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Thoughts on Rebuilding a Learning Community

The higher ed learning community at-large has been turned on its head by the COVID-19 pandemic. Rebuilding a learning community requires actively listening to everyone’s needs and examining the contexts in which issues form. 

We often talk about our college and university campuses as learning communities. By this we mean that our community of learners and scholars is a system that enriches itself by being reflective, by constantly seeking to improve, by setting goals that build on the institutional mission and past experiences—successfully or not. We know that change is a constant and that this past year posed challenges that prompted many changes.

Understanding Change

It is said that change is the only constant. If we don’t manage change, it will manage us! This certainly is true in our field of higher education. Is change good? That is not the point—it is inevitable, so how can we make the results desirable and avoid the unintended consequences that often occur? To rebuild our learning communities, we must learn to manage change.

Major changes are occurring in demographics, including the number, composition, and beliefs of people; in economies, as they change from traditional to modern; in patterns of governing, including new Non-Governmental Organizations and corporations; in law and the interpretation of law; in the culture of work as opposed to jobs; and in expectations of accountability.

The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, talks about the “miracle of mindfulness” as relevant to considering change: “Remember that there is only one important time and that is now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person you are with, who is right before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future.” (Hanh.)

This is a Zen way of saying, Seize the moment. Take full advantage of this time for yourself and for others. Today is important for the rest of your life. Am I prepared for it? Am I mindful of ideas and people, or am I waiting for tomorrow?  Today is the most important time because it is here, and it has potential. What is past is a memory, and the future might not come. We must exercise our full abilities every day.

To manage change we must have conviction, knowledge and principles. We need new and deeper knowledge of our students—our clients, patients, co-workers and community—and we need to commit to the basic practices of listening and communication.

Tools to Guide Change

Change requires tools. We must listen and remain alert to our surroundings and to other people, if we are to manage change and rebuild a learning community. Do we hear what others are saying? Do we hear the context and intent or only the words? When we speak to others, do we make the context and intent clear, or do we focus so narrowly that we are easily misunderstood?

Sometimes we are quick to judge without really understanding. We listen but do not hear. Sometimes we take a piece of information and assume that it represents much more, but it may not. We must be certain of what we have heard before we act. It is easy to be self-righteous; it takes effort to listen. Shakespeare said, “It is the disease of not listening, the malady of not marking, that I am troubled withal.” (Shakespeare.)

A community–a campus—is a fragile place. It strives to welcome all equally, yet it places extreme importance on individual achievement and merit. It is a place where liberty and equality are valued as twins and sometimes act in conflict. A campus is a place of enormous disparities in power, not only between students and professors, as one might expect, but between many groups at different times, including those identified by race, gender, class or nationality.

We all have power that we don’t fully appreciate. We have the power to hurt, the power to help and the power to heal. When we truly listen to ourselves as well as to others, we have the power to help and to heal.

Power can be balanced by freedom, justice, and truth. Hear the poet: “And, if we care to listen, we can always hear them: Only the free have disposition to be truthful, Only the truthful have the interest to be just, Only the just possess the power to be free.” (Auden.)

A learning community is reflective and strives to be just. It knows the difference between knowledge and wisdom. Listening is a powerful tool for managing change and fostering a learning community. Questioning is another powerful tool.

Often when I am given a suggestion or recommendation, I will say, “That’s an answer, what’s the question?” We need to be focused on questions if we are to manage change. This is a major difference between education and training. Education prepares us to ask and answer questions; training may only tell us where to find answers.

Often, we hear or read suggestions that seem to be based more on opinion than on reason, or on belief rather than on fact.  Education assists us in framing questions in ways that help find the essence of an issue. Education helps us shape questions that reveal the how and the why, not just the who and the what. This focus on questioning underscores my belief that we all are students—we all are learning every day.

Educators talk about the need to develop students’ problem-solving skills. Unfortunately, they often don’t spend sufficient time helping students develop the knowledge, skills, abilities and values necessary to judge which problems to solve. Questions help students discern the broader historical and analytical contexts of issues and fields. Only by comprehending context can any of us understand goals and principles, and the questions that proposed answers only partially reveal.

As an educator, I try to apply the –“That is an answer—what is the question?”  line of thinking to all areas of interest. After all, the curriculum is an answer; the governance structure is an answer; the budget is an answer. What are the questions?

To answer questions, we need principles. In higher education, we look to seven principles of effective practice to help manage improvements in mission fulfillment and academic quality. These are the principles that guide the design of educational experiences in and out of the classroom.

  1. Good practice encourages close contact between faculty and students in and out of the classroom.
  2. Good practice fosters cooperation among students, especially in small groups.
  3. Learning is not a spectator sport; best practice requires active learning.
  4. Good practice gives prompt feedback.
  5. Good practice emphasizes time on task.
  6. Students rise to high expectations.
  7. Good practice respects diverse talents. (Scott.)

To rebuild a learning community, we need to listen, to question and to act on principle. We need to be alert to our environment, our assets and our opportunities.

How can we be alert? There are some wonderful and relevant lines in Norman Maclean’s masterful story, A River Runs Through It. First, he said, “All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.” (Maclean.)

Points of Leverage for Rebuilding Learning Communities

There are numerous points of leverage available to us to manage change, and to rebuild and support a learning community. One of our greatest needs is that of human judgment by people educated for the task. Machines can whir, data can be compiled, but only we can sort it into knowledge.

A thousand years ago a Zen Master said, “There are three essentials to leadership: humanity, clarity, and courage…Humanity (in the practice of virtue) without clarity (of purpose and perspective) is like having a field but not plowing it. Clarity without courage (to see things to the correct conclusion) is like having sprouts but not weeding. Courage without humanity is like knowing how to reap but not how to sow. When all three—humanity, clarity, courage—are present, the community thrives. When one is lacking, the community deteriorates. When two are lacking, the community is in peril, and when there is not one of the three, the way of leadership is in ruins.” (Cleary.)

This message applies to individuals, organizations and communities alike.

Leadership of change, then, requires the heart and the hand as well as the head. With all three, we can envision a future that incorporates the will of the whole, but building or rebuilding a learning community requires tactics as well as strategy, points of leverage for progress and principles for planning.

On a college campus, these points of leverage include (1) the mission statement and strategic plan against which decisions should be measured, (2) the annual operating and capital budgets. (3) performance reviews of campus leaders, (4) the board agenda, (5) accreditation self-studies, (6) definitions of new positions sought, (7) decisions about tenure and promotion and (8) public relations. Each of these–and more–are points of leverage for listening to the community, posing questions about priorities, underscoring principles and promoting the attainment of a renewed learning community.


How can we encourage a common vision that can be improved continuously through reflection and action? It is not easy, but surely by understanding the forces of change, by listening to others and to ourselves, by asking questions and appreciating assumptions, by learning from our experiences, by acting on principle and by being alert to our environment, we can be encouraged in our efforts to rebuild a learning community.


Auden, W. H. The Collected Poetry of W. H. Auden. New York: Random House, 1945, page 345.

Cleary, Thomas (translator). Zen Lessons: The Art of Leadership. Boston and London:Shambhala, 1989, page 8.

Hanh, Thich Nhat, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Boston: Beacon Press, 1999.

Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976, pages 8 and 144.

Scott, Robert A. “How to Judge a College,” Try These Seven Principles.” The Star Ledger, September 1, 1991.Shakespeare, William. King Henry 

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