Transforming Community Schools into Open Learning Communities:

Rethinking Community Schools
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Conceptualizing Open Learning Communities

Discussion Brief

(November 8, 1996)


"Given the trend toward more open societies and global economies, we must emphasize the forms of learning and critical thinking that enable individuals to understand changing environments, create new knowledge and shape their own destinies. We must respond to new challenges by promoting learning in all aspects of life, through all institutions of society, in effect, creating environments in which living is learning." (The Amman Affirmation, 1996)
Summary | Problematizing Community Schools | Planned Activities | About LWF and the NGO Programme on Literacy and Education for All | LWF Documents | LWF Home Page

I. Summary

UNESCO's Learning Without Frontiers Coordination Unit and the NGOs Programme on Literacy and Education for All are in the process of initiating spaces for reflection and follow-on action around the experiences of community schools within the greater framework of the challenges that have been articulated by the Jomtien Conference and the Amman Affirmation. This effort is part of a larger initiative which starts with the recognition that the educational solutions being prescribed today are inadequate for meeting the problems of today, and are even less appropriate for meeting the challenges of the future. Continued 'tinkering' with existing modalities is not a sufficient approach to attempting to identify and to meet existing and emerging/growing learning needs.

Rather, we seek to stimulate local and global processes of conceptualizing and building a new system of diverse and inter-connected open learning communities which attempts to go beyond the artificial boundaries of formal, non-formal and informal education and institutionalized notions of the 'expert' teacher transmitting discrete pieces of knowledge to the 'empty' learner. Within this framework, learning is conceived of as a holistic process of reflecting, feeling, interpreting, thinking, analyzing, creating, sharing, acting, growing, which does not take place only at the beginning of one's life but rather is seen as a continual lifelong process. Communities are viewed as complex and culturally diverse entities (not necessarily limited to geographical space) which are critical to providing both the relevant contexts as well as the motivational and support systems necessary for meaningful learning experiences to take place. Open learning communities are conceived of as being integrally linked to development goals and processes (both at an individual and institutional level): each human being's need and right to self-expression, self-definition, self-realization; their ability to adapt to and generate change; their capacity to reflect on their own conditions and the situation of others; their social connection with other people and their environment; and their participation in various aspects of society.

In our on-going efforts to develop greater conceptual clarity around the concept and applications of open learning communities we have identified community schools as one interesting starting point to build upon. Community schools have increasingly been set up in different parts of the world, particularly in areas which have been educationally neglected by governments. Within the context of Education for All they have been promoted as an alternative means to increase access to schooling. With the involvement of NGOs, community schools have mobilized their communities to contribute to the construction, maintenance, management and financing of the schools. In many cases, the teachers have also been recruited from within the communities. There have also been some attempts to introduce more relevant materials, teaching methods and activities. These schools represent a sincere attempt to bridge the gap between formal and non-formal learning opportunities, thus addressing a major aspect of open learning communities. Furthermore, there are enough experiences that have been underway to merit 'taking a deep breath' to reflect on these experiences and to think seriously about future directions that they might take.

Together with interested organizations and individuals, we are exploring how community schools can better put into practice ideas related to open learning communities e.g., community participation, lifelong learning, cultural pluralism, innovative use of technologies, and people-centered development. We believe that the experiences and thinking around community schools can provide valuable insights not only for the improvement of the formal system of education but also for the development of learning systems for the future. In our research, we hope to refocus the discussions from simply trying to use the community as a tool for developing the school and, instead, explore how the community school can itself become an open learning community and, at the same time, become a focal point for enabling, supporting and connecting other learning communities within a larger learning system. In particular, we seek to discover whether it is possible to shift the school away from being a center of knowledge transmission to a center of knowledge creation and a center of learning, with the focus of its activities on building/evolving indigenous knowledge systems, local social institutions, relationships and processes.

Below you will find questions which are currently guiding our thinking. We want to stimulate critical discussion and reflection with those involved in community school projects (conceptualizers/designers, implementers, and researchers) around the issues raised below in order to ultimately develop a joint project proposal which will reflect a shared vision on Transforming Community Schools into Open Learning Communities. We would like to invite you to give your input on the issues and questions raised, based on your personal experiences with community schools and related activities.


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II. Problematizing Community Schools

Community schools are taking shape in many parts of the world. Some of the more high profile examples are in Egypt, Mali, Malawi, Burkina Faso, India and Bangladesh. There are several efforts underway to evaluate community schools, however, these tend to focus primarily on the managerial and financial aspects and on issues such as access rates and learning achievements (often typically narrowly defined in terms of math and language tests). Our key points of differentiation in reflecting on these experiences focus on the ideological, pedagogical and socio-cultural dimensions of community schools. We are also concerned with the dimensions of time and change particularly as they relate to conceiving of activities as on-going processes rather than as one-time events. The following questions serve to highlight some of these aspects:


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III. Planned Activities


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IV. About Learning Without Frontiers and the NGO Programme on Literacy and Education for All

Recognizing the experiences of NGOs with developing and implementing innovative programs, Learning Without Frontiers considers them a critical partner in further conceptualizing the idea of open learning communities. At the same time, it hopes that NGO involvement in these types of activities will encourage them to further reflect their own current practices and attitudes within the context of how they can more effectively contribute to moving from a culture of schooling to a culture of lifelong learning.

Learning Without Frontiers

Learning Without Frontiers (LWF) is an intersectoral and inter-institutional initiative geared towards stimulating innovation and exploring alternative pathways/partners/technologies for the provision of lifelong and lifewidelearning opportunities, particularly, to those who are currently unreached by or excluded from conventional modes of educational delivery. As part of this challenge, LWF is concerned with exploring how various technologies and approaches can be used to overcome multiple barriers to learning (i.e., age, time, space, circumstance) and to assist with broader development objectives. LWF is also concerned with addressing many of the learning needs that are emerging as people struggle to make sense of, interact with, adapt to and fully participate in this world which is increasingly overwhelmed by rapid change, uncertainty, information overload and conflict. Underlying LWF is a desire to raise questions and focus on some fundamental assumptions around the nature of learning, the content of what should be learned, an understanding of different types of knowledge and belief systems and experiences, the mechanisms by which learning can be facilitated, and the relationships between learning, socio-cultural context and development. LWF activities are inspired by a desire to build and support integrated communities of learning. LWF believes that learning processes must be consistent with and responsive to the needs, interests and aspirations of individual learners and their local contexts/communities. To support these holistic notions of learning, LWF actively seeks to strengthen and connect multiple channels to facilitate learning. This will involve the school but also go beyond it to involve other socio-cultural institutions such as the family, art/music/literature, media and technology, religion, and others. A Learning Without Frontiers Coordination Unit has been set up in UNESCO to work with partners around the world to facilitate the elaboration and application of the LWF concept.

The NGO Programme on Literacy and Education for All

The NGO Programme on Literacy and Education for All constitutes the focal point for NGO activities in UNESCO's Literacy and Adult Education Section. The programme intends to facilitate discussion and professional exchange among the wide spectrum of NGOs involved in literacy and lifelong learning as well as between the NGO community and other partners. It tries to support and strengthen ongoing NGO networking and is engaged in technical and managerial capacity building for grassroots NGOs. It offers NGOs the opportunity to get involved in carrying out UNESCO's Major Programme Towards Lifelong Education for All.

Most of UNESCO's NGO programme activities are carried out through the Collective Consultation of NGOs on Literacy and Education (CC). About 150 national and international NGOs are registered as members of the Collective Consultation. The Collective Consultation is involved in lifelong learning opportunities for all and tries to increase the impact of NGO activity in this field. To meet its objectives it holds decentralized annual meetings which focus on collectively chosen themes and provide a forum for sharing information, their know-how and experiences, developing joint action oriented research projects and adopting joint policy statements and recommendations.

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UNESCO Contact Points:
Hegazi Idris (LWF), Manish Jain (LWF)
Susanne Schnüttgen (NGO Programme on Literacy and Education for All)