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By Brian Alger

Learning is a universal phenomenon that permeates our everyday experiences in life. Indeed, every human being is unavoidably immersed in learning. Seen from this perspective, learning becomes something much more pervasive and unifying than our traditional notions of education and training. It is a source of energy that reaches far beyond the acquisition of knowledge and skills, to pursue the wisdom of life itself. The essence of learning is captured in the ways in which we create and enact our identity, purpose and values.

A community is a place where people come together to live according to a common set of beliefs. It can be a mutually supportive and constructive environment -- but it can also be a stifling or even a painful place to live. A vibrant community is a place where people come together to help each other live a life worth living. To be fully alive means, by default, that our orientation to other people originates in the power of giving, sharing, helping, healing, providing and caring. If we are vibrant in our beliefs, we not only think and reflect on these ideals, but we actively pursue and live them out in the breadth and depth of everyday life. A vibrant community will embrace such core ideas as unity, inclusion, equality and belonging.

A community that excludes certain groups of people cannot be vibrant nor can it form an effective learning community, for it ignores the fundamental diversity of life. In other words, a learning community must embrace the concept of belonging. As Jean Vanier writes in his book, Becoming Human:

"Society is the place where we learn to develop our potential and become competent... Belonging, on the other hand, is the place where we can find a certain emotional security. It is the place where we learn a lot about ourselves, our fears, our blockages, and our violence, as well as our capacity to give life; it is the place where we grow to appreciate others, to live with them, to share and work together, discovering each one's gifts and weaknesses."

A community that fails to embrace belonging quickly descends into self-serving mediocrity.

Learning in a vibrant community is a means to cull the best elements from all dimensions of our society (cultural, artistic, social, political, economic) in order to relentlessly inspire this sense of belonging and promote an orientation to living that helps everyone live a meaningful and creative life. A vibrant learning community must embrace the following core values:

  1. Inclusion: An openness to people of all walks of life regardless of their circumstances;
  2. Resilience: Providing care and support that helps other people create their own meaning and make their own decisions;
  3. Unity: Remaining focused on what unites us rather than what separates us; and
  4. Humility: Preserving the community's ability to recognize its own errors and flaws and to seek help from outside the group.

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is, "How do we learn the things we value the most?" Asking this question invites us to explore various kinds of human experience that have changed people in profound and permanent ways. Learning the things we value the most often comes with some degree of struggle and conflict. And in the face of struggle it is essential to promote and imbue in people a capacity for resilience.

Stephen Biko formed a vibrant learning community of magnificent proportions in his lifelong quest against racism in South Africa, and was clearly guided by the principle of resilience:

"The purpose behind [Black Consciousness] really being to provide some kind of hope...People often look like they have given up the struggle...this sense of defeat is basically what we are fighting against; people must not give in to the hardship of life. People must develop hope. People must develop some form of security to be together to look at their problems, and people must in this way build up their humanity."
-  Stephen Biko, in Black Consciousness in South Africa

Stephen Biko's heroic quest to overcome marginalization and isolation eventually cost him his life, but his legacy is universal. And even though our own situations and circumstances may be quite different, resilience is a core quality of a vibrant learning environment.

The Philia Learning Community is based on three interconnected strands:

  • Formulating nourishing ideas that become our fundamental concepts and values;
  • Sharing and exploring these ideas through good conversation in open dialogue; and
  • Moving the dialogue into practical application through inspiring action.

These elements are as much simultaneous as they are sequential. Each informs and augments the other, and all are essential to our learning. Through thinking, talking and acting together, our learning community becomes a place to grow and appreciate others, to discover our gifts and weaknesses, and to work together for the kind of society we want. It embraces the authentic experiences of all members of the community and seeks to capture and share these experiences by focusing on the story of life itself and the daily lives of people and communities themselves. For it is here, in the hearts, minds and spirits of people, that true learning is found.

In the end, a vibrant learning community will provide an environment to explore the mystery of life itself. Joseph Campbell captures this essential aspect of learning in describing the fundamental power of myth to provide stability in our lives:

"It's important to live life with the experience, and therefore the knowledge, of its mystery and your own mystery. This gives life new radiance, a new harmony, a new splendor...You learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life. The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure."
-  Joseph Campbell, in The Power of Myth

The Philia Learning Community encourages and embraces this adventure in life. We seek to build on the ideas of Jean Vanier, Stephen Biko, Joseph Campbell and others in authentic and practical ways. The wisdom they share with us invites action. Everyone is a learner, and as such, everyone has something unique and valuable to contribute to our community.

Brian Alger is the author of The Experience Designer: Learning, Networks and the Cybersphere  and the creator of The Experience Designer Network. He has designed and implemented network learning environments worldwide, and was the recipient of the Marshall McLuhan Distinguished Educator Award during his 11 years as a public school educator.

Initiatives of Note

The University of Victoria Assistive Technology Team (UVATT), in collaboration with the Garth Homer Society, has embarked on an ambitious program to build an online learning and community-building resource and support network for the disability community. The overall goal of the program is to increase the opportunities for people with disabilities to be engaged in the community, and to have their contributions to society recognized and appreciated. Read more...

Visit Tamarack - An Institute for Community Engagement to see a great example of a learning community in action. In particular, drop into their Learning Centre!

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