After many months of not traveling to schools, I recently attended an Exhibition of Learning. The energy, enthusiasm, and genuine excitement of the learners to share what they had been working on was palpable.
I chatted with attendees and participants and asked them what they were feeling and experiencing. Almost all of them had the same response—community.
They were experiencing a deep sense of community; one they had been missing dearly. This is of course, despite the fact that most had been on Zoom with each other for the greater part of the previous school year. They had “seen” each other but not truly been together. This was especially true for the many who had begun with the school since the pandemic began, so had never been in the same physical space with each other. One mother shared, “I needed this to feel hope and connected to the other people at our school. It is so wonderful to see what they [learners] are capable of doing and just to be together.”
Even if it was just briefly and albeit as an outsider, being a part of their Exhibition made me feel connected and think about how important community is for the learners, leaders, and families in a new way. It has the power to inspire hope, shed light on possibilities and potential, and deepen a sense of belonging. And, there is something special about what can be created when we are physically together in building that community.
While it has always been important, attention to community feels even more paramount as of late. Learners are feeling increasingly disconnected (despite seemingly being hyper-connected on devices) with all of the disruptions over the last couple of years. Even before the pandemic, young people in record numbers expressed a lack of belonging, and we know a sense of belonging and community play a key role in “life satisfaction, happiness, mental and physical health, and even longevity.” Feeling inspired by what I experienced and knowing how dire the current situation is for many learners, I wanted to look at what we can learn about the importance of community from existing learner-centered environments. In particular, I’m curious about those environments that connect with people, places, and programs in ways that break down the usual barriers of the four school walls—those stepping toward an ecosystem approach.
Community is core to both how and where things are learned, as well as what is learned.
Community is Core in Learner-Centered Environments
As I see it, community is both physical and emotional. It is physical in that community comprises the geography, spaces, places, and people learners engage with in their learning journey. And, it is also a feeling and acknowledged interdependence—a belief, a deep sense of care, and a way of interacting that has you recognize that you matter to others in the group.
In learner-centered environments, community is developed and prioritized in both senses. Physically, the community is the world for learning. Learning happens in the library, the barbershop, a museum, with a neighbor, on the soccer field, or in a learning hub. Emotionally, community is built in learner-centered environments through introspection, reflection, advisory, mentorship, meaningful relationships with one another, and deep human connection to those with whom you are growing and learning.
Community is core to both how and where things are learned, as well as what is learned. How each learner shows up in a community, what they need to be present, and why they connect is not an afterthought but an integral part of the learning experience. Where that learning and those experiences happen is thoughtfully organized—leveraging the resources, wisdom, and assets of the physical locality and the virtual world. And, what is learned comes from the learners themselves, understanding both individual learning goals and the collective group or communal values, beliefs, and needs.
Community is about seeing and holding space for others. It is about seeing and holding space for yourself. The learner is linked inextricably to the learning community and community to the learner. There is reciprocity; an ebb and flow, if you will. Fortunately, environments across the country are building this same sense of community and belonging I experienced at the Exhibition for their young people—and we can learn from all that they are doing.
For many learner-centered environments, their cultivation of community is intrinsically tied to their intentional unpacking of the importance of place and the physical environment.
Examples of Environments Prioritizing Community
For many learner-centered environments, their cultivation of community is intrinsically tied to their intentional unpacking of the importance of place and the physical environment. This means when you look at these environments, you see that they’ve tapped into the physical community in meaningful ways with internships, community service, and place-based exploration, as well as created wide-ranging opportunities for young people to learn virtually. However, this is more than just getting young people out of a school building context; it enables learners to unpack both who they are and how place, both physical and virtual, have influenced their lives and what influence they might have on their environment today and in the future.
Learners actively consider what it means to feel belonging and to critically consider those places where we are told or made to feel like we don’t belong. Learners develop critical consciousness, examining their own identity and belonging in community.
As Friere states in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (p. 34).” Through these explorations and analyses, we often come to find community, connection, and belonging.
Take CapX, a program based in Washington, DC, which provides learners community-based experiences at the local museums and parks that otherwise are reserved typically for twice-a-year field trips. Often through projects, learners deepen their understanding of real-world issues and topics in their own backyard and connect with local experts and mentors at field sites like The Smithsonian Museums. Learners reflect on their sense of belonging, identity, and relationships within places and spaces in the community.
Or we can look to Amp Lab, a program launching this fall in Fort Wayne, Indiana. It is a partnership with the local Boys & Girls Club, the school district, and a career pathway center. The program’s goal is to support high school and middle school learners to explore interests and connect them with industry mentors and opportunities in the Fort Wayne community (see here for an interview with Riley Johnson who is spearheading this initiative). Having young people build roots in and see the vibrancy and opportunity in their hometown is an important goal of many learner-centered environments (like Iowa BIG), where issues of talent drain are putting community’s economic and social vitality at risk.
Looking further West, Watershed, a school in Boulder, Colorado, works to engage learners in a range of place-based activities. Deepening their sense of belonging in community tied to place is core to everything they do. Their philosophy states it plainly: “Watershed was founded on the best learning and teaching research, a commitment to focusing on our student’s futures, and a dedication to serving the human and ecological communities within and beyond the walls of the school. This is why we describe our program as research-based, future-focused, and community-centered.”
And, going to California, Círculos, located in Santa Ana, centers place and community in how learners discover projects of interest. The learning community comes together in a circle in physical places around the community where they are partnering with an organization or individual to address an issue, project, or challenge. Learners often decide on issues they want to address and learn about. During 2020, amongst other community-focused efforts, they engaged in virtual circles to continue to connect with one another. To demonstrate their learning, learners engage in defenses of learning and work towards competencies. Check out their Community Connected Research Journal.
We can’t forget Big Picture Learning with their campuses around the world, which have for decades prioritized community and getting learners out into their worlds for internships, projects, and deeply meaningful experiences. Leaving to Learn is central to what they are all about.
Finally, the Native American Community Academy (NACA) in Albuquerque, New Mexico is a “thriving and dynamic community where students, educators, families, and Native community leaders come together, creating a place for students to grow, become leaders, and prepare to excel in both college and life in general.” Community, one of their core values, is integral to how they engage with one another, as is their commitment to honor the land and the wisdom of their ancestors and elders in their physical community. Indigenous Farm Hub is one of several community partners that learners engage with to strengthen language, culture, and a sense of belonging through growing food with and for their broader community.
Across these environments, there is a common element—they are all moving outside of the physical limitations of a school building into the physical community in meaningful, intentional ways. This engagement of place as a source for building community has been integral to how communities have operated in the past and still do to this day. While certainly not new, this focus does present new opportunities as we imagine what’s possible moving forward.
“Who is allowed to become a member of a community? When can we say that we truly belong?”
An Ecosystem Approach to Creating Community
These environments are, in their own ways, moving toward an ecosystem approach to learner-centered education—one where learning lives everywhere. The learning community no longer lives just inside the four walls of a school but is deeply rooted in places—from DC, Fort Wayne, Boulder, Albuquerque, to Santa Ana. By doing so, they are also deepening and developing the mental and emotional sense of community learners feel.
In a learner-centered ecosystem, community becomes more than critical. The physical community will be intricately tied together by the learners and community members interacting in those spaces and sites. Belonging is not reduced just to the classroom or even school you were “assigned,” but instead expands immensely to encompass all aspects of who you are, how you come to see yourself, and how you connect with place in the communities with whom you interact, engage, and learn with.
Unlike the conventional school system that depends on everyone coming to the same place simultaneously to learn, ecosystems will connect a larger number of people in the community at different times, in different ways, and lead to unique journeys for each learner. More explicit linkages between learning that happens amongst those engaged in a young person’s education—from care provider to mentor to peer to soccer coach to grandparent—will be clear and honored as valuable.
And, it is important to remember that this building of community, connectedness, and belonging does not just automatically happen. As we move away from being so dependent on centralized school buildings and more robust ecosystem approaches of learning emerge, we must attend to how to develop and nurture community. I’m reminded of Belonging: A Culture of Place by the late bell hooks, who emphasizes that a strong sense of belonging is tied to place and a deep understanding of community. She critically considers the following questions and asks us to do the same, “Who is allowed to become a member of a community? When can we say that we truly belong?” We ought to pay attention to these questions and ask ourselves:
- How will an ecosystem approach help to nurture and grow our sense of belonging and community? Not just amongst learners, but also amongst youth development leaders, educators, families, and community members?
- In an ecosystem approach, how will learners feel like they belong?
- In an ecosystem approach, what experiences, like an Exhibition, are critical to building a healthy sense of community?
While I don’t have the answers and imagine they will be unique in each context, these questions will be critically important to the work ahead. Education Reimagined is learning from and building with leaders and inventors who know community is inextricably linked to learning and a learners’ sense of belonging—collectively inventing what a truly community-based, learner-centered ecosystem can look like and make possible.