Building a culture of learning

B.J. Frost

What is a culture of learning, and why is it needed in our schools?

According to Jacqueline Skytt, Professional Development Coordinator with the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA), a growing number of schools are building a culture of learning.

"The first step is for schools to develop the concept of professional learning communities to meet school-specific needs that enhance student learning," says Skytt. "It’s about building a culture of continuous improvement that comes from everyone involved. There’s no formula. No recipe."

Joyce Sherwin, ATA executive staff member and workshop presenter, agrees. Sherwin defines culture as "the principles or beliefs that people agree are true or right." Focusing on a culture of learning in schools gives everyone a shared goal, she says.

In the ATA’s half-day workshop, Building a Culture of Learning, parents, teachers and administrators learn about the four cornerstones of a school’s unique and specific culture of learning: mission, vision, values and goals. Participants discuss the key elements of a culture of learning, including collaboration, collective inquiry, orientation to action, managing change and focusing on results. The workshop also includes a variety of strategies for building a staff culture of learning, including collaborative learning, action research, study groups and focused conversation.

In Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership (Jossey-Bass 1999), Terrence Deal and Kent Peterson cite 11 elements of a positive and successful school culture.

1. A mission focused on student and teacher learning

2. A rich sense of history and purpose

3. Core values of collaboration, performance and improvement that engender quality, achievement and learning for everyone

4. Positive beliefs and assumptions about the potential for students and staff to learn and grow

5. A strong professional community that uses knowledge, experience and research to improve practice

6. An informal network that fosters positive communication flow

7. Strong leadership that balances continuity and improvement

8. Rituals and ceremonies that reinforce core cultural values

9. Stories that celebrate successes and recognize heroines and heroes

10. A physical environment that symbolizes joy and pride

11. A widely shared sense of respect and caring for everyone

Sherwin says there is nothing stagnant about a culture of learning, but building one can be a slow-moving process. "It’s constantly changing and evolving," she says. "Collaborative efforts aren’t easy. Schools wanting to create a culture of learning must make time to work together in teams. A culture of learning is only created when all the stakeholders work collaboratively toward a shared vision. That’s why we suggest organizing meetings that include all the adults in the lives of students."

Key people in the planning process are school principals, who strive daily to build this kind of environment. For example, in a culture of learning, a principal who wants to determine the educational worth of a given field trip will look at the curriculum guidelines and then consult with the teacher. "Members of the school community learn to question everything to see if it is in the best interests of student learning," Sherwin says. "After all, we are all in this together."

More information about Building a Culture of Learning and other ATA workshops, courses and presentations is available on the Professional Development section of the Association’s website (