In the year 2000, when I was a newly-divorced father living apart from my kids, I was at risk of succumbing to depression and despair. All that I had striven for seemed to be in ashes, and I was looking around for something, anything, to restore a sense of hopefulness to my life. As Seligman (2005) notes, learning activities can provide a person at risk for depression with a sense of purpose and empowerment, and thus “innoculate” him against the onset of depressive thoughts and attitudes. Such a learning activity came along and kept me from devastation. In its requirements of members and its methods, the group qualified as a real learning community.
Although it was not a Professional Learning Community (PLC), I was able to find a group called “Single Parents” that was in fact a learning community. The members of this group strove to “understand their experiences, deepen what they know, and learn more about what they [did] not know.” While the group is still in existence (and thus has “lasted”), and it did provide valuable leadership training for individuals (and thus was one that “leads”), its primary function was as a vehicle for members to find out how to more effectively function as single parents, and hence it qualifies best as one of Martin-Kniep’s (2008) “communities that learn.”
At my sister’s urging, I attended the “Single Parents” group at a local church, but I might have sought out such a group anyway, since my misery and sense of desperation gave me the readiness to proceed. The group required members to have some of the “courage” that Martin-Kniep (2008) describes in the functional PLC, one in which members relinquish control and “allow themselves to be scrutinized” as part of the learning process. Palloff and Pratt (2005) would have recognized my and other community members’ willingness to make ourselves vulnerable (sharing our mistakes and misfortunes, being emotionally honest) as evidence of our readiness, since it was done “for the purpose of connecting with others.” Martin-Kniep (2008) could easily have found examples of the way in which the group exemplified the readiness characteristics of successful PLCs, particularly “intellectual perseverance” (in our willingness to revise our previous understandings), “courage and initiative” (in our willingness to work with strangers and to assume new roles within the group), and “collegiality” (in our acceptance of others and our readiness to freely give for the furtherance of group goals).
At our weekly hour-long meetings, we would typically have readings from pertinent literature, a brief presentation-reflection, and then a time for sharing. The group was usually small enough (no larger than 15 or so) that people came to know and trust each other. Like Munro’s group (2005, cited in Martin-Kniep 2008), we worked together in our pursuit of common goals (making the best of a bad situation for us and our children), and like Wenger’s groups (1995, cited in Martin-Kniep 2008), our learning took non-traditional forms. We regularly expanded the group activity outside our normal meeting times, sharing meals and family gatherings with our kids. Some members expanded beyond these meetings, developing inter-personal relationships that in at least three instances led to re-marriages.
So although the group took place nowhere near a school, it was in fact a highly-effective learning community that functioned as a vehicle for alleviating despair and providing purpose and focus for members. It called on members to give of themselves in ways that our authors would have recognized as essential in any successful learning community.
Martin-Kniep, G. (2008). Communities that Learn, Lead, and Last: Building and Sustaining Educational Expertise. San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.
Palloff R. & Pratt, K. (2007). Building Online Learning Communities: Effective Strategies for the Virtual Classroom, (2nd ed.). San Franciso: Jossey-Bass.
Seligman, Martin E. P. (2005). Helplessness: on depression, development and death. San Francisco, CA: WlH. Freeman, 2005.