George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Learning is a culture.

It starts as a culture with the students as human beings needing to understand their environment. And it ends as a culture with students taking what we give them and using it in those physical and digital environments they call home.

Even the practices that promote or undermine the learning process itself are first and foremost human and cultural artifacts. Literacy, curiosity, self-efficacy, ambition and other important agents of learning are born in the native environments of students' homes.

Further, learning is ongoing, perishable and alive -- just like culture.

Creating Culture

But what about your classroom? Can you promote a certain culture there strategically, or does it just happen, the seemingly random product of the student roster assignments mixed with your personality as a teacher? More to the point, what exactly is a culture of learning -- and can you create one yourself?

The short answer is that a culture of learning is a collection of thinking habits, beliefs about self, and collaborative workflows that result in sustained critical learning.

Or that's how I think of it, anyway.

Can you cause this to happen? Of course you can. Almost anything can be learned -- and unlearned. It is simply a matter of identifying desired characteristics and then using the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model, intentionally letting it happen.

"Intentionally letting" may seem like an oxymoron. Well, it is. The idea is to create the conditions conducive to some result -- here, a culture of learning -- and then get out of the way. You can't cause curiosity, enthusiasm or affection, but you can let them happen. Intentionally.

Use the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model

1. Show Them

  • Model the thinking habits, beliefs about self, and collaborative workflows that result in sustained critical learning.
  • Demonstrate the think-alouds, reflective writing, metacognitive conversations and other human practices and habits that lead to learning, and then reflect again on their impact. How were they successful? Where did they fall short? What might you do next time?

2. Help Them

The next step of the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model is to help students do on their own what you just showed them how to do. Put them in groups. Have them publish their thinking in a podcast. Give them soft cushions to land on when they fail. Offer strategies, coaching and general support to:

  • Help them publish their thinking -- the right bits at the right time for the right audience.
  • Help them self-assess their performance.
  • Help them create their own standards for their own work.
  • Help them revisit old ideas, old writing and old projects. (This should actually be a requirement.)

3. Let Them

The final stage of promoting a culture of learning in your classroom is to simply get out of the way. Give them only just enough for them to take off on their own:

  • A topic
  • A community
  • A project idea
  • An app
  • A problem worth solving

Then let them show what they can do. And if they just sit there like bumps on a log, go back to step #1.


If we consider the definition of culture as the customs and beliefs of a community of human beings, then the fact that culture both precedes and proceeds from learning makes sense. There is an ecology to the learning process that can't be extracted, unpacked or tightly sequenced to fit into some edu-box the way you hoped it might.

I mean, you can squeeze it into a box, but at the risk of losing the kind of sustainable culture of learning that's been the whole point of all this.

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Comments (10) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

paul moss's picture

'demonstrate the think-alouds' - a fantastically powerful technique. Teachers should also not be afraid to show students when things go wrong - let them see your workings, and how you edit them to improve them. As always Terry, a great piece.

Dave's picture

Learning is not a culture.

A culture is "a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization".

One can seek to establish a classroom culture that values and encourages learning, and makes its attainment something that everyone celebrates. Such efforts are most effective when they are explicit, and adopted by all participants rather than just one change agent.

James Kendra's picture
James Kendra
7th and 8th grade Social Studies teacher in Grand Rapids, MI

I have the problem with the "Let Them" part of this. I find it hard to get out of their way and trust that they will push forward. I need to get over this problem with myself.
I do think that the structure of this system (a topic, a community, a project idea, an app, and a problem worth solving) is great. This is what I try to do in my SS classroom. Hook them with an issue in the world (local, national, or global) and teach from there. Let the events they show interest in direct the instruction. It calls for a lot of flexibility in teaching, but the students like to feel they are learning what is really going on and not being forced the content of the day.

Lili's picture

Have to agree with others, Learning is not a culture. Learning is from what Brain sees from eyes.

They could create their own language in classroom but it isn't going to be easy because it takes lot of practice...

Janely's picture

I agree, I also believe that it is not a culture. Culture is a way of thinking and it can change depending on the environment that you are in. We act and learn different things everyday and our beliefs come from home or what we've been taught at home.

Melissa A. Rowe, MEd's picture
Melissa A. Rowe, MEd
Founder, - I coach students, parents, and educators to help students in under-resourced schools earn scholarships and go to college.

Maybe learning isn't a culture, but the advice that is provided is valuable. Students become proactive members of the classroom when learning is facilitated in such a manner. When young people are engaged and encouraged to contribute and collaborate, learning becomes deeply personal and beneficial. I think that's what matters most. Thanks, Terry, for sharing this with us.

Terry Heick's picture
Terry Heick
founder/director at teachthought. humanist. technologist. futurist. macro thinker extraordinaire.

Thanks for the great feedback from everyone.

The idea that learning is a culture alludes to the habits, networks, people, curiosities, emotion, and affection that all meaningful learning includes.

Sustained, authentic learning not only behaves like a culture, but is embedded in one. One of the biggest mistakes education continues to make is to dehumanize the process. The need to learn begins in a community, and ends up there as well. From this community, people carry with them stories, insecurities, interests, and other strands of living that can act as powerful schema in the learning process.

Or that's how I see it anyway. Not sure there is one "right" answer! Love the thinking, as always!

SBarnett's picture

I know that teachers struggle with the gradual release of responsibility in the classroom. It's moving from the "sage on the stage" mentality of doing it all to an activator of learning from the side and it requires a change in one's approach to teaching, which drives the learning in the classroom. It's all about the learning and creating the environment to sustain this culture is critical to the future of education.

Kevin Chuang's picture

I noticed that many people here seem to object to the idea of a 'culture of earning'. I find this interesting as educators work in schools and formal education institution, which indeed have a culture of its own. This formal education institutional culture fosters and replicates a system of implicit and explicit beliefs about learning. Thus learning also have a cultural dimension that is the way we understand and conceive learning which may change depending on situations and environment. I refer you to an old paper, "Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning" (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989) and "Culture and Cognition" (DiMaggio, 1997) for a more thorough argument and discussion.

I am fairly new to this topic of culture as a PhD student in education studying anatomy laboratory teaching and learning interactions. However, in my studies of student and teacher interactions there is undoubtedly a co--construction of micro-culture between students and teachers as they orient to the education institutional culture for their respective roles and responsibilities. Within their interaction, a culture of teaching and learning is collaboratively constructed as students and teachers demonstrate their expectations of 'what should be known' and 'who should know it'. This culture of learning includes elements of what learning looks like and defining some processes of learning anatomy, which can be doing the assigned activities, drawing or memorising the listed terms.

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