Two Perspectives on Classroom Culture

Turkey Baster

Something I heard at PCMI, credited to Benjamin Walker, is “you don’t build culture with a firehose, you build it with a turkey baster.” Culture isn’t something that’s established all at once or through the brilliance of one great activity, it’s the sum of all the little things that make a class unique. Planning for culture is less about the first day than it is the micro-moves that reinforce classroom norms the second week and halfway through October and the last week in December. Culture is about patience and small choices, day in and day out.

Breaking the Didactic Contract

Also at PCMI, Peter Liljedahl spoke about the non-negotiated norms of classrooms everywhere. Students come in, sit down, face front. Students write in their notebooks what is written on the board. Students complete work on pieces of paper put in front of them. In exchange, teachers don’t require students to think very hard or do any math they have not been shown how to do. These norms are so entrenched that they need to be broken in radical ways, beginning at the start of the first class, to create a classroom where students are willing to think.

I see a compelling argument from each perspective, and I’m not sure how to reconcile them.

7 thoughts on “Two Perspectives on Classroom Culture

  1. Lisa Bejarano

    Why does it have to be one or the other? The only way to build norms and a class culture is do authentically model and reinforce them the first day and every day that follows.

      1. Michael Pershan

        Of course, but I think that’s because (1) I am not a teaching hero and I fail often and (2) some norms are very deep.

        I will say that I am very adverse to conflicting with student norms, in precisely the same way that I don’t focus on misconceptions or what students are lacking in their knowledge. I like to build on what they expect from school and class, and extend it.

        So, for instance, when a kid asks if their answer is correct in a moment when I’m not ready to answer them, I’m not likely to make a big deal about refusing to answer them. Some teachers say that they do that, in the name of norms. But I will, over time, try to take that eagerness to check correctness and help the student develop it into different kinds of eagerness — an eagerness to explain oneself to others, maybe.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s