8 Ways to Optimize a Learning Culture... and Celebrate Diversity

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Culture.  It’s the latest education buzzword to catch fire, and it is applied to a seemingly endless range of affairs.  We refer to our students’ heritage cultures.  We toss around the idea of a school culture, a classroom culture, a staff culture.  So, what exactly are we talking about here? In the simplest possible terms, we can look at it in this way:

“Culture is the way you think, act and interact.” –Anonymous

From this lens, it is indeed possible to reference "culture" across such a variety of social platforms.  How our students think, act and interact at home and in their communities is a reflection of their heritage culture.  How we think, act and interact at work is a reflection of our work culture. 

Let’s consider our schools and classrooms from this same vantage.  Looking to the best versions of ourselves and our programs, what do we envision as an optimal learning culture for our students and staff?   How are we encouraged to think, act and interact with our students and colleagues?  How are we teaching learners to engage with each other in affirmative ways?

As a school or classroom leader, these are important thoughts to map out.  My ideas may not look the same as your ideas.  That’s ok.  We can lay some common ground, though.  The following cues present an opportunity to check in with your own vision of school culture.  How can you help to improve the way that your team thinks, acts and interacts?

1.  Invest in Students:

We all ache to know that someone we care about is standing firmly behind or beside us.  If our aim is to increase a student's success rate, our honest investment in both their present capacity and future potential is non-negotiable.  Express a genuine interest in each individual.  Learn how to pronounce student’s names correctly and begin using them on the very first day.  Ask questions about students’ heritage culture and allow for safe opportunities to share these insights with other classmates.  Offer relevant multicultural reading materials.  Post flags or maps, and have students mark their heritage country.  Be a listener.  Find out what students find interesting.  Commit to supporting students with time-in over time-out.  Show up.  Keep promises.  Practice being present and mindful with students.  Nurture connectivity.  


2.             Provide Choice:  

When presented with choice-making opportunities in a safe, predictable environment, learners develop self-efficacy and strategizing abilities. We can scaffold these processes to enable students to grow as wise decision makers.   Begin by limiting the range of available options. Model reasoning through active think-alouds. Also, it is important to allow time for students to consider and process potential gains and sacrifices involved when choosing between items or activities. Similarly, prompt students to predict the probable consequences of unwise choice making and to reflect on these outcomes when they occur.  Incorporate choice making throughout the day.  Station (center) activities, choice of paper color, homework, reading book, order of task completion and game selection are manageable places to start.  When students are invited to make healthy choices- and have opportunities to practice doing so- they are much more inclined to become invested, engaged learners. 


3.             Provide Clarity:

Students, not unlike adults, desire to know what is expected of them.  Who doesn't enjoy a road map to success?  By sharing bite-sized road maps with your students throughout a school day or school year, you are helping them to succeed.  “Bite-size” can be defined as 3-5 clear steps, with a target of three.  As we’ve already mentioned, clarified expectations foster routine, predictability and ultimately, a sense of safety.  Be sure that instructional objectives are posted and communicated.  Is your class schedule visible and correct?  Do you refer to it throughout the day? Are station areas and supplies labeled (using rebus indicators, where necessary)?  How often do you review key routines?  Check your day for clarity.  Define and refine.


4.              Trust:  

Trust that students are wholly capable of making great choices and doing the right thing.  Does that mean perfection?  No.  It does mean that in a healthy, facilitative environment most students, most of the time, will strive to meet the expectations set by (and modeled by) the teacher.  We are intentional about setting the bar high, because that’s where students will reach.  Maintain confidence that they will stretch to achieve it.  As students see that you trust them, they will begin living up to the expectation that they are probably doing the right thing.  They will almost always respond by trusting you in return.  Aim for autonomy.  Give away power (when appropriate).  Expect greatness.


5.             Practice Problem Solving:

Investigation that relies upon solution seeking engages students in developing deeper concept understanding and creative thinking abilities, while also building essential life skills.  Problem-solving behaviors are learned.  They are either explicitly taught or modeled by others.  The school is an ideal incubator for nurturing these attributes.  Offer specific steps toward solving a problem.  Model these thoughts and behavior patterns.  Provide multiple opportunities for students to practice problem solving in a variety of subjects and contexts.  View problems as “puzzles”.  Solution seeking is a willed behavior.  Our role is to guide the discovery of enjoyment and creative thinking in these processes. 


6.             Teach Critical Social Skills:

Young people often need to be taught how to interact in positive ways.  This is especially true in a Newcomer context, where layers of cultural expectation overlap one another.  Essential social skills encompass sensitivity, empathy, humor, reliability, honesty, respect, and concern.  Learners often benefit from explicit step-by-step social routines that work through these skill sets.  Modeling, play-acting, and “Looks Like/Sounds Like/Feels Like” charts are also useful.  Plan lessons to incorporate openings to explore and practice social skills.  Offer guidance, and get out of the way.  Provide cuing only when relevant.  Share constructive feedback and reinforcement of positive behaviors.  Be the way you wish your students to behave.


7.              Embrace “Failure” as a Success:

Trying requires immense courage.  Perceived failure is a byproduct of trying.  If we look at a FAIL- a First Attempt In Learning, then we are able to see that we have many more possible tries ahead of us.  When we work to remove the fear of failing, we are also working to embed a confidence in trying.  In my own classroom, we celebrate our failures outright.  “Did you succeed the way you hoped you were going to?” No. “Did you learn something?” Yes.  “Bravo! You are a successful learner.”  Next time you fail at something, try acknowledging it in front of your students.  Observe aloud what might have occurred and what part of your strategy you might change to bring about a different result.  Failure is simply feedback.  If we can take some wisdom from it, and adjust our sails, failure is a sure step in the right direction of success.   Aim to create safety nets for trying.  


8.              Acknowledge Progress:

A simple acknowledgement of our gains can go a long way.  When we feel appreciated in our efforts, we also feel empowered to continue on a positive trajectory.  Administrators, teachers, bus drivers, custodians, cafeteria personnel and after school care teams perform better in supportive environments where they feel that they are a contributive factor to the overarching success of a network. Our students, not surprisingly, also thrive in these settings.


Progress has an infinite number of faces.  Growth and change can occur in every facet of learning- in academic, linguistic, social, emotional and cultural capacities.  Take the time to offer a thank you for a student’s concentrated efforts. Post students’ work, along with encouraging and reflective feedback. Share students’ growth. Acknowledge healthy choice making, positive social behaviors and persistence in the light of adversity. Help all learners to discover, refine and purposely engage their strongest attributes, and seek equity in endorsing successes publicly. Each day, relish in small miracles.