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Why Learning Communities Don’t Always Work

January 12, 2010

Learning in communities is hot. At least the intention to learn in community is hot. The way this idea is translated into practice is often less-than-successful. I think this is because folks who promote collaboration often oversimplify what it means. They do this in a macro- and a micro- way.

At the macro level, learning leaders have taken the idea that learning is always social (see the work of Etienne Wenger if you question this notion) and assumed that that means learners always sit in circles around a table. Actually, the social nature of learning means that we are never alone when we learn, but that doesn’t mean we are always part of a collaborative team. For instance, when I read a book alone on my couch in the evening, I am still in collaboration with others: the author, the book’s editors and marketers, those who may have recommended the book to me, those whom I’ll tell about the book, those I am thinking about as I read, and others. Reading is social, but it doesn’t require a team in a conference room (although that could be interesting, too.) The oversimplification, then, is assuming that social takes only one form. Learning leaders would benefit from thinking more broadly about the many ways to support the social nature of learning. For instance, they might:

  • Ask questions that link learners: Who is pursuing the same questions that you are? How can you find out? How can I help you to connect?
  • Encourage learning connections via social media such as twitter, blogs, and nings.
  • Consider processes that vary learners’ connections. For instance, a team that is developing a new curricular document might meet face-to-face to brainstorm, then divide tasks and do some work individually (although still connected to their colleagues in an invisible web of shared purpose), then communicate online to provide initial responses to findings and products, and finally reconvene for a face-to-face meeting to review the project outcomes and make recommendations.
  • Look for existing connections among learners. Don’t assume that you need to form a team in order to connect one person with another. Develop an eye for existing communities of practice—i.e. groups that have a history of learning together (Wenger, 1999)—and find ways to honor and support them.

At the micro level, learning in community is oversimplified because we assume it just happens. More on that in a future blog entry.

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