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Finding our centers: Becoming learning communities

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“Communities are defined by their centers,” explains Thomas Sergiovanni, “repositories of values, sentiments, and beliefs that provide the needed cement for bonding people together in a common cause. Centers govern what is valuable to a community…They answer questions: What is this school about? What is our image of learners? What makes us unique? How do we work together as colleagues? How does this school, as a community, fit into the larger school community?”1

I arrived at Jhamtse Gatsal  in India after 20 hours of driving over rough, mostly mountainous, roads. I was disheveled, a bit disoriented (altitude combined with weariness), and nearly desperate to escape the jeep’s backseat. Despite my rumpled state, my first steps into this “Garden of Love and Compassion” brought me face to face with every one of its students and staff members. Each greeted my wife and me as welcome scarves (khadas) were placed around our necks.

Our arrival was not unique. The community greets every visitor similarly. The same day we arrived, a local politician visited the community. This time, I was part of the welcoming ceremony. I was struck by the cohesion of values, which provided the foundation and vision for the community, and daily practices.

The community continued to enlighten in the days following the welcome and tour.

I saw this residential school’s students sacrifice personal time to help the community progress via projects such as the constructing of a new building. Older students assisted professional builders by making sure needed materials were always available. Other students helped younger children make toys from scraps of wood. Many children used some of their free time to play games, but even these interactions were unusual. Less competitive than cooperative, the children smiled and laughed together, enjoying the experience rather than arguing over rules, roles, and rewards.

I enjoyed being an observer, but I was there to teach. I had been invited to lead professional development for the school’s faculty. Before I could set foot in the classroom, a team of students and teachers cleaned the space from top to bottom. Every effort was made to provide an optimal physical environment for learning and to equip me for leading the conversations. The teachers arrived each morning with a sense of joy and anticipation. Joy and anticipation! No griping about “having to be there” or what else they could do with the time, and no cell phones disrupting and distracting our efforts to learn from one another. (They have cell phones; they just didn’t have them out during our interactions.)

What creates and maintains such an environment? What are the values that connect its residents, guide its actions — both individual and collective, and contribute to a cohesive lifestyle and approach to learning? What is this community’s “center”? Jhamtse Gatsal “is a children’s community that provides a safe and trusting environment where children from disadvantaged family situations can learn and grow freely. The dedicated team of local faculty not only prepares these students with important academic skills and knowledge, but also nurtures a responsibility to care for life outside themselves. By living in this close-knit community and supporting each other as family, the children learn to foster love, compassion, and wisdom and how to integrate these principles into all aspects of their daily life.”2

While our discussions of western education often center on test scores, touchdowns, and technology, it is refreshing to witness a school that personifies a “learning community.” We may not be able to fully replicate Jhamtse Gatsal’s approach, but we can learn from its example.

Perhaps we need to pause and reflect, to re-examine the questions whose answers should guide our decisions and practice. “What is this school about? What is our image of learners? What makes us unique? How do we work together as colleagues? How does this school, as a community, fit into the larger school community?”

Not every school can or should be Jhamtse Gatsal, but we need every school to be a learning community.

What is your school’s “center”?

Kevin D. Washburn is the executive director of Clerestory Learning, author of instructional-design model Architecture of Learning and instructional-writing program Writer’s Stylus, and co-author of an instructional-reading program used by schools nationwide. He is the author of “The Architecture of Learning: Designing Instruction for the Learning Brain” and is a member of the International Mind, Brain and Education Society and the Learning & the Brain Society. Washburn has taught in classrooms from third grade through graduate school.


  1. Sergiovanni, T.J., Moral Leadership: Getting to the Heart of School Improvement (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992), 47-48.
  2. Jhamtse International., “About Jhamtse Gatsal,” Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community News.