Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Learning Communities: From Theory to Practice

By Sam Piha

Sam Piha
In a recent blog post, we focused on a new study by Public Profit on learning communities (LC). We interviewed the Public Profit staff and featured their answers on the post. It is one thing to learn about a critical feature of a youth program. It is another to work with peers to translate this knowledge into practice. 

We wanted to hear directly from people who have actually participated in a learning community. Thanks to Katie Brackenridge from the Partnership for Children and Youth, who brings the perspective of a practitioner/participant, as well as an active capacity builder of afterschool and summer programs. We also asked Carol Lewis, Afterschool Coordinator, Vallejo City Unified, who brings the perspective of someone working to build the quality of programs across a district. We offer their responses below. 

Q: Can you describe how your participation in an ongoing learning community was different than a one-time, “fly-by”, training?
Katie Brackenridge,
Partnership for Children and Youth

Katie: Thinking back many years, being part of the first Youth Development Learning Networks was transformational. We were all trying to implement similar practices without being able to name them. The Learning Community created a common language between participants, gave us the opportunity to shift our practices to be more intentional about youth development, and created a space for us to learn about each other’s challenges and successes. 

This approach has longevity. Twenty years later, the Jamestown Community Center remains deeply rooted in youth development theory and practice. As a trainer and advocate, I run into my peers from those first learning communities and continue to feel a strong sense of camaraderie with them.

Carol: In my own experience and in my observations of my staff, participation in an on-going LC leads to greater levels of implementation and higher quality implementation. The site coordinators that participated in Stacey Daraio’s LIAS LC are more articulate about the 5 LIAS Principles and I believe better equipped to support their staff in designing programming.

Q: Can you explain why you chose this more intensive, multi-session, approach?  

Katie: We were excited about being part of a new, forward-thinking and intentional effort to improve our programs. We wanted to learn what the experts were saying about youth programming, apply those best practices, and connect with other youth program leaders across our community.

Carol: I chose it because I believe this style of professional learning is a best practice and I want to ensure my program staff are prepared to meet the high level of expectations I set for programming quality.

Photo Credit:
Q: Can you describe the benefits of participating in an ongoing learning community? 

Katie: We found it was most helpful to learn new theories and practices, try them out back at our programs, and debrief that experience with the facilitators and peers back in the learning community. The key piece of coaching connected to the learning community gave us tailored help with obstacles and challenges. The structure provided an effectively supported implementation.

Carol: As stated above, greater levels of implementation. Also, it provided my staff an opportunity to learn with and from others that are doing the work they do which I cannot provide for them – since I’ve never been a site coordinator.

Q: Would you recommend it to others, and if so, under what conditions or circumstances? 

Katie: Our experience was transformational. To be impactful, program staff have to be genuinely interested in changing practice, willing to look honestly at what currently works and doesn’t work, and share openly with the learning community.

Carol: I would absolutely recommend this type of training to others. The circumstances in which this type of training is better than online or one time lecture-based training is when the implementation of the learning is complex and requires opportunities to ‘try it out’ then return to the group with questions/comments and insights.

In our recent study of the effectiveness of the LIAS project, we heard from a number of Regional Leads on the subject of learning communities. These comments are listed below. 
  • It would be a good idea to roll out additional learning communities in Regions that have not had one yet since it fits nicely with both Quality Standards & Common Core.”
  • “We do a lot of training for people giving an introduction to the LIAS principles. We do very little in terms of learning communities or someone who's assigned to work with the site as a coach. That would be more effective in the long term.” 
  • “I know that the learning community sessions that we did with Stacey Daraio the year before was very well received. It provided the participants great in-depth conversation and it really was an opportunity for sharing. We know that learning communities really have a successful message for improving quality because it makes the concepts real to the participants. That's why I would rate it as a very good strategy.”  

Temescal Associates/LIAS offers the facilitation of LIAS learning communities for afterschool and summer practitioners. Alternatively, we have prepared CalSAC trainers to lead learning communities as well. 

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