Students as Self-Regulated Learners: A Psychological Approach to Understanding Learning Cultures
As a psychology doctoral student studying education, I was drawn to the Learning Cultures model from my first encounter with it. When I first walked into a Learning Cultures classroom, I witnessed in action the key ingredients for learning and academic success that are now being discussed in educational psychology. I saw a group of four students sitting at a table; they were all holding pieces of paper and talking to each other, pointing to the paper and giving feedback to one of the other. “I think if you add more examples here, it will be easier to understand what you are trying to say,” one said. On the other side of the room was a group of five students reading an article together aloud. They kept stopping to discuss the meaning of different words and sentences. I was struck by how different this was from my experiences in school, where I rarely engaged with other students in the classroom. When I was a student, I thought it was my job to quietly sit and absorb what the teacher said. But in the Learning Cultures classroom, the students were actively involved in their learning process. Students in Learning Cultures classrooms were altogether more intentional about their learning. I wanted to know more.
I set about to systematically examine how the Learning Cultures model works to support learning. Specifically, I was interested in how the social interactions promoted by the Learning Cultures practices supported students’ self-regulation abilities and approaches to learning.
For 3 months, I regularly visited classrooms and sat in on group discussions with teachers and school administrators implementing Learning Cultures. I then decided to talk directly to teachers and interviewed five teachers, three in a focus group and two in one-on-one interviews.
Through the various methods I used to study Learning Cultures, I came to understand that there are several pathways through which the model affects students’ approaches to schooling. Not only does Learning Cultures change the way individual students’ approach their own learning, but it also shifts their interactions with peers and teachers to create a classroom climate that promotes ownership and engagement over the learning process.
The main theme within every aspect of the model is that learning is the responsibility of the student. This responsibility is shifted from the teacher to the student and this approach is reinforced through norms and expectations placed on the child, his peer interactions, the teacher, and classroom norms. This promotes what is known in educational psychology as self-regulated learning[i], referring to the process of being in control of your learning, being aware of your academic strengths and weaknesses, and being motivated to learn. Learning Cultures asks students to see themselves as learners and to understand their own strengths, weaknesses and interests in every subject. Self-regulated learners believe that intelligence is learned and developed like a muscle that can be strengthened. This is in contrast to the belief that intelligence is fixed and can’t be changed. This means these students believe that they can succeed in school if they persist, work hard, and develop a deep understanding of content.
Learning Cultures promotes all of these traits and engenders them in students in a few different ways. Importantly, it is the synergistic relationships of several contexts that change students’ approaches to learning. Most notable are students’ relationships with their teachers and peers, as well as the shifting classroom and school climate that results from Learning Cultures. These are each described below in more detail.
Learning Cultures changes students’ approach to schooling. In Learning Cultures classrooms, students gain the skills necessary to become active learners. In my conversations with teachers, they frequently mentioned the independence and ownership their students take over their work. As one teacher described it: “Really what matters is making sure the kids have meaningful things to do and intentions, and they come to the work time saying ‘alright, today I’m going to do this because yesterday I did this’, or ‘this is my big idea, this is a project I’m working on.’ You’ll find that the kids will start to drive their own work so that in the lessons, you are pulling out important things that are worthwhile to mention, and then you are sending them off, so it’s not like you are going on and on and on for such a long time.”
Learning Cultures redistributes the power and responsibility of learning from the teacher to the students. The role of the teacher in the Learning Cultures model is different than in a traditional classroom, and teachers contended that this is one of the most important but challenging shifts that occurred in their classes. The teacher’s role is essential to creating the norms and classroom structures to allow the processes of Learning Cultures to succeed. A Learning Cultures classroom is a place where students build the skills they can use to engage in learning. The teacher becomes a resource that students draw on to build these skills (in the same way they might draw on a dictionary to look up the definition of a word). This reinforces that notion that the responsibility to learn is on the student.
The teacher’s task is to follow the students intentions and needs and to bring in standards and expertise to help the student meet their intentions (in Learning Cultures, this is called ‘joint intentions’). Teachers repeatedly mentioned the importance of joint intentions. One teacher explained joint intentions in the following way: “The kids are going to bring up whatever they have intentions to bring up. And that’s going to meet them right at their needs, right at what they need in that moment as a reader or as a writer.” Another teacher said: “I was excited at the thought of being able to hone my expertise to the point where I could not know what’s going to happen in any moment but be able to respond in an educated way as a teacher to what my students are bringing to the table.” This approach requires differentiated responses to students’ needs. It also requires that teachers constantly assess academic struggles as they arise for particular students or for the class as a whole, and create ‘grassroots lessons’ that correspond directly to students’ needs.
Learning Cultures creates peer interactions around academics and learning. Several teachers mentioned that one of the most important shifts in their classroom was that learning became a social experience. Students are expected to be responsible for their own learning and the learning of their peers. This adds an element of socialization and interaction in the classroom that is specifically about academics and engages students in classroom activities. One teacher noticed about her students that “…they have to meet once a week with their Unison Reading group without their teacher. But spontaneously they collaborate and meet in groups on their own to kind of support themselves.”
Learning Cultures creates a classroom climate where learning is active, social and collective. What I noticed from talking to teachers and observing several Learning Cultures classrooms is that the combination of these shifts in peer and teacher interactions creates a unique classroom climate where (a) learning is an active process and (b) learning is a collective process. The Learning Cultures rules promote a climate where it is acceptable to try something that feels challenging. Each student is expected to help their peers who are struggling in an endeavor. This allows all students to see themselves not only as leaders in their own learning process but also in learning within their class with their peers. At the center of the curriculum is “…the idea that you could turn kids, all kids into leaders of various sorts, not just have the kids who happen to be good at a certain skill teaching other kids in ways that make them feel uncomfortable and alienated, but that everybody’s role is to support everyone else.”
Students also gain self-awareness through these interactions. They gain a collective mindset about learning and realize their important role in the classroom for their own success and the success of their peers. “The classroom just really almost just opens up, and all these possibilities and opportunities just kind of flood in,” said one teacher.
A curriculum designed to create self-regulated learners and academic achievement. Learning Cultures affects several important educational pathways of influence. It is natural to then assume that students in Learning Cultures classrooms may be more successful than those in traditional classrooms. Preliminary evidence supports this assumption. In the Jacob Riis elementary and primary school in New York City, where Learning Cultures was implemented school wide for several years, the average change in Degrees of Reading Power (DRP) scores was two to three times as large as the national growth rate. The gains of the lowest-scoring 20% of students were four to five times as large as the national average[i].
Research has shown that in addition to being related to academic success, students who are self-regulated learners are more likely to feel like they are good at school.[ii] This self-confidence results in greater success both in and beyond school throughout the life course[iii]. Thus, understanding the implications Learning Cultures can have for student’s general well-being both in and beyond school is important and will require time and careful evaluation.
There is growing theoretical and anecdotal evidence that Learning Cultures transforms schools and classrooms, and that this changes students’ approaches to school and ultimately their academic achievement. Indeed, this has implications for changing students’ academic trajectories. But the model can also change the way students approach learning more generally, outside of school and into adulthood, and thus can help students prepare not only for their academic careers, but also for life. The skills students gain from the Learning Cultures model are essential for successful adults, and thus Learning Cultures can become not only a way to transform students’ school experiences, but a way to shape and transform future citizens.
[i] McCallister, C. (2011). Unison reading: Socially inclusive group instruction for equity and achievement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin/Sage.
[ii] Pintrich , P. R., & Schunk , D. H. (2002). Motivation and education: Theory, research, and applications (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.
[iii] Corno, L. (2004). Work habits and work styles: Volition in education. Teachers College Record, 106, 1669–1694; Pintrich, P. R. (2003). A motivational science perspective on the role of student motivation in learning and teaching contexts. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 667-686; Winne, P., and Perry, N. (2000). Measuring self-regulated learning. In Boekaerts,M., Pintrich, P. R., and Zeidner, M. (eds.), Handbook of Self-Regulation, Academic Press, San Diego, CA, pp. 531–566.
[i] Zimmerman, B. J. (1990). Self-regulated learning and academic achievement: An overview. Educational Psychologist, 25(1), 3-17.