Creating a Culture of Learning

I was on my way to observe my first class at Northeastern Junior College – Professor Rothell’s Comparative Religions class – and I couldn’t help but think about all of my “first days of school.” As educators, life does not revolved around a solar year, but a school year. We don’t have seasons, we have semesters, and the New Year falls in August.

As I approached the room I thought my excitement had gotten the best of me: The door was open, but the lights were out. I knew I was early, but how could I possibly be the first person here? Then I realized there were seven students sitting quietly in the classroom, none with less than two chairs between them.

And yes, they were sitting in the dark. We will save the philosophical implications of the scene and simply observe that none had the gumption to turn the lights on. If this carried over into class participation, the culture of this classroom was going to be dormant.

Classrooms are mini-cultures of learning. As teachers we have the responsibility of establishing that culture. It is a hard thing to balance: friendly, but not a friend; professional, but not stiff; fun, but maintaining a focus on learning.

The old advice handed down to new teachers is often: “Don’t smile until after Christmas.” I tried applying this advice as a student teacher and quickly learned I couldn’t: it wasn’t part of my personality. To avoid smiling was to avoid who I was, and students are masters of perception; if you are putting on a mask they will know.

In a recent blog post George Couros finally said what I was thinking: this is Some of the Worst Advice You Will Ever Get as an Educator.

If you are naturally a grump I suppose this might work for you. It’s hard not to have an affinity for the grumpy old men in our lives, but I would also guess this can only go so far in a classroom. Whether you teach kindergarteners or graduate physics students it is impossible to remove the human factor from learning. We crave personal and relational interaction; we want to be taught by humans.

Rita Pierson, in her Ted Talk, takes it a step further:

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

Before you disagree with her, consider your favorite classes from elementary on through grad school. Tell me your favorites were with the teachers you hated and I’ll buy you an ice cream cone so we can talk about it.Rita Pierson

We learn from people who engage us with their passion. People who are kind and warm draw our attention to what they love. Those that treat us as separate or lower, those that write us off, are generally written off in our memories – along with the content we were supposed to be learning from that person.

Researcher John Hattie uses the term “Teacher Credibility” to describe this effect. Based on his meta-analysis of hundreds of studies he has found that students learn more from teachers they perceive to be trusting, organized, and open with students.

The first day, within the first hour, is where “teacher credibility” is created. Students on the first day of class are often intimidated, unsure of what they are walking into, and hesitant to engage with their teacher or peers. How a teacher engages students in the middle of this uncertainty is vital for creating a positive classroom culture.

It is even more critical when the class meets for just nine days, as Rothell’s Religion class did.

Engaging a group for 4.5 hours that is not willing to turn on the lights requires carefully and deliberately creating a culture that is learner-friendly, shares power in the classroom, has clear expectations, and has what one researcher has called “freedom within the form.” Professor Rothell’s hands were full, but he artfully coaxed his uncertain students into the light of a community of learning within the first hour of class.

Through several short articles I hope to explain how he got his students to “turn on the light.”

Each link below describes separately the strategies that research shows, when combined, have the greatest effect on creating an atmosphere conducive to learning and were observed at some level in Rothell’s class:

Learner-Friendly Culture


One thought on “Reflections on Community Building

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