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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Are You Creating a Culture of Learning?

By Peter DeWitt — June 29, 2014 4 min read
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Cruising through Twitter on Saturday morning I ventured onto #Satchat, which is one of my favorite educational chats. The fifth question Tweeted was, “How do you know you have created a culture for learning.” Great question, and not one we often talk about.

I quickly responded, “You know that you have created a culture of learning when the focus of the conversations shift from the adult to the child.” It was the only response I Tweeted because I tapped myself out with that one. Seriously though, I walked away thinking about school staff and how they would know they have a culture that focuses on learning.

It sounds simple but it’s not. Adults like to focus on...adult problems. At the same time they say they focus on the child, there actions and words may send an entirely different message. Besides the normal conversations that revolve around evaluation, testing and reform, we talk about parents, colleague-to-colleague relationships (or lack there of) and curriculum. We see grade levels that work well together, and others that may as well be on different continents.

How often do we focus on learning?

Politics of Distraction

John Hattie often says that he would really like to stop talking about teaching and focus the conversation on learning. In order to do that we need to stop making the adult the center of our attention and put that focus on students. It’s not easily done, because what Hattie refers to as the Politics of Distraction.

The Politics of Distraction are all of those issues that come up over and over again in our educational conversations. We talk about textbooks, homework, educational reform debates of who is right and who is wrong, and other adult-centered conversations. All are very worthy of discussion, but they often overshadow our desire to talk about students and learning.

For full disclosure, I get caught up in those distractions quite often as well. And yes, I understand that often in these debates the children are the ones who get hurt. But...we do not spend enough of our time actually focused on students and learning. By not focusing on those two important issues, we are negatively contributing to the Politics of Distraction as well.

Focus on Learning

In Graham Nuthall’s book The Hidden Lives of Learners, he focused on many pieces to a proper learning environment. One of Nuthall’s main focus was on feedback of students. He said, “80% of the feedback students receive is from other students, and 80% of that feedback is wrong.

In these days of learning more and more about feedback, it’s also important that we are modeling how students should give it to one another, because when done correctly it can have a massive effect on learning. However, when it is done incorrectly, it can have a massive negative effect on learning. Additionally, we need to provide students the time to absorb and understand the feedback we give them. It doesn’t make sense to provide feedback if students don’t understand what it is.

Another piece of the learning environment that is important is the way we seat students. It’s very popular in elementary classrooms to seat students in cooperative groups. However, when Robert Coe carried out his study on student learning environments, he found that students were seated in cooperative groups about 60% of the time, but they spent a majority of that time working in individual assignments. I know I was guilty of this when I taught! We sit students in cooperative groups but give them individual work.

Advice from Nuthall

If we really want to establish a culture of learning, we need to change our conversations in school from the teacher to the student. Teachers are vitally important, but our jobs are to focus on making sure all students are reaching their potential, which is not an easy task.

Nuthall wrote about the signs of effective learning in the classroom. They are:

Students learn what they do - “When we design learning activities, we need to remember that the activities students engage in when they encounter curriculum content become inextricably bound up in their minds with the content.” Boring activities that promote rote memorization teach students that school isn’t very engaging.

Social relationships determine learning - Nuthall believes that most of what students do in the classroom is determined by their social relationships, which happens more in high school than anywhere. He believes that, “More communication goes on within peer culture than within the school and/or classroom culture.” He goes to say that “Successful teaching involves working with the peer culture.”

Effective activities are built around big questions - “Taking the time and resources needed to design effective learning activities means covering a lot less of the curriculum. To justify this, we must make sure that the outcomes of these learning activities are really important, not only in the official curriculum, but also in the lives and interests of the students.”

  • Effective activities are managed by students themselves - Nuthall says that the “Ideal learning activity has the following characteristics:
  • Focuses on the solution of a major question or problem that is significant in the discipline and in the lives and culture of the students.
  • Engages students continuously in intellectual work
  • Provides teachers with opportunities, as the students engage in solving the smaller linked problems, to monitor student understanding
  • Allows students to manage their own learning.”

Hattie refers to the last suggestion as encouraging students to become assessment capable learners. In order to do that we need to make sure our conversations focus on the student and not on the adult. Clearly, adult issues come up whether we are dealing with personnel issues or the larger issue of educational reform, but we need to do our best to refocus on why we became teachers, and that is to make a different in in student growth.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.