Community of Learners: Ontological and Non-Ontological Projects

By Matusov, Eugene; von Dyuke, Katherine et al. | Outlines : Critical Practice Studies, January 1, 2013 | Go to article overview

Community of Learners: Ontological and Non-Ontological Projects


Matusov, Eugene, von Dyuke, Katherine, Han, Sohyun, Outlines : Critical Practice Studies


Abstract

Our analysis reveals two major types of "Community of Learners" (COL) projects in education: instrumental and ontological. In instrumental COL, the notion of "community" is separated from the notion of "instruction" in order to reach some preset endpoints: curricular or otherwise. We notice three main instrumental COL models: relational, instructional, and engagement. Ontological COL redefines learning as an ill-defined, distributed, social, multi-faceted, poly-goal, agency-based, and situated process that integrates all educational aspects. We will consider two ontological COL projects into: narrowly dialogic and polyphonic.

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Some time ago in the 1990s, I (the first author) decided to visit one public innovative school, run as "a community of learners." When I called one of the school leaders and asked if I could come on Tuesday to see the school, the leader replied that they did a community of learners only on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I asked what happened on Tuesdays and Thursdays and she replied that they did regular instruction. Her answer about doing a community of learners only on certain days surprised me then. How can a community be on certain days and not on others? Imagine that a family exists only on certain days and not on others: Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays two people relate to each other as husband and wife, or mother and her child but on all other days, they are perfect strangers! Deviation from family relations are often called "cheating" and viewed as betrayal and infidelity. The idea of "family" or "community" suggests openness to, mutuality of, and commitment to the relationship. The idea of having such relation one day and not the other seems to deny the very meaning of the relationship implied by notion of community. However, I doubt that the leaders of that innovative school, and probably some other educationalists, sensed this dissonance that I experienced - and this was also surprised us. For example, a scholar who read a previous draftof the manuscript commented, "As I am sure the authors are aware, COL is often used as a shorthand to describe a full curriculum with specific participation structures, problem spaces, and curricular resources. If the COL project that this innovative school was engaged in was something like Fostering a Community of Learners (Brown and Campione's version), it would be no more strange for the person contacted to say that they did not run 'community of learners' on Tuesdays and Thursdays, than it would be to say, 'we don't teach music on Tuesdays and Thursdays.'" It became clear to us that different educators and educational scholars understand the notion of "Community of Learners" (CoL) VERY differently.

This incidence and many other observations and readings about self-proclaimed "community of learners" schools and classrooms, led us to believe that there are at least two big distinct ways or two big families of approaches to understanding the notion of CoL. We call the first one a "non-ontological" or "instrumental" model in which CoL is viewed a process that can be switched on and offby the involved educators or narrowly as a means for achieving non-CoL goals. In this model, the CoL serves something else: for more effective learning, for providing more comfort to the students, for avoiding or reducing disciplinary problems, for developing metacognition, and so on. In this pedagogy, the notion of curriculum is separated from the notion of community, the teaching curriculum is often separated from the learning curriculum (Lave, 1992, April), the notion of community is often separated from the notion of instruction, and so on (cf. "educational fallacies", Whitson, 2007).

As a result, students often are not ontologically engaged in their own learning. Students' ontological engagement in their education (Matusov, 2009) means that when the students are asked why they do what they do in school, "Why are you doing that? …

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