Building Community in a Classroom

1 May 2015

Last week I reported live from our International Masters for Health Leadership (, about the early days of a new class of 35 people, experienced across health care around the world. This week I have asked three of my colleagues on the program, Sheila Damon, Marie-Josée Lareau, and Carlos Rueda, to help report on a novel three-day workshop that followed. Day 1 focused on Reflecting on Self and Day 2 on Working in Groups. This TWOG discusses Day 3: How to take a class of individuals toward Becoming a Community of learners and doers. Here is what happened.

From thinking and acting toward doing

The day began with a short presentation on communityship, to contrast it with leadership and encourage the class to think about it beyond a local community or a community of practice, to appreciate how people engage enthusiastically for common cause.

The previous day used various exercises to drive home the idea of working cooperatively in small groups. Now it was time to get a feel for working together in a larger group, as a community.

First came a physical exercise: everyone stood in a cluster and copied the actions of the person at the front (as shown in the first photo). Then the group rotated, so that someone else was at the front, and again they all copied whatever action this new temporary leader chose to do. Repeating this several times gave a sense of collective action, where everyone leads and everyone follows.

Everyone stood in a cluster and copied the actions of the person at the front

The class will be together for five modules of eleven days each over a year and a half, to develop themselves and their organizations. But the program is more than that: it is meant to be a forum to transform how health care is managed worldwide. In other words, it is a laboratory for discussing, debating, and cooperating on major challenges facing health care, so as to launch collective initiatives that address these challenges.

A number of the participants in past classes have taken up such challenges readily (see some of their stories on It has been heartening to work with so many people devoted to improving health care itself, beyond their own role in it.

Guidelines for the community

To encourage communityship for the purpose of creating such initiatives, next we organized the class in four tables, each to consider one of these four questions:

  1. What is the purpose of our community--what do we want to accomplish together?
  2. What values do we want to live in our community?
  3. What roles and responsibilities should we have as members of this community?
  4. How should we communicate with each other and with the group?

We saw these questions as the leaves of a lucky four leaf clover. A neurosurgeon in the class offered another metaphor: this reminded him of the nerve supply to a muscle, where every nerve fiber matters. Here every member of the class matters--if they are to function together as a learning community.

So far, so good. The class was using everything it had learned in the previous two days about reflecting on self and working in groups. But how about actually building itself as a community?

Hence, as the next step, we asked everyone to change tables three times, so that they could all look at the answers to the guideline questions developed at each table, and add suggestions of their own. Then came the tricky part: to return to their original tables and reduce each set of answers and suggestions to a two-minute presentation. Each group, and each person, was now working on behalf of the entire community. They did it! The class developed a short set of guidelines to get the whole community off the ground. It will be re-visiting these guidelines in later modules, asking: How are we doing as a learning community? Are these guidelines being useful for our learning as a community? Should we adapt them in the light of our new experiences?

Everyone stood in a cluster and copied the actions of the person at the front

Putting the guidelines to work

Drawing up guidelines is one thing; putting them to work as a community is another. So in the afternoon we had our first go at a community-learning event. Everyone was given the opportunity to propose topics that they wished to work on, with the help of their colleagues, during the program. Seven topics were suggested, and a table was designated for each, where whoever was interested in a topic could share the expertise and experience that he or she could bring to it. These "open tables" addressed the following topics:

  1. Conflict resolution
  2. Volunteering in global health
  3. Designing medical education for residents
  4. Using social media in health care
  5. Creating a national network of specialists
  6. Quality improvement in healthcare settings
  7. Managing teams for high performance

Carrying communityship forward

The day concluded with a lively and energized Community Meeting, where everyone sat in a big circle to reflect on the accomplishments of these three days.

Everyone stood in a cluster and copied the actions of the person at the front

The class discovered that being a member of a working community requires a demanding balance of individual and collective efforts. This was more difficult than learning to work in smaller groups on the previous day. Yet everyone could feel the buzz from what had been happening this day. Communityship was taking its place beyond leadership.

Sheila Damon is a psychologist in London whose practice focuses on organisational and management development.
Marie-Josée Lareau is a circus stage director from Montreal, also now Innovation Manager at Abbvie.
Carlos Rueda, from Lima, is a former OD consultant, and currently doing a PhD at McGill University, focusing on experience and learning.