A large portion of my work life is spent supporting leadership of formative assessment. Over the last few years, I have been working closely with school leaders dedicated to fostering a culture of learning for all students and staff. For schools that are focused on building a learning culture or repairing a culture that has become compliance-based, there are questions that surface over and over again: How does a school shift from a focus on school climate to an emphasis on developing a learning culture? What norms and actions can leaders model to nurture a learning culture for adults? What strategies support shifting from external compliance-based leadership practices to adaptive practices that compel people to think more deeply?
In this blog, I share my reflections on the difference between school climate and a learning culture. I reflect on how a learning culture is critical to shifting the student experience, what I’ve observed in classrooms where students take ownership of learning, and the learning norms that leaders model, foster, and embody to support an adult culture of learning.
Why a Learning Culture?
To safely and comfortably explore their learning and move it forward, students and teachers need a culture of learning that promotes risk-taking, honors learning from errors, recognizes the value of cognitive struggle, and one where learners are known to others as having the knowledge and experiences that contribute to the group’s learning. These cultural norms are necessary if students are to shift from a focus on “getting it right” to a learning mindset.
Culture is critically important to deepening formative assessment practice. By culture, we refer to going beyond traditional perceptions of a safe and orderly school climate (although that is a crucial foundation). Instead, a learning culture actively promotes student learning in ways that all students can engage with. As teacher learning of formative assessment progresses, the classroom learning culture also shifts. In more advanced formative assessment practice, we see a flattened hierarchy, where students and teachers share equal responsibility in learning. There is also greater transparency about the learning process.
Learning Culture’s Impact On The Classroom
When observing classrooms where students are comfortable exploring new ideas and sharing what they don’t yet know, teachers employ instructional moves that allow all learners to engage in learning and reflection. Teachers work to develop a classroom culture where teachers and students are partners in learning. The teacher’s role is to:
- communicate that students are equally responsible for learning,
- seek out multiple viewpoints and approaches throughout a lesson, and
- create structured opportunities for students to engage in learning conversations that deepen and extend learning throughout a lesson.
And what’s different for students? With these refined instructional routines, students are more comfortable to:
- engage in meaningful conversations to explore multiple viewpoints and extend learning,
- capitalize on peers’ ideas to advance learning through seeking and providing feedback, and
- see themselves as learning resources for one another.
Moving toward learner agency involves each level of the system (district leaders, school leaders, teachers, and students) to model inquiry and reflection. What I’ve observed in the sites where the student and teacher role is shifting is that to get students to grapple, explore, show curiosity, accurately self-assess their learning, and take ownership to move learning forward… requires a significant shift in roles traditionally fulfilled by school leaders, teachers, and students. The things that teachers are doing to support student learning, as it turns out, leaders are modeling those same practices with their teachers.
What is the role of a school leader in promoting and creating structured occasions for learning?
For the conditions of a strong learning culture to be in place, what does a school leader focus on as they are actively creating and building a learning culture, or repairing cultures that have become compliance and accountability-based, for adults and students at their site? In working with leaders who have established a strong culture of learning, one that enlivens both the student and teacher roles, there are five strategies I’ve consistently noticed that site leaders utilize to help formative assessment and a culture of learning take root at their site.
- Leaders are asset-based. Leaders see and speak about their school community from an asset-based perspective. They recognize, honor, and lead in a way that honors the tremendous knowledge and lived experiences of all students and staff. Leaders celebrate new and varying ways of thinking, learning, and exploring ideas.
- Leaders say, “I don’t know.” Leaders are willing to be vulnerable and admit when they don’t have the answer. They model ways of working together by saying, “I don’t know, but let’s figure it out together.” They do not see themselves as the keeper of all the answers and decisions. When building a learning culture, leaders formulate their own learning while simultaneously advancing the learning and capacity of others. And leaders make way for and develop structures and opportunities to wrestle alongside teachers and students to ensure their perspectives inform decisions about their school.
- Leaders give and receive feedback. A learning culture cannot exist without frequent, varied, and continuous avenues for feedback among leadership, teachers, and students. Leaders who focus on learning culture recognize the importance of providing feedback that is in service of others’ learning – feedback that is not directive or punitive. Leaders ask probing questions, focus on learning versus getting the ‘right’ answer, and exhibit a stance of curiosity. They utilize interactions with students and teachers that lead to big changes for teachers and students in the classroom. Leaders provide and seek feedback every day.
- Leaders use evidence to support adult learning. School leaders spend time in classrooms to discover what is different about formative assessment and how it impacts students. They encourage teachers (and students!) to share their successes and challenges. I have learned from educators and students that when teachers adopt new formative assessment skills to explicitly support students to share responsibility in learning, we see teachers completely reposition their role – and their students’ role – in the classroom. These new roles for teachers and students develop over time as students move away from compliant behaviors and learn skills in which they gain ownership and confidence in their learning. Leaders document and track progress to speak to specific and explicit shifts in student and teacher learning over time.
- Leaders elevate student voice to make meaning of instructional shifts and take the next steps in creating systems-level change. Leaders take notice and time to listen to how students talk about the changes in their learning experiences over time. They find new ways to bring student voices to the forefront of understanding how instructional shifts impact student learning. As student learning shifts, new adult learning models encourage teachers to reflect on and build from their current practice.
Because a learning culture can take shape in many different ways, there is no “formula” for nurturing a learning culture. Instead, there are promising strategies that school leaders can put in place to strengthen teacher and student agency at their site that results in a shift toward a culture of learning.
Cali Kaminsky is a Senior Program Associate on WestEd’s Formative Insights team. She leads work that explores structures that influence change in the student role in the classroom. Connect with her at [email protected].
Learn more about how WestEd’s Formative Insights team conceptualizes the connection between formative assessment and learning culture, The Role of Learning Culture in Formative Assessment.
For more information about WestEd’s Formative Insights team work and reflections from the team, state, district, and school partners, visit our website at: https://csaa.wested.org/formative-insights/
Connect with the Formative Insights team on Twitter: @FormativInsight