November 30, 2005

Learning Teams

There is a growing body of literature regarding the effectiveness of "learning teams" - small groups of learners of different levels of knowledge, skill, and experience. Learning teams have existed in various forms for millenia - modern examples that most of us are familar with are the American 1-room school house and medical clinical education. McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario is a pioneer in medical education and has used the learning team concept extensively in their new Compass Curriculum.

The principle of a learning team is to create an environment where EVERYONE learns from one another and where (full-time, paid) instructors serve as role models and their content expertise (perhaps) is not particularly important. In learning teams, every individual on the team is responsible for the learning process - not just the "teacher" - and everyone is expected to contribute. Obviously, more novice learners, those who've joined the team most recently, are generally able to contribute less in terms of knowledge, skills, and experience ... but they can (and should) contribute by asking the fundamentally important questions and challenging the status quo ... thereby forcing more knowledgeable, skilled and experienced members of the team to either defend (support) the "dogma" or reconsider it. Since we spend most of our working lives working (and learning) in teams, shouldn't our formal education teach us how to be effective and contributing members of working (and learning) teams?

Learning teams are often constructed around important and genuine (not artificial) work - for example, taking care of patients on a particular hospital ward or conducting research to develop a new drug for Parkinson's disease. But the true goal of the learning team (and the instructor who leads them) is to go beyond learning the day-to-day technical functions (of patient care or discorvering new drugs) but to develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to contribute to other learning teams.

Peter Senge, well known for his books and articles on management and leadership, talks about the "learning organization" in his book "The Fifth Discipline." The principles in Senge's books - "personal mastery," "mental models," "shared vision," and "team learning" - were initially developed to conceptualize how highly effective corporations "work" ... but they are equally important concepts in higher education and the "work" of learning teams. It's not surprising that Senge's more recent work has focused on how these principles can be applied to education in the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook entitled "Schools that Learn."The bottom line - learning isn't about what the "teacher" knows and can impart to "students" but rather a shared process where people come together to grow and develop. The best teachers - while they may be known for their content expertise - are really achitects of the "learning process."