Faculty Learning Communities: Serving as Change Agents

Including faculty learning communities in your institution’s repertoire of faculty development practices answers the need for more holistic, connected, and flexible approaches to faculty development and thoughtful institutional change. Faculty learning communities answer the question posed by Hubbard, Atkins, and Brinko (1998): “how to address the larger issue of institutional, professional, and personal change as a whole, inter-relational and interacting, multifaceted system” (p. 39). Faculty learning communities address the paradigm shift in educational development and institutional change in the manner Chism (1998) encourages, by incorporating faculty study and the redress of “hitches” in the system: “As educational developers, we are also in an ideal situation to create communities of inquiry related to the changes that could be made: for example, a special interest group exploring multicultural teaching or service learning” (p. 143). Issue-focused faculty learning communities are just such an example, providing a way to embrace hitches in order to accomplish change.


The following insights from Senge (2000) capture the role that you have in facilitating an FLC or directing an FLC Program.

There is no substitute for genuine commitment and commitment starts "at home." No one should be told to change their beliefs, or to adopt new values, or to change deeply habitual ways of doing things; efforts to employ coercive power to bring about deep change invariably backfire. Those who lead must be prepared to change themselves first, rather than focusing on how others must change.

...The critical leaders of such changes occupy many positions and are not limited to those at the top. Surprisingly, there are several examples of companies who have sustained and extended significant change efforts over five to ten years with virtually no executive leadership. In other cases, where executive leadership has been important, change has been through leading by example and through supporting other leaders, not through speeches, official change programs, and grand strategies. Wherever significant change has been sustained it has always involved talented, committed "local line leaders" and resourceful "internal networkers." We believe that the role of executives in deep change is widely misunderstood, that these two additional types of leaders are greatly neglected, and that this is one reason so many change efforts fail.

Implications for Universities

Today there is growing interest in creating similar learning communities linking groups of universities. It is much too early to know if these collaborative arrangements will become successful, let alone whether or not they will show the way for broader change within the academy. But it is at least possible to frame some questions that might usefully guide the effort.

Are we not all in the same boat? The modern college is as much a part of the Industrial Age as is the modern corporation. "Our prevailing system of management has destroyed our people," said famous quality management pioneer W. Edwards Deming (personal communication). He was not talking about the system of management in corporations but about the system of management in all Industrial Age institutions. . . .

If our educational system is as much an expression of the Industrial Age system of management as are corporations, and if there is evidence of significant progress in many corporations toward creating more learning-oriented cultures, then there should be hope for universities as well.

Who are the local line leaders in universities and what is their role in the changes ahead? The role of local line leaders in integrating new principles and tools into daily work practices has proven essential in the SoL [Society of Learning] member companies. While there have been many examples of corporations that have sustained progress for many years with little active executive leadership, there have been no examples of such progress without talented, imaginative, committed local line leaders. These are people with clear managerial accountabilities, such as productive development team leaders, local sales managers, and manufacturing plant managers. Such frontline leaders are essential because without their efforts it is not possible to test whether or not potential innovations in fact add value. This requires people who are close to where value is being generated.

Teachers clearly operate at the heart of the value criterion process in colleges and universities. So it stands to reason that they too would be the key to the innovation process.

Innovation in instruction must start with recognition of the simple fact that teachers teaching does not produce learning. Learning is ultimately produced only by learners. Learning is a process that leads to enhanced capacity of the learner. It does not occur simply because one is taught. What is conveyed between teacher and student must be internalized. But internalization is different than simply the ability to recall information. It involves new thinking and new acting. Moreover, learning occurs over time, and especially as learners engage in meaningful activities in their day-to-day life.

Much of the essence of all real learning is lost in conventional education due to the fragmentation of teaching from learning. In the Industrial Age assembly line model of education, teachers "do it" to students. Such an image probably would be rejected by most teachers, because it does not fit their espoused theory or self-image. But I would contend that it does fit the "theory in use," as evident in the practices of most college educators: lecturers conveying information that they decide (unilaterally) is pertinent, students expected to absorb that information and then proving that they have on tests judged solely by the inspectors on the assembly line—that is, the teachers.

To shift the Industrial Age model from teaching to learning, the role and responsibilities of the teacher need to shift. The teacher needs to become a designer of learning processes in which she or he participates along with the student. The teacher needs to operate more from a stance of not knowing rather than from knowing. The teacher needs to be willing to be a learner—perhaps a learner with greater experience in the area being explored than the student, but a learner nonetheless. And there needs to be mutual responsibility among learners and teachers for producing learning in both.

Such ideas are challenging for teachers whose identity is wrapped up with professing and being an expert. But being an expert is a short-lived advantage in today's world, and having "the answers" can actually be a disadvantage when what is really needed is the ability to inquire continually and make sense of what is emerging.

Such ideas about learner-centered learning are not new. Recently they have resurfaced, perhaps reflecting a broadening awareness of the need for such change. In a widely read article, Barr and Tagg (1995, p. 13) argue that "a paradigm shift is taking hold in American education...from teaching to learning." This is an encouraging development. But our experiences with learning in the corporate world have been sobering. Intellectual agreement is not enough. Everyone talking about learning is not enough. It is far easier to embrace the idealism of a learning paradigm than it is to transform traditional concentrations of power and authority in experts and managers, or than it is to sustain deep shifts in the values, capabilities, and unquestioned habits that made us all successful in the teaching paradigm (pp. 282-285)...

Very often you will find individuals who are deeply committed to innovation but who feel isolated and unsupported. Asking people with passion for creating something new how you can help is one of the most effective leadership strategies. Imaginative local leaders find countless ways to encourage ferment. They encourage networking among innovators in different departments. They organize field trips to different organizations that have succeeded in achieving breakthroughs. They introduce new tools, methods, and processes that help people develop better skills in collaborative learning (a particular short suit of many educators who have excelled throughout their lives as competitive, individual learners). They work to relieve specific constraints that hamper innovators, such as getting them more time, support, and relief from organizational pressures.

But beyond all these techniques, they take a stand for what is possible. Ironically, department chairs, and their counterparts in nonprofit organizations, are often seen as the ultimate bureaucrats. The willingness of people in such positions to commit themselves to fundamental change can send a powerful signal. But if there is one thing that has been shown again and again in our experiences of successful innovation, how they do it is the key. It is always tempting to tell others how they need to change. It is another, and far rarer, strategy to confront the changes needed in our own behaviors. Ironically, the greatest power of hierarchy in supporting fundamental change is not the power to direct but the symbolic power to model, to be the change you are seeking to create (p.286).

Senge, P.M. (2000). The academy as learning community: Contradiction in terms or realizable future? In A.F. Lucas and Associates (Eds.), Leading academic change: Essential roles for department chairs (pp. 275-300). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

We, my colleagues, are the local line leaders as we design, initiate, and facilitate faculty learning communities. I thank and salute you for joining the learning revolution!

This project has been supported in part by grants from the US Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) and the Ohio Board of Regents.