Swimming Against the Tide: Transforming Learning Culture

A few years ago, we decided to turn the bells off in our middle school. The periodic shrill sound of “warning bells” and “starting bells” was not just an assault on the senses – a control mechanism from another time – it also contributed to a needless atmosphere of urgency, stress and compliance. Students were initially critical of the change. Many resented having the accountability for transitions shifted to them. Today, the bells are long-forgotten and students transition to learning activities with autonomy. 

Fast forward to this school year and our shift from a 1 to 7 grading scale to 4 standards-based learning descriptors with an expectation that students take greater ownership of their learning. Our focus is increasingly on learning as a process with an expectation that students be able to tell the story of their learning journey in an informed way against personal goals and priorities in the context of learning descriptors: Beginning, Developing, Emerging Application and Effective Application.

To facilitate learner agency, we have introduced a digital portfolio in which students will curate evidence of their personal learning story and share it with selected audiences. Some students have asked if the portfolio will be graded. They wonder what the “catch” is when informed it will not be. And there’s the rub again. For we have conditioned learners in carrot and stick systems of compliance and reward for so long that they feel lost in an alien world when we treat them with the integrity they deserve. At times, it feels like we are swimming against the tide.

We are not just providing feedback on knowledge and skills, but also on things like character dispositions, collaboration, creative literacy, design thinking, digital citizenship, and wellbeing. Parents and students rightly want assurances that external exams will not be compromised with this new focus, that college access will not be impeded. Our clear goal is on improving learning in more meaningful, enjoyable ways. There are no disadvantages involved, but there are challenges associated with changing the story. The reward for learning is learning itself and there is learning here for all concerned. Some of the things I am learning are confirmations of beliefs, others, realisations of truths.

  • When you condition learners in the business of compliance and reward, don’t be surprised if changing the paradigm comes as a shock.
  • Education is mired in jargon and is the enemy of change initiatives. 
  • Parents are supportive of progressive approaches, but they need our active support – not just in explaining the rationale for change – but demonstrating the benefits in action.
  • Teachers know the way and need the space, time, trust, and freedom to make the changes real.

The evident need for this shift in thinking about learning is clear. As David Gleason informs us in his book At What Cost?: Defending Adolescent Development In Fiercely Competitive Schools, educators know the things they have been doing to students that are simply wrong. These include admitting to: “‘Rewarding achievement over effort,’ to ‘placing too much emphasis on grades,’ to ‘over-focusing on the college admissions process,’ to ‘not empathizing with our students,’ to ‘adhering to old notions of academic rigor,’ and, generally, to ‘expecting students to think and act like adults long before they actually have those skillsets.’”

There is a clear moral imperative here. Still, change can be hard. Gleason reminds us that “we must challenge ourselves to do things differently.” Change initiatives require a conviction to do the right thing for learners, even when this takes us into unfamiliar territory. Doing the right thing for learners in the long-term is not a popularity contest. Doing what we’ve always done is the path of least resistance. 

Sometimes you just have to turn off the bells.