Creating a vibrant learning culture
By Louise “Toni” Moore, PhD
One of the most powerful influencers in any organization is culture. But what exactly is culture? Why is culture important? Very simply put, culture is “the way we do things around here.” Culture is known as the implicit curriculum of the school. It is sometimes referred to as the “hidden curriculum” because it is the unwritten, and often unintended, lessons, values, and perspectives at work in a school.
Culture is often unacknowledged and unspoken. Culture is important because it is highly influential in driving behavior. It is often said that “culture eats strategy for lunch” — which strongly suggests that it is critical for educators to look closely at the culture at work in their schools.
You may ask, where do I begin? A good place to start is by asking some questions about your current school culture. We all have well-crafted mission and vision statements, marketing slogans, and brochures that espouse the benefits of our schools. Is the school mission truly the driving force in decision-making?
Take a close look at what you see, hear, and feel through daily interactions at your school. Does this clearly reflect the school’s mission and vision? If, for example, your mission talks about standards of excellence in learning, are you able to show evidence of that? Can you honestly say that your school environment is positive, caring, and compassionate? If your school culture is a positive one, well-aligned with the school mission and vision, continue to encourage and support it. If not, take action to improve it.
A vibrant learning culture is one in which everyone in the school community — students, teachers, staff, and parents — feels supported, encouraged, and free to make mistakes in order to learn. Effective learning cultures support high academic expectations; they are positive and promote growth and healthy development. They are characterized by integrity, a high level of trust, and collaboration.
Relationships are another key in building a vibrant culture. In his 2009 book Visible Learning, educational researcher John Hattie found that one of the greatest indicators of a high-impact school is that it also fosters positive relationships between teachers and students. Teachers who care, take time to listen, possess empathy, and demonstrate a positive regard for others have greater impact on student achievement than those who do not.
Hattie also found a strong relationship between collective teacher efficacy (CTE), a staff’s shared belief that through their collective action they can positively influence student outcomes and student achievement — including students who are disengaged and/or disadvantaged. At the Visible Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., in 2016, Hattie noted that CTE is ranked as the number one factor influencing student achievement. When teachers believe that together they are capable of developing students’ critical thinking skills, creativity, and mastery of complex content, it happens! When collective efficacy is present, teachers are better equipped to foster positive behavior in students and raise students’ expectations of themselves by convincing them that they can do well in school.
As the school leader, it is important to focus energy on your faculty and staff. Teachers are known to be the major influence on students and student learning. It makes sense to put extra time and energy into working with faculty and staff who will, ideally, model the school culture you are trying to create.
Provide opportunities for teachers to work in teams, have common planning times, and create professional learning communities. These actions serve to increase collaboration, improve quality of instruction, and decrease teacher isolation. This increases engagement, creates greater buy-in, and helps teachers see their work as part of something bigger.
Shine a light on what’s working — it will open up the potential for even greater gains. The culture you create with your teachers is exactly what will be shared by them with their students. Students, in turn, will share those cultural expectations with one another.
I wish you many blessings as you continue to create and encourage a vibrant learning culture in your Catholic school!
Louise “Toni” Moore, PhD, is an educational consultant at the University of Dayton.
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