Questions for Cynthia McCallister on Learning Cultures Curriculum

Cynthia McCallister, an associate professor in Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching and Learning, has created a collaborative curriculum called Learning Cultures Curriculum, designed to nurture children’s individual learning styles.  It is currently being implemented in more than ten schools in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens.

What is the Learning Cultures Curriculum?

Learning Cultures is a comprehensive curriculum model based on the understanding that children are able to meet or exceed their potential depending on the resources provided by their culture. Since human achievements depend on the resources of the culture, the Learning Cultures curriculum is designed to provide every teacher with the supports necessary to create rich classroom cultures that allow all children to rise to their fullest potential.

Learning Cultures is founded on three principles:

1) Every child can reach high learning standards when the classroom culture provides adequate experiences and resources;

2) Children are most successful when they are held responsible for learning and have autonomy to pursue their interests;

3) Social interactions are fundamental to learning.

Learning Cultures consists of a simple, yet comprehensive set of classroom practices called formats. On the surface, formats look like familiar classroom practices—lessons, small group work, individual conferences, independent work time and group meetings—but the Learning Cultures formats are designed to incorporate key insights from fields across the behavioral sciences in order to maximize student engagement, autonomy, responsibility and learning. Rules, roles and responsibilities for teachers and students within each format are specified in detail in a set of rubrics (available on LearningCultures.net).

When the formats are followed consistently and with fidelity, students of all backgrounds and levels can achieve academic success. Learning Cultures allows teachers of every grade level to create classroom cultures characterized by student independence, engagement, high achievement, cooperation, and distributed leadership.

How did you come to develop it?

Learning Cultures is a career-long professional project developed over the course of my 25-year career as a teacher, scholar of literacy, teacher educator, school reformer, literacy coach, and as a mother.

The Learning Cultures model, above all, is pragmatic. I was a classroom teacher before I became a professor, and after I became a professor, I remained active in public school classrooms. Throughout my career I have been refining my teaching practice and broadening my conceptual understanding of curriculum and pedagogy by applying what I learned from theory to solve problems I encountered.

I developed the Learning Cultures practices through years of teaching kids of all ages, coaching teachers, and reading and applying insights from theory to improve my skill at both. All of the elements of Learning Cultures are woven together from a tapestry of experience and theory to address messy classroom complexities.

How does your model differ from curricular models that are currently used within the New York education system?

Traditional linear transmission curriculum models are organized by discrete units and specify a prescribed sequence of instruction of content, which is taught by teachers and presumably mastered by students. Instruction takes the form of units, lessons and teacher-directed activities. In planning, teachers are expected to anticipate students’ questions, needs and motivations, and to differentiate lesson to individual students’ learning styles and differential needs. The transmission paradigm places a strong emphasis on planning. Within the traditional mode, students are held hostage by the order in which a teacher chooses to present knowledge.

My curriculum is designed in a different way. Rather than the linear arrangement of content serving as the organizational structure of the curriculum, the Learning Cultures curriculum is organized around social practices, which I call formats (borrowed Jerry Bruner’s use of the term). The formats serve as the architecture for the curriculum. They specify the roles and responsibilities for students and teachers and the ways in which academic content and learning standards are to be used. The formats are organized so that when students assume responsibility for their role within the formats, they are, by default, also meeting academic obligations. Over time, through patterns of practice, classroom cultures develop around collective intentions and norms that are aligned to academic goals. So whereas most curriculum models address content frontally or didactically through transmission, Learning Cultures is organized to ensure that students take initiative to learn content through participation in social practices. The Learning Cultures curriculum emphasizes maintenance of the formats or social practices.

Another distinction between Learning Cultures and other education models is the breadth of its objective. Learning Cultures targets the whole classroom—not just isolated problems—whereas the majority of instructional or behavioral interventions used in schools are designed to target problems within specific subgroups. In a typical intervention, a problem is identified, relevant research is reviewed, and based on research an intervention is developed to target the problem. The intervention is then tested and turned into a commodity to be marketed and sold to schools where the “treatment” is prescribed to students. The problem with this kind of ailing patient, reductionist treatment of everyday classroom challenges is that they do little to address or change aspects of the classroom or school culture that cause problems to begin with. Learning cultures wasn’t designed to be a prevention, but it does prevent against problems for which schools often seek specialized interventions.  Because Learning Cultures is designed to help teachers cultivate healthy classroom learning cultures, successful implementation safeguards against some of the problems that plague contemporary schools (e.g., bullying, behavior problems, truancy).

Currently ten schools in New York City are piloting or implementing your curriculum, why do you think it’s becoming successful?

The primary reason that Learning Cultures is successful is that students enjoy it. The practices provide students with lots of autonomy and independence, which increases motivation and engagement. When kids are happy learning, teachers tend to be happy, too.

Second, the model is gaining popularity because the practices result in positive student outcomes. The model has been associated with dramatic gains in student achievement in schools where it has been piloted.

Third, since the model is elegant in design, which enhances scalability and cost effectiveness. Because Learning Cultures is a single model that can be used in all classrooms (K-12, all content areas, general education, special education and ESL), professional development and teacher evaluation systems can be streamlined to the model. Once one or two teachers in a building have successfully implemented the model, they can open their rooms as learning lab sites for other teachers in the building, and the school can build capacity from within.

Given the ongoing debate surrounding how to measure teacher quality, can/does Learning Cultures play a role in tracking teacher effectiveness?

Since most curriculum programs typically specify what a teacher asks students to do, to a certain extent, both the quality and effectiveness of a teacher is determined by the curriculum. Making the most of this fact, the Learning Cultures model specifies explicit guidelines for teachers to follow in implementing the practices that ensure high quality, effective teaching. These guidelines take the form of a rubric for each format of the curriculum. The guidelines are informed by a broad research base from disciplines in the behavioral sciences and apply current knowledge to enhance students’ learning opportunities. The guidelines also specify precise procedures for planning, instruction and classroom environment preparation, all of which are domains of teaching comprised by widely-used teacher evaluation frameworks (e.g., The Danielson Framework). The model is highly supportive of teachers because it provides a scaffold for success. Teachers who implement the model according to guidelines can provide their students with a comprehensive research-based curriculum and achieve distinctive levels of teaching performance. If implemented with fidelity, the curriculum is designed to help teachers improve the quality and effectiveness of their teaching.

In most schools where Learning Cultures is being implemented, teachers and administrators use rubrics as tools for teacher professional development and evaluation. Some principals use them as a tool to provide teachers with feedback to improve practice. In some schools, these rubrics will become useful implements to guide the development of teacher effectiveness.

If educators (teachers/principals) are interested in implementing Learning Cultures, how can they do so?

I’ve created a website called LearningCultures.net that provides free information and resources about the curriculum model. The website features video demonstrations, interviews with teachers and principals, photographs of classrooms, writing samples, forms and curriculum documents. The site also hosts a forum for those interested in the model and who want to take part in on-going discussion. As a means to disseminate knowledge about the model, the Learning Cultures Journal will be featured on the website. Issues of the Journal will be published annually with contributions by teachers, administrators, scholars and students who are familiar with the model. Educators can learn more about Unison Reading, a key component of the Learning Cultures model, by reading my new book, Unison Reading: Socially-Inclusive Group Instruction for Equity and Achievement (Corwin Press).

Read the New York University Press Release on the Learning Cultures Curriculum.