Steven Weber

Superintendent or Asst Super

Fayetteville, AR

Interests: Curriculum design and...

  • Posted 2 Years ago
  • 43k

Characteristics Of A Culture of Learning

View Original Photo

Millions of students struggle with schooling (Below the Surface: Solving the Hidden Graduation Rate Crisis, 2015, Alliance for Excellent Education). Classrooms were designed in the 1950’s and many schools have left the furniture in the same location for over sixty years! Schools have purchased programs, added personnel to support a wide range of learners, increased the number of tests students take annually, and designed curriculum aligned to standards. According to Tony Wagner, “What has not changed is the daily reality of teaching and learning for the overwhelming majority of students in America” (Wagner, Reinventing America’s Schools).


Students enter pre-school and kindergarten full of questions, ideas, curiosity, and imagination. By the time students reach middle school, many of them are bored and do not enjoy school. Schooling teaches students to memorize and recall the correct answer, learn because ‘this will be on the test,’ and avoid risk taking because failure means a lower grade. Successful students are rewarded with As and Bs and unsuccessful students are told to try harder or given the same assignment a second time. Schooling is a system designed to move students from one grade to the next. Once students earn enough high school credits, they are rewarded with a high school diploma. Schooling focuses on teaching, while a Culture of Learning focuses on the whole child and student understanding.


Characteristics Of A Culture of Learning


Assessment FOR Learning

Assessment FOR Learning is different from tests designed to give students a grade. Assessment in a Culture of Learning is ongoing. It may appear in the form of a Post-It note,  role play, survey, presentation, thumbs-up/thumbs-down vote, Google Form, artwork, accountable talk, or a quick write. “Formative assessment, done well, represents one of the most powerful instructional tools available to a teacher or a school for promoting student achievement. Teachers and schools can use formative assessment to identify student understanding, clarify what comes next in their learning, trigger and become part of an effective system of intervention for struggling students, inform and improve the instructional practice of individual teachers or teams, help students track their own progress toward attainment of standards, motivate students by building confidence in themselves as learners, fuel continuous improvement process across faculties, and, thus, drive a school's transformation” (Stiggins & DuFour, 2009, p. 640).

Authentic Tasks

An Authentic Task asks students to use their ability to analyze and solve real world problems. Authentic tasks are often framed by an Essential Question which guides understanding. Essential Questions have more than one correct answer and they help students connect what they know to the answers they are searching for. An authentic task is not a worksheet or a multiple choice test. Both of these can be found in K-12 classrooms, but are rarely seen in the workforce. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey, employers seek leadership, teamwork, communication skills, problem solving skills, analytical skills, initiative, and adaptability (Job Outlook 2015 survey, NACE). Authentic Tasks provide students with the opportunity to practice these skills multiple times. Too often, schooling is a series of tasks that students must complete in order to move to the next grade level. If tasks seem to have little or no connection to the real world, students become disengaged.

Blended Learning

Purchasing a laptop or tablet for every student will not transform traditional schooling into a Culture of Learning. While technology has the ability to transform teaching and learning, teachers and administrators still need to focus on learning goals, authentic tasks, transfer of understanding, student voice, and student contribution. Several of these topics are addressed in this article. “Blended learning is a student-centered approach to creating a learning experience whereby the learner interacts with other students, with the instructor, and with content through thoughtful integration of online and face-to-face environments.A well-designed blended learning experience thoughtfully organizes content, support materials, and activities via synchronous and asynchronous learning events, all of which are delivered in a variety of modes ranging from traditional lecture to online tutorials. Communication and collaboration are necessary functions of a blended approach. Because formative assessment is embedded throughout learning events, the learner assumes responsibility for his or her learning” (Hobgood, Learn NC). The next time someone says, “Come to our class to watch some blended learning….,” take this definition and see if the students are using a computer to learn or if blended learning is part of their classroom culture.



Alan November wrote an excellent book about teaching and learning titled, Who Owns the Learning (2012)? When I visit schools and observe classrooms, this is the question I ask myself. The answer to this single question helps you determine if you are observing schooling or a Culture of Learning. Student contribution comes in the form of project-based learning. You can also see student contribution when a group of middle school students are making a video in science class, rather than watching a video. When students participate in a Socratic Seminar, you can hear students push back and ask clarifying questions. In a classroom where three students are designing a product, based on an authentic task you can see that students are applying their skills and demonstrating their understanding. Another way to analyze student contribution is to ask, “Are the students being compliant or contributing?”


Genius Hour

Does your school provide students with Genius Hour, or a similar time where students can explore their passion? What is Genius Hour? (Chris Kesler, 2013, YouTube). In an Edutopia article titled, Genius Hour and the 6 Essentials of Personalized Education, it is evident that Genius Hour could become the way teaching and learning takes place throughout the week (Carter, 2014). In other words, Genius Hour has brought our attention to critical aspects of teaching and learning. Students do not benefit from ‘sit and get.’ Today’s students want to design, create, collaborate, pursue understanding, and have choices in how they demonstrate understanding. Genius Hour is a good starting point for teachers, but a Culture of Learning should be the goal for students. Dr. Pam Moran, Superintendent of Albemarle County Public Schools (VA), often shares pictures of teaching and learning in her school district, via Twitter. The district has transformed learning spaces and places an emphasis on student learning. In several schools across the United States, a focus on student learning is translated into a focus on high-stakes testing. When schools begin to focus on high-stakes testing and benchmark tests that support high-stakes testing there is little emphasis on the joy of learning. “Every day when you get up, think about what’s really worth learning and what’s worth teaching. It is never going to be passing the test. It’s always going to be about: How do kids come to school, get excited, and stay excited” (Dr. Pam Moran via BAM Radio Interview with Vicki Davis)?


Inquiry Learning

When students and parents think of inquiry learning, they may recall a science lab or art class. Inquiry learning should take place throughout the day and should not be reserved for specific classes or subjects. Terry Heick describes Inquiry Learning as “Intellectually active places….highly effective and conducive to student learning” (The Characteristics Of A Highly Effective Learning Environment, 2014). When you observe classrooms, are they intellectually active places? In some high schools, these classrooms are reserved for honors and AP students. In other words, inquiry learning is seen as important for some students. In a Culture of Learning, students answer questions and they create their own questions. Teachers are often seen as facilitators, rather than the main voice in the classroom.


Leadership Skills

The world is constantly searching for leaders in business, education, politics, media, and in communities. If a profession is filled with great leaders, they will eventually retire and there will be a need for new leaders. Do K-12 schools provide students with opportunities to develop leadership skills? According to the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, leadership skills should be part of a Culture of Learning that prepares students for life. “When a school or district builds on this foundation, combining the entire Framework with the necessary support systems—standards, assessments, curriculum and instruction, professional development and learning environments—students are more engaged in the learning process and graduate better prepared to thrive in today’s global economy” (P21 Framework Definitions, 2015). Do you see students as line leaders, table washers, and name takers? Is this real world leadership? In a Culture of Learning, leadership skills are part of the curriculum. Students are given multiple opportunities to think like leaders and develop their own leadership skills.


Learning Space

Schools need to redesign the learning space in order to create a Culture of Learning. Analyze your student learning goals or outcomes. Does your current classroom design enable students to meet those goals (think collaboration, communication, critical thinking, creativity, contribution, community, citizenship, literacy skills, leadership, innovation, relationships, virtual learning, problem solving, adaptability, and more)! Does your classroom need to look like a playground or Chuck E. Cheese? No. However, you could learn a lot about classroom design by visiting a playground, children’s museum, or arcade. When you observe students on a playground, you will see collaboration, communication, critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, citizenship, innovation, and community. We need more academic playgrounds. If teachers and administrators took time to reflect on the importance of design, purpose, and space, they may find that the old structure is a barrier to student achievement (Weber, ASCD EDge, 2014). All students deserve a learning space, not a classroom.


Outdoor Learning

Outdoor learning spaces provide students with a chance to learn outside the four walls of the classroom. Some schools have designed learning trails, amphitheatres, gazebos, picnic tables, gardens, or turned the soccer field into a space for a geography lesson. Sterrett (2012) wrote, “If we want to change what happens within our school walls, perhaps we should start by learning outside them. Incorporating nature learning in our schools is necessary and revitalizing” (ASCD EDGE). A learning walk, experiment, quick write, team building game, or goal setting provide teachers and students with a reason to exit the building and learn outside. Have you ever read a book under a tree or by a lake? Students would enjoy the opportunity to read under a tree or on a hill outside the classroom. Read Back to School: Back Outside for compelling research studies on the benefits of Outdoor Learning (National Wildlife Federation, Coyle, 2010). “The evidence is compelling. Hands-on and real-world aspects of most environmental and outdoor education improve students’ desire to learn and boost their performance on most measures of student success” (Coyle, 2010).



How often do students feel like the pace of schooling is rushed? Once a unit is finished, the teacher moves to the next unit. Reflection involves slowing down to share what we learned. In the absence of reflection, it is unlikely that a classroom is a Culture of Learning. “To be reflective means to mentally wander through where we have been and to try to make some sense out of it. Most classrooms are oriented more to the present and the future than to the past. Such an orientation means that students (and teachers) find it easier to discard what has happened and to move on without taking stock of the seemingly isolated experiences of the past” (Costa and Kallick, 2008). How do students reflect and make meaning out of their experiences? Clements highlights 35 Questions For Student Reflection. In classrooms where teachers are doing the majority of the work and the projects are turned in for a grade rather than completed to answer an Essential Question, you may need to build more time for reflection.


Risk Takers

Think about the jobs in your community. The world needs risk takers. There is not a high demand for tightrope walkers, daredevil bike riders, or astronauts. However, most employers are seeking innovators and employees who are willing to think outside the box. Tony Wagner recently wrote a book titled, Innovators (2012) (Creating Innovators Book Trailer). Wagner emphasizes that the skills employers are seeking are not being taught in most K-12 classrooms. If we assign a grade to every project, writing assignment, and math project that a student attempts, will the student become a risk taker? When you write a blog or write in your journal, do you get a grade? In order for students to take risks, we must create the right learning environment. We must encourage risks through the authentic tasks that are assigned and through the feedback that is given. Students need to learn to complete project independently and as part of a team. We need to challenge students, so they will be prepared for the next level of learning. So many students enter kindergarten as risk takers and graduate high school as compliant learners who are seeking the answer that gives them an A. Universities and employers need students who graduate from a Culture of Learning.


Student Voice

In a Culture of Learning, Student Voice is one of the main characteristics. Students may use their voice in a class debate. Blogging is often a way for students to find their voice within a classroom or on a larger platform. Read Pernille Ripp’s 14 Steps to Meaningful Student Blogging. Students need to learn how to give a formal presentation and how to communicate with a teammate. When teachers provide students with authentic tasks, there will be opportunities for students to find their voice in the assignment. Assessments also provide multiple opportunities for Student Voice. Alber (2014) proposes 5 Ways To Give Your Students More Voice and Choice. Student Voice is important in a kindergarten classroom. Once students learn that they don’t have a voice, they become disengaged in the learning process. Palmer (2014) wrote, “Oral communication can be taught, students can do much better than we currently accept, and speaking-skill lessons are easy to add because our classes are already verbal. All it takes is a commitment to learn how to teach speaking and how to use the tools available today to develop competent communicators.”


The 4 Cs

The 4 Cs are Critical Thinking, Collaboration, Communication, and Creativity. Too often, students complete assignments without learning these skills. The 4 Cs are also referred to by employers and college admissions officers as soft skills or employability skills (What It Means to Be Career Ready). Some schools have turned their focus to items that are tested on high-stakes tests. Since the 4 Cs are difficult to assess, some teachers have ignored these critical life skills in favor of rote memory. Brooke Singletary highlights the importance of the 4 Cs and shows connections between the Common Core State Standards and the skills students need in life (YouTube, 2014). Do you have a favorite niece or nephew? Would you prefer that your favorite relative learn the traditional 3 Rs, the 4 Cs, or both?


Teaching for Understanding

Grant Wiggins, co-author of Understanding by Design (1998 and 2005), shares how Teaching For Understanding (YouTube, 2012) impacts student engagement and deeper understanding. A Culture of Learning “Focuses on engaging learners in ‘meaning making’ by exploring essential questions and engaging in meaningful applications of learning. Understanding core ideas and the ability to transfer them to new situations should be the twin goals of education today” (McTighe and Seif, 2011). McTighe and Seif created a self-assessment tool titled, Teaching and Assessing for Understanding: Observable Classroom Indicators. This list can assist teachers, coaches, and administrators in supporting a Culture of Learning. Some classrooms focus on isolated facts and skills. In a classroom focused on Teaching For Understanding, students will be able to explain their work and will be able to transfer their understanding to the next unit and across disciplines.


Timely Feedback

Too often, students are not given timely feedback. An assignment is given and students receive a B+. What does a B+ mean? Wiggins wrote, “Effective feedback is concrete, specific, and useful; it provides actionable information” (Educational Leadership, 2012). Read 20 Ways To Provide Effective Feedback For Learning. Can you recall when someone gave you feedback? How did it make you feel? Did the feedback inspire you to continue to learn or did it discourage you? Feedback is the breakfast of champions! Do your students receive timely feedback or a grade at the end of the week? What feedback will help you foster a Culture of Learning?


Transfer Goals

[Transfer is] “the ability to extend what has been learned in one context to new contexts. Educators hope that students will transfer learning from one problem to another within a course, from one year in school to another, between school and home, and from school to workplace. Assumptions about transfer accompany the belief that it is better to broadly “educate” people than simply “train” them to perform particular tasks” (How People Learn, 2000, as cited by Grant Wiggins).


If teachers write lesson plans or unit plans, but they omit transfer goals, teaching may be focused on the activity or content (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005). A focus on transfer results in Authentic Tasks, The 4 Cs, Student Voice, Assessment FOR Learning, and projects where students apply their knowledge and skills. “You can only be said to have fully grasped and applied your learning if you can do it without someone telling you what to do. In the real world, no teacher is there to direct and remind you about which lesson to plug in here or there: transfer is about intelligently and effectively drawing from your repertoire, independently, to handle particular contexts on your own” (Wiggins and McTighe, 2012, What Are Transfer Goals?)


Writing Across the Curriculum

Writing is a lost art in some schools. If it’s not tested, it’s not taught has become the mantra. Some educators don’t check for spelling, because students will be able to use spell check. That argument is about as sound as eliminating mathematics, because students have access to a calculator. When was the last time students had a Quick Write to reflect on their work? When was the last time students were asked to write about their understanding, rather than write about content? Is writing a skill that can be learned? What type of writing should a middle school student be able to produce in order to be classified as high school ready? Writing is thought-provoking and it helps students organize their thoughts. Dalporto (2015) offers Seven Ways To Support Writing Across the Curriculum (We Are Teachers). Do you know adults who have trouble writing? Writing can serve as a barrier to higher paying jobs and is a life skill. Reading is fundamental, but writing is equally important. Students are given multiple opportunities to write in a Culture of Learning.



One way to measure an effective school is to analyze the outputs (Graduation Rate, Number of Dropouts, College and Career Ready Graduates, SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and High Stakes Testing or Exit Exams). While outputs provide educators with key indicators, they come at the end of the Pre-K - 12 grade experience. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future (President’s Address at University of Pennsylvania). This article focuses on inputs, things that educators can design and improve while students are still in school. As educators continue to focus on ways to transform schooling, they should focus on designing a Culture of Learning rather than trying to tweak education. Designing a Culture of Learning requires a focus on student understanding and transfer, rather than focusing on students passing the course and advancing to the next grade level.


Steven Weber is the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. He has served as a classroom teacher, assistant principal, and principal. He also served as a social studies coordinator with the Arkansas Department of Education and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. He consults with teachers and administrators and provides support to schools seeking to build a Culture of Learning. Connect with Weber on Twitter at @curriculumblog or on ASCD EDge.


1000 Characters Remaining


20 Jul 15, 11:35 AM

Robin: Thank you for your feedback! Thanks for taking time to read the article. It is hard work, but our students deserve to have this type of education and the opportunity to grow as learners.

100 Characters Remaining


17 Jul 15, 08:51 AM

Excellent article that outlines our work for this year at my school. I am always impressed with your insight and pulse on the lifeline of strategies that will increase educational capacity. Thanks!

100 Characters Remaining


11 May 15, 05:36 PM

Elliott: Thank you for your feedback! I appreciate your perspective on curriculum and instruction. We certainly need to see the 4 Cs, student voice, leadership and other topics addressed in the article as inputs and outputs. I still remember when I met you at a UbD Conference in San Diego. You took time to meet with me and share your experiences as a curriculum director in Bucks County Intermediate Unit. Your work continues to influence my work with teachers and administrators. Thank you!

100 Characters Remaining


10 May 15, 09:52 PM

Wonderful commentary. But one thing I disagree with. These characteristics are not only inputs, they are also outputs. When these are in place, students are learning the kinds of knowledge and skills that they need to live well in a 21st century world. I wish there was more writing, more authentic learning, more reflection and more time for the 4C's, and so on. I hope we can move education in these directions, with less emphasis on testing and more on what really counts. Thanks Steven!

100 Characters Remaining

Back To Top