When I started teaching, I had an vision for what I considered an ideal culture in my classroom. Every year, I tried to make one professional goal support this ideal. My vision was of a Culture of Learning. Not the kind of learning that is mostly about memorizing and skill performance, but the kind of learning that is mostly about exploring ideas and constructing understanding; the kind of learning that helps develop critical thinkers. I envisioned students working closely on interesting and worthwhile math tasks, asking questions, listening empathetically, taking risks, justifying their reasoning, learning from and with each other and having glorious aha moments that moved their learning forward. I consciously chose to use a proficiency grading policy from the get-go (and stuck to it in spite of being the only teacher using it) because I wanted my students to grow as learners and know that they were. Ideally, they would monitor their own learning, be willing to revise their thinking and their work, and learn from mistakes. Ideally.
I felt it was my responsibility to make my vision happen. I still do. The reality was, many of these things actually did happen to some degree, but never to my satisfaction. The various moves I tried did not ever seem to make a big enough difference. At times, it was difficult to not feel like a failure. Each year, I would try again, because I know beyond a shadow of doubt that the culture in a classroom matters.
This post is not about woulda-coulda-shoulda regrets. Or about blame. It is about trying to make sense of a culture in which learning flourishes, and part of that process involves figuring out and examining what hinders, undermines, or flat-out prevents it. Grades. Worksheets. Right and wrong answers. Performance culture. Testing. Compliance. Grades. (I said that already? Oops.) Government mandates. Time. Status Quo. “Ability” leveling. Homework. Tradition. Myths and misconceptions. Fixed mindsets. Data overload. Just to name a few, of course.
In an attempt to be succinct, here’s what reflecting on my experiences and efforts has revealed to me so far about culture:
AHA #2a: In order for a teacher to improve her daily practice, in order for her to develop and sustain a classroom learning culture, she needs to be working in a learning community. That is, the thriving learning culture we desire for our students needs to begin with a thriving learning culture for their teachers. In order for teachers to learn, they need a safe and supportive learning community that is willing to talk about and examine practices honestly and critically, to make time to find and use excellent resources, to implement ideas, ask questions, collaborate, make mistakes, revise, and reflect, reflect, reflect. While fabulous online communities can and do support the learning of individuals, I am not aware of any real impact on a school’s culture.
Please read Mark Chubb’s post * on how his district made this happen. Notice the non-performance goal, the commitment to time, and investment in people. If we expect/want our students to be active learners, then we’d better desire and demand it for ourselves.
AHA #2b: You can’t simply “add” in a few pedagogical moves or latest research-based ideas and expect significant change to happen, even over time. Even if you get training and/or implement excellent ideas well, there simply is no magic bullet. Figuring out what you personally and you as a community need to STOP altogether or significantly ALTER — and understanding why and figuring out how–are equally important as adding in the good stuff. Less feeling like your’re making shit up and trying to survive and more intentional learning and professional growth. See Aha #2a.
What kind of community do you work in? What kind of community do your students work in? Who is surviving and who is thriving? Why?
* Mark Chubb is my latest blog crush. Go. Totally worth reading everything he has to say. Not to mention that delightful photo gracing the top. (Other crushes I’ve had are Dan Meyer, Christopher Danielson, Fawn Nguyen, and Bree Pickford-Murray. There are many amazing other bloggers I follow and am thrilled each time a new post shows up in my reader, but these five I have gone back and read every one of their posts.)