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Student Engagement

Creating a Culture of Learning

A look at three steps schools can take this year to ensure that students are deeply engaged in their learning.

October 5, 2021
Elementary school teacher speaking to students
Wavebreakmedia / iStock

One of the most essential components of learning is the belief that all students are learners, also known as collective efficacy. This is especially vital as students return to the classroom having had a wide range of learning experiences over the last year and a half with varied levels of success.

To fully reap the benefits that research shows collective efficacy has on student learning, schools need to build and foster a culture of learning. Here are three steps to ingrain the belief that all students are learners, with ways to practice this principle.

Putting Students First

1. When planning and examining classroom routines, focus on the students. What will the students learn, how will they learn it, and how will they demonstrate their learning? These questions follow the trajectory of the learning experience with an emphasis on the student.

For example, in a recent teacher planning meeting I attended, the conversation started with identifying the book that the teacher would read to the class and the skill that the teacher would model during the read-aloud.

While these are clearly important elements of the lesson, they emphasize the teacher rather than the student. Asking the questions above shifts the conversation to the purpose of the lesson, which is to teach students to learn how to make responsible decisions by examining the character in the book and their choices. After listening to the story, students would create a storyboard showing the events and the decision the character made, as well as an alternative decision and possible outcomes. The teacher’s role would be to support the students through the read-aloud and modeling and provide feedback to the students as they worked with their group to complete the storyboard.

Describing classroom experiences through the student lens emphasizes the learning and the learner. Adult actions shift to how they’ll impact and support students. Students are aware of what they’re learning and how they’re learning it so that they can be active participants in their education.

2. Develop an asset-based approach to learning. Assets are valuable attributes that students bring to the classroom. Some assets are academic, and others include disposition, character traits, experiences, and interests that contribute to the classroom learning community.

For example, biliteracy is an asset. Native speakers of Spanish who are learning English use this asset when they work with other students in the class to label items in both English and Spanish, so that everyone learns a new language. An empathetic student uses their asset when they sit with a student who is having a bad day, so their classmate feels supported.

It’s important that teachers recognize students when they share their strengths and gifts. Recognition can be verbal, visual, or written. As a teacher, I sent a note home to the parents of one of my middle school students every Friday. The note recognized how the student contributed to the classroom community and how they were progressing as a learner or earned an academic achievement. I kept track of who received the notes and made sure that every student's parents received one at least once a semester.

Academic assets are the skills, strategies, and background knowledge that students bring with them to the classroom. When teachers utilize students’ prior learning as starting points for instruction, they’re building on students’ assets. One way teachers do this is through the feedback they give to their students.

Verbal and written feedback should include information about what students can do, what they need to work on, and steps for achieving those goals. When students receive feedback that's clear, is actionable, and relates to the identified learning targets, they grow significantly in their learning; they receive the message that they’re learners, and that learning is an active and continual process. With continued modeling and targeted instruction, students can learn how to self-regulate and manage their own learning.

3. Move the conversation away from learning loss. Instead, focus on the continuum of learning. With so much emphasis on what they didn’t learn over the last year, students may unintentionally be getting the message that they can’t catch up. Educators can address this by thoroughly familiarizing themselves with the learning progressions of standards, which introduce new skills and reinforce others. Knowing how standards are connected helps teachers support students in moving along the continuum and conveys a message of growth mindset to their students.

For example, by examining the New York State English Language Arts standards, a teacher can see how the skill of using evidence to support an argument develops over time. Each grade-level standard describes a different emphasis for instruction:

  • Third graders support an argument with details.
  • Fourth graders focus on facts and details.
  • Fifth graders use clear reasons and relevant evidence.

Even though the standards are grade specific, the teacher can still use them to adjust instruction. After reviewing drafts, the teacher can differentiate instruction based on the progressions of the standards. Students therefore engage in education experiences designed to move them forward in their learning.

Students whose work reveals they can support their argument with details engage in an activity in which they place sentence strips in a hierarchy: argument, fact, detail. Another group of students, whose work demonstrates that they can use reason and evidence, engage in an activity in which they rank a list of evidence from most relevant to least relevant, based on how well the evidence supports an argument.

In this way, all students are working toward the common goal, how to use evidence to support an argument, but have different starting points for getting there. Students engage in differentiated learning activities that send the message that they’re all learning from a place of strength.

These steps are practical ways to build a culture of learning and develop collective efficacy. Students need to continually see themselves as learners and feel that they’re part of a community that values all learning.

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