Student Engagement

Promoting a Culture of Learning

February 14, 2014
Photo credit: carriegjacobs via flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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.

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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