Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

School as Community


n this article, we'll explore how the School as Community metaphor changes what we perceive about schools. 

Metaphors are not simple, discrete ways of understanding complex issues. Metaphors may overlap. For example, the organization of a school may profoundly influence many elements of a school culture. Conversely, a school culture may influence the type of organization the school adopts.

Traditionally, schools have had a hierarchical structure. In a hierarchy, roles are defined and there is a recognized "pecking order" of responsibility. Goals come down from on high. Everyone is expected to do their assigned part to accomplish those goals.

A school with a positive culture characterized by collegiality and cooperation may well perceive benefit in moving away from the hierarchical structure. Some schools have begun referring to themselves as "learning communities." This metaphor focuses on the nature of leadership (shared rather than hierarchical) and the roles that members of the community play in the ongoing educational process.

Communities often arise among people with a common intention or interest. They are held together by commitment rather than contract. Communication about commonly perceived needs flows among members of the community. The unique contributions of individual members are recognized and utilized, and roles arise from need rather than assignment. Rather than rules, there are shared values and beliefs.(1)

Although many people recognize the difference between a hierarchy and a community, the success of the learning community depends on the ownership that each person takes in its success. If an administrator in a hierarchical school suddenly announces that the school will become a community and sets up "rules" for how it will operate, other members of that "community" may notice little difference between it and the original hierarchy. And they are correct. Communities do not arise by fiat!

Birthing a learning community entails much more than simply "deciding" to be one. It requires a very different communication structure. Each member of a community must be encouraged (and feel free) to express his or her concerns and opinions. Of equal importance, those concerns and opinions must be addressed in some way. If they are not, efficacy will be diminished and people will fail to take ownership of, or even continue to participate in, community issues.

Becoming a learning community often requires that members of the school learn new ways of communication. This is particularly true in schools where previous communications have been adversarial. This process requires both time and a commitment on everyone's part. If a school is attempting to form a learning community at the same time that is trying to move from a negative to a positive culture, early efforts at communication may drop back into old patterns. Rather than accepting yet another "failure," it is imperative that each person in the school is encouraged to recognize and alter personal communication habits in support of change.

A true learning community will include people who have previously been without a voice.

A school is unlikely to become a true community unless the perception of who is responsible for the effectiveness of a school is broadened, and a new dynamic of interaction is adopted.

In the next article, we'll take a look at how the school as hospital metaphor shapes our perceptions.

  1. Sergiovanni, Thomas J. (1993) Organizations or Communities? Changing the Metaphor Changes the Theory. Eric Document 376008. Invited address, AERA

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