one has in mind when thinking of " community " as well as the conception that one has of what the act of learning is all about (1). If as mentioned above, learning is the aim. the formation of a community by itself, can be looked at as a necessary step. One does not aim at creating a community for its own sake, but it is felt, under the circumstances, that the " community " constitutes the ideal path towards the creation of the proper climate for an authentic learning effort and an optimal formation for all students.
The learning community is an impossibility without the presence of a common will ceaselessly reaffirmed, by all its members to work together for the fulfilment of their goal and the vision they shared. Depending upon the age and the preparation of the participants, that common aspiration will be more or less explicit; it might for instance, manifest itself mainly through various concrete expressions such as the joy to enjoy each other's company, the enthusiasm demonstrated through various activities, the pursuit of sustained motivation, etc... That common will is bound to create a firm and durable feeling when all the members of the community make theirs the goal and the vision of the community, and when they get the feeling of being part of the decision making process and of being full participants with different and equal opportunities.
Finally, the formation of a learning community is a time consuming process. It implies that for a community to be in a position to operate in an efficient and harmonious way, its members need to get to know each other, elaborate and assimilate while adapting them to a vision of a community andof the learning process, to be in a position to outline in the light of an on-going experimentation, the concrete implications of that vision, to acquire the habit of working together and, among other things, to arrive at some kind of consensus on the working approaches and rules of the game. We will then be thinking in terms of carrying on an activity over a period of a month rather than on a one-week basis, on a four-month basis rather than just one. It might be possible to envisage in a school, learning communities which would continue to work on that basis during the duration of an entire school term. (see Newberg, 1995, p. 714 and Noddings, l995, page 679)
The concept of a learning community as defined in the present context, implies the existence of an organization, the participation of a professional corps, a variety of working processes and methods and the availability of resources and tools. The comment which follows deals with these various and interrelated aspects of a learning community. However, one must bear in mind that a learning community is not to be limited to a particular way of organizing the teaching process, is not to be required necessarily that the teaching has to be given in the presence of a specific number of participants located at the same site, or is not to be confined to some specific pedagogical approach. Special attention would rather be given to this concept as it represents on the one hand, the basic foundation for the improvement of students' learning and on the other hand, it provides the opportunity to renew in depth, the education projet and also the school itself. In a more colorful way, we could think about the learning community, as a metaphor the nature of which is to transform the climate of the school life and the school itself in its overall activity, in addition to the participation to the learning process of every person in the school system.
(1) As far as knowing of what learning is all about, see among others, the first three principles ourlined in the outstanding text produced by the American Association of Psychologists. entitled " Learner-Centered Psychological Principles, some hints for a re-definition and a reform of the school system " .
Newberg, Norman A. (1995)
Clusters: Organizational Patterns for Caring. Phi Delta Kappan Bloomington, Indiana:
Phi Delta Kappa. Volume 76, Number 9. May. P. 713-717.
Noddings, Nel (1995)
Teaching Themes of Care. Phi Delta Kappan. Bloomington, Indiana. Phi Delta Kappa.
Volume 76. Number 9, May. P. 675-679.
To know more about this subject, please consult " Learning community, essential components ".
December 23 1998