Next February, this blog will be celebrating its ten-year anniversary! Leading up to it, I’m re-starting a series I tried to do in the past called “A Look Back.” Each week, I’ll be re-posting a few of my favorite posts from the past ten years.

I wrote this post in 2009 and a version of it was published in Education Week Teacher a year later under the headline of Giving Classrooms a Purpose.


I read, hear, and even write a lot about “techniques” that are supposed to improve schools and classroom instruction. Often times, professional development books and workshops (and teacher hand-outs at staff meetings) are filled with zillions of them — how to use multiple intelligences, technology, specific instructional strategies with students that have special needs, etc.

These techniques are obviously important.

I wonder, though, if we teachers and our students, schools, and districts might be better off if we spent a little more time focusing on — for lack of being able to come up with better terms — our “cultural orientations” or basic “ways of thinking”?

What am I talking about?

Please bear with me as share my thinking on all this. Usually, I don’t post a piece like this which is more of a “process post” — I don’t necessarily have as much clarity as I would like, and, instead, am sharing my thoughts and hoping that feedback from readers will helping move my thinking along.

Last week marked the 100th anniversary of Peter Drucker’s birth. Drucker was the renowned business and management philosopher, writer, theorist, analyst. His thinking also says a lot to community organizing (my previous career) and teaching (my present one). National Public Radio’s coverage of this anniversary pointed out that his most important idea was:

the importance of a company having a sense of mission or a purpose, and that that’s not identical with its strategy, it’s not identical with its business model, it’s why it exists and what social good or greater good that it’s serving. That’s a very important Drucker idea.

When I’m talking about a “cultural orientation” or “way of thinking,” I think mean something like what Drucker meant. But something more than “whatever is good for kids.”

I’d like to give three examples of what I mean — in the classroom, in a school and, in the context of schools connecting with parents.


In the first part of each school year, in most of my classes I lead a discussion with students asking what they want our class to be — “A Community of Learners” or a “Classroom of Students.” I write about this more extensively in my book “Teaching English Language Learners: Strategies That Work” (which will be out next summer), but I’ll give a short description here.

I write the two columns on the overhead and give some examples of the difference between the two. In a classroom of students, a teacher does most of the talking. In a Community Of Learners, students work in small groups and are co-teachers. In a “classroom” people laugh when others make mistakes, while in a “community” people are supported when they take risks. In a “classroom” the teacher has to be always be the one to keep people focused, while in a “community” students take responsibility to keep themselves focused.

Most students say their previous classes had been more like a “Classroom of Students.” I ask students to share what other differences they might see between the two types. Here are a couple of examples students said this year:

In a “classroom” “students start a fight and end up hurting each other.” In a “community” “they don’t start a fight, they talk it out.”

In a “classroom” “the only way to succeed is doing exactly what the teacher says.” In a “community” “you have more than one choice in succeeding.”

After adding to the list, students then decide which one they’d rather have. No one has every chosen a “classroom of students.”

By starting with this basic “cultural orientation” or “way of thinking,” students developed their own ways of approaching (I guess you could almost call it their own “techniques”) how the class would operate. It provided a framework for looking at numerous issues throughout the whole school year, and respected their judgment and wants.


Ted Appel has done a tremendous job working with teachers over the past few years at our school to develop a “cultural orientation” or “way of thinking.”  Basically, it’s not acceptable for students to not do well — everybody succeeds.  That way of thinking operates almost universally among the faculty, and is amazingly prevalent among students as well.

Our tutoring project, where students hire (and fire) teachers of their choice, is an example of this way of thinking. We didn’t set-up an after-school tutoring center and then blame the students for not showing-up. Ted and our staff began with the thinking that some students needed help, and looked at what were the barriers to them getting the most effective assistance they could get so they could do well and thought outside the box.


In my book, Building Parent Engagement In Schools, I highlight the differences between parent involvement and parent engagement.  Some of those differences include the primary “involvement” tool schools use is their mouths to talk, while the primary “engagement” tool is their ears to listen.  Involvement is often about one-way communication, while engagement can be about two-way conversation.   The invitation to involvement is often “irritating” — challenging parents to do something the schools want them to do, while with engagement it’s often “agitation” — challenging parents to do something that they say they want to do.

Obviously a few examples are useful to illustrate each of those parent engagement elements, but if schools are committed to that kind of criteria, they can judge their own possible actions against them.  They don’t necessarily need a long laundry list of what they should or shouldn’t do.

I guess all I’m wondering is how many schools and districts are skipping looking  these big kinds of cultural orientations or ways of thinking?

I wonder if there should be more of an investment in developing our compasses instead of giving us road maps?

What do you think?