“Culture is the hidden tool to transform schools and to offer students the best learning possible.”
(Ron Ritchhart, 2015, p. 6)
Fullan and Hargreaves (1996) use the concept of “culture” to refer to the guiding beliefs and expectations evident in the way a school operates, particularly in reference to how people relate to each other. Put simply, they say culture is the way things are done in a particular school. Hargreaves (1997) describes a successful school culture as being characterised by openness, informality, care, attentiveness, lateral working relationships, reciprocal collaboration, candid and vibrant dialogue, and a willingness to face uncertainty together.
While this concept of school culture may be the enabling context necessary for school transformation it does not necessarily address the culture of the classroom or the culture of learning in the school. This is the culture that so often stays hidden behind the closed classroom door. This is the culture that Ritchhart says can transform schools and produce students who are engaged and active thinkers able to communicate, innovate, collaborate and problem solve (Ron Ritchhart, 2015, pp. 16–19), students who will not only survive but also thrive in the twenty first century globalised world. Ultimately, the students who will make a difference to their community and to their world.
So what does this culture of learning look like? Ritchhart’s research supports his claim that a classroom culture that nurtures the development of students as thinkers and life-long learners is the answer (Ron Ritchhart, 2015, xv). The development of this culture of learning requires a teacher who is skilled in developing their students’ thinking dispositions; both individual and groups thinking; is able to make thinking visible and then able to challenge thinking to advance it further. This process needs to be based on a well-articulated understanding of the purpose of learning and a commitment from the teacher to their own as well as their students’ learning.
The classroom culture of learning is not an individual pursuit of learning and thinking. It involves a commitment by the teacher to develop a whole class culture where the expectation is the development of a culture of sustained and interdependent learning. This is a commitment to value every individual and their learning, to respect their differences and to facilitate the development of a learning community where individuals feel they are creating something greater than they could have created individually (Ron Ritchhart, 2015, pp. 3–5), where learners are engaged, and learning is fulfilling.
Ritchhart outlines eight forces that must be mastered in order to create, sustain and enhance this culture of learning. In his book ‘Creating cultures of thinking’ (2015), he devotes a chapter to each of these forces and explains each well with clear and practical illustrations of classroom practice. These forces are briefly outlined below.
1. Expectations - that outline and define the learning experience while signalling the kinds of thinking necessary for success. An expectation of learning (not just the completion of work), understanding, student independence, and an expectation to 'get smarter' through one's own efforts and that challenges and mistakes will be embraced as learning opportunities.
2. Language - words mediate, shape, inform and solidify much of our experience. Teachers need to notice and name students' thinking and positive learning moves.
3. Time - complex thinking takes time so it must be allowed for.
4. Modelling - teachers must set the example as thinkers and learners.
5. Opportunities - giving students opportunities to clarify a position, to consider different perspectives and challenge misconceptions. Thinking about learning as opportunities to extend understanding rather than the completion of tasks.
6. Routines - establish learning and thinking routines that offer students known structures to use as tools so they can take control of their own learning.
7. Interactions - based on a respect for and interest in students' thinking where listening and questioning are used to shape meaningful collaboration.
8. Environment - the arrangement of the furniture, what is on the wall tells the story of the learning journey (Ron Ritchhart, 2015, pp. 6–9).
This research challenges us as teachers to evaluate what the culture of learning looks like in our own classroom. Is my classroom the well-ordered quiet workspace where students complete their work at their desks that are arranged in rows, where learning is competitive not cooperative and getting the best grade is the aim? Or are our students, while still competitive, in conversation about the syllabus outcomes and focussing their learning on memorising the supporting facts but rarely engaging in rigorous thinking or cooperative learning? (Ron Ritchhart, 2015, pp. 24–29) Or is the culture of learning in my classroom developing critical thinking and problem solving, collaboration, agility and adaptability, initiative and entrepreneurialism, communication skills, the ability to analyse information, and curiosity and imagination in my students? These are the skills Wagner described as survival skills.
1. What story about learning is my classroom culture telling?
2. What does the learning culture in my classroom say about what I see as the purpose of education?
Ron Ritchhart. (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking (First). USA: Jossey-Bass A wiley Brand.