My previous post described the increasing levels of engagement and interaction in the content dimension of our “cubic” learning model. In this post, we’ll examine another facet — the levels of the community dimension — considering the different kinds of relationships learners can form as they learn.
Community is a dimension many of us think about very narrowly, if at all. We might understand that there are various people associated with the learning process — teacher, learner, co-learners — but we rarely move beyond our classrooms to consider community more broadly. True, from time to time, we might feel compelled to organize “group work” with the notion that students could benefit from working with peers. Others might feel some sort of social or institutional pressure to prepare students for the collaboration they’ll be expected to manifest “out in the real world.” But as teachers, our embracing of community often doesn’t go much beyond these limited rationales and practices.
However, as Lev Vygotsky and generations of later theorists and neuroscientists have shown, collaborators and colleagues can enhance learners’ levels of engagement, their attainment of expertise, and their resilience within a field of study. As Vygotsky argued, in contrast to Piaget, all learning is fundamentally social, and working in collaboration with others can enable learners to make important cognitive and functional leaps beyond what we might expect if they were working on their own. More recently, Henry Jenkins‘ research on “participatory culture,” extended by danah boyd, Mizuko (Mimi) Itō, and others, has shown the ways that digital communities drive engagement, learning, and expertise, fueled by new technologies and new participatory forms of media. That we should treat this critical dimension of learning so superficially is therefore surprising and unfortunate. Community deserves a more thoughtful and thorough consideration.
But where should we look as we explore the community dimension more deeply? After all, students can work with all sorts of people — those within the classroom or school, learners and teachers in other schools, interested parties in local or distant communities, experts and practitioners from around the world, and people who broadly constitute an “audience” of outsiders to whom learners can demonstrate their learning and growth. The diversity of people we might have to consider in evaluating this dimension seems so large and complex as to be completely unmanageable. However, it’s less important to consider who these others are than to explore how intensively and productively they collaborate with learners, how their collaboration impacts the agency of learners, and how that collaboration fuels learners’ discovery, internalization, and growth.
Once again, the last thing I’m trying to do by focusing on the role of these others in learning is to diminish the need for teachers. Teachers’ productive work and relationship with learners is even more necessary in this model. However, just as we saw with the content dimension, this model necessitates that teachers move beyond delivery of data and information (where many of us are most comfortable) to a construction of knowledge and wisdom that is inherently social and frequently connected beyond our classrooms. Having to adopt this uncomfortable new role can be intimidating or disorienting for some teachers, and that discomfort can discourage them from embracing community. But ignoring this vital learning dimension robs their classrooms of enormous opportunities for discovery, engagement, and growth — and often makes the work of those teachers less likely to persist and less relevant for their learners. What we really need are teachers who can not only design productive engagements with content, but also productive communities for learning both within and far beyond their classrooms. In a world where the ability to connect productively across many kinds of boundaries is an increasingly valued skill, teachers have to function as connectors and social designers, helping learners develop the network of collaborators, promoters, critics, and spectators who will undergird and extend their learning and prepare them for the world outside of school.
As with our earlier discussion of content, as learners move deeper into the community dimension, we find a series of increasingly complex and mature interactions that place a growing demand on learners to work constructively with others. At the initial level, learners must demonstrate individual agency, but none of the collaborative skills they’ll need at the other levels. Their isolation means they don’t need to engage anyone but themselves. At the higher levels, however, they must possess a more mature form of agency that enables them to discern the efforts and intentions of others; to moderate or defend their own choices, positions, and views; and to demonstrate self-control, strategic thinking, and maturity in service of shared goals and needs. What emerges at these higher levels is a progressively more robust and inclusive set of interpersonal skills and abilities, including empathy, emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-discipline, compromise, integration, teamwork, and rhetorical skills. In other words, working with others offers learners a new dimension that extends and strengthens their mastery of content, giving them the skills necessary to become mature practitioners. The work of Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger on “communities of practice” comes to mind here, with shared communal identification driving increases in capability, engagement, and connection. Becoming more tightly integrated into the community dimension therefore also often corresponds to the deeper levels of engagement articulated by Phillip Schlechty, since the move from the periphery to the center of a “community of practice” corresponds to augmented responsibility and motivation associated with tighter integration into the communal relationship. The four levels of community, which we’ll represent with an “M” to facilitate differentiation from the other dimensions, look something like this:
• Community level 1 (“M1”): At the most basic level, learners are isolated, working on their own to demonstrate their understanding of a topic or field. Of course, others are typically present in the learning experience — a teacher or guide who might be an important source for content delivery — but the overall emphasis at this level is on independent work. In some cases, others may be present only in an abstract sense — through a text, video, or work of media that learners consult for information, with no expectation of interaction or collaboration. A holdover from the Enlightenment emphasis on the individual (consider, for example, the intellectual solitariness of Descartes’ cogito), isolation at this level is often seen as a necessary proof of a student’s mastery, despite the fact that it requires a less mature mastery than the higher levels of community. It also fails to represent any real-world embodiment of the practice of a discipline, where learners will be expected to work productively with others, give and receive feedback, and integrate their work to produce a unified product. The most common and obvious example of this sort of isolation can be found in the way most teachers design and execute testing and assessment.
• Community level 2 (“M2”): At the second level, learners are connected to others, but those others function more as resources than as collaborators. At this level, learners might consult with an expert, perform an interview, or ask for feedback, but the learners’ interactions with others are largely on their own terms and require only a basic level of interpersonal skills. The others with whom learners are connected may have little understanding of a learner’s project or goals and often play no role in decisions about trajectory or outcomes. This is not to say that these others can’t influence a learner, but that the final decisions belong largely or entirely to the learners alone. Still, learners at this level must possess enough mastery to explain their project to others, to consider the information and perspectives of others, and to integrate what they gather from others in their own work and thinking. What’s critical here is that, unlike the previous level (M1: isolation), the community of others here is real and not mediated: learners have to deal relationally with actual people and not just with media artifacts. This interaction with actual people means that learners often have to correct the incomplete or inaccurate understandings or blind spots about their area of study that might persist at the earlier level. Here, learners have to recognize and rectify such deficiencies, either to convey their needs and perspectives more accurately to others or as a result of the modeling, positions, or knowledge that others demonstrate.
• Community level 3 (“M3”): At the third level, learners must operate as collaborative partners. At this level, community plays a more central role for learners, who must share decisions and responsibilities about the trajectory or outcomes of a project or course of study with collaborators. Working together, learning groups at this level might cocreate a product, work together to address or solve a problem, or serve as teammates — supportive partners — in an activity. In every case, learners must now work productively with others to achieve a mutual goal. Collaboration at this level is not the mere distribution of tasks among a group of individuals who continue to work largely independently; collaboration here involves a general sense of shared purpose and activity; some reliance on dialogue, consultation, and feedback; and a basic understanding of the need to harmonize and integrate efforts. Learners at this level must therefore demonstrate self-discipline, compromise, and strategic thinking in order to work productively. However, learners at this level don’t need to demonstrate complete harmony with their collaborators; the “seams” between learners and the others with whom they’re working will still likely be discernible. Some disagreements about processes, methods, or differences of opinion may persist at this level — though not to the extent that they derail the overall project or goal.
• Community level 4 (“M4”): At the final level of community, learners are so tightly consolidated in their work with others that it’s no longer possible to divide them without diminishing or damaging the work. The learner’s team functions with full understanding of the individual talents and capabilities of each member, but those differences have been fully consolidated to serve a closely shared, mutually understood purpose. At this level, learners demonstrate a tight integration of effort, a close agreement on strategy and methodology, and a clear sense of mutual respect based on an understanding of the necessity of each member. Learners at this level must demonstrate a full range of interpersonal and collaborative skills, including emotional intelligence, self-awareness, self-discipline, compromise, and integration. Each team member must be able to understand her own role and the role of others in serving the overall project or goal, and must possess a mature enough understanding of the discipline or project to be able to moderate her own biases, interests, and perspectives in order to serve a larger purpose. At this level, learners are also likely to demonstrate the highest level of engagement as defined by Phil Schlechty — driven to serve and benefit the team by learning at very high levels and demonstrating persistence even in the face of difficulty.
Of course, as critical as community is to learning, I don’t want to argue that learners should be working nonstop with others or that there’s no place for reflection and solitude. As recent research on learning by the Gensler architectural firm has shown, learners need time to reflect — often without interference from others. Considering, digesting, and internalizing are often very personal activities that occur — at least in part — in isolation. Yet if it persists, such isolation can become obstructive or even toxic. Without a dialectical community, learners can develop erroneous or incomplete understandings and can lose the sense of purpose that drives ongoing improvement. This is why even seasoned experts continue to consult colleagues and why professional organizations and guilds persist. We need community to ensure that we don’t wander off into unproductive understandings or practices. And this need for community means that as we grow into a discipline or field of study, we also increasingly replace a sense of isolated, individual agency and identity with a larger sense of communal engagement.
While moving more deeply into the community dimension may seem individually disempowering — a move away from the learner — it actually requires a more mature, more durable, and more demanding form of agency. Learners must be able to function productively in more challenging social circumstances and cultivate fruitful relationships that will shepherd their growth. To practice this, they need learning opportunities built around a more robust engagement with community and they need teachers who can design the environments and methods that create and leverage that engagement. In the end, it’s not enough for us to be content experts; we need to be community experts as well, people who understand how various levels of communal engagement can undergird and extend learning.
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You can download a PDF summary of the entire “cubic” model here.
In my next post, I’ll consider the final dimension of our “cubic” learning model: context, exploring the ways that physical and intangible spaces impact learning. Following that, we’ll examine some of the ways that particular teaching practices map onto the overall “cubic” learning model, assigning each its appropriate “engagement and learning multiplier” score. Finally, I’ll examine the ways that some existing learning models and paradigms from other researchers and theorists connect to and augment this “cubic” model. Stay tuned!