From the Ground Up: Building a New Classroom Culture
No matter where you teach and learn, two things are true about education:
- Change is constant
- Change is difficult
If you have been an educator for more than two decades as I have been, then you remember school before changes like the paperless classroom and the global classroom, when the most accessible content resource was a textbook, and essays were to be written in blue or black ink. If you became an educator in the last five years, you have likely experienced a shift from computer labs to 1:1 devices, the debates over blocking access to certain websites and social media platforms. And let’s not forget the endless discussions about the role of cell phones in schools.
As new tools and platforms are developed and promoted as education innovations, I am prompted to consider what is different between change and innovation. Again, I see two distinctions:
- Innovation is about being better, not just different.
- Innovation is an attitude, not a mandate.
Our challenge is to be innovative and nurture the development of innovative habits of mind in our students. To do that we have to build a culture of innovation in our schools and our classrooms. To do that we have to remember that innovation is not a competition. While the first thing that likely comes to mind when we think about innovators are tech giants, corporation founders, and the like, an examination of what makes them and their companies successful are the pillars of innovation that underpin all that they do.
Take Google, for instance. In their transformation center, they explore the importance of vision, learning, culture, technology, professional development, funding & sustainability, and community engagement to the success of an educational community. Similarly, Mark Wagner and EdTechTeam use a honeycomb metaphor to explain the elements of school change: courageous leaders, empowered teachers, inspiring spaces, engaged community, robust infrastructure, and student agency. Both of these frameworks require a systemic commitment to this constant and difficult work. That doesn’t mean that as an individual educator you are without agency. Any one of us can create a classroom culture of innovation that will inspire all who teach and learn in that space.
What is culture?
Culture, according to Google’s definition, lives in the structures, rituals, stories and symbols of your community. In this case, your learning space. To become an innovative space, those structures, rituals, stories, and symbols must promote and celebrate learner agency, risk-taking, collaboration, and curiosity.
When I look at the structures in my space I start to notice the furniture, wifi access points, doors, windows, hallways, lights, even the bell schedule. In many ways the ringing of bells to end a class and signal passing time is also a ritual. Other rituals include morning meetings, taking attendance, saying the pledge, homework checks, and warm-up activities. If you are a blogger you are used to telling stories. Maybe you listen to podcasts to hear other people’s stories. In the faculty room stories sometimes start this way: “Guess what so-and-so did today…” or “Just as we were getting started…” or “Back when so-and-so was principal…” What do the stories we tell indicate about what we value? What we prioritize? How we learn? Finally, classrooms and other school spaces are full of symbols such as motivational posters, school core values, badges, grades, and school mascots. These things are the collected products of our school’s culture.
Engage your students –the stakeholders in your learning space – in a culture autopsy. What are the structures, rituals, stories and symbols already in place in your space and how do they influence the mindset of those in the space? Students could crowdsource their ideas in a deck of Google Slides, or on whiteboards or paper. They could work in groups to brainstorm and jigsaw to share ideas. You could equip students with sticky notes in different colors and they could label the physical evidence of culture in the space: yellow for a symbol, green for a story artifact, blue for a ritual, etc.
Remember, innovation is an attitude, not a mandate. The more you involve students in examining culture the more agency they develop. Innovation isn’t something you are doing to them, it is a mindset you are helping them grow.
How do we build a new culture?
Intentionally. Publicly. Collaboratively.
A culture plan can start with a chart like this:
Again, invite your student stakeholders into the process and start by defining the terms. This is a great opportunity for student reflection.
- What is agency? When is a time you had it? What could you do?
- Describe a risk you have taken and what you learned from it.
- When you are working with a team, how do you know when things are going well?
- Why is curiosity a good thing?
They could blog in response to these questions or post to Flipgrid or create profile Slides in a class Google Slide deck or make infographics. When they are comfortable with the lingo, they will start to imagine what a learning space might be. Rather than being bound by the current structures, rituals, stories and symbols, what new ones could the class build together?
- Instead of a bulletin board full of posters and motivational quotes, could there be a wonder wall where students can post the big questions they have about the about what you are learning together?
- How might mindset shift if the learning space was called an incubator or a think tank?
- Lead a design sprint for students to develop a class logo to represent your innovative culture.
- Try different arrangements of classroom furniture to facilitate different types of interaction: speed-dating, fishbowls, small group discussions, large group discussions, stations work, etc.
- Start a blog or a class social media account and tell the stories of empowered learners (yourself included), taking risks, pool talents and resources, driven by interest, passion and wonderment to know and create. This doesn’t have to be a big undertaking. One paragraph each week. One tweet, even. Get the word out there. Tell your stories. Let the students co-author with you so their voices are amplified as well.
These are just starter ideas… What will your students suggest? Make small changes and acknowledge out loud together when one of those changes contributes to a new way of learning, understanding, or communicating. Create a new routine of giving thanks to someone who challenges you to learn in a new way or a take a risk you might previously have avoided. At Google, they have G-thanks. How can your students adapt a similar ritual to your space? Tell your story as you build a culture of innovation and if you share it on Twitter, tag me @MsJwhiting so I can join your celebration!
With 26 years as a public educator behind her, Jacquelyn Whiting has experienced lots of different school cultures. She has been a social studies teacher and is currently a library media specialist. Her work with her students and colleagues around building culture is inspired by her experiences as a Google Certified Innovator and her work as a local activator for Future Design School.
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