How does community learning work and how does it help reduce ESL?

Wednesday 11 February 2015, by Klaudija Šterman Ivančič

With community learning, the entire school community engages in a cohesive and collaborative action with external agents (e.g. sport, cultural, industrial organisations). It promotes informal educator-student relations and teaching methods and thus encourages own action and participation in the learning process of (potential) ESL student. It accounts for students’ needs and interests.

The main purpose of this paper is to define the core principles and aims of community learning and identify ways in which community learning can help combat ESL. In the context of ESL, community learning effects are most evident in community-school ESL prevention and intervention programmes and community compensation programmes. In order to be most efficient, community learning is an integral process that comprises collaboration between different community organisations, local policy-makers, families, schools, teachers and students. It is very important that the process is carried out by qualified educators since teaching methods and approaches are both formal and informal. The community learning approach is based on individualisation (participants’ cognitive, emotional and behavioural characteristics are accounted for) and experiential learning (community life is included as a rich source of knowledge, there is congruency between what is being taught and experienced) and is meant to take place in a hospitable and supportive environment. There is also a commitment to use culturally relevant material. Thus it takes place in various community organisations and its aim is an anti-discriminatory, culture-specific and equal educational and learning setting where individuals develop through their own action and participation. The learning process is supported by a mutual educator-student informally-oriented relationship in which the student’s interests, capacities and needs for physical safety, socio-emotional support, achievement, competence, relatedness and autonomy are accounted for. As such, the community learning approach can have a great positive impact on ESL in the sense of improving students’ learning motivation, achievement, sense of belonging, and can support their emotional, social and psychological well-being.


Community learning is a community-based, individual-oriented education and learning approach that connects what is being taught in schools to the community, including local institutions, history, literature, cultural heritage and natural environments. It is an educational and learning approach deriving from broader concepts of informal education and adult education. As such, it has been present in the educational sphere for decades, with the first promotions of local education in Europe dating back to the 1790s. The greatest expansion of community-based education in Europe began in the 1970s when lifelong education and the learning society were key points in a report by the Faure Commission which was the then keystone of education policy (Manzoor, 2014). Community learning is based on the belief that all communities have intrinsic educational resources that educators can use to enhance learning experiences for students. Synonymous terms found in the literature are community-based education, place-based learning, place-based education and informal education (The Glossary of Education Reform, 2014).

Nowadays, the core of community learning is the theoretical concept called the Wisconsin Model of Community Education (Horyna & Decker, 1991). The model provides a framework and a set of community learning principles that refer to both students (student’s self-determination, ability of self-help, leadership development) and community organisations that provide community-based education (localisation, integrated delivery of services, maximum use of resources, inclusiveness, responsiveness, and lifelong learning principles). The general purpose of community learning is to develop a community as a whole by acknowledging and supporting its members and their capacities as a priority. Participants of community learning are actively engaged in the process and seen as equal and the most important agents in developing the educational process based on educational equality and mutual, informal educator-student relationships (Horyna & Decker, 1991; Rubenson, 2011; Scottish Executive, 2004). Also of great importance is collaboration between community organisations, families, schools and students. Different research results (e.g. Epstein, 2001; Epstein et al., 2002; Blank, Berg, & Melaville, 2006; Shumow, 2009) show that in case of such collaboration schools and teachers are able to provide ESL-prevention-based programmes that acknowledge students’ culture, families, beliefs and expectations, connect the individual’s interests and community resources with school courses, and provide an environment where all students feel accepted, related, competent and autonomous in the learning process.

Besides ESL-prevention- and intervention-based programmes, community learning plays an important role in ESL compensation activities in which communities, different local agents, schools and teachers collaborate in programmes for students who have already left the school system early. Although the focus of the TITA project is mainly ESL prevention and intervention strategies, those can also be improved by understanding the community-based compensation programmes. That is why this article also addresses community learning as a form of ESL compensation activities.

In the paper, we discuss the basic principles of the community learning concept and, by reviewing good practices of ESL prevention and compensation community-based programmes, present the crossing points where community learning can make a difference – complement the regular school process and apply its advantages to reducing ESL. The described characteristics and principles of community learning do not imply that these are simply not present in formal school settings.


In the process of reviewing the literature in field of community learning, we first conducted a literature search of the scientific EBSCOhost online research databases (Academic Search Complete, ERIC, PsycARTICLES, PsycBOOKS, PsycINFO, and SocINDEX with Full Text databases). Since we also wanted to review the practical implications of this theoretical concept in practice, we also searched for related results online (Google). The main keywords initially used in both cases were: community learning, community education, community-based programmes, informal education, community education dropout prevention, and ESL and community learning. In this first step, we noticed a very limited number of research results under the term “community learning”. We therefore expanded our search to the field of adult education in which community learning is largely incorporated. We also examined references cited in the reviewed articles, educational programme brochures, and project reports. Texts that were taken into account had to meet the following criteria: the topic needed to address community learning or education in theory and/or practice, and needed to address the role of community-based learning and education in tackling ESL rates. Conclusions are primarily based on findings from theoretical and research articles, and evaluations of different community learning projects/programmes that were available.

Principles and Aims of Community Learning

Community learning is a theoretical concept which comprises ways of working with and supporting communities through community action and community-based learning. It promotes learning and social development and is central to the individual’s social capital since its main purpose is to increase the skills, networks and resources individuals need to address different social and educational shortages, and find new opportunities. A general guideline in this process is the individual’s development through their own action and participation in the learning process where their needs and interests are accounted for. It is also important for the community itself since it strengthens its capacities and therefore improves the overall quality of life (Horyna & Decker, 1991; Rubenson, 2011; Scottish Executive, 2004).

Community learning is sometimes also referred to as informal education and community empowerment and has a particular concern delivering learning and development opportunities to socio-economically disadvantaged individuals. Its approach is collaborative, anti-discriminatory and equality-focused and, besides conventional teaching methods (reading, writing, tutorials, presentations, group work), is based on informal teaching methods (e.g. role play, socio-drama, photo language, art, case studies, agency visits, participative action research, movement, painting, storytelling etc.) (Ancosan, 2009). It takes place in various community organisations such as community centres, adult education facilities, local institutions that promote culture, sport, health, job trainings, industrial plants, in nature, and also in schools. In this manner, awareness of the community’s importance facilitated by community policy-makers is particularly important. The community learning concept follows the principle that the most obvious and basic manifestation of caring and support at the community level is the availability of resources needed for human development (Benard, 1991).

Also of great importance in community learning and community-based educational approaches are community teachers, often referred to as community educators and professionals (to avoid the formality and hierarchy of the relationship implied by the term teacher). The relationship between students and educators is informal in nature. The educator’s role is to promote mutual relationships and therefore contribute to a socially just and equal society. They should be committed to respecting other persons, promoting well-being, truth, democracy and fairness, and should also be aware that community learning is a process in which they work with people rather than for the people. Accordingly, they have to be emphatic and able to adapt to the individual’s needs, interests, beliefs, priorities, abilities, expectations and learning processes (Carson Bryan & Wang, 2013; Jeffs, Rogers, & Smith, 2010; Jeffs & Smith, 2008).

At the core of community learning is the theoretical concept called the Wisconsin Model of Community Education (Horyna & Decker, 1991) which provides a framework and a set of community learning principles, which include development of the individual’s self-determination, self-help and leadership and, in the case of community educational organisations, principles that determine the localisation of the educational process, integrated delivery of services, maximum use of resources, inclusiveness, responsiveness, and implementation of lifelong learning processes. It is thereby a concept that comprises the person-environment fit and stage-environment fit principles (Eccles & Midgley, 1989).

Self-determination refers to the capacity of local citizens to best identify personal and community needs. They have a right and a responsibility to be involved in planning the learning and educational process. In this way, the whole process of community learning begins by recognising and identifying the individual, group and community needs that represent the core of the whole process. Strengthening and encouraging individuals’ capacity to be able to help themselves (Self-help) and develop responsibility for their own well-being is another core element of community learning. Leadership development is another basic principle of planning community-based education. It refers to the identification, development and use of local citizens and their capacities to lead, organise and help develop community-based learning. Where learning and educational processes take place (Localisation) is also another important aspect. Activities, programmes and events that are brought closer to where people live and are easily accessed have the greatest potential for high-level participation. Diverse needs and interests are also more easily met when different organisations that operate for the public good establish close working relationships (Integrated delivery of services) (another important relationship in the educational context is that between schools and other organisations) and use physical, financial and human resources of every community to their fullest (Maximum use of resources). Public institutions also have a responsibility to develop formal and informal learning opportunities that respond to the ever changing needs and interests (Responsiveness) of their residents of all ages (Lifelong Learning). It is also very important that such programmes and activities involve the broadest section of residents (Inclusiveness) who are not filtered by age, income, sex, race, religion, ethnicity etc. (Cobb, 2012; Horyna & Decker, 1991).

A review of existing practices of community learning projects (e.g. Coalition for Community Schools, 2012; Community Learning Partnership, 2015; European Commission Lifelong Learning Projects, 2016; National Center for Family and Community Connections, 2008; Community Learning Collaborative, 2016) showed that most community learning and community-based education projects derive their basic approaches from the previously mentioned theoretical framework. This means that community-based projects operate on the following postulates: Education is based on participants’ needs, experiences, prior knowledge and their socio-economic and personal characteristics, community life is included as a rich source of knowledge, the education process is dialogical, learning is mutual, there is congruency between what is being taught and experienced, the potential of each participant is encouraged, the venue takes place in a community, learning occurs in a hospitable and supportive environment, there is a valuing of diversity in intelligence, assessment is holistic in nature and there is a commitment to using culturally relevant material. The content of those projects is versatile as it can be. The topics most frequently covered are those addressing cultural diversity, elders and ageing, environmental efforts, families, youth and children, health and wellness, hunger and homelessness response, and educational support for a variety of subjects.

Since we are particularly interested in the overlap between community learning and educational support in terms of tackling the effects of ESL, we want to describe this relationship even further in the following paragraph.

Community Learning and ESL

In the context of the role of community learning in ESL, one initiative is particularly present: the initiative to connect schools with the wider community and to use schools as a catalyst for bringing community resources together to bear on community problems. The European Commission (2015) identified the so-called whole school approach as one of the most important steps in tackling ESL. The whole school approach defines the school as the logical site to initiate community collaboration in addressing ESL. Deliberately bridging institutions such as community organisations and schools are also rooted in social capital theory (Putnam, 2000; Rodriguez & Conchas, 2009). This means that the entire school community (school leaders, teachers, learners, parents and families) engages in a cohesive and collaborative action with external stakeholders and the community at large in order to support each learner through community learning. Studies (e.g. Epstein et al., 2002; Schargel & Smink, 2001) show that such collaborative action importantly improves learners’ educational motivation (by connecting with real-life experiences and interests), academic achievement, behaviour (increased sense of belonging to the community and school) and supports their emotional, social and psychological well-being (supporting climate). According to research results (e.g. Epstein, 2001; Epstein et al., 2002; Blank, Berg, & Melaville, 2006; Shumow, 2009) partnership between schools and communities also leads to better school programmes and climate, increased parenting skills and leadership, and connected families. In reviewing the studies that address the effects of family and parental involvement in the educational and learning process on student participation, different authors (e.g. Henderson & Mapp, 2002; Smink & Shargel, 2004) established that connecting families with community and schools, in terms of the inclusion of parents in planning and leadership activities and addressing the family’s needs, importantly increases the student’s attendance and motivation to participate in formal learning activities.

Various authors (e.g. Epstein, 2002; Shumow, 2009; Zarrett & Eccles, 2009) state that motivation for attainment and learning is the starting point where community learning principles can encourage positive effects. Studies (e.g. Bandura, 1997; Luthar, Shoum, & Brown, 2006; Ryan & Deci, 2000; Wigfield & Eccles, 2002) confirmed that the strongest predictors of a student’s activity participation are, besides family involvement, their self-concepts of ability and interest. Students are motivated to participate and even select increasingly challenging tasks when they feel they have the ability to accomplish such tasks and are interested in the task. The influence of encouraging parents, teachers and participating friends is also an important external reason for student’s enrolment in the activity (Epstein, 2001; Blank, Berg, & Melaville, 2006). In contrast, a student’s negative responses (e.g. stress) lead to decreased motivation and absenteeism (Zarrett & Eccles, 2009). In line with self-determination theory of motivation (Ryan & Deci, 2000), the individual’s basic needs that need to be met in order for the learning activity to be successful are: physical safety, socio-emotional needs for achievement and competence, feeling of relatedness, and autonomy. And those are the aspects where community learning can have an important impact on students prone to ESL (Foley, 2004).

As mentioned in the first section, the community learning approach follows the person-environment fit and stage-environment fit principles which: consider the individual’s cognitive, emotional and behavioural characteristics and needs and puts them in the centre of the learning process; connect the lived experiences and knowledge of participants with newly developed knowledge and thus makes it interesting and usable; encourage a learning environment that is safe, supportive, hospitable and promotes social justice and equity in education. In this way it addresses crucial obstacles which prevent ESL students from staying in the educational process: low motivation for learning, different ethnic and immigrant status, different cultural and educational values, low sense of belonging to school, deprivileged socio-economic background, and deficits in social networks and relationships (Foley, 2004; Rodriguez & Conchas, 2009; Smink & Shargel, 2004).

To tackle ESL it is therefore important that communities are connected with schools and provide prevention- and intervention-based programmes that acknowledge a student’s socio-cultural environment and educational beliefs and expectations, and connect the individual’s interests with both school contents and community resources. It is also especially important that ESL students have access to caring adults and a climate that recognises their experiential, intellectual and cultural wealth (Rodriguez & Conchas, 2009; Yosso, 2005). This allows them to start to realise their own goals, strengths and aspirations, and develop their resiliency, problem-solving skills, self-esteem, willingness, maturity and confidence for active participation in the school and the community at large (Benard, 1991).

The research results of Zarrett and Eccles (2009) also show that community-school partnership importantly affects the school’s approach to students in general. Schools and teachers become more responsive to a student’s needs and are less prone to immediate use of disciplinary actions when they know that someone from outside school is looking out for the student’s potential and best interests.

Community learning also has a valuable role not only in ESL prevention-based programmes but also in offering programmes and opportunities for students who have already left the school system early (Epstein, 2001). After reviewing ESL compensation activities in 12 US communities, Martin and Halperin (2006) identified eight common characteristics of such schools and second-chance, community-based programmes that had proved to be successful in practice (graduation of an ESL student to one of the programmes): Open entry/open exit (students proceed through the curricula modules at their own pace and graduate when they complete all state and district requirements), flexible scheduling (flexibility that accommodates students with families and work responsibilities), teachers are coaches, facilitators and crew leaders (emphasis is on close, supportive and informal relationships, students are respected as adults), real-world and career-oriented curricula (success of the programme is employment not only the acquisition of paper credentials, cooperation with local employer needs), arrangement of employment opportunities in summer or after school hours, clear codes of conduct with consistent enforcement (strict standards of attendance and effort, no drugs, violence or bullying), extensive support services (ESL students need adults who counsel, mentor and guide them – case managers, social workers, child care workers etc.), a portfolio of options for various student groups (ESL students leave schools for a variety of reasons and have many different barriers to their re-entry, this way they have an option to choose between different programmes and select the one that best suits their needs).

The community learning approach to education and tackling ESL is therefore an integrative tool that, in order to be successful, must connect all family, school and community agents and be implemented in prevention, intervention and compensation ESL programmes.


In this paper, we discussed the principles and aims of community learning and tried to identify areas where it can make a positive difference to tackling ESL (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1: Effects of community learning principles on a (potential) ESL student’s characteristics and its outcomes

According to the literature review of theoretical and research articles’ findings and evaluations of different community learning projects/programmes that are available, we can identify activities at different levels of the educational process that must be addressed in order to successfully tackle ESL. Those activities capture the following levels of the educational process: a) individual level (emphasis on the individual’s needs, beliefs, culture, potential etc.); b) educational approach level (informal teacher-student relationships, use of informal and formal teaching methods, mutual learning, congruency between theoretical knowledge and experiences, supportive environment etc.); and c) community-school level (community as a classroom and rich source of knowledge, collaboration between schools and community agents). Besides those, ESL compensation programmes also focus on career-oriented curricula and the arrangement of employment opportunities. Community learning is therefore a supportive process where individuals actively develop their capacities by connecting with their environment’s resources and where their needs for physical safety, socio-emotional support, achievement, competence, relatedness and autonomy are respected and met (Horyna & Decker, 1991; Rubenson, 2011; Scottish Executive, 2004).

By following the above learning approach, community learning can have a great positive impact on ESL in terms of improving students’ learning motivation, sense of belonging, and can support their emotional, social and psychological well-being. Community learning (with all its presented) advantages should therefore become a regular measure in the prevention and compensation of ESL. All relevant actors (students, families, schools, teachers, community organisations and policy-makers) should therefore be actively involved in planning, implementing and evaluating its effects in practice.

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