Towards a General Theory of SRI’s Intentional Learning Communities

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Abundant research suggests that schools where adults learn together in thoughtful, sustained, and persistent ways can improve teacher practice and student learning. (Bryk, 2010; Carroll, Fulton, & Doerr, 2010; Kruse, Louis, & Bryk, 1994; McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; F. Newmann & Whelage, 1995; F. M. Newmann, Smith, Allensworth, & Bryk, 2001; Sebring, Allensworth, Bryk, Easton, Luppescu, et al., 2006). However, it is not at all clear how adults in schools learn how to work and learn together, to be reflective, share their practice, focus on student learning, give and get useful feedback, or build shared understandings of fundamental ideas about schooling. Anne Liebermann, for example, notes, “This situation raises important issues for both practitioners and policy makers. Researchers including Little (1990, 2003) and McLaughlin and Talbert (2006) have closely documented elements of successful learning communities, but those studies and others have done less to document the process of implementation. More specifically, there is a lot of discussion about the importance of factors like trust (Bryk & Schneider, 2002) and good leadership (Elmore, 2000) in creating and sustaining adult learning situations in schools, but there is less research about exactly how to create [emphasis added] community and how principals work to support and monitor PLC efforts to allow for successful changes in practice” (Mindich & Lieberman, 2012).

There is a lot of discussion about “learning communities” in schools and the literature about schools. Some communities are “professional;” some are “purposeful”; others are “communities of practice.” There is a lot of talk and lots of different (and often confusing) language. Moreover, Richard DuFour who coined the term “professional learning community” has remarked that the “term has been used so ubiquitously that it is danger of losing all meaning (DuFour, Eaker, & DuFour, 2005, p. 31) In SRI’s view, order to make a difference learning communities need to be rigorous, collaborative, focused on learning, and built upon shared norms and values.  They need to be intentional.

At their best, SRI’s Intentional Learning Communities (ILCs) are places where educators work together to learn the skills of reflecting, collaborating, deprivatizing practice, and exposing and exploring fundamental assumptions. ILCs by definition are where groups build shared norms and values and hold each other accountable for being faithful to them.

What often attracts educators to the idea of an Intentional Learning Community is its apparent simplicity. ILCs are structures that support adult learning in schools. They are groups of educators who meet regularly with the goal of improving teaching and learning and are characterized by: (1) skilled facilitation, and (2) the use of protocols to guide adult learning. This simple structure assumes that teachers have both things to learn from each other and things to teach each other, and that learning together will improve their teaching practice, deepen their knowledge of their students, and build a shared understanding of fundamental ideas about schooling. Yet experience and considerable research suggests that this simple idea is neither simple nor easy to implement.

The enactment of the ILC model is influenced by a variety of factors, including the skill of the ILC coach, support of the principal, and the culture of the school. ILCs are also affected by the membership of the group, their reason for being there, their focus, the time available to meet and even the size and stability of the group. There is a long list.

This “General Theory of Intentional Learning Communities” attempts to situate the simple idea of ILCs within the larger literature and research frameworks around (1) adult development, (2) organizational culture, (3) school change, and (4) transformational learning. Hopefully, situating the ILC concept in this larger, more complex context will help practitioners and researchers explore their understandings and assumptions around why such a simple idea leverages such complex behaviors. However, like any such broad theoretical framework, some of the ideas are very well supported by research, while others are only best guesses. Our hope is that both researchers and practitioners will continue this discussion as a way to understand how SRI critical friendship and facilitative leadership can make schools better for every student.


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