Sunday, April 7, 2019

5 Ways to Create Relevant Cultures of Learning

Education can seem like a balancing act between what we as adults feel is essential and what interests our learners.  The struggle is real as the former is sometimes emphasized as a result of a school or district’s focus.  Make no mistake about it – capturing the attention of students has become harder and harder because of the access that many of them have to knowledge, games, and each other through technology.  As difficult as it might be, schools must rise to the occasion. To authentically engage kids today, a central purpose has to be instilled through a combination of a relevant context and application. Without it, learning many concepts as well as the bigger picture doesn’t make sense to students.  The benefits speak for themselves, which compels all of us to ensure that this becomes a mainstay in pedagogy as well as learning environments. 

Success lies in a shared ownership approach to design relevant cultures of learning.  It is important to note that this task does not just fall squarely on the shoulders of teachers. However, their role in the process is critical. Below are three questions that kids should be able to answer if learning is relevant:
  • What they learned
  • Why they learned it
  • How they will use what they learned outside of school

Image credit: Erik Francis

To dig a little deeper Robin Roberson discusses two fundamental ways to provide relevance to students aligned to research. These include utility value and relatedness. 
Utility value answers the question “Yeah, but what am I gonna use this for?” Utility value is purely academic and emphasizes the importance that content has for the students’ future goals — both short-term and long-term goals (Ormrod, 2006). 
Relatedness, on the other hand, answers the question “What’s this have to do with me?” Relatedness is an inherent need students have to feel close to the significant people in their lives, including teachers (Ryan & Deci, 2000). Relatedness is seen by many as having nonacademic and academic sides. The nonacademic side of relatedness emphasizes the relationship the instructor has with students. Integral to this side of relatedness is the understanding that students need to feel close to their teachers and are more likely to listen to, learn from, and perhaps identify with the ones they like (Ryan & Deci, 2000).
What happens in the classroom through the relationship-building expertise of teachers needs to be supported and enhanced across the entire school or district.  Herein lies the vital role leaders play in designing relevant cultures of learning.  A systemwide focus on meaning and purpose across all grade levels and content areas goes a long way to supporting a consistent interest in learning.  There is no right way to accomplish this as you will see from the examples below.  

Theme-Based Schools

Schools that have embraced this ideal have a central purpose that is embedded across grade levels and throughout the entire curriculum.  The theme serves as a conduit to connect various content areas and concepts to impart a greater sense of relevance whether it be in the classroom, hallways, or cafeteria.  Recently I observed a great example of this during a coaching visit with Kay’s Creek Elementary School in Farmington, UT.  Their theme focused on global goals for sustainable development.  As you will see below, not only were the goals clearly visible, but each wing of the building highlighted the main components of the environment. Video displays and interactive activities were also found in each of the main entrances to further engage learners in the theme.


Academy programs represent a bold new direction for education, one that considers student interests, national need, and global demand for highly qualified graduates capable of competing at the most challenging levels. They provide a defined framework for studies in well-defined, career-focused areas directly connected to university majors and workforce need. These programs cultivate emerging professionals who exhibit the knowledge, skill, character, and work ethic necessary for success in the global marketplace. To provide more learning opportunities for our students, the Academies @ New Milford High School were launched during my tenure as principal. Think of it as a school within a school. 

The entire program was designed using existing high school courses as well as adding new ones to complement the three Academies—STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), Arts & Letters, and Global Leadership—without costing the district precious financial resources. Any learner, regardless of GPA or learning disability, could be a part of these. Students graduated with a mini-major specific to their interests.  To help build the program, junior academies were created at the middle school to spark interest and function as a feeder pipeline. To learn more about our specific academies click HERE

A Unifying Focus 

I was torn as to whether or not I should include this in the theme-based or a standalone category. Obviously, I chose the latter.  A unifying focus bridges curriculum, instruction, and assessment to a school’s vision and mission. While every school has a mascot and logo, it is rare to see how these are connected to the elements outlined in the previous sentence.  Wells Elementary School in Texas is a great example of how a unifying focus becomes a reality.  When the school opened the kids and staff selected the “Explorers” as their mascot and from there on out the goal has been to create an innovative culture where kids actively explore learning through blended pedagogical pathways, outdoors, and in flexible spaces.  The focus is strengthened by the school’s commitment to social media to consistently share and reinforce how everything they are doing centers on the whole child and high levels of student agency. To see what I am talking about check out #ExploreWells.

Specialized Programs

Many districts and schools are providing supplements or enhancements to the curriculum to impart more relevance amongst learners.  These can range from traditional electives or more innovative options that align to student interests and current trends in the workforce. Some schools are taking it a step further to upgrade to learning environments while providing even more opportunities to engage students authentically. Be sure to check out what Mt. OIive High School in New Jersey has done in this area. 


There isn’t much I have to say here as I have written on the topic extensively over the years. Makerspaces function as an oasis for learners who will never do well on a standardized test or succeed in a traditional classroom environment as that is not how they learn.  These spaces foster open-ended exploration, tinkering, making, and creating to learn. Many at-risk kids thrive here as they can learn with their hands while coming up with innovative solutions to problems that align with the real world.  Below are some pictures of makerspaces at New Milford High School and Mt. Olive Middle School in New Jersey.

I am sure there are many other great ideas out there that have positively impacted kids across the world. Creating relevant cultures of learning is the responsibility of all who serve kids, not just teachers in the classroom. This includes administrators, boards of education, parents, legislators, and other pertinent stakeholders. If the goal is to improve an array of outcomes and genuinely prepare kids for the workforce now and in the future, a relevant culture is a necessity. 

Ormrod, J.E. (2006). Educational psychology: Developing learners (5th ed.). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Education, Inc.

Ryan, R.M., & Deci, E.L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55, 68-78.


  1. These are great ideas. I am thinking how much more educational benefit could result from incorporating them in virtual worlds. Here we get only pictures. If they were in a virtual world, we could go there and perhaps even observe them in action.