5 Questions in Establishing a Culture for Learning

Jon Konen
District Superintendent

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What do Google, Facebook, Nike, Apple, and Walt Disney have in common? They are five of the top ten corporations in which people said they loved to work, according to a recent USA Today article. They all have a positive and enticing work culture. Mirriam-Webster defines corporate culture as the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. Though a school is far from a corporate atmosphere, a classroom's culture is defined by these same characteristics. Ultimately, the teacher sets the culture for the classroom in much the same way a principal sets it for the whole school.

The classroom culture has a set of shared beliefs. The exemplary teacher knows that the number one shared belief is that of the importance in learning. The teacher has high expectations for themselves and for all the students in the room. Students assume much of the responsibility of the learning by initiating improvements, supporting peers, adding to the learning process, as well as making alterations.

Digging deeper into the shared belief of learning, one will find that students value what is being learned. They hold themselves to a high level of expectations for quality work. Students redo work products that they feel are not their best work. They initiate the process by advocating for them self and requesting from the teacher to redo the assignment or task. Effort and perseverance are illustrated daily in master teacher's classrooms.

Here are five questions to tackle in order to go from being a "proficient" to an "exemplary" teacher:

#1 - Does the Teacher Communicate Passion for What They Are Teaching?

Within a 5-10 minute observation of a teacher you can tell if he or she likes students and likes the content that they are teaching. This intangible characteristic is what we call "passion" in education. We care so much about our subject and the students we teach that our body language and words speak for them self. There are many inherent benefits to a teacher who exemplifies passion.

Student engagement and excitement are increased when a teacher is passionate. Passion is contagious and when a teacher can clarify the rationale why content should be learned, students take ownership of their learning and true "agency" can be seen. Agency is the ability for a student to act on their own about their learning progress. They understand it is their responsibility to get the most out of any learning experience and the teacher is merely there to guide and facilitate this learning.

The depth and breadth of content covered is increased when a teacher is passionate and the students are engaged. Unpassionate teachers spend time drilling and killing surface level concepts; students may never understand the importance and rationale for truly learning the covered content. Passionate teachers can cover more content when the students are engaged, they can also go deeper when students are interested and asking questions.

Passion is hard to gain or teach if you do not like your job. I have told teachers you will have to "fake it to make it." If a teacher does not have passion they must fake it. Passion is needed for students to visually see the teacher engaged and caring about the content. As master teachers, we must exude this passion towards our content, as well as passion towards student progress and achievement. Exemplary teachers have this passion.

RELATED - Should I Become a Teacher? and The Passion for Knowledge

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#2 - What Do the Questions and Comments Students Make Tell Us About the Classroom Culture?

Listening to students while in the classroom lets an observer into the classroom culture. First, we can listen for positive or negative comments and questions towards other students, the teacher, or the content they are learning. What the teacher permits, they allow, and this becomes the culture of the classroom.

The exemplary teacher spends a lot of time modeling and reframing conversations, questions, and comments made by teachers. They use stem or predetermined questions and comments to teach students how they can communicate with each other in order to build a positive learning environment. The teacher stops negative comments immediately and reframes how a student can ask or respond in a more respectful manner.

Here are a few examples of stem comments, questions, and responses for student discussion Adapted from John Warren:

  • Expressing an Opinion: I think…, I believe…, It seems to me…., In my opinion…
  • Predicting: I guess…, I predict…, I imagine…, Based on..., I infer that…, I hypothesize…
  • Asking Clarification: What do you mean?, Will you explain that again?, I have a question about that.
  • Paraphrasing: So you are saying that…, In other words, you think…, What I hear you saying is…
  • Soliciting a Response: What do you think?, We haven't heard from you yet.. Do you agree?, What answer did you get?
  • Acknowledging Ideas: My idea is similar to ____'s idea., I agree with _______ that…, My idea builds upon ____'s idea
  • Individual Reporting: I discovered from _____ that…., I found from ______ that…, _____ pointed out to me that….
  • Partner and Group Reporting: We decided that…., We agreed that…., We concluded that…, Our group sees it differently….
  • Disagreeing: I don't agree with you because…, I have a different answer than you., I see it another way.
  • Offering a Suggestion: Maybe we could…, What if we…, Here's something we might try…
  • Affirming: That's an interesting idea…, I hadn't thought of that., I see what you mean.
  • Holding the Floor: As I was saying…, If I could finish my thought, What I was trying to say was…

The master teacher understands that communication is not only with the chosen words, but with body language (including facial expressions) and tone of voice. The teacher constantly models positive interactions and even how to disagree respectfully. Listening to students disagree with each other or debate, tells you a lot about what the teacher has previously put in place for discussion guidelines. Again, what the teacher permits, they allow. Sarcasm is stopped immediately as it is precursor to further disrespectful comments.

#3 - Does the Teacher Allow Students to Redo Work and Do Students Take the Initiative to Redo Work Without the Teacher Prompting?

A teacher that does not allow students to make up work is missing an important opportunity for a student to truly learn the content. The master teacher understands that whether a student learns the content the first time, or on the eighth learning opportunity, the goal is that the student can show mastery. When a teacher allows students to redo work, and even teaches students to take initiative to redo the work on their own, a sense of "agency" is built in the classroom.

Redoing work affirms the concept that learning the content is the number one goal in a master teacher's classroom. Though they put an enormous amount of effort into making sure a majority of the students learn the content the first time, these teachers understand for a multitude of reasons, some students need multiple opportunities to show mastery.

#4 - How Does the Teacher's Expectation for Precise Academic Language Support a Strong Academic Classroom?

Examining the language used by students is important to understand how well they know and can communicate the content. Exemplary educators pay close attention to the academic language that students use during the content. Increasing and clarifying vocabulary is important to a student's learning. As we learn more precise vocabulary, we are able to go deeper with concepts, as well as build on prior learner more effectively.

Renown researcher Robert Marzano states in his book, Vocabulary for the Common Core (2013©),

"The importance of direct vocabulary instruction cannot be overstated. Vocabulary provides essential background knowledge and is linked to academic achievement. Effective teachers select terms for direct instruction, use a research-based process to teach those terms, and assess and track students' progress with new terms."

Master teachers are constantly modeling, reframing, and giving examples of responses, questions, and comments for students to use in their learning conversations with each other. The master teacher understands that whoever is talking the most is learning the most. Through this concept, the master teacher incorporates many learning structures and active participation opportunities in the instruction. Most of the learning comes from these conversations with each other.

#5 - How Does the Teacher Create "Agency" So Students Take Pride in Their Work?

A teacher with passion and an extraordinary ability to create strong relationships with students can create "agency" within the students. This should be the ultimate goal for teachers as gradual release of responsibility is handed over to students in the learning process. Agency is defined in the book, Who's Doing the Work, by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris, as, "Agency is the belief that completing a task at hand is within your power. It is believing, and following through on the belief, that what you want or need is possible."

Exemplary teachers start teaching "agency" as soon as students enter their classrooms in preschool or kindergarten, and continue until they graduate. It may look different from a kindergarten classroom to 12th grade English classroom, but the theories are the same.

Here are a few strategies master teachers can use to build agency:

  • Building pride and ownership in a student's work.
  • Include self-reflection and self-assessment in all work tasks.
  • Teach students to set goals and they give specific feedback in their goal attainment.
  • Challenging students to surpass the predetermined goals so they can set new goals.
  • Create a voice in each student that will advocate for themselves, especially their learning.

Agency by definition is something that we as teachers should be working on in our own craft of educating youth. If we create life-long learners we are doing an excellent job teaching!

(Charlotte Danielson: Establishing a Culture for Learning: Domain 2 Component B)

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