It’s Time for a Culture of Learning

Note: In part one of this exploration I shared that we would use this  post to look at concrete steps that we might take. The steps that I will share come from observations that I have made as a result of more than 10 years spent visiting schools around the country. These, by no means, represent the only steps that we as educators might take. They are offered as one possible approach and are based on observations of both successes and failures in the schools I’ve visited.

It’s not lost on me that I’m beginning work on a piece about the attack on our public schools on December 7th. As Sir Ken Robinson quipped in one of his TED talks,” Who says Americans don’t get irony?”

Quick summary of Part 1.

Our public our system of public education is under attack. There are many forces involved in this attack. In previous blogs I’ve explored a number of these forces. For this piece I want to focus on our role as educators in this development.

This is, by no means, intended to minimize intentionally orchestrated strategies by politicians, educational “reformers”, or agendas driven by profit or ideology. These groups, sometimes independently but often in collaboration, are the major force driving this attack.

It’s critical to recognize, however, that we have inadvertently helped to create the conditions that have fed their agenda and left too many people questioning the value of a public system of education. We have created and helped to maintain a culture that is more focused on teaching than learning. Our focus has been and continues to be on the process of teaching. Our structures have been built around this focus. Out of economic necessity and, not infrequently, adult convenience we have built daily schedules, school hours, yearly calendars, grading policies, etc. We have focused administrative efforts on teacher observations, on the act of teaching, on the professional development of teachers, on the delivery of ever more tightly defined curricula, etc.

Although we certainly do not own sole responsibility for this development, it is important to recognize the ways in which we have contributed to the situation and to be willing to identify and address conditions which are under our control.

Let’s just face it.  We are, and have been for some time, trapped in an improvement loop that places the greatest emphasis on teaching and relegates the process of learning to something that is measured increasingly by large-scale assessment.  We have grown to resent the bull’s eye” that has been increasingly placed on our backs while, at the same time, we have continued to accept the lessons we learned, both as students in school and in our professional training, that reinforce the focus on a culture of teaching.

On to the actions…

NOTE: For a more detailed and comprehensive plan of action, I’d strongly recommend the work being done by Will Richardson, Bruce Dixon, Missy Emler, Lyn Hilt and their team at Modern Learners. You should check out their site their site.

 I think it’s safe to assume that as a reader of this blog you have been thinking of ways to improve the opportunities for learning for our young people and our adults. For most of us, however, the focus has continued to be on what is best described as the culture of teaching. This is about changing (unlearning) that culture. It’s about a few concrete steps that can be taken to begin the process… a process which is not unlike the birthing of elephants – painful and loud!

Overarching Principle

Just as the culture of schooling and teaching is school-wide, the responses must involve the entire school community. Such whole school efforts are extremely difficult and likely to begin on a much smaller scale. Significant culture change in responses to the reality of the culture of teaching, however, must at some point involve larger school community.

As we have explored in previous posts, any significant change must take place in a culture of safety and trust. I’ll be blunt: No conversations, no relationships, no trust, no change. Asking people to unlearn and reassess beliefs that have guided their work for years is doomed if we haven’t created a culture/environment in which they feel valued, cared for, respected and safe.

Getting Started

Here are “laying the groundwork” steps which will enhance the likelihood of whole community buy-in:

  • Start small with exploratory conversations –  i.e., What do you think we must believe in when you look at our practices and policies?
  • Invite others to explore with you – i.e., I’d like to explore ways in which we can avoid abandoning our commitment to the development of our students and adults as we continue to work towards increasing student academic success? Want to join me?

Using this is a starting point what follows is an exploration of the actions you might take to widen the circle of safety and support – to create followership and commitment to action.

It is ironic that we would be having a discussion about the creation of a culture of learning about schools. By their very nature, schools should be learning organizations. But the reality is quite different. Too often the structure of our schools facilitates isolation and independence rather than institutional or organizational learning and collaboration.

This takes us to our first step in the action plan… the creation of a school-wide conversation that begins with our understanding of why we exist. This is a question which seems to have an obvious answer. That is, until we look at the results of a very simple exercise.

Action #1

To have meaningful, productive conversations about critical issues, it is vital that we have a shared vocabulary. Without this commonality, it is possible (even likely) that participants will be nodding their heads to their own definition which may be wildly different from the meaning held by the speaker. Action #1 is a test of this commonality and comes from Dan Pink, whose work on researching engagement and motivation is generally recognized as leading the way. If you like to see Pink’s podcast (90 seconds) here’s the link link.

Distribute index cards to all participants.

  1. Ask the participants to answer in one sentence the following question “What is the purpose of our school?”
  2. Gather the response cards.
  3. Read them aloud.
  4. Share observations about the responses.

Questions for reflection:

Based on our responses are we clear about doing the right thing or are we trying to focus on doing things right? Is there clarity and consensus about what you are doing? Is it the right thing or simply a series of attempts to do things better?

Too often our responses reveal that we have developed a whole series of policies, practices, norms, and behaviors as an attempt to do things right – i.e., improve what we are doing – even when what we are doing may not be the right thing or when there is no real common understanding about our purpose, leaving staff members to work independently at achieving purposes which may differ substantially – i.e., Ever had a dress code policy which is enforced inconsistently based on the buy-in of individual staff members?

Action #2

I am not a fan of school or schooling. As it is conceived and as it operates it has and continues to have greater emphasis on the development and preservation of a culture of teaching rather than a culture of learning. It is the creation and preservation of that culture of teaching that has gotten us in trouble. It has caused us to confuse school/schooling with learning.

“Schools are places where kids come to watch adults work hard”

Quote widely attributed to Bill Daggett, ICLE

What are the things that you think about when you think of school? Are the things we think of contingent on our role? Do we see school/schooling differently if we are educators working in schools, students experiencing school. parents of school-age children, or adults recalling their school experiences?

  • Make a list of your responses to the question.
  • See if you can get a list from the other groups listed above.
  • What are the things that you noted you see as positive/negative?
  • What are the things that you noted from non-educators that were positive/negative?

Action #3

Examine the culture of your school/district. Is it, like the majority of schools, more culture of teaching than a culture of learning?

Note: It’s easy to be defensive about this one. Teachers are by nature helpers/givers, seeing much of what they do as “kid-centered”. It might be useful to make a list of what practices, norms, policies, etc. are dealing with teaching activities – i.e., who talks more, who’s at the center of any given lesson, what’s the purpose (and effect) of the grading system, where does “learning that counts” occur? What do we actually mean by “culture of learning?

How are the norms, behaviors (“the way we do things”), policies and practices seen by teachers, students, parents, community members? What are the beliefs that you hold about learning? Are they consistent or at odds with research? You might want to use the following slide by Will Richardson as a guide for this.

screen-shot-2016-04-09-at-4-07-32-pm

  • Make a list of the norms and behaviors, policies and practices that are teaching centered and what are those that are learning centered?
  • What are the norms, behaviors, policies, practices which are aimed at efficiency?
  • Using Richardson’s list, comment on the contradictions he highlights between what we know about learning and what we do in your school/district.

Closing thoughts

I’ve watched this work.  When I worked with the International Center for Leadership In Education much of our work focused on the concepts of Rigor, Relevance and Relationships and the ways in which these concepts could be made a part of a school’s culture.  As the  work progress we recognized an evolution in our thinking.  The core concepts should have read:

  • Rigor
  • Relevance
  • RELATIONSHIPS

A second aspect of this change mirrored a quote from Bill Gates that I’ll paraphrase here, “It’s too easy to overemphasize what can be done in a year, but never underestimate what can be done in a decade.” We began by thinking that change was a 3-5 year process.  By the time I left ICLE that had changed to at least 5-7 years.  I personally think Gates was closer to the truth.  We can’t underestimate the difficulty of changing decades of culture or the time changes of such magnitude take.  Nor can we underestimate the sense of pride and accomplishment that accompanies the recognition that we have replaced trying so hard to do things right with doing the right thing.  Moving to a culture of learning is the right thing.

Be well. Do good work. Keep in Touch – Garrison Keillor

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