Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Pulse of a Learning Culture

What makes a great and successful learning culture?  If you were to ask the majority of stakeholders, they would typically say that a school or district that has high levels of achievement in the form of standardized test scores represents success.  Many parents will choose to move to an area and raise their kids there for this reason alone.  All one has to do is look at all the hoopla surrounding national and state rankings to see that this indeed is the case.  Parents and community members observe these scores as they have the power to positively or negatively impact real estate values.  No matter where your school or district lands in these rankings, there are always disgruntled people, unless you are number one.

Achievement is often viewed as the single most important outcome of a thriving learning culture that is preparing students for the demands of their next stage in life, whether it is grade level promotion or moving onward to college or a career.  However, those of us who work in education know that this is the furthest thing from the truth.  The playing field is not equal in many parts of the world.  Privilege is bestowed upon many by the zip code they live in or whether or not a privately funded education can be afforded.  Thus, in many cases achievement is directly tied to income. Even so, it can still be debated whether this equates to a thriving and prosperous learning culture. 

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It doesn’t matter how successful the adults think a learning culture is. Quite frankly, it’s not about us.  Educators don’t work for administrators, central office, superintendents, heads of school, boards of education, or parents.  We work for kids!  Thus, the best way to get an accurate pulse of a particular learning culture is to engage students as to what they think about the educational experience they receive in school and then see how this compares with traditional metrics such as achievement and other forms of data.  I am not saying achievement doesn’t matter.  What I am saying is that the experiences that shape our learners and help them discover their true potential matter more.  Some of the best learning that any of us ever experienced wasn’t given a mark, score, or grade.  It was our ability to work through cognitive struggle, construct new knowledge, and authentically apply what we learned creatively that helped us develop a genuine appreciation for learning.

The bottom line is we need to cultivate competent learners in the digital age while putting them in a position to see the value of their education.  Engaging the number one stakeholder group – our students – in critical conversations about the education they are receiving provides us with an accurate pulse of a learning culture.  Just because a student achieves doesn’t automatically infer that he or she appreciates or values the educational experience or will be able to use what has been learned authentically.  With all this being said three guiding questions can be asked of students to determine where your learning culture is:

  • Why are you learning what you are learning?
  • How will you use what you are learning?
  • What is missing from your learning experience?

It is vital to continually put a critical lens to our work and look beyond what the majority of stakeholders see as the leading indicator for district or school success.  Powerful qualities such as leadership, empathy, integrity, resilience, humility, creativity, and persistence can’t be measured per se, but are so crucial to future success.  A thriving learning culture blends these elements to not only support the achievement of all learners but also to prepare them for their future.  


  1. Eric,

    I really appreciated reading through your blog. I am a principal and K-2 teacher in an independent school with the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Regina Canada. In general our Canadian schools are not as driven by the test scores as the schools in America. Yes, we value achievement and it is apart of schooling, however, it is not the drive behind our existence. In my school, we use the CAT4 standardized testing tool. The results act as a conversation piece with the parents during our first parent teacher interviews. Our intention is to show how their child is doing and where the parents can be a part of their success for that school year.

    Your blog echoes how I feel, that we need to cultivate competent learners. As teachers, our job and our focus should be student success. The questions that you raised every child in our classrooms should be able to answer. As teachers, we need to equip our students with the knowledge and confidence in answering these questions. As you said we need to put on our critical lenses and evaluate why we do what we do. Are we performing our jobs to look good in the eyes of the stakeholders? or Are we teaching to cultivate learners who feel confident in their skills and abilities by the time they leave our classrooms?

    Thank you so much for your post as it has made me do some personal reflections.

    Andrew Savenye

    1. Thank you for the incredible work you are leading in Canada. You perspective and use of standardized data needs to be embraced by more leaders and schools.

  2. Great point, Eric! The focus on standardized test scores and its correlation to property values is a strong thesis. Yet I am a fervent advocate that public education is the greatest equalizer when you are fortunate to have great teachers that ensure their lessons allow for creativity, empathy, & grit.

    1. It sure is the great equalizer. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.