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Successful Learning Cultures: Building Sustained Performance

Dr. A. Douglas Eury, Dr. Jane King & John D. Balls

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Successful Learning Cultures: Building Sustained Performance"Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” ~ Thomas Carlyle

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“Culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.” ~ Jawaharial Nehru


As we move head strong into the 21st Century, considerable dialogue centers on building learning cultures that support and sustain educational performance. 


For a considerable time now, culture assessment has focused on teacher working conditions and the perceptions of teachers about those conditions. While this is valuable data and responding to those perceptions can impact perceived conditions, a more valuable consideration would be to expand the dialogue with the faculty relating to the domains of positive learning environment. 


Domains of Positive Learning Environments

It is believed that learning cultures and especially sustainable ones are impacted by five domains: 

  1. 1. dispositions,
  2. 2. professional experience,
  3. 3. structures,
  4. 4. shared decisions, and
  5. 5. personal assessment skills. 

The domains and some measure of them provide insight into individual and collective efficacy. 


Assessing perceptions of these domains all too often provides opportunity to voice discontent or simply gripe. An “after the fact” assessment provides opportunity to react rather than to build and sustain improved performance. To enhance cultural growth and sustainability, all parties must identify, understand and share the values associated with learning cultures. 


Educators can build sustained student performance through creating successful learning cultures by focusing on these 10 key topics for professional development and experience.


Academic Excellence

The concept of academic excellence extends beyond the measure of student grades. It is an attitude or a belief where all students and adults are challenged to use their minds. Thus, excellence, as it relates to learning, is as much about teachers learning as it is about students learning. 


Curriculum, instruction, and assessment must be aligned with high standards and high expectations. The key word here is alignment. In addition, in order for the adults to continue to learn, they must be provided with opportunities to engage in experiences that foster and support learning leading to a perpetual cycle of learning at multiple levels.


Developmental Responsiveness

Much is written about responding to development stages of learning for students. What is lacking is the focus on developmental needs for teachers. Teachers have unique developmental challenges just as any learners. Those challenges are often over-looked in the process of evaluating performance based on scripted behaviors. 


In order to address those unique characteristics, leaders must consider and be skilled in determining readiness levels based on individual knowledge, skills, and dispositions. Readiness levels can be impacted by one’s professional preparation, prior experience with learning, or one’s resistance to stepping out of the comfort zone. 


In regard to any transformational need, adults fall in one of four categories: willing, but lacking ability; skilled, but resistant; unwilling to address change; or skilled and open to change. Each of these categories requires differentiated strategies as each are motivated differently.

  • Willing, but lacking ability requires continuous and enthusiastic communications reinforcing the vision and values of the organization.
  • Skilled, but resistant requires an expression of recognition of the individual’s skills and potential contributions.
  • Unwilling to address change requires a constant sharing of data and sharing of performance criteria.
  • Skilled and open to change requires a distributive leadership environment with monitoring strategies.

Social Equity

Social equity among staff indicates that all adults have equal access to valued knowledge including performance data, aligned assessment needs, and strategies proven to contribute to the learning environment. 


The claim that social equity is lacking naturally leads to disbelief that anyone would be denied this knowledge. It is not a matter of denying access; it is a practice of not reinforcing the concept in a manner that enhances learning opportunities. This indicates a need for quality and timely feedback with opportunities for modeling and sharing learning successes. Also, the reward and recognition system should demonstrate that the organization values diversity, service, and democratic principles. Such values reinforce themselves as a shared sense of everyone’s potential for contributions. 


Organizational Structures & Processes

Chances of sustaining learning culture development are enhanced when the school demonstrates that it is a learning organization that has established and adhered to norms, structures, and arrangements that support their trajectory toward excellence. There is no one recipe for such structures and processes. Rather, it is important that the organization defines ways for collecting, analyzing, and using data as a basis for making decisions. 


It is key to avoid the mistake of believing that structures and processes are driven by common times allowing for the facilitation of particular agendas. It is easy to proclaim evidence of structures that support learning dialogue, only to find that the time may not be used effectively or efficiently. Productive structures occur when most needed or most beneficial to the organization based on the disposition of understanding and valuing the need. Not to ignore such needed arrangements, the most productive arrangements are determined by the value found in sharing and assessing actions aimed at learning outcomes.


In short, it is not about having the meeting but rather about the goals, outcomes and shared understanding of the meeting's value among the participants.


It is important that leaders support and promote the concept of sharing as a means of structure and processes that may include distance communications offered by technology and face-to-face opportunities that are built around common needs. 


Validating Learning

There are two concepts associated with the validation of learning: 

  • 1. validating the measures as viable outcomes and
  • 2. the relationship of actions intended to build learning outcomes. 

Validating the measures is important for determining the degree of accomplishment, while the relationship of actions provide direction for the future, as well as a means of adding to the quality and degree of learning. 


Successful Learning Cultures: Building Sustained PerformanceTransfer of Knowledge

A transfer of knowledge supports sustainable learning as it provides relevance and significance to the experience leading to problem-solving skills. Without a transfer of knowledge, learning is disjointed and easily lost in the magnitude of reciting information. With a transfer of knowledge, repetition occurs, relevance is reinforced, and the passion to know more is ignited. The transfer of knowledge leads to a perpetual cycle of accumulating information that becomes knowledge as the learner uses the information to build understanding as a means of creating impact or influencing change. 


Applying this concept to a learning culture means that we must authenticate what we know by asking what, how, and why as related to the information. As we transfer what information we have collected, we begin to develop the ability to transfer the knowledge associated with the information to strengthen our power to influence our learning and the learning of those around us.


To sum up the concept, conversation in the organization leading to effective communications is driven by the ability to make knowledge or transfer knowledge from what data we have at hand. The validation of learning occurs as we create personal and group values in our everyday activities. 


Affective Response to Performance Recognition

As strange as it may sound, validating learning can also be found in our physical, psychological, and physiological responses to performance recognition.

  • Physical responses indicate, as learning occurs, a perception of those around us that we are confident in what we know. Validation is found in eye contact, shoulder posture, and chin placement.
  • Psychological responses demonstrate strength in our willingness to take chances or accept the opportunities to impact change.
  • Physiological differences support the demonstrated confidence, or lack thereof, as well as demonstrate the calmness that influences others to want to participate in the same or similar learning experience. Simply stated, sustaining the learning culture relies on the ability of the leader to judge and impact affective responses to performance and any associated recognition.  

Creativity Leading to Individual Efficacy

Individual efficacy is driven by the degree to search and instill creativity in the learning experience.


Too often, learners are complacent or motivated with standards written or promoted by organizational entities. The true standard of efficacy is never being satisfied with meeting prescribed standards, but rather continually creating experiences that drive the search for a higher level of performance. Searching the creative possibilities brings us to our learning style, our desired performance and the passion to become more satisfied with ourselves when we discover what we are capable of doing.


From an organizational standpoint, the leader must foster this creativity as it relates to current skills and dispositions and the perceived collective efficacy of the entire group. The validation of the learning without the organizations is found in the degree of action to keep searching for answers. 


Collaboration as a Norm

Having a norm of collaboration and exhibiting a norm of collaboration are two different concepts. 

  • Having a norm is most often judged by structures, attendance records at PLC meetings, and statements of agreement. 
  • Exhibiting a norm validates the organizational learning for the collaboration occurs as a means to an end of enhanced performance.

Collaboration is a mindset, not an activity. Believing that we contribute to each others’ performance drives the need to know more about ourselves and each other. Thus, collaboration is sustained by a passion to be part of the group and to be a leader in the group, not because we are told that collaboration is important, but because we value the importance of collaboration. The validation of organizational learning is demonstrated in the existence of the attitude that sustains itself and in turn sustains the learning culture.


Teacher Efficacy

Few variables, if any, impact student performance or learning cultures as much as efficacy of the individual. Not just the ability to teach, but the efficacy of the individual impacts the culture through the social influence from words, gestures, actions, and demonstrations of goal attainment. Personal mastery exceeds content knowledge and delivery, to include one’s capability to impact the culture around him/her. 


Sustained effort has been mentioned a number of times, but it is not more evident than in an individual operating at a high level of efficacy. Beyond enacting mastery, an action of efficacy is founded on high levels of sustained effort leading to reinforced mastery and higher levels of developed mastery.


There is also a vital need to master the ability to create interactions that support mastery of content and skills. Consequently, high levels of efficacy impact the organizations as interactions are constant and productive. It is important for educational leaders to recognize that vicarious experiences are best facilitated with structures and organizational arrangements that allow reoccurring interactions to occur. 


Shared Responsibility

Shared responsibility is built around effective decision-making processes that include:

  • 1. Decisions are made by the individuals most influenced by the decisions;
  • 2. Appropriate information is available to those making the decisions;
  • 3. Decision-makers are adequately prepared to make data-driven decisions;
  • 4. Decision-makers hold conversations about the data and decisions;
  • 5. Decisions-makers create action plans to implement decisions based on data; and
  • 6. Decision-makers are expected to be accountable for the consequences of their decisions. 

With proper development of the decision-making process, shared responsibility exceeds shared accountability. Accountability is driven by consequences and/or rewards while responsibility is driven by an individual or group desire to perform; another example of attitude, not process. 


Shared implicates accepted and collaborative which only reinforce previous belief statements. We not only share duties, but we share practices, good and bad. 



By evaluating our efficacy as educators, we are best able to create a positive learning environment for ourselves and most importantly our students.


High degrees of individual and collective efficacy are the keys to sustainable learning cultures with endless opportunities to rethink our educational system, rebuild our educational system, and rebound to a level of excellence.


How do you create successful learning cultures in your school or classroom? Share in the comments section!


Dr.  A. Douglas Eury, Dean of School of Education, Gardner-Webb University

Dr. Jane King Assistant, Professor, Gardner-Webb University

John D. Balls, Education Consultant, Gardner-Webb University


Successful Learning Cultures: Building Sustained PerformanceFuture articles as part of a series of discussions on topics related to transforming schools of education (SOE) will appear periodically in TeachHUB. These topics will include teacher dispositions, what it means to be a profession and the associated attributes of a profession, and SOE self- assessment.  


More information on today’s topic as well as a framework for transforming education in the US can be found in the authors’ book, Rethink, Rebuild, Rebound: A Framework for Shared Responsibility and Accountability in Education, published by Pearson Learning Solutions, 2011. That latest edition of Rethink, Rebuild, Rebound was released on December 16th, 2011.

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