Saturday, May 16, 2009

Cultivating classroom culture --- growing a community for learning

An invitation to an open house celebrating a college graduation accompanied by an email of thanks for setting her on the road to teaching as she excitedly shares the good news of her very “own classroom” in Philadelphia in the fall— (so proud of Jackie!)

And a subsequent flood of memories-- of the first cohort of the Teaching Professions program of which she was an priceless member— of my efforts to grow a community for learning, cultivating a classroom culture foreign to students whose mastery of the skills of playing the game of school were extraordinary and exceptional--consciously and with great care, selecting strategies to encourage and enhance community, collaboration---recognizing now my intuitive and novice attempt at culture making that Andy Crouch so eloquently describes:
“All culture making requires a choice, conscious or unconscious, to take our place in a cultural tradition. We cannot make culture without culture. And this means creation begins with cultivation—taking care of the good things that culture has already handed on to us.”

“One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive. Cultivating also requires weeding—sorting out what does and does not belong, what will bear fruit and what will choke it out.”--from educationinnovation quoting Andy Crouch

Finding it not only far more difficult but also requiring far more weeding, far more nurturing than I had imagined -- now realizing so much more fully the need, more than that how vital such a culture is to learning in our connected, networked world -- thinking these few perspectives and pieces would have been of great value—- wanting to pass them forward to Jackie and any whose passion for cultivating a community classroom culture draws them here—

First, it seems to me that personal beliefs regarding learning directly correlate to the culture of a classroom. When Jackie and I learned together, my evolving pedagogy had reached the constructivist stage and I prided myself as being a guide on the side, an expert learner who sometimes attempted to model and demonstrate and at other times created opportunities for discovery and exploration. Perhaps more appropriate for this connected, networked world in which we now live and more aligned with my current connectivist approach is the perspective of teacher as “meddler in the middle” (my sincerest thanks to Keith for introducing me to the work of Erica McWilliam; I love the term “meddler” when thinking about learning).

"Meddler-in-the middle" positions the teacher and student as mutually involved in assembling and dis-assembling cultural products. It re-positions teacher and student as co-directors and co-editors of their social world. "Meddler-in-the-middle" challenges more long-term notions of "good" teaching in a number of ways. Specifically, it means: (1) less time giving instructions and more time spent being a usefully ignorant co-worker in the thick of the action; (2) less time spent being a custodial risk minimiser and more time spent being an experimenter and risk-taker; (3) less time spent being a forensic classroom auditor and more time spent being a designer, editor and assembler; (4) less time spent being a counsellor and "best buddy" and more time spent being a collaborative critic and authentic evaluator."--–source ERIC
From Keith’s post:
“In her discussion of the teacher as meddler in the middle, Erica identified three sets of 21st Century Skills:academic functional, aesthetic digital and dynamic interactive.

She suggested that intellectual clout was needed in this work to become ‘usefully ignorant’ as the meddler in the middle. We must be pedagogical experts but not knowledge experts. The 21st century classroom will need to be: Seriously playful, Epistemologically agile, and Low threat high challenge.

Erica explored the skill set of the meddler and her fascination with design, disassembly and rediscovery. She illustrated her point with the story of her as a young child cutting up a tennis ball to find the bounce in(side) the ball. The meddler’s classroom is: Respect rich, Structure rich, Conversation rich, Information rich, Challenge rich.

The classroom is in design mode: what is the idea good for; what does it do and fail to do; does it have a future; how could it be improved; what is the value add? The design classroom is characterised by: Knowledge more than facts, Deeply understand what is being built upon, Social processes.

In the design mode disassembly creates space for thinking. It welcomes error, strategy, instructive complication, and interesting ideas. Meddlers accept and create space for co-designing and are clear about looking for ideas and when error is welcomed. The classroom celebrates wonder, imagination, and step outside held views.”

Imagine the learning! I’d love to be a meddler—a “meddler” cultivating community and a growth mindset.

Second, Mary Ann Downey’s (Decision Bridges) suggestions for building community truly resonate with me; they take me back to my days at Earlham which profoundly influenced my world view. A few snippets:

“The perception students get from too many professors across disciplines from kindergarten to graduate school is that education is not about real discovery and continuing exploration, but is rather a game of ‘let’s see if you can say what the teacher wants you to say’.

Building community in the classroom requires that we create a “laboratory for personal disarmament”, described by Scott Peck, (1985: 69), instead of the guarded, competitive contributions we often encourage by our leadership.

If we are intentional about building community in the classroom, we must learn how to reward cooperation, rather than competition. This means engaging every student in full participation so that their life experience becomes a resource to us and to their peers. As we offer our subject matter expertise, we also need to demonstrate the truth of the saying, “If you would be a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught”. Our challenge is to model and facilitate learning as a cooperative, exciting and creative joint venture.

I’ve identified four key skills that are needed for a group to use the consensus process effectively. These are the same skills that foster true community and that develop each student’s ability and willingness to:

  1. Speak truth as they see it; learning to appreciate the value of their life experience
  2. Listen with respect to the truth of others
  3. Develop an appreciative understanding of differences
  4. Integrate differences to make new discoveries”
Envision “Learning as a cooperative, exciting and creative joint venture.” What a classroom culture! One whose potential for engaging students is unbridled, I would think, if also teamed with the cultivation of a growth mindset , as Carol Dweck describes in more detail here.
"...people's self-theories about intelligence have a profound influence on their motivation to learn. Students who hold a "fixed" theory are mainly concerned with how smart they are—they prefer tasks they can already do well and avoid ones on which they may make mistakes and not look smart. In contrast, she said, people who believe in an "expandable" or "growth" theory of intelligence want to challenge themselves to increase their abilities, even if they fail at first."
I'm thinking that too many students who "play the game of school" well have a fixed mindset and respond poorly when faced with challenges of connected, networked learning. Nurturing and cultivating a growth mindset in the clasroom, recognizing effort, can be an important component in growing a community for learning.

Meddling, nurturing and cultivation are good, hard work that never ends, that sometimes are exhausting, that sometimes take more time than we would like, that when successful illuminate our very souls– With kind nurturing and cultivation, won’t our youngsters have the opportunity to become all that they can be? And won’t we, our students and our world be the better for it? Or not?

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