Watch a group of children build a sandcastle on the beach, and you’ll bear witness to one the marvels of the human spirit. The tide is low, the sand is wet, and anything seems possible. With a collective spark of aesthetic inspiration, clockwork collaboration, and playful zeal, particles of sand are cast into turrets and spires. Knowledge that the tide is coming only fuels the fire of creation within the builders. Either that, or the rapture of play erases the knowledge, and the builders invest effort worthy of something far more lasting.
A sandcastle is a remnant of pleasure and joy; a fleeting and ephemeral work of creation that represents what was possible on a sunny afternoon, amongst a group of friends. This creation defies nature, if only briefly, while mere molecules of water bind particles of stone into towers and walls. It’s a trophy of communal effort.
In my work as a school reformer, I’ve joined with others to build metaphorical sandcastles—reforming schools by changing patterns of social interaction inside classrooms in ways that give students autonomy and responsibility to support engagement and learning. Our efforts were a testament to what is possible for a brief period of time amongst a committed and like-minded group of people. These people invested their hearts, minds, and souls into building castles that were expressions of bold ideals and commitments. They were inspired to work against the forces of tradition and institutional conventions.
A sandcastle stirs melancholy. Inevitably the afternoon ends, and the tide comes in. A sandcastle’s temporary existence is a reminder that the forces of nature will erode every trace of creation. New leadership restores old institutional traditions; a turret collapses and washes to sea. By the end of the day, the sand is level again, but for a small mound barely visible at sundown.
Progressive school reform initiatives throughout the ages have been sandcastles, each succumbing to the forces of politics, tradition, and convention. The Learning Cultures movement is another progressive reform. This curriculum specifies a set of practices based on cutting-edge learning theory that align with high standards for teaching and learning. These practices establish and sustain substantive changes in classroom practices to support high levels of student engagement and achievement.
But those of us working in the movement do not intend to build our edifices of sand. We are collaborating to make structures that last. Suppose instead of sandcastles on the beach, our metaphor is glass and our builders are gaffers—skilled artisans, not children at play. Their expertise, mastery of technique, and knowledge of materials allow them to blow creations of dazzling beauty that defy the forces of nature and endure. Sand, after all, is an ingredient in glass. And glassworks are creations of the imagination, but with longevity. They are a more fitting metaphor for our aim. Like every glass object, each classroom culture is a unique expression of a teacher who draws from resources of inspiration and expertise to create something that is unique and durable, yet fragile. The property of translucence represents the space and freedom that the Learning Cultures curriculum gives teachers and students to express creativity and individuality. Each classroom is a stable system of practice distinctively shaped by the contributions of each participant, and unlike sandcastles, Learning Cultures are developed to last.
The mission of the Learning Cultures Journal is to lend durability to the movement. As a forum for teachers, administrators, researchers, and students to contribute insight into Learning Cultures practices, the Journal will disseminate knowledge that can be used by those who are interested in learning about the model.
In this inaugural issue, David Olson outlines his theory of agency and intentionality in pedagogy. Pointing out how researchers and policymakers have tended to focus on factors outside the learner in an effort to improve students’ successes in school, David argues the need to reformulate the learner’s role and responsibility for learning through a broader conception of accountability. The theory of agency and intentionality is integrally woven throughout Learning Cultures practices, so it is fitting that David’s piece christens the Journal.
The Journal is issued annually, with contributions posted on a rolling basis throughout the year. Readers should visit the Journal periodically to stay abreast of new content as it is published.
Editor, Learning Cultures Journal