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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Creating Intentional Learning Communities

Organized across schools, districts, or states, educational reform networks offer teachers and administrators an opportunity to discuss their work and tackle problems in an atmosphere of trust and support.

Educational reform networks are fast becoming an important alternative to conventional modes of teacher and school development. At a time when educators feel that administrators and professional development staff are already overburdening and "developing" them, why would networks—seemingly shapeless and borderless and involving random collections of educators— become so popular?
Curious about this question, we first examined three networks created at the National Center for Restructuring Education, Schools, and Teaching (NCREST, Teachers College, Columbia University). We later expanded our study to include 13 other networks representing a range of purposes, locations, participants, and modes of operation (Lieberman and Grolnick, in press). What we saw helped to provide some answers to why and how reform networks have become such an important component in the reform of U.S. education.

Networks as Learning Communities

At the heart of members' involvement in reform networks, teachers and administrators label, share, and discuss their work experiences. In an atmosphere of trust and support, networkers contribute to and gain access to "just in time" learning (solving immediate problems of practice), as well as grapple with problems in greater depth and complexity:Eight assistant superintendents from neighboring districts gather in a member's boardroom for their monthly network meeting. As the others listen, one participant describes his district's efforts to implement a model of inclusion for special education students. "Please understand," he begins, "I'm here to tell you what works for us, but we also have some real problems and I'm hoping you can help." In the hour that follows, participants lean across the conference table to share their own experiences and insights. The discussion ranges broadly from issues of implementation and instruction to politics, ethics, philosophy, and the problems of change.This kind of sharing has the effect of dignifying and giving shape to the substance of educators' experiences—the dailiness of their work, which is often invisible to outsiders yet binds insiders together. Networks are particularly good at helping school-based educators discuss and work on current problems, while exposing them to new ideas from peers in other schools and districts. Working across districts or even states, teachers and administrators find it easier to question, ask for help, or "tell it like it is," rather than to be the experts who, not wanting to appear inadequate, sit quietly, afraid to expose themselves by asking questions.
Although school-based educators may need to invent a great deal of reform knowledge (Darling-Hammond 1993, Little 1993, Lytle and Cochran-Smith 1992), norms that encourage invention are not yet part of the way most schools and districts operate. Because networks are a more flexible organizational form, they offer new ways of operating that can embrace the processes of teaching, learning, and leading as they really are—ambiguous, complex, unfinished— and thus tend to be more in tune with how school professionals live and view their lives. Networks offer people membership in a constructive community: a group of professionals engaged in a common struggle to educate themselves so that they can better educate their students.

Flexible Activities, Responsive Structures

In contrast to most traditional organizations, networks have the flexibility to organize activities first, then develop the structures to support those activities. This flexibility allows a network to create an activity, use it as long as it serves members' needs and purposes, and end it when members no longer perceive it as valuable. The responsiveness of the network provides for a more developmental approach to adult learning by empowering members to voice their approval or disapproval, by building commitment to the network rather than to a particular activity, and by encouraging a more personal and professional involvement of members in their own learning.
The flexibility of a network encourages the growth of new forms (cross-role groups, dinner meetings, study groups) when they seem appropriate and, in some instances, helps build the norms and functions associated with a particular network. In the Southern Maine Partnership, for example, "dine and discuss" is a home-grown idea that contributed to the growth of more egalitarian relationships among school and university-based partners:When the partnership started, we created "dine and discuss" conversations. Teachers, principals, and district office personnel chose topics of immediate concern and interest. We had 17 groups. Educators would come together for dinner, then read and discuss an article—much like a book club. Professors, teachers, and principals all talked together, thus reducing status differences. In time, "dine and discuss" was dropped as it no longer served the purposes of the partnership. But five years later, when someone asked what had happened to "dine and discuss," it was reinstituted.
Each network develops activities that reflect its own distinct culture. For example, Bread Loaf Rural Teachers' Network uses a summer retreat in Bread Loaf, Vermont, to socialize new members and an electronic network, Breadnet, to connect members and their students from Alaska to Mississippi. Both the Network of Progressive Educators—for those who share values of progressive education—and the League of Professional Schools—a network of schools working on their own plans to promote democratic policies—convene an annual conference that provides an opportunity for members to learn from and teach each other. The National Network for Educational Renewal, on the other hand, has used task forces when appropriate and has abandoned and reinstated them as the need arose.
Although their specific activities may differ, all networks offer forms of adult learning that support the needs of members who seek organizations that recognize and respect what they know and do.

A Culture of Continuous Inquiry

In addition to altering the formats for learning, networks also replace prescription and compliance with involvement in problem posing, sharing, and solving; discussions that concern actions and consequences; and a culture that encourages continuous inquiry. Networks advance goals for learning and professional competence that model and support a variety of modes of inquiry. Examples include task groups engaged in action research, teams writing school-based plans, teachers discussing assessment problems online, or networks assisting schools that are restructuring their approaches to teaching and learning. Many participants voice satisfaction with their involvement:My network's common values and principles form the basis for ongoing writings and dialog for many of us. Intellectually stimulating, educationally sound, and morally challenging! This is great stuff! This is hard stuff!Most of the real communication in my network is through informal contacts and conversation, ... connections with people where trust is apparent.I teach in rural Vermont. I am the only middle school English teacher here. Fellow teachers in Breadnet help me to keep going and keep my sanity as well as extend my classroom and the quality of work the kids and I do.
Sharing information often becomes the focus of learning. Participants may prepare a report on some new aspect of teacher research or may exchange ideas about how schools are using rubrics. Others discuss ways their students are using the Net to communicate with other students as an audience for their work. In some cases, schools undergoing change help one another understand what they are doing and how the change process works.
Networks invite their members to help shape the agenda, which gives a voice to those who usually respond to the agendas of others. Successful networks organize their work so that members can be active participants rather than passive observers. But networks don't spontaneously know how to do all this. Leaders and facilitators must support, broker, and link school professionals together to encourage their participation in their own development.

Reinventing Leadership

One of the most important, yet least understood, aspects of reform networks is the role of leadership. Perhaps this is because much of network leadership is defined as facilitating, brokering, and linking, rather than leading. Leaders carry out such mundane activities as making phone calls, raising money, arranging meetings, brokering resources and people, and negotiating time commitments for university and school-based educators. Activities like these make possible the building and maintaining of collaborative models of learning, development, and change; the preservation of important ideals; and the advancement of new ideas.
Network leaders try to create "public spaces" where educators can work together across classrooms, schools, or districts. In locations free of the normal boundaries and cultural constraints of one's own organization, position, or place, it becomes possible to grow a culture of commitment to a new set of ideas and ideals. Helping to build a culture through activities that keep these ideas visible and integral to the work is an important part of leadership.
Although most networks have formal leaders such as regional directors, site coordinators, and partnership associates, they also provide numerous opportunities for leadership to emerge from the membership. Informal new categories—teacher scholars, conference coordinators, and member-experts in the growing body of knowledge about teaching and learning—continue to expand. In fact, facilitators look for opportunities to create leadership, regardless of status or rank. This helps to strengthen members' commitment to the network, enlarges their vision of the possibilities for change, and broadens their personal and professional associations.
The linking of expectations with the opportunity to collaborate in the context of a warm and welcoming community legitimates a search for innovative solutions to complex educational problems that are often ill-defined and that have no simple or universal answers (Little 1993, Lieberman 1995, Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin 1995). Figuring out how to keep such a community growing as it deepens its knowledge and practice, while connecting the work of the network to its parent organizations, is a major concern of leadership. When the community grows and deepens, a network becomes an important catalyst for school renewal. This is no easy task—it is one that takes great skill, knowledge, and creativity.

Recurring Tensions in Networks

Throughout our study, we found several organizational tensions that occurred consistently. The dynamics inherent in the attempts to resolve these tensions—which involve personal conflict and organizational disequilibrium—appear to be central to the process of how networks organize, build new structures, learn to collaborate, and develop a sense of community. While the resolutions of these tensions were heavily influenced by the context and character of each network, the tensions themselves were common to all.
Negotiating between network purpose and the dailiness of activities. No matter what the purpose of the network, the nature of the activities and the growth of relationships within the group are crucial elements in cementing the commitment of participants. A tension often develops between short-term activities and long-term purposes. Activities must be compelling enough to keep people coming back for more, no matter how meaningful or well-intentioned the long-term purposes. Networks can't hope to survive unless ways are found to build connections between larger or emergent meaning and the specific activities that together create that meaning.
Negotiating between "inside knowledge" and "outside knowledge." Whatever the purpose, networks must decide what and whose knowledge should inform their work— specifically, when should which type of knowledge be influential, and to what extent? All network leaders agreed that, to be meaningful, the agenda must emerge from questions of practice. And the negotiation is constant: Who provides the information? How much of practice is "sharing ignorance"? How much generalized knowledge simply lacks a context? As one leader said, "The dilemma is when to push for further success on values or when to accept a practical adaptation."
Negotiating the centralization/ decentralization problem. A tension exists between taking either a "district office" approach, which often fails to involve the membership in shaping the work, or an arbitrary alternative approach, which might attract some committed members but usually fails to involve a larger number of participants. An effective network creates ways to engage participants directly in governance and leadership, while maintaining the flexibility to organize complex, far-reaching operations. Leaders need to design mechanisms, roles, and structures that achieve a greater degree of decentralization. Authority and control have often resided in universities and districts, leaving teachers with few opportunities to assume leadership roles. By contrast, a decentralized network encourages teachers to take on new roles and responsibilities, contributing to their own growth and development as well as that of the network.
Negotiating between informal/flexible and formal/rigid. To develop collaboration across schools, districts, and role groups, a network must organize and facilitate activities and coordinate its work. As the network seeks ways to stabilize and expand, it may threaten the energy, initiative, peer support, and trust that developed informally (Miles 1978). The more success that networks experience, the more they reach out to other areas of work and the more pressure they feel to expand their bureaucracy. Protecting what makes the network special becomes more difficult as it grows, requiring time, effort, and, most of all, creative solutions to the problems associated with success.
Negotiating the tension between inclusivity and exclusivity. Should a network restrict its membership to people with the same professional interests, values, and commitments? Or should membership be open to anyone who wants to join? Is it better to reach out immediately for a large membership, start small and expand later, or just stay small? Each choice has important consequences for the success of the network. Open networks need to satisfy constituents with different interests and levels of commitment, whereas networks that restrict membership tend to have a core of committed members (usually the first to join) who share a particular point of view and must concern themselves with how to socialize new members. These issues influence the structure of the network, the kinds of activities it provides, and the role that leadership plays— whether in deepening the work of the members of an exclusive network or in finding ways to involve members who are at different levels of sophistication in an inclusive one.
Networks, regardless of their unique qualities, have in common the ways in which they bring people together and organize their work. They all value knowledge that is both context- specific and generalized. Structurally and philosophically, they are more like a movement than an organization. In addition, agendas are more often challenging than prescriptive; work formats more collaborative than individualistic; attempts at change more integrated than fragmented; and approaches to leadership more facilitative than directive. At a time when schools are involved in reinventing themselves to serve a highly technological and multicultural world, these intentional learning communities are becoming an important and valuable force for changing education.

Darling-Hammond, L. (1993). "Reframing the School Reform Agenda: Developing Capacity for School Transformation." Kappan 74, 10: 753-761.

Darling-Hammond, L., and M. W. McLaughlin. (April 1995). "Policies that Support Professional Development in an Era of Reform." Kappan 76, 8: 597-604.

Lieberman, A. (April 1995). "Practices that Support Teacher Development: Transforming Conceptions of Teacher Learning." Kappan 76, 8: 591-596.

Lieberman, A., and M. Grolnick. (1996). "Networks and Reform in American Education." The Teachers College Record 98, 1.

Lytle, S., and M. Cochran-Smith, eds. (1992). Inside-Outside: Teacher Research and Knowledge. New York: Teachers College Press.

Little, J. W. (1993). "Professional Development in a Climate of Educational Reform." Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 15, 2: 129-151.

Miles, M. B. (1978). "On Networking." Unpublished manuscript. Center for Policy Research. Washington, DC: National Institute of Education.

Ann Lieberman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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