INSIGHT: What Makes a Learning Community?

“Instruction in youth is like engraving in stone.” – Moroccan Proverb

Instruction in youth is like engraving in stone.” – Moroccan Proverb

Housemaster, sports coach and a teaching fellow in ALA’s mathematics department, Joseph Ekpenyong shares his thoughts on what makes a Learning Community, and how ALA fits the bill.

Common spaces

No learning community can function effectively without common spaces, and no staffulty member has felt this more keenly than this housemaster, whose own quarters have become secondary hang out zone for students.

“There are plenty of common spaces on campus, and in the dormitories as well: we have numerous lounges, a TV in every home that offers YouTube, NetFlix, etc – and each dorm has a common space for different homes to meet up in. But it’s even better this year, with the Learning Commons, which has lots of common spaces and private meeting rooms. So even though the student population is higher than ever, there are multiple spaces that allow for them to work.”

The Frederick Pardee Learning Commons, which was officially opened at the start of this new academic year entrenches ALA’s ethos as a future learning centre by effectively encapsulating all that a Learning Community requires in one resourceful building. Designed for all student requirements, from serene individual study to team collaboration, it has fast become the go-to zone on campus, allowing Joe a bit of a breather in his own space, he admits with a grin. This doesn’t mean students no longer come round, cook up a meal and hang out, though. “We do a monthly meal together as a matter of form, but I think having the Learning Common has given me some space – and I think I’ve also learned to set a few boundaries, so there is a cut off time…” 

Student agency

“A big part of a learning community is a need for student’s agency; in design and execution especially – and ALA does a good job of ceding leadership positions to students,” says Joe. Student agency calls for more than just giving students a voice or allowing some flexibility in teaching; it effectively allows students to take ownership of their education in all aspects that come into play.

At ALA, this is evident everywhere. “What’s special about ALA is the amount of agency the student government has in making rules and creating the policies that guide the institution,” he adds.

Students are not only encouraged to actively participate in their education, but also in any aspects contributing to it. The design of the new Pardee Learning Centre, for instance, is one notable example: ALA student and staffulty opinions on their expectations for the building were not only sought, but also taken into account.

Student enterprises

With a greater focus on learning than on teaching, learning communities thrive on learning experiences. At ALA, students actively participate in real entrepreneurial experiences on campus, notes Joe. “We have various enterprises, and the Student Enterprise Program where students are involved in the designing and making the ALA branded T-shirts for example – most schools would employ someone from outside to do this. We also offer campus jobs – slots for students to intern in a certain department and gain real life experiences outside of class.”

ALA founder Dr Fred Swaniker expanded on ALA’s sophisticated campus economy in his keynote speech at the recent 2017 Anzisha Prize Gala, explaining that “You cannot force people to be entrepreneurs but you can expose them to the entrepreneurial process – here, they start young, get lots of practice, and this gives them he confidence to make something much bigger in later life.”

At ALA, students pitch ideas to real investors for access to a capital fund; they pay taxes and rent and even hold monthly board meetings. “No other institution in world has a live economy,” noted Swaniker,” It’s the single best way to build entrepreneurship.”

Professional Learning Community

A professional learning community keeps evolving by staying in touch with educational developments – and ensuring a culture of collaboration between both students and staffulty and within the teaching community itself – one of ALA’s core tenets. “In class in general, most students comment on how teachers are more inclusive,” notes Joe.

“And in the time I’ve been here (this is my fifth year) we routinely get professional development opportunities on campus. I also recently attended a event in Cape Town on maths modelling that I gained more from than I had expected: it directly helped me in shaping a new course.”



Joseph is that rare combination of math whizz and sports buff. Born in Nigeria, he attended the Federal Government Academy (Centre for the Gifted and Talented), and represented the school in many mathematics and science competitions, he achieved the highest results in his final year at high school.

As a USAP participant, he was admitted into Bates College, Maine in the US, where he received the highest freshman award: a Dana Scholar1. At Bates he completed a major in mathematics with a cum laude distinction and a minor in French – and participated in every intramural football league. There, he also served as a junior advisor for first-year students and worked two consecutive years as a teaching assistant for the math department’s Math Camp. Joseph has also taught Algebra 2 and Statistics, and served as an assistant coach for a soccer and a volleyball team at Choate Rosemary Hall School, a boarding prep school in Connecticut, USA.

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