I’ve been preparing a class session on communities of practice this weekend, and it’s been underscoring for me just how important people are to an effective learning environment. We’re independent adults, and we like to think of learning as something that each of us does for ourselves, but all the terrific resources in the world can’t hold a candle to the power of what can occur between people.
Community of practice… The community of practice and developmental relationship literature both detail the importance of role models, coaches, and professional communities in helping us to become more effective in our roles, and, quite simply, to “become” a professional in our field – to make that profession not just what we do, but a little of who we are. Think about the people who help you learn: Who are your role models?
Collaborators… And communities aren’t just about shaping the practice of newcomers. It is in community conversations that we invent the practices that prove effective in accomplishing our goals; it is in community conversations that we frame new problems and discover new solutions. Think about the people that help you learn: With whom do you collaborate and co-create?
Sounding boards… The conversations that we have with one another, whether live or online, force us to articulate what we’re thinking and provide us with reaction and feedback that helps us to clarify and refine what we are learning. Ideas seem to rattle around in our heads until we take the time to form them into solid ideas and thoughtful sentences so that we can share them with another. Think about the people that help you learn: Who do you seek out as a sounding board?
Critics… While it’s reinforcing to get good feedback on our thought processes, learning is more often generated by critiques. Questions, disagreements, critical arguments – and the alternative ideas they often produce – provoke more learning than all the positive feedback we may get. Think about the people who help you learn: Who do you like arguing with?
Gurus… Encounters with others – again whether live or online – expose us to ideas we may never have considered otherwise. We can’t wait to hear what others are saying about the election, that book we just read, the new initiative being launched… what others say informs our own thinking. And, for many of us, there are certain others we know to be ahead of the curve and whose ideas leap us forward. Think about the people who help you learn: Who do you count on to be thought-provoking?
One of the components of learning environment design is “relationships and networks” – and it’s a critical feature of a healthy learning environment. When we are trying to support learning, we need to pay particular attention to enabling interpersonal connections – getting learners in touch with experts, ensuring that learners have role models and colleagues, linking learners to thinkers outside of their normal sphere. We should deliberately create a network that is diverse – in perspectives, ways of thinking, and modes of interaction – to connect a rich, multitalented group. And most importantly, we need to ensure that there is time and space to interact.
Time and again researchers have shown that people are the most critical learning resources – more than the courses and reference materials that take up most of our time as designers. Think about the learning projects are working on right now: What more can you do to bring people together and enable – either live or online – the kind of healthy interpersonal connections that support ongoing learning and development? Who are the community members, potential collaborators, helpful sounding boards, kind critics, and thoughtful gurus that can enrich the learning environment, and how do we get them all interacting with one another?