1. A THIRD NOTE
A first note has already dealt with the terms which, while most frequently used in English and in French, bring forward in one way or the other, the important concept we want to put in evidence through the words " learning community ". The classification of the identified terms underlines in a sparkling way, that the learning community is on the one hand, like an organization (so embryonic as it may look) and on the other hand, like a gathering of processes both stimulated and upheld by various activities.
A second note has already dealt with a better articulated definition of what we have recently called a " learning community ". The adopted definition reads 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 proper attitudes. That definition incorporates, in a more concrete fashion, the two previously mentioned dimensions ( namely, a " group of students and at least one educator " whose raison d'Être while interacting, is " the command of knowledge, abilities and attitudes ") but in addition, it articulates the three essential conditions to be met effectively by any organization wishing to create the proper climate: a common vision and will by the participants while conscious of the time constraints.
The present third note widens its field of exploration as it bears down on the internal life of the learning community. More precisely, this note aims at singling out the fundamental attitudes of the persons who are part of or likely to become part of a community , and are to be called upon to develop. This internal look on what the learning community is aiming at, will make it equally possible to visualize in a different and more realistic way, the common vision and will that the very existence of the learning community implies and to assess the impact of the learning processes that this kind of community generally entails.
2. THREE FUNDAMENTAL ATTITUDES
What distinguishes a learning community from another group of persons equally assembled for the sake of learning, is the values sourrounding its activities and, more concretely, the attitudes and behaviors effectively assumed by its members in their interactions. The documentation herewith presented (see thereafter, " Learning community : A brief bibliography ") outlines many of these values, of theses attitudes and behaviours. As pointed out before, it is primarily through these fundamental attitudes found in the persons belonging to it, that in the first place, it was thought appropriate to encourage the development and the support of a learning community. However, as an obvious consequence, it will also be in order, to take into consideration the values which lie at the sources of those attitudes as well as the comportments which incorporate them.
The building of a learning community could basically be said to require the presence of three main dispositions or attitudes: the attention, the dialogue and mutual aid. Those three attitudes are complementary. They are in fact, so interrelated that, in English, according to certain authors (see, for example, Noddings, 1992 and 1995) (1), one single word, that of " care ", encompasses its entire significance. This present note has abundantly scrutinized the
works which in the field of education, have given " caring " a prominent place.
The most significant characteristic for a group of persons, or according to the classical distinction made by the German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies, for a "society" ("gesellschaft" ) to be or to become a "community" ("gemeinschaft"), is that the persons forming the group show attention or consideration for each other. In a group where there exists a sens of belonging, each person does not limit oneself to note the presence of the other, but is equally conscious of one's individuality. Each member of the group has, in the strongest sense of the word, " a name ".
Before characterizing in depth the type of attention that one hopes to find in a so-called learning community, it is worth noting that such a community is not a community in the same sense than a family, neighborhood or working community. For all practical purposes, it is located at another level, because those communities may or may not pursue a learning objective for its members. For instance, in a family, work or school community, there might exist strong ties between its members, without however, pursuing a common towards a learning experience.
A learning community is thus a community persuing a specific goal, but which meets the basic requirements to be recognized as such. The care that each one of its members mutually shows for each other is made visible, as in any community, through an intellectual or emotional empathy, through special attention and at times, through a kind of sollicitude. The feeling of being welcomed is as a consequence, susceptible to create a feeling of belonging which in turns, strengthen the communal links. Furthermore, when a community reaches a certain level of maturity, the care for others becomes a way of life which permeates gradually the entire " socially organized " gathering or more precisely, while penetrating its various structures. (see Bellah et all., 1992, p. 256 and Sergiovanni, 1994, p. xiii)
In a community, mutual attention will facilitate for the teacher as well as the group of students, the execution of the task in an efficient way or in the performance of school works in an harmonious climate. Such a community would not however qualify as a learning one, unless its members focus their attention on a specific learning object as well as on the cognitive process to reach it. In a school context which is of course our main concern, that object is in general, at least in part, circumscribed; it deals with a specific subject-matter, or with a well-defined portion of it. Each member of the community does not necessarily do what the others are doing, nor does one follow an identical path, but all are aware that each one should have the common entity made of knowledge, ability and attitude.
We can schematize the pedagogical intervention by using a triangle where each one of the points represents respectively what has to be learned (a " learning object"), the person who is learning (a student) or the person who makes possible the meeting between a learning object and the student (a teacher). As a matter of fact, that schema can be perceived in the background of
the already given explanation as regards the attitude which we agreed to call the attention, but one must realize that the concept does not do justice to the proper dynamics of a learning community. In order to arrive at a more adequate visual representation of that pedagogical intervention taking place in a learning community, it would seem to be more appropriate to locate the learning object, in the broadest sense of the term, amidst a circle formed by the students and a teacher; that objet must first be perceived by all, as a magnetic pole of attraction. As far as the circle is concerned, the activities must be one of its characteristics; we can imagine them for instance, to be taking place in a sitting session around a fireplace where, through the animation provided by a teacher to give rythm and cohesion to the exchange of views, while allowing each member of the community to participate to the common activity and be conscious at the same time, of the involvement of every person in the process.
What is meant more specifically. by the attention (or care) in a learning community located in a school or in a center linking through a telecommunication network a group of students, has yet to be defined properly after an analysis of the results of complete experiments. However, with reference to already completed or in-progress experiments, we can proceed on a working hypothesis bases, and keep in mind among others, some of the following avenues:
a) In a learning community, we pay a lot of attention to the students, be they thought of as persons or learners.
b) All the students have many opportunities to show that they care about their own development (as a person or as a learner), about the needs and contributions of their comrades and about the goals sought by the community itself.
c) Each person is expecting something from somebody, and those expectations are at a pretty high level. If, for instance, a student is inclined to stay by himself or avoids to get involved,we should make an effort to get him to participate (by talking more often to him, by outlining his contribution while trying to find out more about his fields of interests and so forth.)
(d) Each person cares not only about what the other has acquired, but also about the way it was acquired and the learning difficulties which were encountered.
(e) The teacher whose main task is to animate a learning community is expected to devote particular attention to each one of the students, be they considered as persons or as learners.
An open frame of mind as regards the dialogue is the key characteristic of a learning community. By its very nature, the dialogue, particularly the dialogue by many persons which is in the forefront of the present note, signals the beginning, is like the central cell for a community where member learns from the others and some, through others. So, whether it takes place in a classroom, through a telecommunication network or other surroundings, as soon as a working group or community goes from the stage of a simple exchange of views to that of a dialogue involving discussions about those views, it is at that moment, that a learning community gradually gets to be recognized as such. To be present to oneself, to others and to the world is of primary importance. To be engaged in dialogue is also of primary importance, but secondary in order. Dialogue adds a completely new dimension to the relations between individuals and between those individuals and the world. Thus, it establishes the communal learning process on a solid basis.
The dialogue is an activity whose object is thought itself (see William Isaacs, in Senge et al., 1994, p. 375). " In an ordinary discussion, information floats; in a dialogue, information does structure and transform " (Desjardins, 1995, p. 44). The dialogue exerts quite an influence on the thought process; it helps the participants to deepen the meaning of their own thought, to articulate it properly, to understand its basic implications and to put it in a broader context so that it is both dynamic and engaging. In a typical working team made up of students backed up by a teacher, a student could, for instance, learn how to formulate one's intuitions, to question or look at reality from different angles and, among other things, to make a clear distinction between thought and emotion and act accordingly. Thus, expressed in synthetic terms, to learn how to engage in a dialogue is to discover, at its very root, the meaning of the pursuit of acquisition of knowledge, of the creation process as well as the urge to consider learning as a life-long undertaking.
The dialogue implies and is conducive to the development of self-confidence in one's own thinking ability and in the capacity of the others to understand and appreciate the content of that thought. However, many conditions must be met for the dialogue to take shape and thereafter grow stage by stage. Some of those conditions are found in the area of attitudes such as alert listening, tolerance, search for truth, etc, while others are located in the fields of tools and instruments such as the new information and communication technologies (for their impact, see Réginald Grégoire Inc., Bracewell and Laferrière, 1996)
The result of a dialogue thus conceived and supported by appropriate means is reflected as much in the learning community from which it emerged, as in each of the members of that community. With time, it is even normal that it ends up with an accumulation of knowledge more substantial than can be found in each one the members of the community. Such an evolution makes it possible to consider the implementation of more complex and longer term projects and, as a consequence, to increase not only the individual competence of the community members. but also the competence of the community itself. While in the first stage, the questions were of an individual nature, at the second stage level, they were made up almost naturally, of a collective nature. In the Ontario project CSILE (Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environment), with students of all age, the experiment dealt successfully with the possibility of using by such a method, the acquisition of knowledge on a personal as well as on a collective basis. (see Scardamalia and Bereiter, 1996).
In a community which defines itself as a learning one or is intent of becoming one, the promotion of a dialogue between students, between educators or between students and educators, is a constant preoccupation. That is made visible by the fact that, for instance, the students work by team, ask each other for information and relay it to others, participate in projects which involve the exchange of ideas, of methods and plans, air with confidence their opinions and overtly ask questions, justify what they put forward (verbally or in writing) and seek to understand before memorizing or learning for the sake of passing an examination successfully.
As far as the educators are concerned, they make use of the dialogue on a compulsory basis, they seek ways of constantly trying to improve the conditions which will make it possible, in the context of already designed learning objectives, to create a rich dialogue between students and, while encouraging them to work as a team, they will intervene in a positive way, before the climate deteriorates with the results that some students would get discouraged or would withdraw psychologically speaking, from the community.
2.3 Mutual Aid
In a learning community, an attentive attitude makes one sensitive to others, and to their learning objectives. Through the dialogue, learning becomes progressively a reality, as much for the community as a whole as for each person who belongs to it. Mutual aid is a more global attitude. It binds learning in a context of solidarity and responsibility and makes each person as a whole, present to each other person. Therefore, it gives the attention and the dialogue, from the inside and not as an addition, the force of their individual and social content.
Alfie Kohn, on the basis of various studies and actual experiments over more than ten years, in his Developmental studies Centre (located at Oakland, California), clearly underlines the importance of mutual aid when he says that a class or a school cannot be considered as communities unless they constitute : a place where the students have the feeling of being helped and are encouraged to help each other " (1996, p. 101). Further on, the author describes some of the effects of such an attitude: " The students feel appreciated and respected. They take an interest in each other, as well as in their teachers. They reached a point where they think together. Each one feels that he is related to the others; they feel part of a " nous " (ibid.) In a survey carried out around 1994, among one hundred adolescents at the grade 6 to 8 levels, in a school located in the mid-west of the United States, it became equally evident that mutual aid, in the strong sense of the term (" caring ") must be inserted within a relation state which lasts for a certain length of time and not only on the occasion of sporadic events. For a large majority of those young peopele, the matter of a true mutual aid is the provision of one's own time and the sharing of a part of our self (see Bosworth, 1995, p. 692).
During the last few years, there is a large number of papers, articles and books making use of the collaboration theme of a more or less community variety. between the members of the teaching staff, even between all the members of the personnel responsible for the teaching and the training in the schools (see, among others, Lieberman, 1990, Wells et al., 1994, Oakes and Quartz, 1995, Hargreaves, 1995, Newman and Associates, 1996, Harrington, 1996 and Myers, 1996). Various forms of collaboration on electronic networks are equally being explored (see for example, Ponessa, 1996; Harasim, 1993.)
It is rather illusory as the gemeral feeling goes, that the learning communities composed mainly of students will see the light if the school personnel does not endorse and pursue itself a strong learning community experience. Such an endorsement is in order for at least two reasons. The first reasons that the building of a learning community with students, implies the command of proper attitudes and as a consequence, of strategies and of technical interventions which are relatively complex and demanding, in addition to appropriate studies and personal experimentation. As to the second reason, it is of practical necessity. As a matter of fact, it is difficult to imagine, even at the primary level, a group of 20 or 25 children and a teacher who could form a learning community if there does not exist a collaboration taking place in the same spirit, with other members of the school personnel which had, have or will have to look after the same group of students. In such a case, the risk would be rather high to reduce the concept of learning to a simple pedagogical approach among others, while because of its very nature, it calls for a remewal in depth between the students themselves, between them and the school personnel and between all and the society and the world.
The concept of learning community is pregnant with the ideas of culture and ethics. As it was already outlined in the preceding paragraphs, their bases are notably the mutual responsibility, the pursuit and the sharing of knowledge with perseverance, in a climate of respect, of open mind and solidarity as well as a constant preoccupation about the truth.
Because they believe in certain values and are engaged in a mission, the members of a learning community are projecting an image of " spirit of loyalty, of camaraderie, of collegial togetherness which creates a common link between themselves " (see Myers, 1996, p.3). Consequently their attachment ot the community is likely to overcome personnal wishes and to engender a feeling that " each helps another to reach common objectives " (ibid). The emergence and the growth of such a community depend notably on the combination of the attention, the dialogue and mutual aid, considered as rooted attitudes permeated in the values and extending in the behaviors, ways of doing, means of action and supporting structures.
To read about interconnected learning communities, see Vision of learners in the 21st century, Vision statement.
December 23 1998