When A School Is About Learning

Is your school about this?

I am just back from EDUCON, where a lot of the talk was about new ways to learn, the new era of education to come, the loneliness of being an innovator in a largely innovation-averse sector.

One of the things I came away with was that we don’t still, after all these years, have good models for talking about what a highly effective school looks like and feels like, from a learner’s point of view. (And I mean all learners–not just kids.)  So while I propose, as a given, a short list: the child/student is at the center of the enterprise, and the student is most important person in the school’s dynamic–here are additions to the list–a few other attributes of a highly effective “learning” school.  These have been developed after years of culture-watching in breakthrough districts, in writing about innovative school models, and in working with leadership teams now engaged in real innovation.

1.  The adults in the building are passionately engaged in learning.  In my experience, when the adults in a school are really fired up learners–passionate about their own quirky projects and deeply interested in their students’ learning–a school tends to be high performing and highly effective.  Learning more about how kids learn, learning about their own practices as teachers or administrators, learning about stuff that interests them, are consuming passions of the adults in these schools.  That passionate learning culture transfers directly to kids.

2.  School leaders model their own excitement about learning.  In meetings, in walkthroughs, on Twitter, in their own blogs, school leaders talk openly about what they are learning, how they make mistakes, and what excites them about their work.  Through this modeling, learning is regarded as pleasurable–not a chore to be gotten through, a checklist to be completed, orsomething to be excused from for good behavior.  The culture highly values expressions of learning–people are fired up about hearing what someone else is curious about, what they just read online, how they could put this together in a project! How that reminds them of something that they read about 3 years ago and let me go look it up online, no here come with me and let’s look at it together.

3.  Content is negotiated. Teachers and students together begin to negotiate what is taught and how it is taught, with increasing emphasis on independence and interdependence between learners.  Rigor–the drive towards excellence–is increasingly driven by students as they become more and more accomplished at their work, and how to meet the needs of the accountability environment begins to be something shared by students and teachers.

4.  Difference is welcomed.  Cognitive, social class, ethnic background differences are welcomed.  Leaders and teachers see difference as making the school stronger and more healthy, like any biologically-diverse community.  What this means in the adult community is that adults also get to be different from each other–and some adults are allowed to be better at the work than others.

5.  Practice is public. Adults see each other practice their work, and they talk openly about the issues they are working on.  How can you get better at your work if you are not in discussion with other practitioners about the complex business of teaching?

6.  Adults share a common understanding of what powerful teaching and learning look like in their building. In highly effective learning schools, adults share explicit languageabout powerful teaching.  They are able to describe where their work falls on Blooms taxonomy, they have ways of talking about how kids are developing expertise, they share vocabulary about cognitive complexity.  Examples of excellence are shared.

6.  Mistakes are regarded as feedback. There is a mastery orientation towards learning, in which it is understood that learning is developmental, requires practice, study, persistence–but that ultimately everyone can get a lot better at what they are trying to do.  That means messing up and trying again.

7.   Driven to be the best. George Couros at EDUCON spoke about being a very competitive principal–that he wants to be the best, and he wants his staff to be the best.  A great principal is not afraid of greatness in others, and knows that truly brilliant staff members will help make others more brilliant. In less effective schools, administrators or other teachers often are threatened by exceptional practice in one of their colleagues, and strong practitioners have to hide their expertise, skills and knowledge.  (We call this, “the land of nice,” where no one can be better than anyone else.)  In a highly-effective learning school, expertise is welcomed and prized, and adults openly seek out the expertise of their colleagues.

Many teachers and school leaders unfortunately, just aren’t very interested in learning.  They seem to regard it as a chore, a way to force kids to behave, something that has to be done to kids to get them ready for adult life. They lack intellectual curiosity about research in the field, breakthroughs in cognitive research.  My belief is that until teachers become deeply interested in their own work, and are driven to make their practice better and better, school will not really be about learning for anyone.  It will be a chore, it will lack magic.  It will be controlled by others.

What does your school look like?  Is it a highly effective learning environment for you?  Why or why not?

This is cross posted at Cooperative Catalyst.


4 thoughts on “When A School Is About Learning

  1. Wow what a great post! This reminds me so much of a conversation I had with a colleague last year who believed every teacher/ educator should read ‘The Element’ by Dr Ken Robinson, because it was about finding passions and focussing on them and that is what we should do for the student’s in our care as they aren’t all going to be mathematicians, readers and writers! But linking to your blog I also believe teachers should all read this to help encourage them to find their own passions and thrive in them as this serves as such meaningful way to model to students the importance of finding your passion and thriving with in it. Particularly in education where a majority of teachers are exceptionally passionate about the teaching and learning process, and if they are truly passionate about this process they must have that thirst for learning as much as they do for teaching.

  2. Hi Lee, Thanks so much for your comment. I also really loved The Element, but in my new book I am trying to write more about how “great” learners actually experience their learning, not just portraying the rich and famous doing marvelous things. (Robinson seems to hang out only with Hollywood types and the famous–definitely not my life.)

    I’d love to know more about your school, and how you are building passion around teaching and teacher learning. Unfortunately, so many adults I work with in schools right now feel very flat, very discouraged, and very numb to their own learning due to all the conditions of the sector.

    I hope to hear from you!


    • Hi Kirsten
      We were lucky enough to go to a conference at the beginning of the year called “activating minds” in Rotorua (NZ) which took place the week before our current schooling year and it was amazing to see how energized our teachers were after this. It was a very enlightening conference where the staff realized how much they love learning themselves and the change in the overall staff dynamic and this crossed over into the classroom. From the learning there many of our staff have made changes to their practice to reach students the best ways they learn. Because of this our teachers are keeping very close track of how these changes are going and have revitalized their reflective practice. We have also made sure we keep the school community informed so the parents and students of the school are seeing this as great modeling of learning and reflection. It has also been helpful to breaking down some of the perceptions that parents have about what quality education can look like, as many expect the same traditional models they grew up with.

  3. Pingback: Guess what… I Don’t Actually Hate School! *gasp* | lifeistheteacher

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