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Spring 2018 | Volume 20 | Number 3
Table of Contents-Spring Issue

Examining Our Learning Communities

By Jennifer Hughes, Director of Learning, American Community School, Amman, Jordan

Communities of practice are about people coming together to accomplish something, and in the process of accomplishing that something, they are growing and extending - not only what the team is doing, but what each individual is capable of doing. In a community of practice, there should be personal development as well as professional development.

And so began a powerful weekend of learning at this year’s NESA Winter Training Institute in Muscat, Oman, masterfully facilitated by Joellen Killion, NESA friend, author, consultant, and senior advisor to Learning Forward.

Recognizing the power of collaboration, it was a diverse and dynamic group of NESA educators coming together to learn with Joellen. The room was filled with teachers, administrators, and instructional coaches - some who came with a team and others on their own. They brought a variety of perspectives and experiences, along with a common desire to deepen understanding of purpose-driven collaboration within what Joellen framed as ‘communities of practice’. The relatively new term, coined by social theorist Etienne Wenger, is really the age-old phenomenon he describes as, “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

What Joellen brought to light is that effective communities of practice that lead to improved results for students, whether structured as a grade-level team, a PLC, or a department team, are grounded in a set of core principles. These principles emphasize an authentic problem of practice, disciplined inquiry, autonomy, learning, transformation, and ongoing evaluation of effectiveness.

When core principles aren’t attended to, teams can experience false starts, tensions, or that feeling of being stuck. Even with the best of implementation plans and supports along the way, communities of practice will go through stages of development. As many have experienced, some stages are quite exciting and others more challenging to work through.

Embracing this reality, ACS Amman, ACS Abu Dhabi, and the American School of Dubai each joined Joellen on stage not to describe how their schools collaborate and ‘do’ communities of practice, but to share their implementation journeys. With honesty and transparency, the schools each gave a synopsis of how they got to where they are today: their process, the decisions made along the way, their celebrations, and their setbacks. As each school presented, Joellen illustrated ways in which the principles of effective communities of practice played out.

Over the course of the weekend learning with Joellen, two ideas clearly emerged. Regardless of whether a school is launching, revising or upgrading its communities of practice, strong leadership and its strong advocacy, support and engagement is required. The structures and supports for communities of practice that focus on student learning driven by educator learning are effective when grounded in core principles, and this is not the easy work for individuals, teams, or schools.

But it is the right work for our students.