4b. Learning communities as an instructional model

Jan Buffington
Department of Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology, University of Georgia

What Does One Of These Have To Do With The Others?

  • Chrysler Corporation
  • University of Miami
  • The Free School, Albany New York

Situation One-Chrysler Corporation

In 1988 when Japanese competition was threatening to put the Chrysler Corporation out of business, no one suspected that the resurgence of the company would depend in part on the creation of an innovative knowledge system based on communities of practice. Communities of practice based in the business community have work completion as their goal (In education circles, the term often used is learning communities, and these communities have learning as their goal). Before this new practice was implemented, the Chrysler Corporation was a traditional organization with directives coming from top officials. Localized function of various units (design, engineering, manufacturing, and sales) limited interactions only to reengineer problems until the vehicle was deemed “manufacturable.” No communication between units existed except to resolve problems.

A decision was made to radically reorganize the unit. The units would now be formed along product-oriented, cross-functional lines. Each unit or community was responsible for all phases of development associated with a whole specific vehicle. With the implementation of these new product communities, the product-development cycle was reduced from five to two and a half years.

Even with the success of the new cross-functional product units, former colleagues from the original functional units began to meet informally. Sensing the need for the meeting between these members, informal Tech Clubs were formed and provided other communities whose members were actively responsible for their areas of expertise in the product-development units.

Companies at the forefront of the knowledge economy are succeeding on the basis of communities of practice, or whatever they call them. Communities of practice (or educational learning communities) are not confined by institutional affiliation. Their potential value extends beyond the boundaries of any single organization (Wenger, McDermott, & Snyder, 2002).

(Situation One taken from A Guide to Managing Knowledge: Cultivating Communities of Practice by Etienne Wenger, Richard McDermott and William M. Snyder)

Situation Two-University of Miami

In a society where more and more students are seeking a college education, the public is showing a growing dissatisfaction with the attention that faculties give to undergraduate learning. Students who come to colleges and universities today reflect a greater diversity of experience, ethnicity, expectations, and preparedness than ever before (Shapiro & Levine, 1999).

A college freshman shows up for a first experience with higher education. Having heard stories from parents and others about the challenges of “adjusting” to college, this freshman is somewhat apprehensive about finding classes, getting from one location to another and meeting instructors’ expectations.

The University of Miami offers one solution to this dilemma through paired clustered courses. With the pairing of courses, a feeling of community occurs because the same students and instructors participate. These courses are paired in order to be more interdisciplinary in nature and to promote a classroom environment where students and faculty get to know each other.

Another approach to the idea of learning communities at a college or university level is the implementation of cohorts. This type of learning community involves enrolling students in groups that move along through the course requirements together and many times encounter the same instructors. The instructor’s role in a cohort is that of a facilitator. Through interaction and cooperation, the students form a bond or a learning community that enhances their learning. The School Library Media Program at the University of Georgia is an example of this. It is described in the narrated slide show below:

(Situation Two taken from Creating Learning Communities: A Practical Guide to Winning Support, Organizing for Change and Implementing Programs by Nancy S. Shapiro and Jodi H. Levine)

Situation Three-The Albany Free School

Learning is encouraged to come from the bottom-up and not from the top-down. This means that the learning is initiated from the students, with students deciding how to investigate their interests and how to approach these interests. Students, not teachers, dictate the topics for learning. These students form learning communities in order to pursue their topics and interests.

When entering The Albany Free School, a glance around a room might include students creating images for the school calendar in conjunction with a Math lesson. Other students are observed creating costumes for a play or writing copy for the school newspaper on a computer in conjunction with Language Arts. Still other students are planning a trip to an apple orchard as an activity relating to a Social Studies lesson. Any of these activities and many more are occurring simultaneously. These activities are a result of the interaction of learning communities and perhaps were planned jointly by students and a teacher or perhaps just by students (Miller, 2000).

(Situation Three taken from Creating Learning Communities: Models, Resources and New Ways of Thinking about Teaching and Learning edited by Ron Miller)

Click Here to Play the Presentation Caption: The PowerPoint presentation above shows a learning community in action. The particular learning community depicted here is the University of Georgia’s School Library Media Cohort System. Each member contributes different ideas and experiences. The teacher’s role is that of organizer and facilitator. Learning takes place through student interaction and sharing experiences. Students’ roles and responsibilities vary between central and peripheral, and knowledge is shared through group research, peer mentorship, role-playing and collaborative problem solving. By Melissa Camp, Shona Foster and Helene Freese (2003)

What Does One Of These Have To Do With The Other?

Each of these three situations involves the interactions of individuals in the context of a learning community or community of practice. These situations include the same elements even though the contexts vary greatly.

Two Approaches to Learning

Empowering learners in caring communities brings forth the immense love of learning and potentials that these learners or participants hold inside (Koegel, 2003). A learning environment should foster partnerships within individuals, between people, within our society and between humans and nature (Koegel, 2003). Two approaches exist within the structure of learning. One approach involves the top-down mentality that presents the teacher or top-level management as the possessor of knowledge to be imparted to others. On the other hand, the bottom-up approach stresses the importance of the learner or the worker in the process of determining what is to be learned or pursued in the workplace and how this learning or pursuit will take place.

Bottom-Up Approach

The three situations presented at the beginning show examples of the bottom-up approach where in each case the student or worker (both at the bottom of the traditional hierarchy) was considered the most important element in determining the direction and content of the learning. The Chrysler Corporation reorganizes its factories in order to implement communities of practice that provide emphasis on product-oriented, cross-functional groups that are worker centered. Learning communities appear on the campus of the University of Miami. These communities emphasize the importance of faculty and student interaction in relation to learning. The use of learning communities at The Albany Free School creates an emphasis on student choice and student/teacher interaction when pursuing learning. The examples of Chrysler, University of Miami and The Free School exemplify “the object of learning communities which is to create higher levels of learning than traditional approaches” (Banta, 2001). A bottoms-up approach provides workers and students more control over their environment with the potential of leading to improved results and more efficient decision making practices.

Basic Structural Model

A basic structural model for learning communities is provided by Wenger et al (2002). This model includes three fundamental elements: domain of knowledge, community of people, and the shared practice that they are developing. The domain creates common ground and a sense of common identity. The domain inspires members to contribute and participate, guides their learning, and gives meaning to their actions. The community creates the social fabric of learning, because it encourages a willingness to share ideas, expose one’s ignorance, ask difficult questions, and listen carefully. The practice is a set of frameworks, ideas, tools, information, styles, language, stories, and documents that community members share.

Without commitment to a domain, a community is just a group of people. A shared domain creates a sense of accountability to a body of knowledge and, therefore, to a development of practice. A domain is not a fixed set of problems. It evolves along with the community. A domain it not an abstract area of interest, but consists of key issues, problems or interests that members commonly experience.

A community of practice or an educational learning community is a group of people who interact, learn together, build relationships, and in the process, develop a sense of belonging and mutual commitment. To build a community, members must interact regularly whether face-to-face in large or small groups or online by means of e-mail, chatrooms, and teleconferencing. In fact, with the opportunity for online discussions, community members are allowed to interact more freely without any social constraints and are allowed the opportunity for additional mentoring supervision by professors (Greer and Hamill, 2003). Membership in a learning community may be self-selected or assigned, but the actual level of engagement is a personal matter. In good communities, strong bonds withstand disagreement, and members can even use conflict as a way to deepen their relationships and their learning (Wenger et al, 2002).

A learning community or community of practice explores both the existing body of knowledge and the latest advances or information on the topic. Each community has a specific means of making its practice visible through the ways that it develops and shares knowledge. Successful practice development depends on a balance between joint activities, in which members explore ideas together, and the production of “things” such as documents, tools, or projects. Successful practice building goes hand-in-hand with community building (Wenger et al, 2002).

The domain can include the interest in designing a better vehicle or planning a field trip to an orchard. The community can include an incoming class of college freshman with apprehension about their future or a group of factory workers concerned about the future of their jobs. The practice can include the ideas of elementary students about how to design scenery for a play or the ideas of college freshmen about how to solve a problem presented in their Math and Science cluster class.

This is supposed to be a flash animation. You’ll need the flash plugin and a browser that supports it to view it.

Caption: The animation begins with a simulation of the HorizonLive interface for Dr. Orey’s Edit 6400 class. There are six students in the class and Dr. Orey. Dr. Orey welcomes the students to class and states that today’s topic is learning communities. The screen asks, “What are learning communities?” The three components that make up a learning community are: 1. Community of people (represented as a yellow circle), 2. Domain of knowledge (represented as a red circle), and 3. Shared practice (represented as a blue circle). Community of people has the following characteristics: creates a social fabric of learning, encourages idea sharing, exposes ignorance and asks difficult questions. The domain of knowledge has the following characteristics: creates common ground/identity, guides learning, inspires members to contribute/participate and gives meaning to actions. Shared practice has the following characteristics: set of framework, ideas, tools, information, styles, language, and shared documents. The three circles begin to merge and link together and the caption reads ‘combined they create a community of learning.’ The next animation is titled Communities of Learning: A Comparison – Edit 6400. A table appears with the headings: pros and cons. The Pros are: 1. Idea sharing through chat rooms and breakout groups and 2. Within groups we have relationships which exposes ignorance, misconceptions etc. The con’s are: 1. Do not have face-to-face regular interaction, 2. Technical difficulties inhibit learning interactions, and 3. Students do not always have to participate in class. By Sherita Love, Jennifer Morris, Dawn Rauscher, and Beth Rodgers (2004).

Concept Map for Learning Communities


Caption: The diagram above is a graphic representation of the basic structural model for learning communities as defined by Wenger, et al.

Starting with the purple “Learning Communities” box, positive (yellow) and negative (red) aspects branch out directly below. Positive aspects of learning communities are that they provide greater opportunities for members to develop end products, reach deeper levels of material integration, interact with each other, and actively participate in the learning process. The negative aspects of learning communities as an instructional model are difficulty controlling individual lack of motivation, scheduling student activities, overcoming “buy-in” obstacles, and controlling negative outside influences.

Moving to the left side of the image, one can see that the learning communities model includes three fundamental elements shown in bright green boxes: domain of knowledge, community of people, and the shared practices that they develop. These elements are all interconnected.

In the upper left corner of the image the sources of information that contribute to the domain of knowledge are shown in grey boxes. Information sources include global sources of information and real-life questions or concerns. The domain of knowledge continually evolves as the community of people gain new information and feedback.

A community of people possessing a domain of knowledge works together through intertwined disciplines and knowledge construction to develop shared practices (light blue boxes).

Also leading to shared practices is a community of people with common community-based expectations (orange boxes). The community of people is comprised of self-directed, committed, empowered and learning-focused contributors. The community of people may form in a context of legitimate peripheral participation (teal boxes), which is a naturalistic model and type of situated learning. The students (or workers) include newcomers and experts who construct knowledge, focus on the process as well as the product, and emphasize social engagement.

Finally, flowing from the right side of the purple “Learning Communities” box are reflections and formative assessment (in light blue boxes). Both of these items lead to focus on self-improvement. Formative assessment and reflection resulting from discussion, collaboration, sharing, and knowledge building generates self-improvement which feeds back to the domain of knowledge and community of people (green boxes).

Concept map and caption created by Heather Bogue, Beth Huey, and Jessica Simmons (Fall, 2008).

Comparison of Features of a Traditional Setting and a Community-Based Setting

Graves (1992) defines a learning community as “an inherently cooperative, cohesive and self reflective group entity whose members work…toward common goals while respecting a variety of perspectives, values and life styles” (p.94). How does a traditional setting differ from a learning community?

Table 1. Building a learning community from Harada, Lum, & Souza, 2003 
Students or workers are passive recipients of information. Students or workers are constructors of knowledge.
Focus is on isolated skills, final products. Focus is on process as well as product.
Learning is primarily an independent activity Learning emphasizes social engagements.
Emphasis is on acquiring bits of isolated information. Emphasis is on making connections, fostering inquiry and problem solving.
Disciplines are viewed as discrete entities. Disciplines are viewed as intertwining studies.
Curriculum is built around textbooks, guides. Curriculum evolves from real-life concerns, student questions.
Information is largely restricted to classroom resources. Information access includes global sources of information.
Evaluation is summative and final; it focuses on grades. Evaluation includes formative assessment; it focuses on self-improvement.
There is limited, if any, time for reflection. Reflection is integral to the process.

In looking at the list of traditional features as opposed to community-based features, it is easy to see how the features apply to our three situations. In the Chrysler Corporation before implementing communities of practice, workers were passive recipients of directives that focused on one isolated part of manufacturing a car and never viewed the process as a whole. In a traditional educational setting, students are passive recipients of a top-down model of instruction with subjects being taught in isolation from one another and never view the subjects as interconnected.

The “curriculum” of the Chrysler Corporation prior to the implementation of communities of practice included guidelines and directives provided from the top executives and managers of the company. The workers were not encouraged to go outside of these prescribed guidelines and investigate new personal or other ideas. Students in a traditional educational setting are locked into a curriculum prescribed by textbooks or county and state guides. The curriculum for these students does not allow the introduction of outside topics of interest.

In the days before communities of practice, the focus for factory workers at Chrysler involved a summative evaluation of the finished vehicle and did not allow for any reflection on issues that might improve the final product. In the top-down model of traditional education, the focus remains on the final grade and at no point is there a time for reflection about the topic of instruction or its importance to the student.

In a knowledge society, people need to learn how to learn (New South Wales Department of Education and Training, 1995). “In a learning community, learning focuses on the processes as well as the content and product. Learning how individuals, teams, and organizations learn, and critically reflecting on the processes or organizational improvement, become essential components of daily work practice” (New South Wales Department of Education and Training, 1995).

Expectations in a Community-Based Environment

Students or workers are empowered, self directed and committed learners or contributors. Teachers and administrators or top management are themselves committed learners with well-developed habits of continuous inquiry and reflection. In a community-based environment, there is a learning-focused work environment in which both formal learning activities and informal workplace learning are valued.

Collaboration Is the Key

A culture of collaboration, in which all members of the community contribute to the achievements of shared goals, has the potential to lead to more effective decision making processes and improved outcomes (New South Wales Department of Education and Training, 1995). In a learning community, sharing power is essential. Certain characteristics exist in situations involving these communities including:

  • Improving continuously
  • Experimenting
  • Searching for better practices both inside and outside of the community
  • Contributing to other people’s practices by sharing ideas
  • Reflecting critically in an open and trusting environment
  • Discussing and challenging the purposes, values, and practices of the school or work environment

Learning is dependent on reflection that comes from the power of “intellectual camaraderie” stemming from discussion, collaboration, sharing and building knowledge with peers, as well as those who are more experienced or advanced in the topic or area of inquiry (Fulton, 2003). Through collaboration, each member of the community brings unique abilities that can be utilized and acknowledged by the learning group.

For example, a brakes engineer possesses specialized knowledge and adds this expertise to the group knowledge of producing a “manufacturable” car. Another group member brings a specific knowledge of safety features and another member possesses expertise in the area of passenger comfort features. Each member in this group contributes to the success of the group’s goal of a “manufacturable” car.

In another situation a freshman college student has a life-long love of marine science and becomes a valuable resource for the learning group in paired courses-Calculus II and Introduction to Marine Science. Another freshman in this group exhibits an exceptional talent for solving mathematical problems and a third group member shows an aptitude for coordinating the group’s collective efforts toward a finished product. Each of these members contributes a specialized part of the whole learning process.

A third example involves an elementary student finding a special talent in the area of writing and becoming the main source of a script that presents a Social Studies unit in the form of a play. A second learning community member loves to read and contributes the research information for the play. The artistic abilities of still another student are employed in the creation of scenery for the Social Studies play. Each student becomes a distinctive part of the whole learning community project. These examples show the opportunities for a learning community to utilize the unique abilities of individuals.

Positive Aspects of Learning Communities

Students and business employees find greater involvement in learning communities or communities of practice. Learning communities with the goal of learning can improve general education by bringing students and teachers together in ways that promote greater interaction with each other and deeper integration of the material being studied. Learning communities can also be built into developmental studies programs that provide at-risk students with a support network of teachers, peers and counselors. In the business world, communities of practice with the goal of completing work assignments connect people from different organizations as well as across independent business units (Wenger et al, 2002).

Whether in the work place or an academic situation, there must be some kind of end “product” to a group’s efforts. Learning communities can offer assessment efforts a vision worth working toward, one that taps into the intrinsic and extrinsic motivation of faculty, administration, and students (Banta, 2001). In the work place, the final product may be an improved version of an existing product or a brand new product designed by engaged, motivated workers.

Negative Aspects of Learning Communities

Learning communities or communities of practice like all human institutions also have a downside. Getting society at large to buy into the idea of learning communities is a big obstacle. The education system-both public and private-has relied on the traditional view of a top-to-bottom dissemination of information. Learning communities are a huge departure from this tradition. Communities of practice in large impersonal corporations are also a departure from the traditional top-to-bottom organizational structure in the work place.

Designing the communities and scheduling students or employees into these communities also poses a problem. The designing involves the collaboration and cooperation of faculty and administrators or managers and CEOs. If there is an atmosphere of political maneuvering for power, a short-term focus on tangible outcomes, or an emphasis on one year’s test scores and an anti-learning culture, then a community of practice or learning community cannot succeed. Communities of learning alone cannot develop countermeasures to most organizational disorders (Wenger, 2002).

Another possible negative aspect of the community of practice or a learning community is the degree of participation from the individual community members. Since members are free to contribute their own ideas and proposals within the group, they are also free to not contribute and to assume a passive nonparticipatory role. This freedom can be detrimental to the individual and to the group as a whole.

Outside influences, such as established institutions and society in general, provide outside sources of negative attitudes toward learning communities or communities of practice. Individual attitudes sometimes provide a source of negativity from within the community.


According to Harada et al (2003), learning communities with a goal of learning display certain features. Communities of practice with a goal of work completion also display these characteristics. These essential features are that:

  • Students (or workers) are constructors of knowledge.
  • Focus is on process as well as product.
  • Learning or completing work emphasizes social engagement.
  • Disciplines are viewed as intertwining studies or areas of expertise.
  • Curriculum or product development evolves from real-life questions or concerns.
  • Information access includes global sources of information.
  • Evaluation includes formative assessment and focuses on self-improvement.
  • Reflection is integral to the process.

Earlier Version of Learning Communities

An earlier version of this chapter was written by Evan Glazer. The author of the current chapter decided that she wanted to write a new chapter rather than an extensive edit of the old one. The Glazer chapter focused more on the nature of learning communities while this chapter focuses more on how to create good learning communities within your class (hence, the addition of the clause “as an instructional model”). Here is the link to the earlier version: Learning Communities


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Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). A guide to managing knowledge: Cultivating communities of practice. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.


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Executive Workshop on Value Creation with Communities of Practice (2002). Available on the World Wide Web: http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/index.shtml

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APA Citation: Buffington, J. (2003). Learning communities as an instructional model. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/