Why do we build a community of learners?
Simply put, building a community of learners is an integral part of 21st century learning and a mission of what VMA hopes to provide for our educators & students. But let’s take a step back to understand how we conceive this mission and why it matters?
With the development of science and technology, we have moved from Industrial Age to Information Age, a new era of information, knowledge and innovation. This shift has had a profound impact on the world’s economies and our daily lives. Add up overpopulation, overconsumption, increased global competition and interdependence, melting ice caps, financial meltdowns, and wars and other threats to security, and indeed we have a bumpy beginning for our new century.
Therefore, one of our education’s mission is to prepare our VMAers to deal with the challenges of their times. Knowledge work—the kind of work that most people will need in the coming decades—can be done anywhere by anyone who has the expertise, a cellphone, a laptop, and an Internet connection. But to have expert knowledge workers, we need to provide quality education that produces them. Thus, our school naturally takes on this responsibility—because education becomes the key to not just economic survival but also contributing to the broader society in the 21st century.
Given the current speed of technological advancements, economic growth, and information updates, it is clear that the traditional way of learning might not be the best way to fulfill education’s four roles: to empower us to contribute to society, exercise and develop our personal talents, fulfill our civic responsibilities and carry our traditions and values forward. In order to keep up with the changing times, we need to educate VMAers by building a community of learners, let learning take place anywhere anytime and promote a culture of life-long learning.
So...what is a community of learners anyway?
The culture of learning has a profound impact on students’ academic performance. All educators have experienced the phenomenon of a classroom charged with energy and enthusiasm for learning. But it can be challenging to replicate that experience every day to create an environment that increases the likelihood that all students will engage and learn. Current research indicates that the culture of learning is shaped by many factors, including the attitudes and beliefs of the students and educators, the classroom interactions, the available resources, and the instructional practices employed by the teacher.
The culture of learning is positively affected when educators and students develop a true community of learners. A community of learners can be defined as a group of people who share values and beliefs and who actively engage in learning from one another—learners from teachers, teachers from learners, and learners from learners. Thus, to create a learning-centered environment in which students and educators are actively and intentionally constructing knowledge together, we need to start with creating learning communities. Learning communities are connected, cooperative, and supportive. Peers are interdependent in that they have joint responsibility for learning and share resources and points of view, while sustaining a mutually respectful and cohesive environment.
A positive learning community supports diverse student capabilities by enabling all members to participate at their level of expertise and comfort—and, specifically, is characterized by feelings of safety among participants, as well as willingness to ask questions and make mistakes. This supported engagement motivates students so that they are more willing to persist when they are challenged or confused. Environments that foster beliefs of competence through effort can create a secure sense of belonging; one’s interest, commitment, and progress matter more than one’s perceived ability. Thus, creating a safe community in which peers and teachers are viewed as allies is essential for greater engagement and academic achievement.
We believe that in a community of learners there is no such concept as teacher and student. Such belief breaks down the traditional binary of the teacher-student model and have students actively participate in the process of teaching and teachers, learning. More importantly, we see our teachers as senior learners, because in addition to their life experiences and knowledge in a given area, they are still constantly learning how to become a better teacher through their work at VMA in improving their ways of teaching.
In an environment where learning happens everywhere, each stakeholder might assume roles that are different from the ones we usually find in a conventional school. That said, however, we need to bear in mind that the soul of a school remains unchanged, that is, to create, develop and nurture students.
If we want to build a school that has global vision, promotes digital literacy and boasts personalized learning, what a learners' community should be like in order to fulfill the vision?
In a community of learners, what do we expect from a student? Or more radically, we might ask ourselves another question: "Will there be students anymore in a learners' community?"
Students are younger, less experienced in life, but they might not be as inexperienced as one might think when it comes to learning. After all, they have been sitting in classrooms at the receiving end for more than ten years. They can tell if the teaching quality is great, and when they lose interest or remain disengaged. In a learners' community, this will not be the case.
Students are not students. They are the active contributor and practitioner of the learning community. They give real-time feedback about what they need, what they have learned, which in turn serve the purpose for our senior learners (teachers) to make curriculum-relevant decisions.
At VMA, we ask ourselves the following questions to guide us in our design for what we want our learners to achieve:
1. Where does learning start? Where does learning happen specifically?
2. How do students identify their interest, strength and weaknesses?
3. What characteristics or qualities students need to possess in order to thrive in an environment that encourages agency, sharing, digital literacy, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and creativity--and eventually develop the skills for lifelong learning?
4. How do they develop global-mindedness? What opportunities do they have in this regard?
5. What can be done to improve my digital literacy?
6. How do I come to understand what it means to be Chinese?
7. Learning is also about understanding where we are in terms of learning. How do our students understand or self-evaluate their progress?
8. Wrapping up, what an ideal student looks like if we want to create a learners' community?
Take a step back and take a look at what is happening in classrooms, we would be amazed at how much remains the same. As is written in "21st Century Skills: Learning for Life in Our Time", today's education systems operate on an agrarian calendar. But a fact we need to acknowledge before moving to an in-depth discussion on learning is the challenges that our entire society have shifted from meeting basic needs to self-realization and self-transcendence.
A community of learners can allow us the opportunity to transform the way we see education. We have discussed what it means by 21st Century education and what we could do in some specific areas, now we need to move on to educators' role and responsibilities in a learners' community that is designed for the present & the future.
As educators, we need to think about:
1. Teachers' role in a learners' community. How does that role shift?
2. What qualities and characteristics teachers should have in order to fulfill that role?
3. Are we global-minded--open to fresh ideas, keep abreast of relevant global issues, cross-cultural sensitivity? Do we have an environment that accentuate globality?
4. How do we understand Chinese identity? What does Chinese identity have to do with global-mindedness and competency?
5. How do we develop students' Chinese identity (opportunities we have), the character that comes with it, and show them that there are meaningful connections between themselves and the world?
6. Are we digitally fluent? How do we set examples as senior learners when it comes to digital fluency?
7. How do we integrate technology into each sector of school--curriculum design, teaching, assessment, data analysis, so the students can have the chance to get closer to personalized learning?
Wrapping up, what it means to be a 21st century educator, in a community of learners?
Learners' community is a community that sees no boundaries. The ubiquity of knowledge in every aspect of life means learning can truly happen everywhere--and for everyone, and everyone thus has a role to play. It is our shared responsibility to build the community, as a community.
In The Smartest Kids in the World, the author mentions multiple times the involvement of parents in school life. Korean parents make sure their kids have top academics, asserting themselves as determined authority figure. Finnish parents, however, do not always send their children to tutoring centers for extra classes. Meanwhile on the other side of the ocean, American parents in comparison, seem to be overly active: participating in school events, bringing baked cookies to schools, preparing for parties, celebrations, and recitals. In contrast, parents today in China grew up in a time where resource was scarce. However, you have now come to achieve affluence later in life and set the bars much higher for your child high bars for their children, doting on them and giving them an opportunity for success. But how much involvement should you really have in your child’s learning? What is meaningful parental involvement here?
Some questions that might help you as a parent to contribute to your child’s learning are:
1. What is the role of parents in a learners' community, where everyone is a learner?
2. What constitutes meaningful involvement in your child’s learning?
3. What can parents offer that is different from what is offered at school?
4. What opportunities parents can offer regarding Chinese identity? Do our parents pass on what it means to be Chinese?
5. Do parents have a role to play in classroom? Do they need to?
6. What qualities do you need to possess to be part of your child’s personal success in learning?
For External Stakeholders
Finally, we cannot forget about the people who influence our education philosophy, that is those who live in the community around our learners. Education prepares students for the real world. To be more specific, it prepares students for personal success, and gives them a space to understand local and global issues. As the scale of production goes up and economies are interconnected more than ever, it can be predicted that solutions for contemporary issues whether local or global, requires the involvement of multiple parties, all of which are stakeholders in this community of learners. That is why education needs to stretch beyond that of traditional school and enrich itself with all kinds of support.
We might need to think about the following:
1. Who are these stakeholders? Industries? Enterprises? The government? NGOs?
2. What roles do they play to impact our school?
3. What opportunities can they offer to our community of learners?
4. How can we engage them to play a part in the process of learning?