Building VLCs? Start with the why.

People aren’t convinced by what you do in a virtual space (i.e. moderate Twitter chats, participate in online discussion threads, write blogs); they are convinced by why you do it. The goal is not to build a virtual learning community with everybody who has something to offer you; the goal is to build a virtual learning community with people who believe what you believe.

How does this shift your paradigm about virtual learning communities?

CC licensed “The Golden Circle” Gavin Llewellyn via Flickr

Have you heard of Simon Sinek’s “golden circle”? He claims that far too often, people focus intently on communicating their “what” or “how” without first understanding and communicating their most important “why.” To illustrate this framework, Sinek uses Apple. If Apple tried to build its business by focusing on the “what” (computers, phones, etc.) and the “how” (beautiful design and user-friendly), it wouldn’t be revolutionary. Lots of companies can build functional mobile phones or beautiful computers. Instead, Apple revolutionized the industry by focusing on the why: Apple challenges the status quo by thinking differently. This belief results in beautifully designed laptops and iPhones. Sinek claims that people respond to Apple’s “why” and then justify spending more money on Apple’s products (what).

In his now famous TedTalk, Sinek states “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. The goal is not to do business with everybody who needs what you have, the goal is to do business with people who believe what you believe.”

Let’s modify to fit our context.

People aren’t convinced by what you do in a virtual space (i.e. moderate Twitter chats, participate in online discussion threads, write blogs); they are convinced by why you do it. The goal is not to build a virtual learning community with everybody who has something to offer you; the goal is to build a virtual learning community with people who believe what you believe.

How does this shift your paradigm about virtual learning communities?

State your purpose, create your purpose

Whether you want to brainstorm unit maps with members of your department or invite experts from other continents to help you solve a professional problem of practice, lead with the why. Why should you extend the face-to-face learning with your colleagues into a virtual space? Why should people from other continents want to engage in conversation about this particular problem? Why should anyone care?

I once tried to start a virtual learning community with colleagues in my school. Instead of finding coverage to observe each other’s lessons and struggling to find a common time to meet afterwards, I suggested  we record our lessons and post them in a private space online to view and comment. I emphasized that we could engage with the learning any time by viewing the videos during our outside of busy school days. I happily answered questions about posting to YouTube’s platform and how to ensure privacy.

Although all of the initial responses to my idea were positive, our virtual learning community never thrived. I shared one video lesson that elicited two comments. Not exactly the dynamic constructive feedback and lively discussion we had envisioned. A colleague recorded a video, but never posted it. Another colleague admitted he was uncomfortable posting a video to YouTube where “administration might be able to find it and view evaluatively.”  Frustrated after a few months, my colleagues and I abandoned the whole idea.

In my initial messaging, I unfortunately focused our conversation on the what (video lessons) and the how (YouTube’s platform with privacy setting and comments) rather than taking time to have conversation about the why. Why did we want to observe each other’s classrooms? Why did we want to engage in conversations about our classroom practice? Why did a virtual platform make sense for our purpose of learning together?

Avoid a misguided focus

Imagine a district administrator is inspired by people and resources he finds on Twitter. After experimenting on the platform for a few months, he is convinced  more teachers and administrators in his district should be on Twitter. He imagines people collaborating beyond their department, grade level, or building through a Twitter chat and sharing resources beyond the school day and over summer break through tweets. An email comes from the central office requesting teachers and other administrators sign up for Twitter and participate in a new district Twitter chat. The email states: “This is an optional opportunity. I hope you learn a new technology tool and use it to connect with your colleagues from other buildings.”

A few people respond enthusiastically, some hoping to discover Twitter’s potential classroom applications. The first chats are well attended and overwhelmingly positive as people welcome newcomers and help each other learn how to converse in 140 characters using hashtags.

After a few weekly chats, attendance dwindles. An echo chamber forms where remaining participants mostly agree with each other and restate ideas. No one is checking Twitter between chat times, and many new accounts become inactive. The group decides to break over the summer and the administrator who started the chat finds himself dreading the restart in the fall.

What happened to this potential virtual learning community? It lacked a purpose to sustain the learning. It also focused too much on the what (Twitter) and the how (using hashtags and having conversations beyond the school building). The why for engaging on this new platform was stated, but it was short-lived: to learn a new tool and connect with colleagues. The chat was never framed within a greater purpose, and therefore it accomplished its stated purpose quickly. Once people engaged with the platform a few times and chatted with people they knew, they didn’t prioritize this community or platform beyond that introduction.

Paul Barnwell points to a misguided focus on the what in his post: Why VLCs should be people centered. He emphasizes that instead of focusing on the technology platform, every learning community needs to focus on relationships, allowing the community time to build trust and norms. The chosen platform where communities interact matters little as long as (1) they share a sense of purpose for why they gather and (2) they build trust within the community over time.

So, how can we start with the why and use that to grow, strengthen, or build virtual learning communities?

Virtual learning communities that start with the why

My colleague Wendi Pillars defined VLCs as a “group of peers with whom you can discuss ideas, offer support, and provide pushback and/or feedback” She then tacked on this little phrase: “facilitated by a virtual space.” We know that all learning communities need a common purpose and earned trust to thrive. Virtual learning communities also need a platform to facilitate communication.

Here’s a model for a VLC that works. Teachers from school districts across Florida are accepted into a leadership fellowship. They are tasked with conducting an inquiry project in their communities and sharing the results with the public. Their purpose? To support each other in forming the best inquiry question, conducting action research in their local contexts, and interpreting the results to share learning with others.

Because meeting in a physical space is too costly and time intensive, they will leverage Zoom (a video collaboration platform) to meet monthly. This platform promotes relationship-building through the video interface and the chat box; it also helps them give feedback through a screen-sharing function. They use Google docs and email to stay connected between virtual meetings. Resources are easily shared, and learning deepens throughout the year as all participants remain focused on completing their project and reflecting on their learning.

Virtual learning communities don’t have to be limited to one platform; in fact, they often leverage many. CTQ has provided me my most meaningful and long-lasting virtual learning community. Our why is centered on a common belief that teachers should lead their profession through their incredible expertise. We share a common passion for changing the educational system to acknowledge that expertise, and ensure a more equitable system for all students.

To learn and grow from this VLC, I read blog posts from a colleague working with pre-service teachers in Massachusetts (as well as all the bloggers participating in this round table!), and I follow a middle school teacher-leader coach in Colorado on Twitter. I read books written by members of this community, like New York middle school math teacher Jose Vilson, and this new release by higher-ed colleague Jon Eckert. I connect with this community via social media, the Collaboratory, email, and texting. Despite living in different time zones and teaching in different contexts, we are a robust learning community connected by our shared purpose, a sense of mutual respect, and a genuine desire to live and breathe life-long learning.

Sinek’s golden circle can serve as a reminder for creating purposeful, engaged learning communities. Let’s reframe our approach and create communities of purpose. In doing so, we may discover the inestimable power of VLCs.

This spring CTQ bloggers are exploring the theme: How do VLC’s (Virtual Learning Communities) impact our profession? We invite you to join us here in our own VLC, the Collaboratory, with your thoughts and comments, and share ideas using the hashtag #CTQCollab.  If you like this post, check out more VLC wisdom from Wendi PillarsPaul BarnwellMarcia Powell, & John Holland.

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  • SandyMerz

    Why is big, but what comes next?

    Something I’ve come across in the little reading I’ve done about adult learning is that adults, even more than kids, want to know, “When am I ever going to use this?” I know from teaching algebra that being able to answer when anybody uses the concept is usually enough. But adults already know what they need and, rightly or wrongly, what they don’t need. So narrowing down the WHY is necessary but not sufficient. It’s necessary to get particpants to listen, and maybe to the virtual door, but if all you have is a good reason, you probably will get frustrated. So, you need something to keep the interest up – there needs to be, for lack of a better term, a payoff: The content has to be good, it should be easy to engage (like through ZOOM), the community has to bond, and so forth. I can’t push back against your closing quote – I think I’ll start using it myself, but no matter WHY you do it, people won’t stay without a rewarding WHAT.

    • BriannaCrowley

      We seem to agree!


      Thanks for reading and thinking about this with me. Although I focused this post nearly exclusively on “the why” or purpose for a community to engage with each other, I also believe, as you point out, that there needs to be a clear “what” that results for people to stay engaged long enough to build those crucial relationships Paul and others have emphasized. What I didn’t address in this post is the diversity of VLCs. Some, like my CTQ example at the end, last over a span of years and result in many, many “whats.” Think about the body of work co-created by or resulting from the conversations and realtionships within the CTQ learning community. The “what” shifts as different members partner up on a project or different groups meet up at a conferences. The “why” is crucial for the continued engagement with and identity of the community, but the “whats” are also important for the community to stay dynamic. 

      Other VLCs, like my FL teacher fellows example, are more structured learning communities where the “why” and the “what” are defined early and drive that community’s work for a specific period of time. Beyond that project (what), the “why” may allow that community to grow, shrink, or simply change shape as different and new “whats” emerge as ongoing work. 

      I thnk there’s a lot more to explore in thinking about the relationship between the purpose and outcomes of any given learning community. Thanks for sparking the conversation in that direction.