Learning, according to the constructivist argument, is a social experience, whereby students construct learning with the support of the instructor and fellow students. In recent years, many constructivist and critical educators turned towards building community within the classroom to meet their pedagogical aims, arguing classroom communities are central to knowledge construction, helping students learn how to learn, and helping students work with diverse others in a globalized, multicultural, world (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999). However, community is a boundary-expressing symbol (Cohen, 1985), with the potential to be both exclusive and inclusive depending on how the classroom community is enacted by educators, leading this researcher to question: In what ways can instructors build an inclusive learning community in multicultural classrooms? What follows in this essay is a review of the literature on the origin, definition, and philosophies of learning communities generally, and learning communities in multicultural classrooms specifically, to summarize the literature relevant to the question.
Community holds a multiplicity of meanings, depending on context. There are many definitions of community, yet a definitive definition does not exist given the varied theories of community in the literature (Cohen, 1985; Puddifoot, 1996). One reason for the ambiguity in the term community, is its status as a boundary-expressing symbol (Cohen, 1985). To explain, Cohen (1985) argued use of the term community implies two related ideas: that members of a group have something in common and their commonality differentiates them from others. The boundaries of a given community may be physical, linguistic, ethnic, racial, religious, political, or otherwise; however, the boundaries are not necessarily objective, they are understood and constructed differently by each individual—whether inside or outside of the community (Cohen, 1985). In other words, the boundaries of community “exist largely in the minds of the beholder” (Cohen, 1985, p. 10). Indeed, the reality of a community depends in large part on the symbolic construction and maintenance of its boundaries and the meanings that members encapsulate within those boundaries (Cohen, 1985).
In educational circles, scholars advanced several community constructs whose boundaries span disciplines, classrooms, schools, or geographical communities. While there are several community constructs—communities of learners (Rogoff, 1994), learning communities (Brook & Oliver, 2003; Khoo, Forret, & Cowie, 2009; Wilson & Ryder, 1996), communities of practice (Johnson, 2001), communities of inquiry (Swan, Garrison, & Richardson, 2009), and subject-centered communities of truth (Palmer, 2007)—they are encapsulated by shared pedagogical and epistemological ideas—including constructivism and critical pedagogy.
While a detailed review of the constructivist position is not in the scope of this literature review, a basic understanding of constructivist thought is desirable, insofar as it provides the theoretical underpinnings for the meaning and use of communities in the classroom. While scholars offered a range of interpretations of constructivism, there were some consistent propositions (Good & Brophy, 2008): a) learners construct knowledge and meaning, b) new learning builds upon prior knowledge, and c) learning occurs best in social settings. Thus, constructivism was a significant departure from objectivist approaches to teaching based on information processing or behaviorist theories that encouraged transmission models of teaching and mimetic learning on the part of students. Indeed, rather than focus on learning objects that experts transmitted to passive students, the constructivist classroom is one where teachers and students alike took part in a community where learning occurred through the communal interactions between individuals, their experiences, and their shared reflection (Howard, McGee, Schwartz, & Purcell, 2000).
Constructivism represented more than a pedagogical shift, it equally represented an epistemological shift from the conception of reality as separate from mind and waiting to be discovered, to the idea that reality is co-constructed in the mind of the learner through interaction with others and the world (Shea, 2006). This shift has profound effects for what it means to teach and learn under the constructivist paradigm. While there are a variety of views on the epistemological differences between the objectivist and constructivist thinking, Duffy and Cunningham’s synthesis (1996) provide a comprehensive perspective. The authors suggested: a) learning is the process of learners constructing knowledge in their own minds, b) multiple worldviews exist, therefore multiple perspectives exist, c) knowledge depends on context, thus learning should take place in relevant contexts, d) learning is mediated by tools and signs, thus learning is social-dialogical activity, e) learning is a socio-cultural process, and e) knowing how we know and learn is a reflexive process (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996). Thus, one can readily see how the constructivist epistemology required a profoundly different approach to pedagogy.
While there are many approaches to constructivist pedagogy, many constructivist scholars and educators advocate a community approach to the classroom where instructors are responsible for both instructional design and facilitating a sense of community (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Brook & Oliver, 2003; Howard, et al., 2000; Johnson, 2001; Khoo, et al., 2009; Palmer, 2007; Rogoff, 1994; Swan, et al., 2009; Wilson & Ryder, 1996). Thus, the community approach to instructional design encourages student participation, includes opportunities for both dialogue and reflection (Banister & Maher, 1998; Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Hughes, 2007; Palmer, 2007; Twale, Schallen, Hunley, & Polanski, 2002), includes active learning techniques (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Bonk, Wisher, & Nigrelli, 2004; Swan, et al., 2009), poses relevant problems (Duffy & Cunningham, 1996), and encourages collaboration and group problem-solving (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Bonk, et al., 2004; Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Rogoff, 1994; Swan, et al., 2009). More importantly, the role of the instructor changes significantly; the instructor ceases to direct learning, taking the role of facilitator of the learning environment and the sense of community (Bielaczyc & Collins, 1999; Brook & Oliver, 2003; Duffy & Cunningham, 1996; Khoo, et al., 2009; Shea, 2006; Swan, et al., 2009).
Several educational scholars (Bonk, et al., 2004; Brook & Oliver, 2003; Solomon, Battistich, Kim, & Watson, 1997) define sense of community from the work of McMillan and Chavis (1986) who synthesized a sense of community construct from the existent literature. Their construct includes membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection (McMillan & Chavis, 1986). Building on the work of McMillan and Chavis (1986), Rovai, Wighting, and Lucking (2004) developed a construct to measure sense of community in educational settings that separates sense of community into two factors: social community and learning community. According to Rovai, et al. (2004), social community refers to student’s feelings of “spirit, cohesion, trust, safety, trade, interdependence, and sense of belonging” (p. 267), while learning community concerns “the degree to which they share group norms and values and the extent to which their educational goals and expectations are satisfied by group membership” (p. 267). Thus, instructors need to create learning environments that are inclusive, create norms of respect that honor the individual, encourage sharing and collaboration, and shared norms and values that support the educational endeavor. For example, Solomon, et al.’s (1997) study found that teacher’s who demonstrated interpersonal concern and support, encouraged collaboration and student autonomy, and encouraged intellectual exploration created the student behaviors that build a sense of community (Solomon, et al., 1997).
Finally, instructors that build a sense of community in their classrooms are likely to improve student’s learning outcomes. For example, Wighting, Nisbet, and Spaulding (2009) identified a relationship between student’s sense of community and academic achievement. In addition, Duffy and Cunningham (1996) reported improved student performance on MCAT tests on campus participating in their instructional model. Finally, Battistich, Solomon, Kim, Watson, and Schaps (1995) found that student’s sense of community were significantly associated with nearly every student outcome measurement.
Multicultural classrooms are forums for discourse on race, gender, class, age, ability, and sexual orientation (Banister & Maher, 1998). Furthermore, Banister & Maher (1998) argued that teacher’s pedagogy in the multicultural classroom must examine relations of domination and model it in both “how and what they teach…[so]…students can receive critical and experiential opportunities to develop the social, emotional, and cognitive skills necessary for consciously choosing how they will live in a community” (p. 184). To help teachers transform their pedagogy, the authors advocated for cooperative learning techniques inside an inclusive classroom community to learn how to productively function within a community and with a sense of community (Banister & Maher, 1998). Concomitant with this constructivist approach, the authors suggested an accompanying transformative pedagogy to address oppression in institutions and everyday life, and the student’s agency to resist and create change (Banister & Maher, 1998).
Indeed, one might argue the constructivist and critical pedagogy do not differ that much with the exception of their emphasis on power—granted power is an important difference. For example, Freire (2012) objects to the “banking” concept in education—a different phrase for objectivist educational philosophy–suggesting teachers and students should share relations as co-creators of knowledge as teacher-students and student-teachers. In addition, Freire (2012) gives dialogue and the interplay between reflection and action a central role in critical pedagogy. Of course, in the multicultural classroom, educators must understand how power functions in the classroom to avoid dominating students who encounter oppression in most other avenues of their lives (Ennis & McCauley, 2002). Many critical scholars argue for the creation of a space that honors dialogue, reflection, and the co-creation of knowledge. Freire’s (2012) concept of culture circles is one such space, while classroom communities are another.
For example, Nixon et al. (2010) described how the instructor and students co-created a community among diverse students to create a safe space for emotionally-charged diversity discussions. The community gave the students the space for both reflection and dialogue as a milieu for transformation of self and appreciation of others (Nixon, et al., 2010). In addition, Ryoo, Crawford, Moreno, and McLaren (2009) argued the modern multicultural and often oppressive classroom needs teachers to love—in the agape sense—their students and to organize a space “for the development of humanity in classrooms in the face of Othering social relations based on race, class, gender, sexuality, [and] language” (p. 142). Furthermore, Bielaczyc and Collins (1999) argued communities are ideal for multicultural classrooms because they create a space where contributions are respected and community members can synthesize diverse views. Finally, Jones and Brazo (2014) combine critical pedagogy and Palmer’s (2007) community of truth to develop a metaphor for community in the classroom—riding the bus together—a metaphorical space where students could share their different views looking out different windows, or ride in the back in silence. Use the bus metaphor, Jones and Brazo (2014) were able to create a tangible classroom space that embraced many of Palmer’s (2007) principles of paradox in community: a) it was open, yet bound, b) hospitable, yet charged, c) inviting the voices of both individuals and groups, and d) welcoming both silence and space. Facilitators of multicultural classrooms need to create a safe space for reflection and action, dialogue and silence, and both individual perspective and shared experience to open the students up to the possibility of transformation.
This literature review is an attempt to provide a foundation grounded in the literature for answering the question: In what ways can instructors build an inclusive learning community in multicultural classrooms? Drawing from both the constructivist and critical paradigms, building classroom communities requires instructors situate themselves differently—to facilitate student’s sense of community, enact alternative epistemologies and pedagogy, and ultimately, create a tangible space that honors and enables dialogue and silence, reflection and interaction, and the co-creation of knowledge between instructors and students.
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