How to Build Commitment to Learning in Students in the Classroom

Introduction

To build commitment to learning in students, you need buy-in from students and staff with school vision, values, and goals. School functioning as Professional Learning Communities uses their mission, vision, values, and goals as successful businesses use Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goal (BHAG). Jim Collins (2001), author of Good to Great. states, “a BHAG is “a huge and daunting goal—like a big mountain to climb. It is clear, compelling, and people get it right away. It serves as a unifying focal point of effort, galvanizing people and creating team spirit as people strive towards a finish line” (p. 202).” as cited by authors Tim Brown; William M. Ferriter (2021) of the book You Can Learn!

I will discuss what buy-in looks like, why is this important to learning, and what does this look like in your classroom.

Buy-In School Vision, Values, and Goals

Author of You Can Learn! Tim Brown shared his story.

Once a principal of Campbell Elementary School in Missouri, Tim held a challenge assembly, built around the theme the faculty set for the year, designed to reinforce the school’s mission, vision, values, and goals. Tim’s favorite challenge assembly theme was “Let’s Build a Brighter Tomorrow Together, One Brick at a Time.” Tim dressed in a hard hat and wore a tool belt to the assembly and introduced the yearly theme to both students and staff. Tim used a modified version of the opening music to the Bob the Builder children’s television show, which included both the name and mascot of the school. Some lyrics follow.

Campbell Cougars, can we build it?

Campbell Cougars, yes we can!

We are the Cougars, and we are the best.

We are the Cougars, and we won’t rest.

Working together, we get learning done.

Working together, we make learning fun.

Campbell Cougars, can we build it?

Campbell Cougars, YES WE CAN!

Afterwards, Tim asked the students to think about the things that a builder needs to create a solid structure. Students’ answers were tools, wood, windows, and workers. Tim stated “one of the first things a builder needs is a vision of what the project will look like when it is finished”. “If you aren’t sure of what your final structure is going to look like before you start building,” he reminded the students, “you won’t be able to make the right plans or take the right steps to make your vision become a reality.”

Tim’s vision for the community – parents, visitors, teachers – is to see Campbell Elementary as a school with high expectations, providing a respectful environment for all students. Tim also wanted Campbell Elementary to be known as a school that changed lives. This includes:

Each action is like the bricks in their building—providing structure for their efforts to change lives—and everyone in the school’s community could contribute to their school’s goal by following through on their promises each day.

When the Assembly ended, Tim had both students and teachers participate in the following Cougar Pledge.

I will face the challenges before me.

I will not run and hide.

I know my teachers love me.

They will always be by my side.

But when it comes to my success,

There are things that I must do.

I must think, act, and show that I can handle anything new.

Cougar CLAWS will always guide me.

No more working to just get by.

I will have Courage to Learn, Achieve, Win, and Succeed.

And I will hold these CLAWS up high.

Because when it comes to my success,

There are things that I must do.

I must think, act, and show that I can handle anything new.

When I walk through these doors every day,

My work will be done with pride.

I will listen to what others have to say,

And my dreams will not be denied.

Because when it comes down to my success,

There are things that I must do.

I must think, act, and show that I can handle anything new.

I WILL think, act, and show that I can handle anything new!

The purpose of the weekly Assembly is to reconnect students to the purpose of the school. Tim believes those weekly assemblies were essential, because they gave students the chance to see the role, they play in moving the school’s mission and vision forward. Tim emphasized weekly challenge assemblies turned affirmation of values and beliefs of the building into more than a one-time event. Each assembly became a platform to communicate the school’s expectations; to reinforce the school’s mission, vision, values, and goals; to celebrate; and to develop a sense of unity across the entire building.

Earning_a_Brick (Download)

Students who had contributed to the school’s goals were recognized with yellow plastic hard hats they could wear to weekly challenge assemblies, and received construction paper bricks with their names printed on them each time they took a step—showing determination in the face of challenge, extending support to a struggling classmate, demonstrating mastery on a classroom assessment—that moved the school forward. Tim made sure this happened throughout the school year. Bricks collected at challenge assemblies were then placed on a large bulletin board in the main hallway of the school. The bulletin board was eventually filled with hundreds of bricks, and the assemblies became a sea of yellow hard hats. The bricks and hard hats served as a visual reminder for the entire school community that by working together, Campbell Elementary students and staff could create a brighter tomorrow, one brick at a time.

Why is this Important to Learning?

Tim’s “Let’s Build a Brighter Tomorrow Together, One Brick at a Time” is his own way of issuing Big, Hairy, Audacious, Goal (BHAG). “Let’s build a Brighter Tomorrow Together, One Brick at a Time” motivates the community and provides a grounding point for decisions that kept Campbell Elementary moving in the right direction. The theme is something that everyone in the Campbell Elementary community could relate to, identify with, and promote as their primary purpose. So, if you want to know why did teachers work hard to know students as individuals at Campbell Elementary? Why did students lean in on challenging assignments at Campbell Elementary? Why did support personnel work hard to create the conditions necessary for students to succeed at Campbell Elementary? because “the community knew that doing so would help build a brighter tomorrow—and the idea of building a brighter tomorrow together galvanized the entire Campbell community”. (pg. 28) They wanted to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Authors of You Can Learn points out “Knowing why we exist (mission), describing what we want to become (vision), locking down our commitments (values), and focusing on the objective of all students learning at high levels (goals) can inspire us on tough days, move us to higher levels of performance, and renew our spirit.” (pg. 28)

Another important point is that Tim creates a way to connect students to the mission, vision, values, and goals of his school community. “Building a brighter tomorrow, one brick at a time” theme takes the abstract concepts and ideas often expressed in mission, vision, values, and goals statements, and makes them approachable for elementary students. Tim reinforced those ideas through challenge assemblies and gave students tangible ways to participate in efforts to strengthen their school community. Students at Campbell Elementary saw themselves as essential contributors to an important, shared effort.

Tim brought the first big idea of the PLC at Work process— “a focus on learning”—to life for learners (DuFour et al., 2016) by articulating his vision in approachable language and then defining practical steps that students could take to move toward that vision. This is how student ownership of learning starts.

Building Commitment to Learning in Students: What Does It Look Like in Your Classroom?

There are four strategies to rally your students to become partners in accomplishing BHAGs. You can (1) create a chant, motto, or slogan; (2) develop classroom commitments or norms with students; (3) generate student promise statements; and (4) fill success walls with evidence of learning.

(1) Create a chant, motto, or slogan

Tim Brown knew how critically important a clearly stated and simple vision is to creating a shared goal for a school. A clearly stated, simple vision provides direction for every decision in a PLC. More important, such a vision ensures consistency in both action and deed.

But Tim also knew how critically important it was to connect students to the school’s vision. Doing so resulted in higher levels of investment and motivation from their building’s most important stakeholders — the students. How does Tim do this? Tim developed simple slogans that communicated important expectations to their students. Campbell Elementary Cougars knew they were part of building a better tomorrow together, and they could each contribute “one brick at a time” to those efforts by giving their best no matter how challenging their classwork seemed, and by showing empathy to their peers.

If you are a primary teacher, streamline this process by concentrating your classroom conversation on the four questions that appear in step 2 of figure 1.1.

1.  If students honored our school’s chant, motto, or slogan, what would we see them doing?

2.  If teachers honored our school’s chant, motto, or slogan, what would we see them doing?

3.  If parents honored our school’s chant, motto, or slogan, what would we see them doing?

4.  If principals honored our school’s chant, motto, or slogan, what would we see them doing?

Authors pointed out that whether you are a primary or secondary teacher, leading your students through a conversation about the meaning behind your school’s chant, motto, or slogan will send the message that your building’s mission, vision, values, and goals are more than a collection of words hanging on banners around your hallway. Instead, they are a promise that members of your school community are making each day they come to school.

Figure 1.1 Looking Closely at What Our School’s Chant, Motto, or Slogan Means

(2) Develop classroom commitments or norms with students

According to the You Can Learn! book, collaborative teams of teachers develop norms, agreements on how they will behave, and work effectively together in the Professional Learning Community process.

You Can Learn! book emphasized that norms, values, and collective commitments are considered foundational elements of a PLC (DuFour et al., 2016). They are not handed to groups, but developed by groups. Norms, values, and collective commitments allow the members of a collaborative team to bring their voices to the table to communicate what they need from others to enhance their learning.

Educators interested in integrating classroom norms and collective commitments into their work with students can use the reproducibles, “Developing Classroom Norms” and “Self-Reflecting on Our Classroom Norms”.

(3) Generate student promise statements

Teachers reinforce the notion that advancing the common good requires students to develop promise statements connected to the broader mission, vision, values, and goals of the classroom or school community. Developing student promise statements starts by asking students to respond to simple prompts, like, “Looking back at our classroom norms, what are some steps you are willing to take to make our year safe, happy, and successful?” or “What kinds of things can you do as an individual to live up to the ideas expressed in our school’s slogan?” The goal is to encourage students to think about who they currently are, who they want to become, and how they can best contribute to the shared work of the class. Then, teachers can ask students to generate one- or two-sentence statements that express the promise they will make to their peers.

Here are a few examples of student promise statements.

• “I will learn new things each day, so that I am ready for the real world.”

• “I will enjoy school, respect my classmates, and be a leader every day!”

• “I will study, learn, and make friends by listening to others to gain knowledge.”

• “I will help my classmates by lending a hand when they struggle with schoolwork, and be patient with them when they are having a bad day.”

• “I will make contributions to the learning of our class by asking lots of questions when I am confused or when I have made a neat discovery.”

• “I will help our classroom be safe, happy, and successful by always showing respect to my classmates—even when I disagree with them.”

(4) Fill success walls with evidence of learning.

A great strategy for strengthening a culture of learning for students is to go visual with data in your classroom, and to post simple achievement charts displaying the classroom average on both pretests and post-tests (figure 1.4).

Proof_We_Are_Learners (Download)

When you post the achievement chart, take a few moments in class to point out the changes from pretest to post-test. Explain to your students that this difference is not an accident. Ask students probing questions, such as:

• “What is working for us as a class?”

• “How are your participation and collaboration impacting your peers and our results?”

• “What learning strategies should we continue to use?”

• “Are there any learning strategies that we should abandon?”

Your conversations with students will help students see that growth over time is due to their own actions and the actions of the entire class. The message is empowering, helping students realize that they can have a positive impact on learning outcomes.

My Takeaway

I didn’t understand PLC until I read the article “What is “Professional Learning Community?“, by Richard DuFour.

DuFour believes the core mission of the professional learning community is a shift in focus from teaching to learning. This shift has profound implications for schools.

DuFour writes, “When the staff has built shared knowledge and found common ground on these questions, the school has a solid foundation for moving forward with its improvement initiative.” And they are:

My connection: This is how student ownership of learning starts when teachers share knowledge and find common ground.

So, when I read Tim Brown’s story, author of You Can Learn! I immediately thought it would be a good example to share on DuFour’s believes the core mission of the professional learning community is a shift in focus from teaching to learning in this blog.

Reference

Brown, T., & Ferriter, W. M. (2021). You Can Learn!. Solution Tree Press. https://online.vitalsource.com/books/9781952812507

DuFour, R. (2004, May 1). What is a “Professional Learning Community”?  

https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/what-is-a-professional-learning-community

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