Becoming better researchers by building learning communities

By Derrick E. Rancourt

The Taylor Institute Teaching Scholars recently established a community of practice approach to help learn about each other’s teaching research. Although it is early still, I can see how this approach will lead to improvements in our individual teaching research projects.

Academic culture places researchers in the role of an ‘entrepreneur’ who is responsible for their own survival and growth. This culture creates inwardly focused researchers, and departments. We spend time protecting turf, both intellectual and physical. Although this culture arose from a single investigator mode of research, more complex research patterns based upon multiple disciplines, institutions and partners are supplanting the stand-alone investigator. What follows is the need to break down traditional, isolationist research practices and create new ones.

Learning communities are not new. An innovation of the Scottish Enlightenment, they were one reason several geniuses popped out of 18th century Scotland. (Diluted wine*, enabling lengthy banter and the freewheeling of ideas, helped.). In principle, the professional learning community provides a setting that is richer and more stimulating than self-learning. Learning is more complex, deeper, and more fruitful in a social setting, where participants can interact, test their ideas, challenge their inferences and interpretations, and process new information with each other. New ideas are processed through interaction. Multiple sources of knowledge and expertise test and expand the new concepts as part the learning experience. For the community to thrive and prosper, there must be a value proposition, which keeps the membership involved.

Learning communities are not foreign to research. However, they can be leveraged more effectively to empower research through cooperation and interdependence. Journal clubs, which are used to promote mastery of analytics, problem solving, and communication, are a type of learning community. When well orchestrated, they can be a powerful professional development approach. Faculty members share responsibility for trainee development. By becoming more informed, supervisors become professionally renewed and better mentors. Trainees, in turn, learn from participation and receive timely feedback from faculty and peers. Recently I championed a new Regenerative Medicine journal club, which helped coalesce researchers from Medicine, Veterinary Medicine, and Engineering to form the new Regenerative Medicine Research Group. The “open culture” that followed helped break down barriers between laboratories fostering collaborations. Once established, I encouraged students to adopt a leadership structure and use the community to trade “practice stories” and promote new initiatives such as student led outreach events “Stem Cell Talks” and “One Day @ UCalgary”.

Unfortunately, after returning from my sabbatical, I was disappointed to see that the Regenerative Medicine community that I helped develop was a vestige of its former self. It did not help that the two senior PhD students who led the community had both moved on to other things and that in my absence a transition plan was not put in place. Learning communities break down for many reasons. However, there are many things that can be done to limit these distractions and to keep the community strong and vibrant:

1) Have a mission statement. Ensure that the activities align with the community’s interests. Keep the group small, to encourage active participation and interaction.

2) Shared leadership structure (and transition plan (My bad)). Trainees must take part in the leadership structure and be free to steer the community towards their own areas of interest. This empowers them and teaches leadership. Combine empowerment with open dialogue and more barriers will fall.

3) Socialize, celebrate, and interrogate. In their book, The Social Life of Information, Seely Brown and Duguid emphasize the importance of socialization as part of learning. Be attuned to successes and shortcomings and committed to the concept of constant improvement.

4) Spice it up! Although the journal club typically takes a problem based/peer teaching approach, can we not be thinking of other approaches to get the same message across? For example, could a research publication be presented by a team, which dramatizes the learning events portrayed in the paper. By encouraging open sharing, including an open and non-judgmental review of performance, a learning community can improve dramatically.

If you lack an effective research community, it may be undermining your morale and limiting your productivity. You can take charge and begin to build an effective community around you.  Although it may seem like an insurmountable problem, little things that you do can help significantly to change your organization. You can do your part by establishing a peer group, which you enjoy being part of.  Share these ideas and others with your colleagues or even your superiors. The leadership role and network you create will can advance your career.

*Scottish intellectuals such as Adam Smith and David Hume favoured grape over grain.

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