Creating a Culture of Learning

As an educator in an Atlanta area private school that is diverse by design, I have seen firsthand the important role that school plays in developing healthy youth who will become the kind of adults we need to run our society 25 years from now. For nearly a decade, I have been a middle school educator, working alongside young people as they find their place in the world. My work in the classroom led me back to pursue a Ph.D. in teaching and learning with a research focus on self-directed learning.

In 2018, I cofounded The Forest School, a self-directed learning environment with an ambitious mission to help everyone who enters its doors find a calling that will change the world. ­This mission is controversial. It assumes that schools play a role in shaping young people and that those young people in turn play a role in shaping the world. As such, at The Forest School, we are interested in the types of people we are cultivating. This inevitably leads to questions of morality, ethics, and character: what do we call good and wise and right? Our school is non-religious and multi-cultural—a microcosm of American society. How then does our learning community deal with questions of virtue?

To find answers to these important questions, I joined The Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia as a postdoctoral fellow assisting in the Moral Ecology Project—a multi-year study into the forces that shape the moral lives of young people. We are attempting to build an instrument that will help school communities navigate the complex space of morality and character formation.

Imagine you are a school leader and are curious about how parents and community members view America’s place in the world, the role of race in contemporary society, or the trustworthiness of our democratic institutions. At a time of increasing polarization in American society, it is difficult for teachers and school leaders to know how to meaningfully engage students, parents, and community members on so-called “hot button” issues. In fact, many state legislatures (including our own in Georgia) have enacted laws restricting discussion and exploration of “divisive concepts” in the classroom. Rather than “rock the boat” and risk litigation, many schools will avoid meaningfully engaging students, parents, and the community in having discussions, learning from each other, and reflecting upon how their understandings of morality and virtue shape their views of the world.

That is where my current research comes in. I am part of a small team working to create a data collection tool for school leaders that will give them a snapshot of the moral ecology of their community. Our instrument is designed as a starting point. A school leader can employ a survey to stakeholders—collect data from teachers, parents, and other stakeholders—as way to gain an outline into the complexities of their thinking. You can think of this instrument as a thermometer—a way to gauge the temperature of potentially divisive issues—allowing the collection of data from the community to inform school leaders on how to respond. How might the relationships between schools and parents be strengthened through dialogue, especially around areas of greatest disagreement, and the whole community work together on a way forward?

This is, in theory and practice, the democratic principle. The founding motto of the U.S.—E pluribus unum, “out of many, one”—highlights the hope that disparate, distinct persons with their own views of morality, authority, and goodness can indeed create a cohesive society. It is true that care must be taken to ensure that all members of a society can fully and freely access its goods. This is all the more reason for community engagement around our approach to schooling: it is about who does and does not feel included in the current design of a school.

The instrument we are building at IASC is designed to give school leaders insights into what stakeholders have to say about the school’s role in the development of character. The goal is to create something useful that allows any school (public, private, or charter) leader to get feedback from teachers, staff, parents, and community members on sensitive but crucial topics and then provide a visual story of that data, which school leaders can employ however they wish. We are piloting the instrument at The Forest School (one of three pilots this year) and will analyze the data as a team. We will then take the lessons learned and revise the instrument, following up with another round of pilots later this year or next year.

Our schools are shaping our children, but shaping them into what and for what reasons? Let us talk about this together.


Caleb Collier is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

A Reflection About Schooling from a Former Classroom Teacher

Back in the first pandemic summer of 2020, I witnessed considerable clamoring on social media, urging schools not to go back to “normal” once the pandemic ended because “normal”, or business-as-usual in American schools, is, for many students, a less than optimal experience. Regrettably, the call for change permeated the air only but for a moment. Instead, school districts and educators had to determine how to effectively run their schools and classrooms on virtual platforms amidst constantly changing directives and erratic guidelines coming from the federal government and the CDC—all of which made sense at the time. Since our return to “normal,” however, we are seeing alarming trends of chronic absenteeism among students while teachers exit the profession. Although the pandemic certainly is to blame for some of this, none of these problems are new. In fact, we have been battling them for years. As with the great resignation, the pandemic allowed young people and teachers to reassess the meaningless grind of top–down approaches to teaching and learning.

As a career educator and now a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, I see what is at stake as foundational in nature. One way to avoid bleeding out teachers and re-engage our youth is to shake up the “normal” way of doing things. To do this, teachers and youth need additional respect and autonomy so they can create meaningful, real-world curricula that is centered on youth and turns away from performative, perfunctory, and transactional learning. Recent nationwide surveys have shown two relevant findings. First, students surveyed placed happiness and caring for others above individual achievement. In another survey, youth said they wanted a meaningful curriculum that is relevant to the real world around them. Teachers know how to deliver both things—if we let them.

If you have ever been a teacher, you know that students ask you, “Why? Why are we learning this?” I left teaching when I realized my answers to this question no longer satisfied me (and probably my students too). My responses felt mechanical, empty, and devoid of the kind of meaning that everyone in the classroom was yearning for. I would say things such as, “because you need these skills and this knowledge to get ahead in society, to be able to pursue what makes you happy in life, and, of course, to pass the class!” While all of this is true, it can feel empty to young people because it lacks purpose or connection to the immediacy of their daily lives or the real world around them. Paolo Freire, a famous educational philosopher called our current teaching style, the “banking method.” Without going too deeply into his work, Freire says that our approach tries to “deposit” knowledge into our youth without applying any critical dialogue. Ultimately, this maintains the status quo because students receive information like robots rather than becoming critically reflective and transformational thinkers.

So, what is the state of the current situation? With all the recent demonization of teachers, we first need to understand that our nation’s teachers are highly educated professionals who, next to family and friends, are the most supportive figures in the lives of youth (according to youth). Therefore, we really need to trust teachers. Next, we need to suspend our obsession with the rigid input–output ideas of how learning happens. Teachers and youth should be joint collaborators who design and carry out project-based, experimental activities that have the potential to actually solve real-world problems. Yes, math facts are necessary and so is basic literacy, but the manner in which they are acquired does not have to be frozen in time. We underestimate and over-mandate our teachers and students so heavily that we stifle innovation and creativity on a daily basis. All A’s and high ACT scores are great, but, frankly, a cadre of citizens who know how to sit down and talk through problems facing local communities would be better. This can only happen if we trust not only our educators but the power of our young people to pitch in and help. Instead, our schools have become fossilized institutions that maintain the status quo and deaden the learning experience when what our country really needs right now are engaged, caring, critically thinking, and community-focused citizens who can right this ship.

Amy Laboe is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.