Learning Comunities: a proyect of social and educational transformation

Diseño de portada Jose Palomero

Javier Díez-Palomar & Ramón Flecha García

The Learning Communities project (ELBOJ ET ALT., 2002), which is discussed in this special issue, is a project consisting of a group of successful actions aimed at achieving social and educational transformation. This educational model is on a level with what the most highly quoted theories internationally point out are the most important factors in terms of learning in current society: interaction and community (AUBERT ET. AL., 2008). Vygotsky (1979) stated that “learning activates a series of internal development processes which are capable of operating only when the child is interacting with people from his or her environment and in cooperation with his or her classmates” (p. 89). In order to do this, the Learning Communities project involves all of the people who have a direct or indirect impact on the learning and development of students. These include teachers, family members, friends, community members, members of neighbourhood and local associations and organisations, as well as volunteers etc. The implication of the whole community in school education, including participation in the classroom, recovers the original meaning of the Zone of Proximal Development concept by Vygotsky (1979), which does not limit the adult guidance necessary in order to learn to guidance provided by experts. 

Some of the main theoretical and practical principles of Learning Communities are presented in this article, thus providing a framework for the rest of the work presented in this special issue. Some of the other articles will go more in-depth into different specific aspects of the Learning Communities  educational model.

Learning Communities in the Information Society 

Education is one of the social fields which it is most difficult to change. If we think about a classroom of today and we compare it to classrooms of thirty or forty years ago we are not likely to see any great changes. Despite the fact that in classrooms today there is more diversity in terms of culture, religion, language, family type, etc, we continue to find only one adult in them. Thus they involve a model of communication which is unidirectional and, in general, a school culture which is very similar to that of the Industrial Society. Meanwhile, outside schools, globalisation, networks, transnationalisation, people’s movements at an international level, the ascent of social movements at a local level but with a global scope, are part of the new reality in the Information Society. This new reality has led to changes in ways of organising work, in states and policies, and even in personal relationships.  Also, technology has become crucial in our daily lives, and the Internet has revolutionised access to and the production and processing of information. This thus allows more information to be transmitted and managed with more diverse people, and at a greater speed. All of these changes have already transformed teaching and learning processes. For example, the teacher is no longer the central source of information and the construction of knowledge, since this is now, more than ever, a collective activity. 

The Learning Communities project provides an efficient and equitative response to the changes and social and educational challenges which have been introduced by the Information Society. In contrast to classrooms in the Industrial Society, in classrooms and in other spaces in the Learning Communities, such as libraries and Tutored Digital Libraries, there are various adults, including volunteers who are committed to the education of all children. Amongst the volunteers there are family members or participants in neighbourhood or city associations, or former students. All of these adults incorporate a great deal of diversity into the school in terms of background. This is true not only on a professional level, but also in terms of culture, ethnicity, religion, lifestyle and language etc.  

As is the case in educational institutions of maximum international prestige, such as the University of Harvard, in the Learning Communities this diversity amongst the students and volunteers becomes a factor of educational excellence. Interactive Groups (AUBERT and GARCÍA, 2001) are an example of that. In these small heterogeneous groups students collaborate in a dialogic way in order to complete learning activities with the help of adults. This diversity (in terms of culture, religion, language, ethnicity, gender, lifestyle, ability level, etc.) is a key element of this classroom organisation and a crucial factor which reflects the differences which exist in the school. This is the case not only amongst students and volunteers, but also in the community and in society as a whole. For a group as homogeneous as teachers, this fact can be very difficult. 

Due to this diversity dialogue is held which would have been impossible in homogeneous segregated groups, and this increases learning for all students and improves intercultural coexistence. For example, when a Muslim mother wearing a hijab teaches English in a sixth year primary school class, not only do the children learn more English, and find it more meaningful to have a good grasp of a foreign language, but dialogue also takes place. This dialogue breaks down cultural and gender-related stereotypes. This firstly happens in the classroom, and then later in the community, because the students take the dialogue held in the classroom out into the streets with them, and also into their dining rooms at home.  At the same time, interaction between students with different levels of competences benefits both students at a higher level, and also those at a lower level, since, by helping others, there are many opportunities to reinforce what they already know. It is also possible to identify gaps and comprehension problems and to enrich knowledge through alternative points of view (ROGOFF, 1993). 

In that way, and in contrast to the mainstream discourse which sees diversity as an obstacle to learning, the Learning Communities project is demonstrating that it is through inclusion and heterogeneity and by incorporating more human resources into classrooms that the results of all students can be improved, as well as coexistence (INCLUD-ED, 2008a). By doing so, the Learning Communities project shows us that the problem of achieving high academic results is not related to the number of immigrant students there are in the school. Instead, it shows us that it is the practices which are carried out in contexts of diversity which are at fault. In fact, research into the Learning Communities project is demonstrating that in some of these schools learning results are improving threefold in instrumental areas, at the same time as the number of immigrant students are increasing (INCLUD-ED, 2008b). Therefore, the problem is not immigration, but rather the type of actions which are carried out in classrooms and schools. Not applying actions in the classroom which increase school failure and promote coexistence problems is what we need to focus our attention on.  

A project based on scientific results

The educational field has traditionally been a field in which actions have been carried out which have lacked a scientific basis to demonstrate their efficiency. Therefore it has not seemed strange to apply actions based on intuition, subjective experience, innovation or fashion, without knowing whether this action had been applied in another part of the world previously, nor whether when it was applied, it had worked.  This led to a dynamic of  “trying out” crazy ideas which then led to higher levels of school failure and coexistence problems.  

This lack of scientific rigor in education would be unthinkable in fields such as that of health. No-one likes their health to be  played with, or to have treatment which they do not know has worked in other places or on other people, or which is applied to them, while knowing that it is not effective. While in the area of medicine this alarms us, it does not do so in the area of educational theory and practice.  Greater scientific rigor and intellectual commitment is urgently needed in education because “(…) neither society, nor families, nor children can allow unscientific approximations to be undertaken in educational proposals.” (ELBOJ ET AL, 2002,  p. 55). This is especially the case for those groups for which education has become the only way to move away from social exclusion. Therefore, behaviour which is truly intellectual is necessary amongst educators (Chomsky, 2001; Cummins, 2002; Giroux, 1990). This also involves getting rid of crazy ideas  and a lack of ethics in the different fields of education.  

The Learning Communities project is a reaction against any type of superstition in education. It is a project based on the most significant theories in the international scientific community and consists of a group of actions which have a solid scientific basis.  These are actions that have demonstrated that they are successful in terms of overcoming school failure and improving coexistence in every place they have been implemented in. Some of these successful actions are Family Education, Interactive Groups, the decisive, evaluative and educative participation of families, and opening up the school for more hours and including more people (INCLUD-ED, 2008a). One example of the latter is Digital Tutored Classrooms, and Digital Tutored Libraries, in which community members, students, and family members carry out educational activities which have an impact on the academic performance of the children. One of these educational activities is Dialogic Literary Gatherings, (SOLER, 2004) in which participants read classic universal literature, and, in the process, not only increase their reading competences, but also transform their social context and even their personal lives. 

The theories and successful actions which the Learning Communities project is based on have been in our houses and offices for a long time. They can easily be found out about on the Internet, in databases, in scientific journals, in the best universities in international rankings, and in the European Research Framework Programmes. We no longer depend on “experts” in order to find out what we need to do in order to move from superstition to science, and to overcome school failure and coexistence problems. 

Interaction, dialogue and community: key elements of learning in the Information Society and in the Learning Communities 

If we checked the databases, we would see that the theories with the greatest international relevance and the most successful actions demonstrate that both societies and science have experienced a dialogic turn  (SOLER & AUBERT, 2007). This turn is characterised by a greater amount of dialogue in multiple areas of society, both in the public and institutional spheres and in the private sphere, and has also affected the science of learning. This science has moved to being focused on the study of interaction, dialogue, culture and identity in order to understand how people learn  (BRUNER, 2000; MOLL ET AL., 1992; ROGOFF, ET AL., 2001; WELLS, 2005; WENGER, 1998). 

Within this framework, the traditional interactive framework which was used to explain learning and which consisted of three elements (teacher-student-material) is shown to be insufficient in order to explain how students learn in the Information Society. This learning formulation was based on approaches such as the significant learning theory by Ausubel (1962). From this perspective, what children do is to actively internalise the knowledge which is presented to them by teachers, incorporating it into their concept of previous knowledge, which in this approach was set out as being the key to teaching and learning.  

Overcoming these concepts and in line with the dialogic turn in learning theories, dialogic learning (FLECHA, 1997), the concept of leaning in the Learning Communities, clearly indicates that learning is a social activity. It is mediated by language and takes place both with peers and with the different adults students interact with. For that reason, in the Learning Communities project, the participation of family and community members and volunteers is promoted in all areas of the school, including the classroom.  

Also, taking into account the constituent dialogicity of the person (MEAD, 1934), the diversification of the interaction between adults broadens the opportunities for the transformation of the expectations and the identity of students. For example, in the case of children who have been segregated and who have faced low expectations, when people with a background similar to their own participates in the classroom then this interaction transforms these student’s “me”, and this promotes a change in their self-concept and in the creation of meaning. This is because those participants are people who have very high expectations of these children and want to show them how much they can achieve. At the same time, this new image of themselves leads these students to behave in a different way at school and to perform better. This phenomenon has been extensively studied in psychological research on expectations (ROSENTHAL & JACOBSON, 1968).  

On the other hand, taking into account the fact that transformative action is necessary within the context, in order to promote learning and development (VYGOTSKY, 1979). The Learning Communities project searches for all of the opportunities and resources which exist in the neighbourhood in order to accelerate the learning of all of the students. The successful actions which were mentioned above, such as Interactive Groups, Family Education and participation, and Tutored Libraries, are community based actions which transform the socio-cultural context and, consequently, also learning.   

Learning Communities: transforming instead of adapting 

Practices based on the philosophy of adapting to diversity, which are only focused on the idea of difference, have ended up leading to the development of differences for students with different levels of competences. These are a curriculum of competence and effort for the most advantaged students, and a curriculum of happiness and sociability for students with lower educational levels. This unequal diversity reproduces inequality from the beginning, not only in terms of academic knowledge, but also in terms of social inequality, since those who have been taught a curriculum of happiness and sociability also happened to be in more disadvantaged social groups. These include immigrants, members of the Roma population, students from families with low socio-economic levels, and non-academic families etc. (OAKES, 1985). A minimum level curriculum is common amongst low level groups, and students from vulnerable groups are also over-represented in terms of this type of curriculum. In relation to this, scientific research already demonstrated decades ago that adaptation termed streaming (separation by level within the same school) and tracking (segregation by level into different schools) generates greater educational and social inequality (BRADDOCK & SLAVIN, 1992; FLECHA, 1990).

The Learning Communities perspective involves transformation, not adaptation. Freire (2003) underlined the fact that the meaning of education is the transformation of people and the world. Vygotsky (1979) indicated that teaching which is oriented towards levels of development which have already been achieved does not lead to higher levels of learning and development.  All of the activities which are carried out in the Learning Communities aim for transformation on many levels. This includes the transformation of the learning context, the transformation of previous levels of knowledge, the transformation of expectations, and the transformation of the relationship between the family and the school. It also includes the transformation of social relationships in the classrooms, in the school and the community, and, lastly, the egalitarian transformation of society. 

This transformative orientation involves placing an emphasis not only prior knowledge nor on the initial problematic situations experienced in schools, but rather on maximum learning objectives, and on the school that the whole community dreams of. This involves transforming difficulties into possibilities which is only possible based on an egalitarian dream, such as that of Martin Luther King. Based on this horizon transformative practices are implemented in order to make the dream a reality. Using this orientation, the Learning Communities project manages to transform the context and the learning for all students, improving academic performance and  improving coexistence in classrooms, schools and neighbourhoods. 

Special issue on the Learning Communities project: Reflections on the multiple dimensions of the project

The Learning Communities project is a project of overall social and educational transformation which involves and has an impact on many agents, systems and social processes. For that reason, this special issue covers various dimensions of the project. It includes articles which present specific practices from the Learning Communities  project, reflections on the urgent need to design educational systems based on scientific research, and a description of the transformation process a school in Burgos underwent in order to become a Learning Community. 

In the first article, Consol Aguilar, Mª José Alonso, María Padrós and Miguel Ángel Pulido reflect on dialogic learning as a way of intensifying both instrumental learning and transforming the norms and values shared by members of the community. In the dialogic reading activities in the classroom, in the Tutored Libraries and the Digital Tutored Classrooms the students carry out shared textual comprehensions, which enrich their individual interpretations and increase the meaning they find in their reading. 

The contributions which are made to teacher training based on the dialogic reading approach include a redefinition of the role played by the teacher in reading activities. The teachers go from being a transmitter of the ideas found in books, to becoming part of the activity as just another member of the group, and are sometimes in charge of managing the dialogic dynamic of the reading activities. On the other hand, opening up the classroom and other areas of the school to the community in order to carry out reading activities, such as the Dialogic Literary Gatherings, intensifies interaction. It does so in terms of the reading activities carried out by children and community members, thus helping students to find out about other points of view, and thus enrich their comprehension even further.  

Antonio Aguilera, Marlen Mendoza, Sandra Racionero and Marta Soler discuss the role of the university in the Learning Communities project. Two basic contributions from the university to the project stand out. One the one hand, this is the role that the university can carry out in terms of collaboration with the schools which are functioning as Learning Communities. On the other hand, is the possibility of transforming universities themselves into Learning Communities. In relation to this former aspect, the universities which participate in processes of transformation in the schools involved in the Learning Communities project carry out very close collaboration with the schools. They help them in various ways to reach the objective overcoming school failure and improving coexistence. Specifically, the authors describe the case of the Universities of Barcelona and Seville, in which the collaboration begins through training provided by university lecturers and/or professors and research staff during the raising awareness stage (the initial training stage for the teaching team and the school community at the beginning of the project). The collaboration also involves helping teacher training students and students from other degree areas to carry out their work practice in the Learning Communities. In relation to the second aspect, through the case of the Faculty of Psychology in the University of Seville, the way in which a faculty can be transformed into a Learning Community is described. Also the way it can function in the field of higher education based on the same logic and orientation as other centres for learning at compulsory education levels is described.  The contribution to teacher training made by the collaboration of universities in the Learning Communities project is made evident in this article. 

In the article entitled “Transformation process of a school into a Learning Community: the Apóstol San Pablo school in Burgos (Spain)”, Asunción Cifuentes and María Fernández go more in-depth into the transformation process a school undertakes in order to become a Learning Community. They do so by narrating the experience in their own school. In their article they describe the origins of the Learning Communities, their key aspects, and how the project’s principles have been put into practice in the Apóstol San Pablo School. The authors discuss the motivation behind deciding to transform the school into a Learning Community, what they needed to change in the school and how these changes were carried out. Overall, this article provides a very good illustration of the transformations linked to the Learning Communities model. 

Javier Díez-Palomar, Paloma García Wehrle, Silvia Molina and Lourdes Rué explore dialogic learning in the area of mathematics and science, and they describe two examples of how to work in these areas dialogically in the Learning Communities. The authors place a special emphasis on Interactive Groups as a form of classroom organisation which allows dialogic learning to take place. Throughout this article evidence is provided which illustrates how the way in which Interactive Groups function incentivises and extends learning to all of the students, increasing the time spent actively participating in learning. Also data is provided which demonstrates how dialogic leaning promotes learning processes which involve solidarity and which take advantage of the diversity which exists in Interactive Groups. This ensures that all children, all girls and boys, can learn more. 

Ainhoa Flecha, Patricia Melgar, Esther Oliver and Cristina Pulido put forward an interesting reflection in terms of overcoming conflict and the preventative socialisation of gender violence through the Learning Communities project. In their article they start off by discussing the gender violence which exists in our societies, and the fact that this phenomenon also exists in schools.  In the Learning Communities various mechanisms and strategies with a dialogic orientation have been developed in order to prevent, manage and radically overcome situations of harassment and violence. Based on the contributions of dialogic feminism to the definition of egalitarian relationships between genders and the debate focused on new masculinities, the authors carry out an in-depth analysis of the contributions which are being made by the Learning Communities to overcoming gender inequality. In that sense, they underline the importance of the implication of the whole community and they describe the transformations which are already taking place when working based on this approach. 

Adriana Aubert, Carmen Elboj, Rocío García and Juan García present an article on the “Dialogic Inclusion Contract”. The Dialogic Inclusion Contract is a process which allows the contributions of the international scientific community to interact with the experience of social agents, especially those people who belong to the most vulnerable groups. The article’s authors present data from the La Paz school in Albacete which has implemented the Dialogic Inclusion Contract. The results were spectacular. After adopting the dialogic contract, the children have achieved learning results which are much better. Throughout the article how to implement and monitor this type of contract is looked at more in-depth, and the results of this contract are also described.. 

Finally, in the article entitled “From experiences in the Learning Communities to policies based on its success”, Aitor Gómez, Roseli Mello, Ignacio Santa Cruz and Teresa Sordé describe the impact the Learning Communities project has had at a political level, through specific examples. On the one hand, they underline the significance of the INCLUD-ED project, which is the research project on school education with the most resources and at the highest scientific level currently being carried out within the European Commission’s Research Framework Programme. The INCLUD-ED project is analysing which educational systems, schools and educational practices are overcoming school failure and increasing social cohesion in Europe. On the other hand this project is also analysing which educational systems, schools and educational practices are increasing school failure and exclusion. The authors underline the fact that, despite the international scientific community having gathered enough evidence which demonstrates that educational actions based on segregation increase school failure and worsen coexistence over more than two decades, the most widespread educational policies still continue to segregate. In the case of Spain, the article’s authors review the impact which the LOGSE (Spanish law on Education) has had, and describe the changes which the Learning Communities project is leading to in this area. They point out the actions carried out by the EU Cluster on Access to Social and Educational Inclusion, and the Plan del Departamento de Innovación Educativa [Plan in the Department for Educational Innovation] in the Basque Country Government for the “Extension of the Learning Communities project.” They also discuss the Conference on the Learning Communities entitled Ikas.kom which was held in February 2008 in Bilbao. This Conference was linked to the Basque Country Government’s proposal to extend the Learning Communities project to the whole of the Basque Country in Spain. 

In total, the seven articles provide a broad overview of the Learning Communities model, of the theory and practice behind it, and its different dimensions and scientific, political, social and personal implications. 


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