Co-constructing the classroom culture

I’ve been re-reading parts of Daniel Pink’s great book, ‘Drive’. Among other things, he highlights three drivers that motivate us:

1. Autonomy - The sense of self direction, self determination, independence or individualism that we all require, students too, to feel in control of our destiny and learning. I know I am willing to put much more effort into learning things that interest me, that I want to know, that I need to know or that I’ve been inspired to know. Is it the same for you?

2. Purpose - Pink talks a lot about the motivation we feel when we know we are making a contribution. 

Student engagement in MAD (Making A Difference) activities across many decades of my career, have constantly amazed me. Within one school year we had students highly committed to MAD initiatives at the British International School, Phuket. Their enthusiasm culminated in raising AUD$19,750 for research into Mitochondrial Disease - a stunning effort, and very much heart felt.

3. Mastery - Pink highlights just how satisfying it is to experience a sense of achievement. Don't we all know that feeling? This idea links well with Growth Mindset research too.

These three principles directly connect with the important themes of: the need for greater student voice (autonomy), finding and being explicit about purpose (purpose) and strengths based approaches (mastery built on students’ strengths).

How do we set up a learning focussed environment that responds to the drivers of autonomy, purpose and mastery?

Here are 6 ideas you might like to try with your class. They are offered for co-construction with your students - to ensure the driver of ‘autonomy’ is effectively utilised.

1. Personal Code of Practice

Working toward creating a safe learning environment is a good starting point. We’ve found that developing a personal code of practice was a powerful exercise for teams of teachers. They worked in groups to establish their own ‘rules for engagement’.  Some of the rules that they came up with included:

  • Watch students for body language that might suggest distress or embarrassment
  • No sarcasm
  • Use personal stories to teach. This one meant that teachers would use stories about their own lives, challenges, tough moments, embarrassments (you have licence to be creative with the stories) to illustrate life wisdom; difficulties overcome, problem solving thinking, new ways of seeing difficulties etc. 
  • Be open to feedback from learners
  • Never make a public scene about an individual or group.

These are just examples, and in some ways, the discussion about what needed to be on lists and why, was as important as the final products.

Making the link to the importance of autonomy, a number of teachers shared their lists with their students, asking if there were things they’d like to see added and ultimately asking for feedback about how effectively the ‘rules’ were implemented and supported students’ learning.

2. Shared community values

Shared values are a powerful way to explicitly build learning culture. The values may come from general capabilities, learning dispositions, growth mindset, programs or be generated as a school community or class.

What they are is less important than the power of shared vocabulary, shared understanding of their meanings and shared commitment to enacting them.   

One example is the school wide values of: respect, responsibility and excellence. In every classroom, including specialist subjects and with relieving staff, teachers and students participated in creating a Y-Chart, ‘looks like, sounds like and feels like’, unpacking each of the values and how they’d operate in their learning space. 

Working together to be clear on how your chosen values are enacted in the classroom activates the drivers of autonomy and purpose.

Throughout the year, these initial Y-Charts can be used in an ongoing way, as a reference point for discussion about behaviour choices (with individuals, groups or the whole class), to review progress towards achieving the goals and revision of the shared understanding that was developed.

3. Classroom visioning

Working with your students to identify their vision for their classroom for the year is a great process. 

If you haven’t met the Quality Tool: Bone Diagram, this is a wonderful way to identify the ‘Current State’ at one end of the ‘bone’; or how the class is operating now and ‘Desired State’ at the other; the way the class would like the classroom learning culture to be. The class then identifies the steps between these 2 states and plans to make that transition happen.

This process can be worked to utilise all 3 of Pink’s motivation drivers.

4. Clarifying roles in the classroom

Classrooms are places where learning should occur. In order for it to happen effectively, the students, teacher and classroom need to be clear about the roles they play, the responsibility they hold and the behaviours that work best. 

One terrific process is clarifying what ‘An effective teacher is…’, ‘An effective student is …’ and ‘A great learning space is…’

These shared understandings can be displayed in the classroom as a reference too, be used to create self assessment and peer assessment rubrics or measures and as a basis for feedback about learning behaviour. Also a process that can use all 3 of Pink’s drivers.

5. Strengths sharing

Actively seek students’ opinions and input as much as possible. Our young people have brilliant ideas and insights if they have opportunities to share them with us. Creating an environment where what they have to say matters and what think is valued, encourages more of these important behaviours.

Do you remember a teacher pointing out one of your strengths and making a comment about your future potential? Funnily enough, my Year 3 teacher told me I’d make a great teacher, because I explained things so well. It stuck - clearly!

We can do the same for students. Seeing their strengths and giving them voice is incredibly powerful. Whether it be behaviours, knowledge, interests, responsibilities they handle well or any other tip; identifying strengths and celebrating them is a great way to benefit from Pink’s mastery driver.

6. Shared celebrations

Celebration, especially when coupled with feedback and acknowledgment is a powerful way to build community and learning culture. 

I’ve seen teachers run a range of different special events at the end of a unit of work or period of time. Some of the really successful ones have involved dressing up for younger children, bringing in food (especially pizza for older students), Learning Expos where students create an exhibition space to demonstrate their learning for parents and other guests, screening parties where digital products are shown (with popcorn was a great event!), scheduled student blog post reading and commenting sessions (could be cross class, school, district or global), poster shows and art exhibitions, and so much more.

The most successful events are student planned and led. Their autonomy driver is engaged and the process uses the mastery driver - not to mention a little performance pressure when there’s an audience invited to share and celebrate one’s efforts.