Monday, December 15, 2014

The 15th Friday: A Culture of Learning

…Ultimately, a school’s culture has far more influence on life and learning in the schoolhouse than the state department of education, the superintendent, the school board, or even the principal can ever have.”
Roland Barth

A school’s culture can indeed be a powerful thing. It can include many things and can be defined in different ways. Barth’s simplest definition of school culture is, “The way we do things around here.” In schools with positive cultures, these “things” are primarily focused on student learning. A culture that consistently focuses on student learning must possess the following characteristics (Barth, 2002):

  • A clear purpose
  • A collaborative environment
  • Frequent discussions centered on best teaching practices
  • A commitment to continuous improvement
  • A results orientation
  • Administrators who empower teachers
  • A willingness to confront and overcome adversity
  • A staff that always has the best interests of students at heart

Everything we do begins with a clear purpose, or mission. An organization’s mission answers the question why it exists—what, precisely, is its core purpose? Of course, at any school, the core responsibility of educators serving there is to ensure student learning, but in highly effective schools and districts, guaranteeing superior learning experiences is not only our responsibility, but our passion!

Many of our students will be receiving gifts during the holiday season but none of these gifts can be as valuable as the gifts our teachers give them throughout the year and which last a lifetime—most importantly, the gift of lifelong learning. Ron Brandt (1998) wrote a book called Powerful Learning in which he summarized the learning process to include ten crucial statements. These ten essential fundamentals of learning apply to individual students as well as entire organizations and serve as reminders of how students learn and how we can optimize their ability to achieve at their highest possible levels. Take a look at these statements and see if you agree:

  1. People learn what is personally meaningful to them;
  2. People learn when they accept challenging, but achievable, goals;
  3. Learning is developmental;
  4. Individuals learn differently;
  5. People construct new knowledge by building their current knowledge
  6. Much learning occurs through social interaction
  7. People need feedback in order to learn;
  8. Successful learning involves the use of strategies—which themselves must be learned;
  9. A positive emotional climate strengthens learning;
  10. Learning is influenced by total environment.
As I continue to observe in classrooms throughout our own district, I notice kids learning at high levels because these ten crucial statements are being considered as lessons are planned and as meetings are convened to reflect on our practices.

As we near the end of another calendar year of teaching and learning, I hope you take a moment to reflect on Barth’s eight characteristics of a positive school culture and Brandt’s ten characteristics of powerful learning. Do you agree that these statements capture the essence of culture and learning? Which are most/least important? How are we doing in our classrooms, schools, and districts in relation to these indicators of positive culture and powerful learning? I hope you give yourselves high marks; at the same time, one reason excellent educators are so good at what they do is that they always strive to get better still, and it is worth noting Barth’s emphasis on a commitment to continuous improvement.

Thanks for giving the most powerful gift of all each day to the students you serve—the gift of learning. Incorporating powerful learning practices into our daily lessons and working together to build a positive school culture are two ways we Teach with Passion each day!

Book Bits…

As I have mentioned previously, O’Connor devotes a chapter each to 15 “broken” grading practices, offering a “fix” for each problem. This week, we look at the fifteenth—and final—problem, along with his fix:

Grades are broken when teachers “run the show” when it comes to grading and assessing and do not involve students in this critical area of learning. The fix is to ensure that students play key roles in assessment and grading that promote achievement. Make sure that students understand how their grades have been determined and to involve them as much as possible in all phases of learning and assessment. “We must constantly remind ourselves that the ultimate purpose of evaluation is to enable students to evaluate themselves” (Costa, 1991).


  1. Jeff, this post has me thinking. I wonder how schools would be impacted if learning was perceived as a gift, particularly in a dynamic period that demands a shift to deeper meaningful learning.

    If teachers, parents, and students started to see personal learning and/or public education as a gift to give and receive, and without limits, I wonder if the culture we look to build in out schools would extend to our homes and to individual families and students.

    I appreciate Barth's points on positive school culture. But I would challenge him to add one more consideration. Where positive cultures depend on administrators empowering teachers (and strong teachers are essential drivers for a culture if achievement) wouldn't such a culture of learning demand that teachers more freely and deliberately engage and empower students? This is my current focus...and pursuit as a school leader.

    Great post, Jeff. Thanks for sharing!


    1. Dennis,
      Thanks for reading; great comment. You add a helpful insight to the convo--there should be a purpose behind everything we do, including why we empower teachers. We do so knowing that the classroom teacher is the single most important variable impacting student learning and that teacher learning, in turn, impacts student learning. Hopefully, by modeling the way and empowering teachers, they will also empower their students. Thansk again; best,