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Learning Community

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Definition: A learning community in education is when a school clusters students based on their shared interests such as careers. Small learning communities have a team of teachers share a subsection of students and teach them in common across the years that they are enrolled at the school. Over time, many programs have been developed to try and group students in accordance with their interests in order to create more integrated cross-sectional programs. Over time programs such as schools-within-schools, magnet programs, career academies, and charter schools have been created. The difference between these earlier iterations and small learning communities is that the latter focus on more collaboration between teachers and students.

Successful Learning Communities

In 2001, Kathleen Cotton published New Small Learning Communities: Findings From Recent Literature which investigated the qualities of successful small learning communities. In this publication, Cotton identified five items that are necessary for effective learning communities. These included:
  • Self-Determination - For a learning community to be effective, there needs to be a measure of autonomy in decision making. Further, there needs to be actual physical separation from those not in the learning community. The school and teachers need to be involved in the selection process. In other words, a teacher should not be forced to be part of a learning community that they do not feel an affinity towards. Finally, there needs to be leeway in scheduling in order to allow for more flexibility for the teachers.
  • Identity — There needs to be a feeling of shared identity within the small learning community. The classes and programs need to be distinctive and unique to meet the needs of the students and learning community.
  • Personalization — The size of the learning community is very important in that the teachers need to be able to respond to the needs of all the students they encounter. In other words, learning must be individualized for all and only by limiting the size of the community and keeping it separate will this truly work.
  • Support for Teaching — Effective small learning communities need to have a much greater leadership role for teachers. Teachers must be able to not only have the responsibility to teach their students but also the authority to lead the students. In other words the roles of administrators and teachers are melded together so that teaching is fully supported by and through the leaders.
  • Functional Accountability — Small learning communites develop and use performance assessment systems to ensure that they are continuing to be effective. These assessments not only show student learning and success but also teacher effectiveness.
Unfortunately, many schools try to fit learning communities in the existing framework of the traditional school. When this happens, many of these qualities of effective learning communities cannot be met. For example, when student groups are not kept separated and teachers have to teach both within and outside of the learning community, then continuity of education is lost. Even worse is when a school includes multiple learning communities and teachers have to be part of more than just one. For example, in a situation where a teacher is part of two career-based learning communities along with teaching students that are not in a learning community, the teacher would need to create three lesson plans for each lesson in order to integrate the career connections into what is being taught.

Results of Effective Learning Communities

Small learning communities if done well can be quite effective. In fact, Cotton shows in her research that the positive effects of them include:

  • Higher levels of achievement
  • Greater equity with a narrowing of the 'achievement gap'
  • Greater sense of belonging amongst students
  • Increased order and safety
  • Higher school attendance and graduation rates
  • Increase in college bound students
  • Extracurricular participation is greater
  • Greater parental involvement and satisfaction
  • Greater teacher satisfaction
  • Cost per student graduated is lower than those of traditional schools

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