The blog post below composes the 2nd of 3 blog post assessment tasks required by my current postgraduate unit in Educational Psychology at Macquarie University.

 

FOHS720 – Module 2 Blog Post

In what contexts or situations does a ‘community of learners’ seem to operate most efficiently?

What conditions need to be established to ensure optimal learning outcomes? and Why didn’t it work so well in at least one of these learning interventions?

Can you find any applications of modern Vygotskiian theories in your field of work?

The idea of a ‘community of learners’, initiated and managed by a teacher, to achieve a common goal but doing so in a ‘jigsawed’ (Rico & Shulman, 2004) group-based structure seems to fit partially into a neo-Vygotskiian framework but both Rico & Shulman and also Beishuizen (2008) found difficulties in applying the theory effectively into practice. The teachers in Rico & Shulman’s article are aiming to redesign the learning experience of students for a specific unit with specific and closed outcomes. As indicated by Lave & Wenger, the function of a community of learners (between students) needs to be a joint enterprise to have maximum impact on learning (Smith, 2003). The aim of developing ‘self-regulation’ in the learners concerned as a result of their participation has, in the examples given, not been achieved. This does not mean that this approach would not work with a more systematic and sustained development over time (rather than a single experience from the learners’ point of view).

This is problematic as the learning is over-contextualised, indicating the being a community of learners can only happen when one is directed by a teacher and for a very specific learning goal. Rather than being a community of independent learners who can carry their learning with them, they are a community of project-partners who dissolve as a community at the end of the project. Having said this, the study does reveal that the teachers achieved their aims to some extent: to investigate “how fostering a community of learners (FCL) is influenced by the discipline of science, the teaching of science and the conceptions that teachers have surrounding these two topics.” (Rico & Shulman, p.159)

Rico & Shulman identified several reasons for this failure to achieve pure Vygotskiian learner self-regulation, including the meta-structures of curriculum and system demands on the teachers to teach particular knowledge and skills as set down in documents such as the National Science Education Standards. Also, the teachers’ own ability to rethink their design of the learning experience from teacher and content-driven to student and inquiry-driven was clear in the evidence of confusion and difficulties outlined in the article. “The teachers seemed to face a dichotomy between the goals of distributed expertise and the goal of individual students learning all of the scientific facts and concepts presented in the units” (Rico & Shulman, p.160)

Clearly there was a need to establish a common understanding of FCL, how it can be applied to a classroom with fixed requirements set down by the school, how students would best be prepared for the unit and how the unit would ‘look’ in practice. This would enable optimal learning outcomes for students and teachers in a high-school context.

Though their aims were noble, “the emphasis on research and discovery in FCL, and its constructivist bent, dovetails nicely with ‘science as inquiry’” (Rico & Shulman, p.163) it was clear that “what seemed to get in the way was the ‘school’ notion of science as a set of topics and facts to learn.” (Rico & Shulman, p.164) The teachers involved in the project had a “mistaken belief” (p.178) in the success of FCL more widely for teaching and learning, they had differing views about the implementation process and focus of FCL, and therefore showed that pure theory may not be directly applicable in the context of the contemporary classroom with its external pressures and different skillsets of classroom teachers.

On the other hand, it seems that a community of learners strategy works much more effectively in a higher-education context. This is shown through the varying success (though success all the same) of the two examples given by Beishuizen (2008) in which an undergraduate medical project and a postgraduate computer science project were undertaken with clear assessment criteria of the nature and impact of the community of practice model. It is clear that older students who have a more independent or mature engagement with learning are able to work collaboratively to achieve real learning outcomes with decreasing supervision and control by the teacher.

The focus, similar to Rico & Shulman, was to develop skills that will assist the students in future collaboration and independent learning (i.e. with lessening input from the teacher). In Beishuizen’s two examples, the neo-Vygotskiian concept of self-regulation was the overarching aim. Compared to Rico & Shulman, teachers made scaffolding (another neo-Vygotskiian concept) of processes and approaches a key component of preparing the students for collaboration as a community of learners. This, partnered with an ongoing support mechanism from experienced mentors made significant gains for students. “Experiencing a teacher who had to look for an explanation, like the students themselves, was new to them.” (Beishuizen, p.188) This enabled students to imitate the learning processes of their teachers when facing their own problems. This made a shift from a ‘belief’ to a ‘design’ mode of knowledge building, similar to Carol Dweck’s (2008) ‘fixed’ and ‘growth’ mindsets. The difference being that learners are able to become more aware of how to learn and that there is no fixed point at which learning has happened and is therefore ended. This links to the Vygotskiian concept of zones of proximal development, though allows for learners to move beyond that able to be provided by the teacher, into true self-regulated, independent learning.

The success achieved in the two examples suggests (in a very limited way) that learners at a particular stage of self-efficacy, maturity and with a ‘growth’ mindset, not including the flexibility that the university programs had compared to the high-school context of Rico & Shulman, are more likely to benefit from a community of learners framework. Perhaps ironically, the teacher plays a vital role in the success of the ‘community of learners’. The neo-Vygotstiian notion of ‘reciprocal teaching’ was also mentioned in both articles as an essential development of the community of learners.

Currently in teaching there are increasingly popular movements to utilise technology to develop and sustain ‘communities of practice’, another neo-Vygotskiian concept, espoused by Lave and Wenger. Using social media such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as collaborative technologies such as wikis, face-to-face teacher professional learning networks (PLNs) can be supported and leveraged to maximum effect. For example, several discipline- or interest-based Twitter conversations have been started by teachers including #ozscichat (a regular Science-related chat for teachers on a Tuesday night, Sydney time), #ozengchat (a similar chat for English teachers), #histedchat (the same again, but for History teachers in Australia and around the world). These synchronous conversations as organised by ‘moderators’ who pose questions to those involved in the conversation, share ideas on classroom strategies, theories of learning and teaching, resources and possibilities/challenges faced by teachers at that moment in time. They exhibit many aspects of the ‘community of practice’ model in an efficient and very contemporary method.

Similarly, TeachMeet Sydney and other networks support teachers sharing ideas and practice in a face-to-face manner but utilizing technologies in order to carry the conversation and support beyond the events known as teachmeets. Teachers from all sectors, all levels of experience and all disciplines are regularly sharing ideas and resources in order to build capacity within the profession, but driven by teachers, for teachers. There is distributed leadership as decisions are made often by consensus and when an idea is raised it is debated rather than immediately approved or disapproved. The network is in a constant state of ‘renegotiation’. This enables many within the profession to ‘host’ a teachmeet and develop their own individual capacity but as part of a thriving network. TeachMeet Sydney demonstrates several characteristics of a community of practice.

References

Beishuizen, J., (2008). Does a community of learners foster self-regulated learning?, Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 17:3, 183-193

Dweck, C.S., (2008) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, New York, USA: Ballantine.

Rico, S.R., & Shulman, J.H., (2004). Invertebrates and organ systems: science instruction and ‘Fostering a Community of Learners’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 36:2, 159-181

Smith, M. K. (2003) ‘Communities of practice’, The Encyclopedia of Informal Education, www.infed.org/biblio/communities_of_practice.htm . Last updated: 30 January 2005.

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