Towards a Culture of Learning

This post was written for the TG2Chat blog, and originally published September 29, 2018.

Culture has memory and momentum. It helps us understand both what to expect and what is expected of us. Culture manifests itself at different levels in public education. Over time, a school develops its own unique ‘persona,’ and anyone who has visited several schools can speak to the vast differences that can be found among schools, even within the same community. Classrooms are no different. Teachers and students create smaller ecosystems that function within the greater school culture. Both school and classroom culture are strongly influenced by the norms and beliefs that exist in the greater community, and by the policies dictated by the state, province, or county.

My school board serves more than 50,000 students in over 100 schools. I spent three years as part of a central team, working with a brilliant team of educators to support teacher professional development. We had a strong focus on innovation in education and worked hard to create opportunities for meaningful, personal learning for our teachers. Although the work was satisfying, it was often frustrating. Despite our best efforts to reach as many people as possible, we were acutely aware that our actions would not have an immediate impact on the predominant culture. We were attempting to steer an enormous, slow-moving ship with nothing but elbow grease and some brightly painted oars. I loved that work, but also felt some relief when I returned to my classroom to focus my energy on a more manageable 100 students.

Changing classroom culture in a way that challenges institutional norms can also be difficult. In making the shift away from grades, I found that the biggest barriers to changing the classroom culture were my students’ expectations. After 10+ years in school, they were all very comfortable with traditional grading norms. Many of my students didn’t just want grades, they needed them. The first time I returned ungraded work in my biology class, one of my students had a visceral reaction; she was pale and shaking when she asked, “But how will I know how I did?”

The culture of previous classrooms had not trained her for that moment. The dominant culture in education dictates that teachers hold authority and students are supposed to comply and accept their fate. Taking away grades signals a fundamental change in the power dynamics of a classroom, and students need to be supported in order to thrive in an environment that doesn’t fit their current schema.

When I stopped grading student work last year, many of my classroom norms stayed the same (respect for self and others, everyone is welcome, everyone is capable of succeeding) but any norms related to assessment and evaluation had to change significantly. This is the first time I have attempted to verbalize some of the new norms we adopted:

  • Learning is never over. There is always room for another attempt to demonstrate what we know.
  • Learning is not a competition. We learn as a community and grow together as we share our understanding with one another.
  • The purpose of feedback is to help us identify the most important next steps in learning. Using feedback is how we move forward.
  • Learning is hard work. We embrace challenges and learn from mistakes.
  • We share a responsibility for documenting learning. Evidence of learning collected by students will be used alongside evidence collected by the teacher to assess progress.

So, what did I do to help develop this culture? It’s not an easy task to recall and explain everything that we did in my classroom last year, but I can identify some important themes.

Transparency
I was completely honest with my students from the very first day. They knew what our path was and why I thought it was a good idea. They understood that my choice to not use grades was based in research, and not just a crazy idea I cooked up. They knew I was prepared to make mistakes and that I would work hard to fix them. This complete vulnerability was a far cry from the authoritarian approach I used in my early years as a teacher. Frankly, I don’t think I could have pulled this off earlier in my career. This level of honesty was only possible because I was confident in myself and the choices I was making. Teenagers are great at sniffing out signs that their teachers are not being authentic, so it is not enough to just say the words. We have to be willing to let our students watch as we make mistakes, own them, and learn from them.

Collaboration
I made my students full partners in the development of the new norms and routines. I listened to their concerns and made changes based on their suggestions. I collected feedback formally (and anonymously) at least once each semester, and invited constructive criticism on an informal basis almost daily. Driven by real suggestions from students, I tried out several different versions of student portfolios, tested out different ways of giving feedback on their work, and varied the frequency of conferences. It was not possible for me to foresee some of the challenges students would face because I myself had only ever been a student in a traditional classroom. In addition, at the start of my gradeless journey I had very few examples from other content-heavy gradeless classrooms (so many examples being in language and the arts) and therefore could not anticipate some of the problems and concerns that were specific to my situation.

Trust
I asked for my students’ trust and worked hard to keep it. In order to relieve the extreme anxiety of some students—particularly the seniors—I asked each student at the start of the year what grade they hoped to achieve in the course. I made a promise to my students that if at any point in the semester I had concerns about them achieving their goal I would speak with them about it. Students had the ability to revise their goals at any time based on their progress. This acknowledgment that their final grade was important to them (for university and college admission) was one of the keys to my success last year. Had I ignored the fact that I was legally bound to put a grade on their final reports, I don’t believe I would have had as much support from students. In a perfect world, I would not be bound to assign a grade. In this world, grades are a reality that needed to be addressed.

Perseverance
I followed through on the plan. Students were given multiple chances to demonstrate their learning. I provided meaningful feedback and helped the students learn how to do the same. Students had opportunities to use the feedback to improve. Students were encouraged to collaborate, debate, and listen to one another. I modeled the change in language that our new culture required. “That question is worth three points,” became “I will be looking for a logical argument with at least two pieces of supporting evidence.” Conferences gave students an opportunity to share evidence of their learning and gave me a more complete picture of their capabilities. Students appreciate it when teachers stick to the plan, even if things are a little messy. In the words of one of my biology students, “I liked how you didn’t waver even though a lot of students wanted marks. At the beginning I kind of wanted marks, but after not having received them for a while, I was okay with it and kind of relaxed.”

This year, there are other things I would like to incorporate into our classroom routine to help nurture a culture of mutual trust and respect. I am intrigued by the idea of incorporating a daily classroom discussion (see Monte Syrie’s ‘Smiles and Frowns,’ for example). I want to become better at developing students’ ability to give feedback to one another and to help them see the value in this skill. I am also hoping that more students take advantage of opportunities to improve their work; some seemed reluctant to revisit things they felt were “good enough.” There are so many things I have yet to try, but I am extremely thankful that there are so many teachers willing to share strategies and stories that I can bring into my classroom.

I have made great strides towards changing my classroom culture, although I still feel like I’m in a little rowboat trying to fight the momentum of the big ship. That said, my students’ feedback from last year helped affirm the choices I have made:

  • Many teachers I have encountered are set into their ways and don’t look to improve, so I’m happy you allowed me to share my feedback with you.
  • Students feel safe to ask you for help or just talk to you.
  • This class helped me focus on actually learning and not about achieving the highest mark. Thank you for this new perspective!
  • I have grown as a student and as a person.

As I finish writing this, I have nine more sleeps remaining until the start of a new school year. Every few nights in August I experience my usual back-to-school dreams which haven’t changed in 15 years (I’m late and unprepared; the students are out of control and then the principal walks in). My waking thoughts, on the other hand, have a much different focus than they once did. Now, more than ever, I find myself thinking about how I can create a space where students thrive and learning is valued. Instead of spending hours trying to figure out how to get a calculated grade to reflect what a student knows, I can spend those hours providing meaningful feedback that promotes growth. Investing in my classroom culture has transformed the way I do my job, and the rewards will sustain me for years to come.

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