Classroom Culture: It’s Your Decision
By Sean Slade
With every interaction in a school, we are either building community or destroying it.
What kind of culture do you want to take hold in your classroom? The decision is primarily yours. Because what you do and how you do it affects how your students interact, inquire, respond, cooperate, collaborate, discover, and it develops the dominant culture of learning for your classroom.
Ask any teacher or parent, and they will tell you that within a couple of minutes of walking into a school or a classroom, you can tell, define, almost taste the culture that permeates that space. Is it an open, sharing environment? Or is it a rigid, discipline-defined playing field? Is it safe and welcoming, or intimidating and confronting? Does it welcome all voices, or does it make you want to shrink? Is it waiting for instruction and leadership, or is it self-directed with common purpose?
So what do you hold dear, and what do you want to develop or instill in your students? It may seem redundant, but it can help to make a list. What skills, attributes, behaviors, and actions would you want to see your students develop? The actions you take in preparing your lessons, the activities you choose, and the questions or issues you pose all affect the way the students will act, interact, and learn.
Teachers who demand regimented work activities, all completed individually and at the same time, will not be developing a culture of collaboration or sharing of ideas. They will be establishing a culture of direction, specific action, and uniformity. Lessons that are continuously teacher-led or teacher-directed teach the students that learning takes place via direction and instruction from others. The upside of this approach may be obedience and a lack of disruption, but it will likely also instill a belief that learning cannot or should not be self-directed.
Teachers who expect and plan for collaboration and set up the lessons with enough questions to be answered or discovered are establishing a culture of discovery and inquiry. In their book Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (ASCD, 2013), McTighe and Wiggins say that teachers wanting to establish a culture of inquiry should “transparently avoid teaching and judging,” and that as educators, our role—if we want this attribute to be key in our classroom culture—therefore shifts from that of “answerer” to “facilitator of inquiry,” in which we do two things: (1) model and reinforce norms of productive discourse and (2) become careful listeners. A facilitator has four challenges in this role: to almost never answer questions; to almost never evaluate an answer; to be as helpful yet unobtrusive a “traffic cop” as possible; and to raise further questions by noting new angles, inconsistencies, or gaps in what students have proposed so far.
Both the lessons and the classroom structure play a role in establishing classroom culture. If you see a classroom with little adorning the walls and desks in rows, what do you think is the prevailing culture? It would certainly be different in this classroom than in a classroom with desks arranged in groupings or even desks and chairs that can be and are moved easily along, with a range of ongoing projects displayed around the room.
Everything that the students do, everything that the students use and interact with, affects and determines the culture of your classroom. Alane Starko, professor of teacher education at Eastern Michigan University, said in her February 2013 Educational Leadership article that “in a creativity-friendly classroom, both the physical environment and the classroom’s emotional climate support creativity. The routines, procedures, and classroom culture encourage flexible thinking. Behaviors like asking questions, finding problems, and seeking to solve them are not just safe, but enthusiastically welcomed.”
And how about you? How do you interact with your students? Knowing who your students are and knowing their stories tells the students that you care about them as people, inside and outside of class. It tells them that what they are learning has a place in the larger context of their world and allows them to expand discussions into that broader world. Knowing your students only by their grade or their subject-specific work tells your students that they are in the class only to learn that specific information.
How well do you know your students? And if you don’t know your students’ stories, then how do you convince them that you care about them and their learning? In the Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools, Benard and Slade offer some examples of how students know their teachers care about them:
To the question, “How do you know a teacher or other adult in your school cares about you?” students overwhelmingly responded that the facial expressions and simple actions that a teacher makes convince them that the staff member cares about them. Words helped but actions won out. It was less about praising the students and more about treating the students as friends and knowing about them outside the confines of the classroom: “When I’m bothered, they help me by listening and encouraging me … they talk to me as a person and friend—not just as a student” (Benard & Slade, 2009).
But if we have to be aware of all these elements—every lesson, every activity, every interaction or arrangement of desks—when will we have time to teach? Isn’t this an overwhelming and ultimately an over burdening list of areas to be concerned about?
Just do what was asked at the start.
What do you hold dear and what do you want to develop or instill in your students? It may seem redundant, but make a list. What skills, attributes, behaviors, actions would you want to see your students develop?
Articulate it, make it visible, and you will adjust what you do and how you interact accordingly.
Sean Slade is the director of Whole Child Programs at ASCD. The Whole Child Initiative is part of a broad, multiyear plan to shift public dialogue about education from an academic focus to a whole child approach that encompasses all factors required for successful student outcomes, enhancing learning by addressing each student’s social, emotional, physical, and academic needs through the shared contributions of schools, families, communities, and policymakers.
During his more than two decades in education, Slade has written extensively on topics related to the whole child and health and well-being (PDF) and has been at the forefront of promoting and using school climate, connectedness, resilience, and youth development data for school improvement. He has been a teacher, head of department, education researcher, senior education officer, project manager, and director. He has taught, trained, and directed education initiatives in Australia, Italy, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.