Learning Communities



Dr. Katerine Bielaczyc

Bielaczyc, K., & Collins, A. (1999). Learning communities in classrooms: A reconceptualization of educational practice. In C. M. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional design theories and models, Vol II (pp. 269-292). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Get it!


A learning community is a type of social configuration involving a large number of people who are learning together. Learning communities are prominent in the learning sciences. Professors Katerine Bielaczyc and Allan Collins analysed three examples from the 1990s: Fostering Communities of Learners (Brown and Campione), Knowledge Building Communities (Bereiter and Scardamalia), and Mathematics Classrooms (Lampert). They proposed the design principles summarised below.

Design Principles for Learning Communities

The following statements are abbreviated; please see the original paper for full explanations.

  • Community-growth principle: The overall goal of the community should be to expand the community’s knowledge and skills.
  • Emergent-goals principle: The learning goals of the community should be co-constructed with the students and come out of the activities and questions that arise, as students carry out their investigations.
  • Articulation-of-goals principle: The teacher and students should articulate the goals they are pursuing and the terms by which they will judge their success.
  • Metacognitive principle: The community should keep asking what its goals are and what it is doing to help it reach them; identify what it knows and does not know; and look back on what it has accomplished.
  • Beyond-bounds principle: The community should attempt to go beyond the knowledge and skills within the community and the resources easily available to them.
  • Respect-for-others principle: Students need to learn to respect other students’ contributions and differences, and to fee safe in speaking up and giving their own ideas.
  • Failure-safe principle:¬†We often learn from failures, a learning community should accept failures and does not try to assess blame in order to learn from them.
  • Structural-dependence: The community should be organized such that students are dependent on other students’ contributions in some way.
  • Depth-over-breath principle: Students have sufficient time to investigate topics in enough depth that they gain real expertise in the topics.
  • Diverse-expertise principle: Students develop the areas in which they are most interested and capable, with the responsibility that they share their expertise with the other students and the teacher.
  • Multiple-ways-to-participate principle: In order to advance its collective understanding, a learning community needs to have a variety of jobs done. Students may be more or less interested and adept at different activities, so there should be a range of activities in which they participate.
  • Sharing principle: There needs to be a mechanism for sharing new knowledge and skills throughout the community, so that each student is both a learner and contributor to the community knowledge.
  • Negotiation principle: Ideas, theories, and procedures are constructed by a negotiation process among members of the community, and arguments are resolved by logic and evidence.
  • Quality-of-products principle: The quality of the products produced by the community should be valued by the community and outsiders to the community.

Practical Implications

These principles have a similar function to the knowledge-building principles, but are more general. Bereiter and Scardamalia distinguish between learning (acquiring the cultural achievements of preceding generations) and knowledge building (going beyond the limits of what is known), but Bielaczyc and Collins include the possibility of knowledge building in a learning community. The learning community principles guide the teacher in cultivating a learning community. For example, to implement the sharing principle, a class must have ways of sharing knowledge, such as poster presentations, gallery walks, or a wiki.