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Social Learning and Learning Communities: An Emancipating Process For Building Knowledge

by Isabel Orellana

The idea of the learning community was articulated and formalized in the 1990s. It took shape as part of a broader attempt to rethink educational processes in light of complex contemporary realities and to respond to the operating practices of a globalized world that increasingly imposed market solutions on educational problems.

The practices associated with the concept of learning communities have emerged against a background of socio-ecological crisis. They embody a vision that calls for the advancement of collective capabilities, the “practice of freedom” of which Freire speaks,i the rebuilding of new foIsabel Orellanarms of solidarity—a vision that attempts to redirect human beings’ abilities to learn, create, and transform. The prospect of stimulating collective knowledge-building processes offers the hope of countering the strong tendency in today’s societies to focus on economic growth, which also leads to increased individualism, loss of motivation, disengagement, and loss of meaning.

The learning-community concept stresses the importance of pooling everyone’s efforts, talents, and skills and encouraging educational processes that incorporate social dimensions, respond to the needs of people and communities, and adapt to diverse, changing contexts.ii

The idea of a learning community is based on one of the fundamental aspects of human nature: that we are essentially social creatures. Humans are community-builders. It is our way of acting on the often instinctive impulse to form relationships with others so as to realize our own desires, interests, achievements, and intentions; to prevent isolation; to learn; to develop our abilities; to develop ourselves; and to acquire the power to transform, including the power to transform ourselves.iii

In this sense, the learning community can be seen as a strategy that helps human beings to recreate themselves, to regain control over their lives, and to give new meaning to their own social natures.iv Some authors even tend to see the learning community as an educational ideal, a sort of utopia.

Any number of studies have highlighted the importance of treating the building of knowledge as a process resulting from the interrelations among people and the social processes in which they participate, and hence the importance of an approach to education that takes its inextricable links with social, cultural, and historic realities into account. The learning community serves as a counterweight to the traditional forms of learning, adopting the social construction of knowledge as one of its basic principles.vIn this way, the learning community is intended to create stimulating, richer learning conditions that can overcome the lack of connections, of significant, structure-building relationships and shared values, that characterize today’s

Current learning-community practices represent a response to a variety of questions. How do we confront the educational issues raised by current, constantly shifting, increasingly complex realities, and by human development needs? How can we help to compensate for the inadequacy of the educational solutions prescribed thus far? How can we make the learning process motivating, stimulating, and contextually relevant? And also, how can we use educational processes to help rebuild ourselves as human beings, in harmony, and as responsible communities?

Some questions of a social nature have also been identified. How do we confront the problems of inequality, poverty, injustice, discrimination, oppression, exploitation, and lack of decision-making power among individuals and social groups? How can we develop our capacities to transform these realities and transform ourselves? How do we develop our knowledge not only of how to do things but of what things to do, so that we can contribute to the quality of life in human communities?

The learning community, inspired by a variety of educational and social practices, appears to be associated with the need to build “spaces of freedom”, as Reeves calls them.vii And also, with a vision in which learning is no longer seen as a process of transmitting knowledge, but rather as one in which knowledge is built socially in the context of a thoughtful, reality-based practice,viii through a conscious experience of this reality, in which all dimensions of the person—cognitive, social, affective, ethical, moral, spiritual, and so on—are brought to bear in an intimately interconnected way. Thus a web of relationships among dialogue, thought, and practice, lies at the very heart of this vision of education. Knowledge thus becomes inextricably linked with an awareness of other people and an understanding of the diversity and heterogeneity of their situations and positioning. It is Wenger’s “learning by doing, learning as belonging, learning as becoming”.ix

The learning community is part of a broader, global vision. It is an organic, functional unit composed of a structured group of persons working on a common project with shared objectives, within a continuing, permanent educational process that demands a global responsibilityx within the educational community (a web of close educational relationships) and its broader framework, the educational society (Figure 1).

Social Learning and Learning Communities

Figure 1. The learning community within the educational society (Orellana, 2002)


With these principles as their common foundation, a wide variety of learning-community practices have developed over the past few decades, in a wide variety of settings: formal and informal education; primary, secondary, and postsecondary education; the workplace; research settings; community development organizations; continuing education program; and so on. This wide variety of practices is reflected in the wide variety of terms used to refer to them (see Figure 2). But the concept of the learning community lies at the heart of them all—they all converge in terms of their fundamental principles and their approaches to pedagogy.

Figure 2. Various terms related to the concept of the learning community, in the scholarly literature in four different languages

Social Learning and Learning Communities Social Learning and Learning Communities

An analysis of the various practices and ways that they converge lets us represent the learning community as an overarching teaching strategyxi (see Figure 3). Based on social learning, it combines a set of specific, complementary teaching approaches and strategies in the activities of a group of people who have joined forces to achieve common learning objectives and carry out a social-action, research, or educational project that promotes a dynamic of dialogue to learn together from and with one another.

Social Learning and Learning Communities

Figure 3: The instructional strategy of the learning community (Orellana, 2002)

The transformations that can take place within a learning community are myriad and complex. An internal culture emerges. Lessons are learned through sharing, dialogue, collective confrontation, the vicissitudes and difficulties of the journey, thinking, and the collective search for ways of acting and reacting in response to the various challenges of the shared path; they are the result of continual instances of feedback and objectivation, of steps to take and choices to make. This kind of learning demands humility, which means becoming aware of everyone’s limitations, recognizing uncertainty, exercising tolerance, accepting differences, being curious, listening to and respecting others, trying to understand their points of view,xii being predisposed toward change, recognizing the opportunities for transformation and for continually surpassing oneself, being committed to the common process, being amenable to and available for dialogue, and trusting in the strength of the collective.xiii

The learning-community experience is also a journey of collective and individual maturation that lets the participants better grasp and understand reality, make it their own, and create and strengthen bonds of belonging and of developing multiple identities.xiv Indeed, the sense of belonging, as a key dimension of identity processes, as Wenger describes it,xv is associated with embracing common values and common goals—a shared space. Consequently, this identity process is built and strengthened through the process of dialogue that the learning community proposes around its common aims, that is, closely linked to the process of social construction of knowledge.

Isabel Orellana is a professor in the Department of Education and Pedagogy and a research associate with the Canada Research Chair in Environmental Education at the Université du Québec à Montréal and with the DIALOG network for research on aboriginal issues. She is also a member of the Quebec Coalition on the Social and Environmental Impacts of Transnationals in Latin America. She specializes in environmental education, processes for social construction of knowledge related to socio-ecological equity, social resistance movements, and ecodevelopment.


i    Freire, P. (1999). Pedagogía del oprimido (52nd edition). Mexico City: Siglo veintiuno editores; Freire, P. (1998). ¿Extensión o comunicación? La concientización en el medio rural (21st edition).Mexico City: Siglo veintiuno editores.

ii    Orellana, I. (2005). “L’émergence de la communauté d’apprentissage ou l’acte de recréer des relations dialogiques et dialectiques de transformation du rapport au milieu de vie”, in Sauvé, L. Orellana, I. and Van Steenberghe, E. (Eds.) (2005). Éducation et environnement : Un croisement de savoirs (p. 67-84).Cahiers scientifiques de l’ACFAS, 104

iii    Freire, op. cit.

iv    Orellana, I. (2002). La communauté d’apprentissage en éducation relative à l’environnement: signification, dynamique, enjeux. Unpublished doctoral thesis, Université du Québec à Montréal.

v    Withford, B. L. and Wood, D. (2010). Teachers Learning in Community: Realities and Possibilities. Albany, New York: SUNY Press.

vi    Robert, S. M. and Pruitt, E.Z. (2009). Schools as Professional Learning Communities: Collaborative Activities and Strategies for Professional Development. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

vii    Reeves, H. (1990). L'Heure de s'enivrer : L'univers a-t-il un sens ? Paris: Éditions du Seuil.

viii    Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

ix    Wenger, E. (2005). La théorie des communautés de pratique, apprentissage, sens et identité. Quebec City: Les Presses de l’Université Laval. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. New York: Cambridge University Press.

x    Orellana, 2002, op.cit.

xi    Orellana, 2002, op.cit.

xii    Charlier, B., and Peraya, D. (2003). Technologie et innovation en pédagogie : Dispositifs innovants de formation pour l’enseignement supérieur. Brussels: Ed. De Boeck Université.

xiii    Freire, P. (2005). Pedagogía de la autonomía : Saberes necesarios para la práctica educative (10th edition). Mexico City: Siglo veintiuno editores.

xiv    Hart, P. (2007). “Social learning as action inquiry: exploring education for sustanable societies” in Wals, A. E. J. (Ed.), Social learning towards a sustainable world: Principles, perspectives and praxis. Wageningen, The Netherlands: Wageningen Academic Publishers, pp. 313-329.

xv    Wenger, 1998, op. cit.