Building better learners through classroom culture

At Otus, we recently engaged in a team professional read of “The Five Dysfunctions of a Team” by Patrick Lencioni.

In this book, Lencioni shares a story, a leadership fable, of a company’s struggles and growth, to reveal the basics tenets of teamwork and five dysfunctions preventing team success.

In addition to quickly becoming hooked by the company’s story, I found myself making parallels to my students and classroom.

Each of Lencioni’s ideas build upon the other, like the pyramid image shared within his book, and they remind me of how building a learning culture with students requires deliberate and systematic steps.

Absence of Trust: Invulnerability

Book insight
The fundamental problem at the pyramid’s base is the inability to be one’s self, vulnerable and open.

Connection to classroom
During the first lesson of the year, as a class, we discuss how learning is an action requiring effort. We discuss the non-academic activities the students enjoy and investigate how they practice and perform these activities.

Singers practice the same song again and again in preparation for a performance. Basketball players shoot hundreds of shots a day in anticipation of the game. Dancers rehearse a routine countless times as they get ready for the recital. Video gamers spend hours improving their craft to defeat their friends or online foes.

We share these stories and learn each other’s passions.

Because these are activities of passion and interest for students, we can more easily talk about the times of failure: the note a singer needs to keep returning to, the shots a player misses off the rim, the footwork a dancer stumbles upon, or the mistimed game strategy requiring several restarts.

Afterward, we transition to discussing how to read, write, and think. These topics require trust because they are more sensitive times of failure.

Students do not want to be wrong or appear dumb in front of their peers. Too often in school and in life, we seek to be right instead of seeking to stumble and learn.

And as teachers, we too often have students work on team building without involving ourselves.

Next steps for teacher
As a leader in the classroom, we need to involve ourselves in this step to build a classroom culture where students are able to thrive as a team. Sharing moments of vulnerability helps them know the classroom will be a testing ground for learning where failure can happen without fear.

Fear of Conflict: Artificial Harmony

Book insight
Without trust, teams are unable to have unfiltered, passionate debate. Instead, teams will avoid conflict.

Connection to classroom
One of the scariest moments as a teacher for me is the instant I turn control over to students.

Students need to be empowered to ask questions and drive learning. But this often leads to uncertainty, and the unknown can be a scary place for anyone.

Recently, Vox published “I taught my 5th-graders how to spot fake news. Now they won’t stop fact-checking me” by Scott Bedley. This post highlights the need to allow students to push back, ask questions, and fact check. While this can be difficult in the moment, this is a great way to build a culture where students are thinking critically and independently.

Next steps for teacher
During lessons, advocate for students to fact check your comments. If there is a relevant tangent sparked by a student question, do not fear exploring the answer as a group.

Lack of Commitment: Ambiguity

Book insight
Productive teams make decisions transparently and, while you do not seek consensus, everyone needs to be heard to achieve buy in.

Connection to classroom
During a teacher evaluation meeting I was asked: “Do you know what the learning objective is? Do your students?” This lead to a discussion of what was implicitly known and what was explicitly stated. I then examined my classroom seeking ways to better communicate the standards explicitly with my students. Now I post the learning objective within each activity.

Another key component is to take time to check in with students on their understanding. When there is ambiguity and uncertainty, students may become lost or, worse, unmotivated. When you are able to create transparent goals and learning objectives with benchmark check-ins, students are able to commit to striving for their best.

Next steps for teacher
During projects and units, you need to monitor student learning but you also need to trust students. They need to be asking themselves: “What am I understanding?” and “What am I confused about?” This begins with mini conferences and small peer group checks. But the goal is for students to learn how to identify for themselves how they are learning.

Avoidance of Accountability: Low Standards

Book insight
Team members must hold each other accountable. Measuring progress occurs best when everyone knows the goals and standards.

Connection to classroom
There is a fine line between providing instructional feedback and encouragement. If you have a student becoming engaged, you want to provide them the feedback in a way to encourage further and continual improvement.

One of the most difficult places for me to implement and uphold rigorous expectations in the past was on writing assignments. A recent Cult of Pedagogy post by Kristy Louden, “Delaying the Grade: How to Get Students to Read Feedback,” highlights many of the struggles educators face when providing feedback to students. Primarily, the issue is students prioritize their grade more than they do feedback in the form of comments.

Next steps for teacher
One of the solutions I have found most successful is allowing revisions for the entire quarter. Combining this with the idea of mini conferences to review and discuss feedback, I have been able to hold students more accountable. These are built upon trust and students knowing you are trying to help them in the long term and the short. Students realize if this much time is taken for these assessments, they are not busy work but instead will help their learning. Because of the revisions process, I also believe my evaluation of their work is more authentic, valid, and reliable. I am not tempted to give a student a 70 vs. a 68 because this is a team effort pushing and raising expectations and standards are key. This also helps tailor the needs to maximize the learning for each student.

Inattention to Results: Status and Ego

Book insight
A team can only become results oriented when all team members place the team’s results first.

Connection to classroom
Shared goals are a tough expectation for struggling students but after building and working through the previous steps—when students can realize their role in the class goes beyond their own learning to the entire group’s learning—the class has reached an amazing achievement.

These steps include being aware that when they are peer editing, their work helps them and, more importantly, helps their partner. Knowing during a project their role builds a stronger community of learners is amazing.

Next steps for teacher
This is the dream stage, a stage I strive for all year with my students. Building a classroom community begins with a strong base but now your goal is to make the community supportive of everyone. And this begins again with you. A recent tweet from @MarkMcCord10 has resonated with me: “I have found that what is best for kids is seldom easiest for adults.” This quote is the essence of the final stage: You must continue to put your students first to achieve the best learning results for all.