A recent conversation with friends led me to reflect on the question “what makes a good community?” I’m fortunate enough to count myself as a member of a few great communities of people who enjoy learning. True, at times, that they may function as an echo chamber, but just as often (or perhaps more often), friends will challenge my thinking.
Reflecting on my own experience
I know that I wouldn’t be the type of thinker I am without the influence of many profound people. But what makes this group of people special to me? What has them occupying a special place in my psyche as well as my heart? I did some reading, and found that the groups to which I belong share some special characteristics; ones I’ve always felt were important to foster within my classroom.
The research says
McMillan and Chavis had some interesting insight into what makes a community, way back in 1986. The characteristics of a community are the same today: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of need, and a shared emotional connection (1). A good learning community shows signs of all of these. I could spend my words here restating what the research shows, but I won’t do that. If you want to read up, I recommend it (and I’ve included a resources section), but I want to write about what a learning community means to me, and what I do to try and make the learning community better for all its members.
The space has to be welcoming, for anyone. My community buddies are always warm, open, and honest. They’ll answer the same question, time after time. There are some sites I use extensively to learn, but they’re not a community. Some people in those forums will shut down anyone who asks a question someone else might have had before. In my communities, the wise people understand that not everyone is a search-ninja. Sometimes, they just need a point in the right direction, and sometimes they need hand-holding. After all, we didn’t get smart all by ourselves - we need to help others at least as much as we’ve been helped.
Is that really the best way to be?
A strong community is also honest. If something’s not a good idea, they’ll tell me, but they’ll do it gently. Maybe suggest a better approach. Maybe instead of telling me it sucks, they’ll ask me questions to help lead me to the understanding that what I’m thinking sucks. Finding a place online where everyone agrees with you is possible, but I don’t like those places. They build a sense of group “rightness,” and a diverse set of people is critical to a strong community (2). We have shared interests, but differing opinions, ideas, and strategies.
No cricket noises allowed
Good communities are these things (and more), but I want to speak about something that communities are not. Good communities, ones where I go for questions or answers, are not silent. I never see an unanswered post, because we all want to contribute. As Bielaczyc, Kapur, and Collins stated, “The overall goal of a [community of learners]... is to foster a culture of learning, where both individuals and the community as a whole are learning how to learn.” (3)
Hey, are you open?
I’m a big fan of openness. Some of my communities are closed, it’s true (*gasp*), but those in which I participate most are open to anyone. We’re transparent. You can join, or you can not join; either way, you can still access all the conversations. If you want to be a member, there’s no application process. No fees to pay. Click a button, you’re in, and you can ask or answer questions.
Or not. You can join, and just lurk. There’s an overwhelming feeling in these spaces that we’re all here to learn. And to me, that’s the key to a good community. We all have different strengths, weaknesses, opinions, ideas, and perspectives, but every community I’m in (and they’re quite a variety) is united by one feature.
All of us, no matter any of the other things,