Learning Communities Change the Paradigm
Problem: A typical “cells-and-bells” classroom model is organized around grade levels and administrative convenience rather than human needs. This spatial model shapes a paradigm with ripple effects on things like scheduling, pedagogy, wellness, and student agency. The model typically lacks both diversity of spaces and functional agility, creating barriers for schools seeking vibrant collaboration, creativity, and complex problem solving in their approach to learning.
If convenience and same age groupings underpins the conventional classroom model, what type of organization does human-centered design suggest? Anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar provides insights into the essential characteristics of effective social groups.
According to Dunbar, successful group sizes range up to 150 people. Beyond that, it’s difficult to sustain strong social bonds. As such, a group of 20 to 30 students and a teacher doesn’t provide the critical mass of relationships to support and challenge all learners. Meanwhile, an elementary, middle, or high school of 400 plus students doesn’t provide the level of connection needed to allow all learners to feel safe, connected and known.
Solution: The Learning Community Model changes the paradigm by grouping 50-150 learners and 3-6 teachers, or coaches, in a variety of spaces with permeable walls. Learning Studios (an updated, agile version of the classroom), Learning Suites (connected Studios with moveable wall), Teacher Collaboration space, Active Labs and Small Group Rooms of varying sizes and character create a holistic environment that supports a full spectrum learning.
In addition to right-sizing cohorts and strengthening relationships, the Learning Community model supports the daily cycle of learning that underpins creative & complex problem-solving. This kind of problem-solving relies on empathy, information gathering, problem defining, and iterative cycles to develop solutions–all activities that lend themselves to active, social and fluidly connected spaces. At the same time, problem-solving relies equally on individual, focused work which includes activities like personal reflection and creation that require little to no collaboration.
This idea is supported by the research found in the book, The Extended Mind, by Annie Murphy Paul, where she states, “…complex problem-solving proceeds in two stages, the first of which entails gathering the facts we need to clarify the nature of the problem and begin constructing a solution. In this stage, communication and collaboration are essential. But there is a second phase, equally vital: the process of generating and developing solutions…During this phase, studies find that excessive collaboration is actually detrimental.” Thus, the Learning Community model allows for the balance of individual and collaborative spaces to shift rapidly, depending on the needs of each learner and the context of the learning.
The Learning Community spatial model is well-suited to support Microschools, which may be a stand-alone school or act as a school-within-a-school. The benefits and potential of Microshools have been explored in depth at Getting Smart, which can be accessed here. Creating a microschool using the Learning Community Design Pattern as a spatial model is a wonderful approach for a school or district wanting to be more innovative but unsure what will work.
You can find sketches of the Learning Community pattern as well as various spatial components, including Learning Suites, Small Group Rooms, and Teacher Collaboration Rooms along with 70+ freely available Design Patterns at SchoolPatterns.com. School leaders, teachers, students, designers and community partners can use these patterns to identify the core elements that will support their vision and goals for learning.