8 + 1 Ways to Create a Classroom Culture of Learning


When students move on from your classroom, with what do you want them to leave? More knowledge? Good grades? These are noble goals, but what about embodying a love of learning? We will examine each facet of learning (learning as curiosity, learning as opportunity, and learning as reflection) and how to make this happen in the classroom. Hopefully, it can trickle up, making it a culture of the school.

Learning as Curiosity

What is the difference between a 4-year-old and a middle schooler? They are both surrounded by a culture that lends itself to learning, but something has changed.

Sadly, the current curriculum focuses on subject-specific skills and standardized testing.

Students in a middle school classroom have somehow been conditioned not to ask the questions, yet they demand answers. Conversely, the 4- to 7-year-old will ask and ask, seeking and exploring. Unfortunately, this can be perceived as disruptive and usually is shut down in hopes of getting in all the necessary elements of the curriculum. This is important, yes, but sometimes it can be at the expense of losing the natural innate desire for meaning.

Cultivate Curiosity

  1. Model curiosity.
    • Ask “I wonder” questions to your students, and when you do read-alouds, model metacognitive practices.
  2. Start every day with a question.
    • We can assist students in building curious minds by asking a question, as Annie Paul discusses in a Time She notes that instead of “starting with the answer, begin by posing for yourself and others a genuinely interesting question—one that opens an information gap.”
    • This information gap means that there is just enough missing information to require communication or further exploration.
  3. Praise the process.
    • Probe students on how they got their answer. What was their method or approach? Then praise their attempts, even if they miss the mark.

Learning as Opportunity

With a grade-heavy focus, many students will want to play safe and be afraid to try new things.

Create That Safe Place

  1. Share your risks and failures.
  • Sometimes, I share about the many times I have attempted to publish and have gotten rejected. What is my choice? To give up or keep trying?
  • Did you just attend a conference or professional learning seminar? Share a bit about it and what you learned. Be excited about your lifelong love of learning.
  1. Start with the conversation.
  • Encourage your students to think that your classroom is a safe space to share. The best way to do this is to start with peer-to-peer sharing. Think-Pair-Share exercises help diminish fears about speaking up and help build relationships.
  1. Reward encouragement in your classroom.
  • “Student A, I love how you cheered for your classmates!”

Learning as Reflection

Results from a study by Guthrie and McCracken (2014) indicate that students felt reflection was essential to learning. When students look back at what they have been doing, and what has been the result for them, it helps them make meaning. This oral or written exercise helps them evaluate themselves and their progress.

Establish a Reflective Classroom

  1. Model reflection.
    • Be real for your students. If a lesson from the past day or week did not go according to your expectations, take the time to share what you learned from it and what you may try next time. Be willing to share your side as a learner and not necessarily the teacher.
  2. Give them time to journal.
    • Set aside a time to allow students to journal on what they have learned. These journals can be checked for completeness but not graded. One way to help them if they get stuck is to provide a sentence stem. For example, “I was surprised by this assignment because…” or “This assignment could have been better in that I…” or “Next time, I would like to…”

The Passion Project to Pull It All Together

Donald Meyer, English chair at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, Arizona, created this project for his 12th grade honors English class, but it can be adapted for any grade level. First, students must decide on an ennobling or edifying activity to learn, not just something fun. Getting good at free throws is nice, but not really the idea: crafts, art, languages, music, etc., are more the idea. Students must devote 60 hours to this project from September through April. They are allowed to use only the Internet, books, mentors, master craftsmen, trial and error―natural, organic modes of learning.

There are to be process checks and journaling throughout to reflect on the process. Obviously, one will not be an expert at the end, which produces some risk to the learner, but the outputted product can show evidence of the 60-hour experiment. As an educator, you can do the same by scratching your curiosity itch. This way, you can model for them the process of how to discipline their time.

All in all, the goal of a class should be for students to walk away with the love of learning, which means them being more curious, risk taking, and, of course, reflective in their processes.

Dr. Stephanie Knight is an experienced 7th and 8th grade English language arts educator. She taught in Title I schools for eight years—helping them grow from underperforming to excelling—and then in an independent school for four years. Knight is now is part of Grand Canyon Universitys adjunct faculty, where she teaches graduate-level education and reading courses.