Cynthia’s research throughout the last 25 years has been based in New York City classrooms where she has worked with more than 25 schools on a long-term basis, coaching teachers and principals in ways that improve educational practices. Over time, through a process of action research, Cynthia developed the Learning Cultures education model.
Learning Cultures is a social-constructivist approach to pedagogy, based on the idea that higher forms of thinking have their genesis in the context of social interaction. In Learning Cultures, classroom social activities are deliberately designed and organized to catalyze targeted forms of higher-level thinking and cause them to develop through social interaction and self-directed learning opportunities. These activities stimulate the skills and motivations of shared intentionality, which enable learners to coordinate mental states and control their thinking. Learners use these skills and motivations to develop shared intentionality, and processes of shared intentionality enable them to develop social and cognitive capacities.
The model is designed around learning formats. Formats specify conditions for familiar classroom learning situations, like small group- and one-on-one lessons. But instead of the traditional emphasis on the transmission of information or didactic delivery of lessons, formats are organized in ways that require collaboration, distribute responsibility for learning to students, and maximize their engagement. They provide a support system for learners to develop academic abilities through their interactions with others. Within this approach, new skills are understood to be internalized social norms accessed through participation as opposed to the more traditional view that skills are discreet modules of knowledge that are acquired.
Assessments are embedded within these situations to structure activity and to provide information that learners and teachers use to self-monitor and guide their behavior. For example, format procedures are specified in assessment rubrics that outline transparent social roles for learners and teachers within each of the formats (click the Assessment tab above to access the Learning Cultures format rubrics).
When they take on their assigned social roles, learners are required to perform higher mental operations. They argue and reason cooperatively and shift and share perspectives. In the process of doing these things, they make assertions, defend positions, define terms, and make inferences. The purpose of these situations is not to accumulate more information or develop skills, but to develop and enhance the capacity to think.
There are a total of 13 different formats that Cynthia has developed. In schools, classroom schedules are programmed entirely around formats so that every minute of the school day is maximized in ways that allow students to amplify their intentions. The formats recur on a daily basis all year.
Because the formats are recurrent and predictable, students anticipate the need to be intentional, independent and cooperative. Over time, the deliberately-patterned social behavior generated through the formats results in the development of powerful learning cultures within the classroom and across the school.
Teaching within this model involves the use of assessment to interpret and respond to learners’ interactions with one another, the material, and the environment. Teachers develop their practice as they learn to more successfully coax students to exercise their intentions. School leaders use rubrics and other assessments to norm instructional routines, and they use the language of the rubrics to provide teachers with both competence feedback and corrective feedback.
In schools where Learning Cultures is implemented on a school-wide basis, a comprehensive system of school organization is used. This system is designed around a year-long Implementation Timeline that specifies activities to be carried out on a week-by-week basis in order to support the successful implementation of classroom-level formats. Leadership for these activities are assigned to the school leaders in coordination with Teacher Leads in the areas of Curriculum, School Culture and Student Discipline, Assessment and Data, Community Education, and Professional Development. Job descriptions for each lead position outline specific responsibilities to be carried out. The Implementation Timeline and Teacher Lead Job Descriptions appear below.
In the schools where Learning Cultures is implemented with moderate fidelity, students demonstrate stronger-than-average gains in achievement. For example, the first cohort to have had the Learning Cultures program for all four years of high school graduated in 2015 from a school with a poverty index of 97% and where 81% of students are English language learners. This cohort had a 73% graduation rate, outpacing the city average by three points and outpacing demographically similar schools by five points. 52% of the students were deemed to be ‘college ready’ compared to 35% of students city-wide and 19% of students in demographically comparable schools. Descriptions of the impact of the model in schools can be seen by clicking on School Development on this website.
Learning Cultures holds promise to ensure that every child has the opportunities they need to meet their potential. Contact Cynthia McCalliister if you are interested in implementing Learning Cultures in your school.
Genre Practice is an approach to literacy instruction that views a text as a form of action. Students learn to approach the texts they read and write with a purpose relating to what they want to achieve in communication with others. Generic forms, such as reports or essays, are not taught with the expectation that children will 'master' the form. Instead, students select topics they want and care to write about. They select the form their writing will take. And they keep their eyes open to find 'exemplar' texts that can serve to inspire their writing.
Students typically write one long piece and two short pieces per month, as per the recommendations of the Common Core State Standards. They use the Standards as a reference to make judgments about how their writing aligns with expectations for the forms they write.
Each month a student gets one writing conference with a teacher and has an additional opportunity to share their writing with the whole class in the writing share format.
Genre Practices shapes the ways students learn to approach their reading. They learn to understand that within the texts they read are voices of others who have their own sense of purpose and perspective. They learn to listen to the voice of the writer, and to take cues as to how the text is to be read and understood.
Keepers of the Culture is an approach to the development of school culture in which students are given responsibility to take part in helping their peers develop positive social norms. The "Keepers" are a formal organization of students who have been nominated by their classmates to represent students' best interests and educational rights. The Keepers receive a brief training, at which time they learn a behavior intervention protocol, developed by Cynthia, that is used with peers. The Intervention begins with a review of the focus student's rights and responsibilities as a learner within the school community. The Intervention is structured around a discussion of the focus student's behaviors that interfere with their happiness and success in school. Each behavior is examined to determine how it interferes with the responsibility every student has to learn. An outcome of the Intervention is an action plan to replace problematic behaviors with generative ones. A copy of the Intervention Protocol appears below.
The Learning Cultures Framework for Professional Development is a program designed to build school level teaching capacity with relative independence of external contract vendors. In order to do so, a number of components are implemented, including the establishment of lab sites in classrooms where teachers are effectively implementing the Learning Cultures formats, on-going peer observation using the Learning Cultures rubrics, a system of teacher residencies and inter-visitation opportunities designed to support teachers in need of improvement in the formats, a system of instructional accounting in which records of student learning are monitored to ensure equality of educational opportunity for all students, a system of on-going teacher self-assessment, and opportunities to present and disseminate information about the Learning Cultures model to parents and members of the public. Teachers are expected to exercise agency to take part in in-house professional development offerings. The Framework for Professional Development is used in conjunction with training videos that describe the Learning Cultures practices (see Training Videos on this website). A synopsis of the Learning Cultures Framework for Professional Development appears below.
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