A learning community by no other name

Deconstructing buzzwords is something of a hobby at Learnlife, and today is the turn of the learning community. What happens when you open the doors between learners and the “real world” and should there be a door in the first place?
A learning community by no other name

“A rose is a rose by any other name”, said old Bill Shakespeare, and we haven’t stopped arguing about the relationship between language and our view of the world since then. 

From Homer's wine-dark sea argument, to the Sapir Worf hypothesis falling in and out of fashion, right until Guy Deutscher’s fabulous book Through the language glass finally setting things straight, for now. The way we use language frames our understanding of the world in powerful ways. 

We are very conscious of the language we use at Learnlife, because it really matters that a learning guide is not a teacher, and a learning community is definitively not a school. But what about the really granular stuff? Let’s just parse this for a second, and see what comes out. 

If you “go” to school, or are “at” school now, how does that frame your concept of where school actually is? Perhaps you’re “sending” your children to a school locally? Doesn’t that give the learning environment a sense of being “outside” or “away”? There is something separate in that very deliberate phrasing, which speaks more of the institutional structures that make it a place apart. 

Kids who are in school just visit life sometimes and then they have to stop to do homework or go to sleep early or get to school on time. They’re constantly reminded they are preparing for real life. While being isolated from it.”-Sandra Dodd

Sandra’s got it. Traditional schools are apart from the community. You can’t “go” to a community which is already around you. So much of our learning in life comes from contribution and connection to a wider community; doing things that are of value to the community; reinforced and validated within the community. We are social beings, and through these broader interactions we find purpose, joy, belonging and discover within us what it is that we have to give to others. 

Little of this is available to us within an isolated bubble of reality-adjacent institutionalism.  As Sandra put it, our children occasionally “visit” real life. They do so in carefully structured days out, in neat roll-called rows with predetermined tasks and are rarely (if ever) asked where it is that they would rather go. What are the chances that they all want to go to the same place and do the same thing? Zero. 

Sometimes real life visits our children, but it must be on its best behavior. There are community initiatives, open days, careers fairs and the like, where the drawbridge is lowered for a day, but again these are organised top-down and very uniformly scaffolded for convenience and convention. 

We have been vocal about parents as partners in the learning journey, about the importance of nature in learning, and about schools being part of, and not apart from, real life. Why “simulate” when the real thing is right there? Why shy away from meaningful community engagement, where learners can experience the true joy of the social value that the application of their learning can bring? Why ignore a broader environment where diversity is the norm and everyone contributes on their terms, in favour of a place that funnels our children into uniformity for easy measurement? 

There are plenty of alternatives to this. Schools as learning community hubs is not a new idea, but it is not commonplace either. In Australia, the community hubs project has learning environments “sharing knowledge, resources and expertise with their local community during and outside of school hours.” Learners work hands-on with real-life projects with real community impact. 

On a wider scale, grander initiatives such as UNESCO’s Learning Cities initiative seeks to marshall cross-sector resources to ensure that learning can take place within the community; lifelong and life-wide. A laudable plan for learners to feel part of the world around them, and to internalize early in life that learning opportunities are all around us, and not only in the “formal” version that people make such a fuss about. 

But there is a problem. 

Schools as part of a wider learning community can only work if the school itself is a learning community. The traditional school is not just outside the community, but not even a learning community within itself, as this Stanford paper explores in depth and detail. This is perhaps to be expected, but that doesn’t mean it is ok.

If learning environments are still founded on lockstep marching and teacher-led dynamics, then there will be a disconnect. If our young learners are encouraged to explore and discover as part of “initiatives” but put back in the box of standardization when the project ends, there will never be a true sense of community in a mainstream school.

We are not a school, and we say that proudly. A school is not a school by any other name, and the language we use does define the way we frame our world. We are part of a learning community, and community and would not ever define where that community ends, because it is not for us to do so. A community decides things together. 

A true community of learners within a learning environment can more readily expand to absorb and respond to the wider community around it. By trying to “protect” our learners in isolating them from the real world, we are, in fact, stifling the natural curiosities and learning opportunities that have been part of the human experience for millenia. Opening the doors to community involvement is all well and good, but not if our children perceive it as “apart” from their regular experience of learning. There must be harmony, coherence and close connection. 

At Learnlife we are part of a true learning community. We all learn together, with guidance, support and direction ebbing and flowing between learners and learning guides. Even the paradigm and methodologies that inform that learning are co-created by all the stakeholders they impact. 

“Real” life flows in and out of the learning environment on a daily basis, with the makers and creatives of our cities coming to work with our learners, and our learners working with them in studios and hubs. There should always be a practical application to every learning experience, and that can only come when learners are in the driving seat.

We have more to say on learning communities and learning as part of the wider community. The role of connection and purpose in wellbeing, the way a learning community actually works, the impact of learning early in life that what you do can make a real difference. 

All of these ideas are yet to be explored, so do make sure you are following us on LinkedIn to be notified of new articles on the blog. For educators and thought leaders, you might also like to join us on our LearnLife network of education innovators, to share ideas and insights.

Our community is your community, after all.


Written by