With the start of the year and a new group of students it is natural to consider the year ahead and what we might hope to achieve individually and collectively. As we build connections with our new students and build an understanding of their needs we begin to imagine the many strategies we will employ to support the learning. Beyond getting to know the individuals we also start to form a picture of what our classes are like and this brings us to questions of culture. What will the culture of our class be? How might we shape that culture and how will we understand the many forces at work? Understanding the culture of class or perhaps even a school is an important element of our teaching but realising the complexity of this task must come first.
We all have in our imaginations a picture of what our classroom culture will be like. More than likely it is embodied in sets of values displayed proudly on classroom walls and shared with parents through letters home and information evenings. We imagine a culture built upon mutual respect, honesty, a love of learning and questioning attitudes. Through the values that we identify and describe we make efforts to bring this culture to life. All of this is essential to the construction of the culture we hope for and yet none of it guarantees that our imagination will match reality. There exists within any group of people at least two cultures; that which is imagined and that which is lived.
As teachers we play an important role in establishing the culture of our classroom. What we name and value are likely to become parts of the lived culture but our interpretation of this and its expression in the real world can differ widely. Ultimately the culture of the classroom will be the sum total of the lived experience of its members. Every experience, every individual’s action and responses act to shape this and with a full class of empowered actors participating in its construction, culture quickly becomes a messy field.
Our first task needs to be understanding the culture that comes to our class with the students. Their history with schooling will frame how they begin to engage as a group. The particular mix of personalities, dispositions, beliefs, values, norms and attitudes present will begin to emerge. This is the clay with which we must begin to shape that classroom culture we imagine and just like an artist we must understand the material we have to work with. This idea of working with the already present culture of the class is critical, efforts to impose a culture on any group through authority is doomed to fail. A culture of respect can not be constructed on a foundation of fear.
The point at which we imagine we have understood the culture already at play is also the ideal time to stop and look again. Culture is not easily read and the danger at this early stage is that our initial impressions will prove false. Sociologists understand the difficulties of reading a culture form a privileged position of power or authority and who is a more privileged reader of classroom culture than the teacher. Exploring what the students have to say about the culture of the classroom and learning to truly listen to what they have to say with both their voices and their actions is critical. So to is understanding how the students read us by what we say, what we value and what we do.
A good example of how our words, our valuing and our actions combine is seen in the measures required if we desire to build growth mindsets. Carol Dweck’s concept of a growth mindset is alluring and easy to get wrong. Giving students positive feedback is not the answer. To be clear students need to be told what they have done well but they must be shown with every turning that their success is a result of their actions and of actions they might control. This message is all too easily undone by kind words that reinforce a belief that talent is a personal quality. If growth mindsets are the goal, then having this entrenched in the lived culture of the classroom through every action and reaction is a must. It is a difficult goal but one worth the effort.
Talking about the two cultures of a classroom is one strategy that might bring the desired results. If culture is partly what we name then doing this allows discussion of those areas where the lived culture may not match the imagined culture. If all members are able to describe the imagined culture of the classroom and understand how making it real brings benefits for their daily lives they are more likely to adopt behaviours that are supportive of the desired model. This assumes rather optimistically that our students are able to translate ideal values into behaviours. Where students are able to identify the values but not the behaviours that accompany them, opportunities for teacher intervention may be found.
Circle time is one effective strategy for discussions of culture. In ‘Circle Time’ the structure of the circle and its simple rules for open sharing without negative reactions encourages students to speak about the culture of the classroom. Deliberately making this discussion an agenda item and taking time to share what culture is are important first steps. Students too often see culture as something that happened long ago or is something they were born into. Helping them to understand that culture is the word we use to describe our day to day lives and interactions with each other will help them to make sense of the topic. Letting them know that we all have a place to play in constructing the culture of the classroom can be a strategy for empowerment.
Although culture is complex it behoves us to take action to construct a culture in our classrooms that is close to what we desire it to be. Understanding that it is a construct of multiple actors is crucial and that as such we must allow each to play a part. Many have said that culture trumps policy and it is true too that culture will trump class rules. By all means take time to imagine the ideal classroom culture but then take the time and effort required to make it real for every member of the class, for it to become a culture that all involved own and value.
By Nigel Coutts