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Teaching on Principle: Building Learning Cultures in Every Classroom

By Kevin Bartlett
Teaching on Principle: Building Learning Cultures in Every Classroom

In previous articles in this series, we looked at the first two elements in the Common Ground Collaborative (CGC) Learning Ecosystem: Define and Design. Now we turn our attention to the Deliver element, asking, “How do we teach for learning and create a shared, schoolwide, learning culture?”.

The search for consistent quality of learning, and therefore consistent quality of teaching, is a long and winding road. The usual markers on that road seem to focus on developing “standards” for teachers, and then “evaluating” teachers against those standards. It’s all very compliance-oriented and rule-bound. Even the language around it smacks of the factory floor. In what other profession are we the “supervisors” of our colleagues.

In CGC, we take a very different approach. We believe, along with Peter Drucker, that, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” If that’s true, then we need to build schools as Learning Cultures, intentionally. Cultures generally share a language. With our 3 Cs Learning Definition (unpacked in an earlier TIE article) we have already provided a shared learning language. Cultures also share beliefs, and we’ve found that the most actionable form for expressing beliefs about learning is a set of clear, shared learning Principles.

Fundamentally, we believe that great learning cultures are framed by a few shared principles, not constrained by multiple rules and regulations. We define a principle as “a shared truth that brings order and freedom to a system.” To us, common sense alone dictates that, as professionals, we are more likely to follow a “shared truth” than to attempt to comply with the mind-boggling number of “teaching standards” that seem to over-populate evaluation systems.

So, where do our Learning Principles come from? We believe that a well-crafted, co-created set of Learning Principles will be a practical synthesis of our shared learning experiences and the most reliable we initially build Principles directly with the faculty, staff, leaders, students, parents. As always in CGC, we also believe in simplicity over complexity, so we generally work hard to synthesize our collective wisdom into four to five Learning Principles, and we find that this is plenty to guide learning, teaching, and leading.

Of course, a set of Learning Principles has no value on its own. Just another wall adornment to nail up by the Mission Statement. Cultures also share norms, so learning cultures need norms of practice. The real learning impact comes when Learning Principles are translated into Learning Practices, then into the necessary Teaching Practices to support the learning, then Leading Practices to support the teaching. We use “the knowledge in the room” and we’re sure to back that up with research on those practices that are proven to work best to improve learning.

It’s basic logic, a simple if-then syllogism: If we are living this principle, then here’s what we’ll see our learners doing, here’s what our teachers will be doing in support, and here’s what our leaders will be doing to sustain this culture of “learning, teaching and leading on principle.” For example, if the Principle is about Learning Ownership, then learners, guided by teachers, will be able to set their own learning goals, and teachers will be able to set their own professional learning goals. It’s a system, and the system shapes the culture and vice versa.

So, that’s the simple idea. A school-wide learning culture shaped by a common language and a few deeply held shared learning principles that drive practices for learning, teaching, and leading, including practices for Self-directed Professional Learning. When it comes to improving our practice, it seems obvious that we learn to improve our practice, so we should be following learning theory not outmoded evaluation practices.

A final point. In our member schools, we have seen rapid transformation by simply working together as a faculty on one collective annual goal of high learning impact for all students. It’s a simpler, more effective use of time and energy than the annual ritual of scatter-shot, multiple personal goal setting by each faculty member, a process we have labelled, somewhat irreverently, as “Letters to Santa.” It’s one of many Energy Vampires that we would best be rid of. But that’s another story....

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------Kevin led international schools for over 30 years in 4 different locations, while working on a number of fronts to systematize international education. This work included designing accreditation systems including ACE, leading courses for the Principals’ Training Center, initiating and leading the IB Primary Years Programme and co-founding The Next Frontier Inclusion and the Common Ground Collaborative.

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