Use Student Learning Communities to Reengage and Accelerate Learning

By Cathy Gassenheimer
Executive Vice President
Alabama Best Practices Center

Years ago I was at a presentation led by the late (and great) Richard DuFour. A former principal of a large metropolitan high school in Illinois, DuFour pioneered the concept of professional learning communities (PLCs).

A firm believer in deep collaboration leading to more engaging, relevant, and student-centered learning, Rick painted a sad picture of far too many schools by telling a story that was literally out-of-this world:

A Martian was sent by his fearless leader to travel to Earth and learn more about humans. Upon his return to Mars, the fearless leader asked what his scout had observed. The alien mentioned visiting a big red building full of lots of children and one adult in each room. When asked to be more specific, he said, “I saw the adult in each room working very hard and the children watching the adult work hard.”

The traditional educational practice of teachers telling and students listening seems particularly out of date as we work to recover from the COVID pandemic. Schools simply don’t have time to “catch up” their students. Instead, they need to accelerate the education process so that students become active learners who see the relevance in what they are studying.

We’re familiar with DuFour’s recipe for success:

► Teacher PLCs examine the essential standards for a grade level or content area and collaboratively develop learning targets and success criteria to shape the lessons and units.

► Next, PLC members teach the collectively designed lessons, constantly checking for understanding and using a jointly developed common formative assessment to gauge student progress and identify gaps in their instruction.

► After the set of lessons, the PLC meets to examine results from the common formative assessment and other data gathered and determine next steps: identifying any coaching needs for themselves and, as importantly, any supports for students to ensure they move to mastery.

Until reading a new ASCD member book, I believed that was the complete picture of effective PLCs. Yet, there is a glaring omission to my described cycle of learning:

► Intentionally plan for student engagement by creating student learning communities (SLCs).

The book, Student Learning Communities: A Springboard for Academic and Social-Emotional Development, is written by what might well be the world’s most productive team of education thought leaders – Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey – in partnership with co-author John Almarode.

Here’s how ASCD describes the book’s big idea:

Student learning communities (SLCs) are more than just a different way of doing group work. Like the professional learning communities they resemble, SLCs provide students with a structured way to solve problems, share insight, and help one another continually develop new skills and expertise. With the right planning and support, dynamic collaborative learning can thrive everywhere. (Source)

Student Learning Communities is for every teacher who worries about the chaos expected when students are unleashed to learn together. It’s also a good refresher for teachers who want to reboot or strengthen their use of small group instruction. The authors provide a step-by-step guide to how to successfully create SLCs that better engage students and result in higher learning (and enjoyment) for all.

A Step-by-Step Guide

Frey, Fisher and Almarode provide a step-by-step guide to successfully create authentic learning communities that better engage students and result in higher learning (and enjoyment) for all. The steps include:

  • Designing experiences and tasks that invigorate learning though academic discourse;
  • Attending to the academic, social, and emotional learning;
  • Fostering shared agreements of individual and group success;
  • Using thoughtful teaming practices to build cognitive, metacognitive, and emotional regulation skills;
  • Leveraging peer supports to amplify learning; and
  • Activating all students’ leadership skills in order to enhance their ability to succeed—alone and

It Requires Intentionality

At one of our Powerful Conversation Network sessions some years ago, a middle school teacher emotionally described her one and only attempt at group work, with this emphatic exclamation point: “I’ll never try that again. It was a disaster and chaotic!”

Later in the day, I asked the unhappy teacher about her experience. Reflecting on that incident, she admitted that as frustrated as she was to have the experiment sprung on her by her principal, she now realized she had also sprung on her students, without advance warning or preparation.

No wonder it was chaotic! In fairness, neither the teacher nor the students were given the support necessary to make SLCs operate smoothly and productively. Fisher, Frey and Almarode provide three important admonitions when it comes to establishing SLCs (p. 9):

  1. SLCs are more than just a different way of doing group work. They are a means to foster and sustain students’ ability to take ownership of their own learning.
  2. SLCs require teachers to be intentional about engaging students in collaboration. Knowing when to employ this approach is part of knowing how to employ it.
  3. The academic, social, and emotional skills necessary for successful SLCs must be taught, ideally through the gradual release of responsibility framework. This ultimately enhances collective learning by leveraging the collective efficacy of the community.

Norms, Roles and Clarity Are a Must

Just as we create norms for our professional learning sessions, students need to learn how to work effectively together. Successful SLCs provide norms and specific roles for students, and they are expected to work collaboratively, not individually. When launching SLCs, the teacher provides intense instructions and modeling at the beginning, gradually stepping back as students become more proficient at working together and completing the assignment as a team.

There’s an Art to Establishing Groups

The authors suggest that SLCs made up of pairs or triads work well with elementary students. For middle and high schoolers, the authors recommend groups of four or no larger than five. Unless the teacher is working with a group, students should be grouped heterogeneously to ensure equity and learning for all. Using an alternate ranking system, explained thoroughly in the book, helps teachers develop rankings of students for effective grouping purposes.

Real-Life Examples

In addition to all the other reasons I’ve noted for reading this book, classroom educators will really appreciate the real-life student examples (ranging across the K-12 spectrum). These stories were gathered in the school where Fisher and Frey still serve as teacher leaders.

For example, this SLC interaction occurred in a high school class working on the classification of living things:

Stefan: Sarah, this is the information you’re looking for? Does this work for you?

Sarah: Yes, that is really good, but we have to make it interesting, so that we capture people’s attention.

Stefan: Oh yeah, good point. I’m on it. I’m sure I can find weird animals that aren’t easy to classify because they don’t look like animals. Can I have a few extra minutes to look harder?

Sarah: Sure, but remember we have to be ready to give each other feedback in the group by 10:45.

Stefan: Yep, Michaela is watching the time, and Sheerie says she will have the check-in questions done soon.

Now that is small group work!

Just a Snapshot

There is so much more to the book than this brief blog can depict. It would make a great summer read or book study. To introduce the idea or simply learn more about using SLCs in both face-to-face and online learning environments, download this free pdf developed by the authors.

Following the guidelines in this book will help teachers more effectively engage their students   in a learning model that is relevant to today’s offline/online/anytime ideas about school and strengthens both the academic and social-and-emotional skills of all our learners.

And, if we ever do have aliens visit a school in the future, hopefully this is what they’ll describe:

“Children were working together in groups. They were engaged and clear about their task and their specific roles as they collaborated to complete their project. There was one adult in the classroom. She moved from group-to-group, asking questions and listening intently to what the students said. Everyone was enjoying the hard work of learning.”