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Establishing a Culture for Learning
by Elizabeth Helfant


Charlotte Danielson's Framework for Teaching has been a cornerstone of my school's Teaching and Learning Committee. We've read her book and attended a workshop given by Danielson herself. It is only natural that we should try to reconcile our 1-to-1 initiative with Danielson’s Domains. To that end, I spent the first day of spring break exploring applications for the tablet and thinking about 1-to-1 in context of each Domain, particularly Domain 2, The Classroom Environment.

Under Domain 2, The Classroom Environment, Danielson gives five areas to be addressed:

  • Creating an Environment of Respect and Rapport
  • Establishing a Culture for Learning
  • Managing Classroom Procedures
  • Managing Student Behavior
  • Organizing Physical Space 

With the introduction of a tablet PC for each student, the classroom environment will definitely be different and there will be an impact to each of the five areas. Managing student behavior will be expanded to minimizing distractions that come with tablet ownership as curriculum needs to be more engaging to keep kids off games and away from chats that are external to the lesson. Creating an environment of respect and rapport expands into cyberspace. At a minimum organizing physical space means addressing the need for access to power, especially if the class is late in the day when batteries are drained. Managing classroom procedures suggests determining a protocol for managing electronic work through stages of submission, assessment, feedback and return. Establishing a culture for learning is by far the more interesting area for me to imagine and plan.

Establishing a culture for learning might be the most important challenge a teacher encounters.  It goes beyond Domain 2, the Classroom Environment, but it certainly starts there. Properly established, it fosters student passion and motivation and supports students in the acquisition of skills that will sustain lifelong learning. If I were looking for a guiding principle to help me establish a culture for learning, I might turn to Vygotsky’s Theory of the Zone of Proximal Development. The Zone of Proximal development (ZPD) is defined as

the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86)

Vygotsky originally used this concept to argue against standardized testing as a means of determining a student’s ability level. He argued that students needed experiences that were in their ZPD; experiences that ranged from what they could do alone to what they could do with support from another - a teacher, a peer and, in today’s world, perhaps a social learning network. Vygotsky points to creating a culture in which students are supported as they take structured risks to extend their intelligence. If we ask ourselves how to create a culture of learning that is scaffolded to support students as they try to reach the upper end of their zone, try to push their skills to a higher level, the use of the tablet PC and technology in general becomes paramount. 

Let’s start with the in-class, 1-to-1, tablet environment as we explore establishing a culture of learning. Ideally an environment in which all students are comfortable and engaged will be created. As teacher, I want to know how students are feeling about the material and if their comfort level actually matches with their  performance with the material. My environment now includes a tablet loaded with DyKnow software. Everything I writes appears effortlessly on my students' tablets allowing them to concentrate on the material instead of on the note taking process. If a student wants to ask a question privately, they can use the chat window to do so. I can readily poll them to determine their comfort level. I can use DyKnow’s quizzing or panel submission features to assess the student’s actual understanding. Using technology I can make sure I’m in the student’s ZPD, that I’m not moving to slowly and that I am pushing them to extend their knowledge. DyKnow has the capacity to transform what was once a teacher driven lecture into a two way interaction that is adjusted spontaneously based on continuous feedback from students. It takes a once passive activity and turns it into an active, engaging, participatory environment.

Ideally the classroom environment is not all about delivering knowledge. It might start there but should move to opportunities for students’ learning to be differentiated as they research topics that address the essential questions for each topic. Students can take their tablets and use bookmarks to tag sites and can collect information about their research in a google notebook. Their bookmarks and their notebook can be shared with peers, with teachers and with librarians who can give feedback about the quality of the work as well as pose questions that extend the students' thinking about their topic, always pushing them to the upper limit of their individual zone. The learning culture becomes more social. It also becomes more individualized as formative assessment and continuous feedback are utilized.

As students generate a body of information about their specific topic the learning process moves to one of creative articulation of what has been learned. With tablet in hand, students don’t need to demonstrate understanding with traditional assessments. Students can demonstrate their learning by creating digital stories, by making timelines with carefully selected, properly cited images, by contributing to a class wiki, or by posting well written information to a class blog. Because of technology, the audience is no longer the teacher or the class but can be much larger. The environment has moved to a point where it potentially includes the world as the audience. This environmental shift has lots of ramifications as it calls into play an understanding of cultural differences. For the purposes of this post, however, the shift in assessment strategies can create a culture of learning that acknowledges performance based and inquiry based learning and assessment.

Thus far, the learning described has largely been a student individually developing knowledge but classrooms should certainly include opportunities for group collaboration. (Almost used the word group work but I’d like to create a culture that says it is collaboration and learning and that eliminates the negative connotation of work.) With a tablet environment tools abound to have students work collaboratively. DyKnow provides tools for group work but there are many others as well. OneNote allows students to print worksheets into OneNote and to start a shared session in which students can work collaboratively and see each others’ contributions. Should students and teachers choose, they can record audio or video with their notes and it will be synched with the written notes as well. It should be noted that the shared session can take place between students who are not in the same physical space meaning that the classroom environment has been expanded outside the physical walls. The collective body of Web 2.0 technologies just compounds this opportunity. Students can use a variety of whiteboard spaces like vrooms,, and twiddla to work together in class or in their extended classroom experience. They can use sketchcast or qlipboard to annotate work together and add audio explanations to their work. If we extend the classroom beyond the physical walls and scheduled time, students can use tools like dimdim or Yakkle to share their desktops when working. They can employ tools like chatterous to carry on a recorded discussion and if the discussion needs to be documented and real time they can use Skype to converse and Pamela to record it. The classroom environment can be expanded and can be very collaborative. Even thought the project may be collaborative, most of these tools allow the learning process to be documented. Each individual’s contribution can be discerned and the teacher can ensure that each student is always increasing their ZPD. The learning culture becomes collaborative. Since the process can be so easily documented, the collaboration itself can be assessed, hopefully making divide and conquer collaboration a thing of the past as each student becomes accountable for their own contribution to the group's learning. ( It should be noted that within the context of the expanded classroom and many of the tools  that can be harnessed, there is the potential to discuss expanded classroom membership that brings with it some of the same challenges that are associated with expanded audience; a topic for another day.)

One final area with respect to the Classroom Environment and establishing a culture of learning needs to be examined. In this new 1-to-1 tablet environment, a set of teachers will suddenly be reminded that they are learners too. That they too have a Zone of Proximal development in what will be a new frontier for them. They will need to learn new strategies and engage with the learning process in new ways. They will need to adjust curriculum accordingly. Teachers will need to be supported in their learning and it might be students who are supporting them at times. For perhaps the first time, the culture of learning will actually be one in which we really are a community of learners. Imagine the power in that!


About Elizabeth

Elizabeth Helfant is the Upper School Coordinator of Instructional Technology at Mary Institute Country Day School, a JK-12 institution embarking on a 1:1 adventure. using Tablet PCs and DyKnow.