Give ‘em “L” #3: 3Cs of Learning

New Rule: Give ‘em “L” #3: 3Cs of Learning

My premise is, if the culture isn’t right for learning, the school environment will not support people reaching their highest potential.  Yes, there will be pockets of excellence because we have some very talented teachers and non-certified personnel who create the best for kids. And we have some kids who have a great support system that will flourish in spite of our culture. So, after we create the conditions for the staff to trust each other, share a repertoire of what is working for an ever-increasing diverse population, and build collective efficacy, now what? As Hargreaves and O’Connor write, Collaborative Professionalism (2018) is a way to scale up individual pockets of excellence to the school and community. As Eleanor Drago-Severson (2016) writes, how do we get to a self-transforming state that accelerates learning for all.

When Art Costa asked me thirty years ago, ‘how am I creating a mentally stimulating environment for my staff,’ I was speechless.  I said, “I have to do that too?”  As a principal, I never thought that was my responsibility.  OK, I didn’t think about it in my young career. The 7Cs of a learning culture, in the last ‘new rule’ was my response to answer that question. The 7Cs frameworks were especially important to me when doing interim or turnaround assignments.

Once the culture is set, we turn our attention to the 3Cs of Learning for kids, colleagues, and community. The following components are specifically designed to increase learning.

  1. CIA – Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment – all three are important components. What is taught, how it is taught, and how do we know if learning occurs.
  • Why? The more we know, the more we can extend our learning to new situations with more diverse learners. Adding repertoire to our knowledge, skills, and applications connects with more kids. The future is not going to wait until we are ready.  Do something! If it works, keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, do something else.
  • How? The continuing diversity of learners requires multiple approaches to engage students and increase learning.  Most companies and consultants I know sell silver bullets. “There are NO silver bullets.”  My suggestion is to keep learning new silver bullets.  You are going to need all of them and more. Different strategies work with different staff members and different kids.  We must teach them all (students and staff).  I also want to acknowledge that leadership development is essential to build and sustain learning cultures.
  • What? Using data as feedback loops rather than the blame and shame of our current system. Data can inform us and form us.  What assessments and dispositions are the most valuable for the future of learning? Data should be able to tell us what is working and what is not working so we can change if it is not working in a timely manner.  Testing used appropriately, can be a leading indicator rather than the lagging indicator as it is now used.  When used as a lagging indicator, it is too late to do anything about the learning because the kids are gone.  Kids aren’t waiting.

As Karen Seashore-Louis (1995) and others have pointed out, it is less of what curriculum and instruction are used and more about having consensus on what we want for students (and staff). A consensus around how the school operates is first.  Determining what is essential to make the school a learning environment and the commitment by the staff to support those essentials will be critical to creating and the long-term health of the organization.

Diana Baumrind (1967), UC Berkeley researched different parenting techniques and their impact on children. There are three distinct types of parenting—permissive, authoritarian, and authoritative. I think the same holds true with schools.   When I do my parent program, ‘Goldilocks Theory of Parenting, here are the three.

  • Permissive (I use a slide of Jell-O), laissez-faire, let them do anything, no boundaries or consequences. Lots of choices.
  • Authoritarian (I use a Slide of a brick wall), you can’t do anything without high consequences, little choice, and concrete boundaries.
  • Authoritative is Goldilocks. Not too hard, not too soft.  There is a blend of boundaries, choices, and consequences.

When it comes to curriculum and instructional strategies have lots of choices to engage more kids with clear boundaries and realistic, relevant consequences. “Every plan should have a barriers-and-bridges section containing a series of Plan B’s, or alternate courses if a significant change in market conditions [clientele] takes place.”  Frank & Magnone (2011).

Assessment is another issue.  The high consequences of testing are driving more kids out of school seeking relevancy. I will again refer you to Ted Dintersmith’s (2018) book, What School Could Be.  Dintersmith has exemplars from every state.  If you want to go to college, the testing game helps.  However, only about 36% graduate from college in four years, around 60% in 6 years.

I am not suggesting being anti-data. “But numbers are a means to an end, not an end in themselves.“ Frank & Magnone (2011).  In their book, Drinking from a Firehose, the authors suggest seven questions.  I know this is a business book.  Think about the application to education. The seven Questions are:

  • What Is the Essential Business Question? Asking the right question is key to getting data that answers the problem. Charles Kettering said, “a problem well-stated is half-solved.”
  • Where Is Your Customer’s North Star? Shift your focus from what the school wants to incorporate what the students want. I know that isn’t totally possible for every student, but without student engagement, not much substantive is going to happen.
  • Should You Believe the Squiggly Line? Pay attention to the outliers. Are there commonalities among the students who are not at a level required? In one school, with a group of low scores, the commonality was many foreign-born students. Focus on what we can do, not change everything for the whole school. Accommodate those who need something different based on their experiences. Everybody learns.
  • What Surprised You? Uncover hidden information. In one district, when we looked at the data for the outliers in 8th grade, we found low scores. When we looked at the history of the class from second grade, we found this was a pattern. This is not a time to change the district curriculum based on one grade level that showed low performance.  It is time to focus on accelerating their learning.
  • What Does the Lighthouse Reveal? Identify the risks, barriers, and bridges that are possible to solve the issue at hand. It may not be the whole school or district.  Removing barriers is a great way to energize solutions and commitment.
  • Who Are Your Swing Voters? We used to call this the bubble kids. Identify students, who, with possible minor adjustments, can attain higher standards.  Again, be strategic not trying to change everything for everybody.
  • What? So What? Now What? Most of us have heard this before. The sequence can be effective as a historical perspective, a ruthless assessment of reality for the current state of affairs, and what is the plan for moving forward.

Use data wisely.  Be focused on the question.  Pick the small pebbles out of the pepper.  “If everything is important, nothing is important. “  Sara Caputo

  1. Cultural Competence & Responsiveness – In an ever-changing world, awareness, knowledge, and skills to embrace diverse cultures are imperative. Teaching pedagogy will require an expansion of repertoire to engaged learners. Edward O. Wilson, a biologist said, “diversity strengthens.”  The more perspectives we have, the better we can become.

Robert Sternberg, (1989) in his book, Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, said there are three different kinds of thinking.  First, book knowledge; second, people skills, and third, creativity. So, the question becomes,  ‘how to help kids leverage their strengths rather than only teach book knowledge in schools’ Actually we need all three to solve complex problems in our lives.  “Without diversity of beliefs, we will struggle to confront the realities of running a business [school].” Richard Sheridan

One of the best resources, I have found, is Yvette Jackson’s (2011) book, Pedagogy of Confidence. The major point is that when students do not feel confident as a learner, they tend to distract, stay away, or refuse to be engaged.  They do not want to fail or appear to be less than intelligent so their behavior is to avoid rather than look bad.  Our first task is to make sure students believe they can do the work.  Dr. Jackson’s book concentrates on high engagement strategies.  Dr. Jackson is the senior scholar at the National Urban Alliance.

This idea is supported by Barbara Frederickson’s (2009) work on Positivity. A point Frederickson makes is, there has to be a 3:1 ratio, positive to negative comments, to make a difference.  1:1 will not be sufficient.  If you are like me, I give more weight to negative comments than positive. We know from the work on positive reinforcement comments must be authentic and focused on the specific behavior or the receiver may discount the comment or believe it is manipulation.  Jackson reminds me of an African Proverb: “Not learning is bad, not wanting to learn is worse.”  Most educators have a repertoire of strategies to help kids learn.  I don’t know how to make a student want to learn.  I do know if I don’t have a relationship with him or her, it is going to be more difficult.

Dr. Jackson advances three strategies to increase the chances of learning for students.  One, Habits of Mind, dispositions by authors Art Costa and Bena Kallick.  Second, David Hyerle’s Thinking Maps.  Being able to organize information visually helps retention and gives a process that is applicable to almost any subject.  A third major work Jackson writes about is the application of brain-compatible learning activities.  All of these are in her book.

Another important process is the Restorative Practices.  Dr. Gaye Lang, who works at the Texas Education Agency (TEA) does training in restorative circles to be used in schools and classrooms.  The focus is on building respect, trust, and making agreements explicit.  Restorative Practices has been in use for quite a while and are still being effectively used in Minnesota and other states.  Contacting Gaye at TEA can be helpful for any school.  I was in a workshop with her.  She facilitated an activity on white privilege.  I was one of two Caucasians in the room and the only male. Sometimes whites feel guilted by talking about white privilege.  When feeling guilty, whites want to retreat to their rooms. Gaye’s process was meaningful, guilt-free, and gained consensus about respect to and from each other.

My belief, as a former principal, if we can’t talk about race and culture the elephant remains in the room, and we will never get clear about learning. “Fear does not make bad news go away. Fear makes bad news go into hiding.” Richard Sheridan

Get comfortable in your own skin, be authentic, and ask questions.  Don’t ignore race and culture.  Ask questions rather than make judgments. Remember, anything that gets in the way of learning needs to be addressed.  I recommend a book by Robin Diangelo (2018) White Fragility. Let’s deal with this for ourselves and our students.

  1. Community – Most times parents are left out of the process. Yes, it is hard to attract parents to participate AND it is worth it.  Strategies to keep them informed, reasons to attend school meetings, and ways to include them (even when their work is primary) will benefit students, staff, and the school community. Start thinking of parents as partners.

Children are the purpose of life.  We were once children and someone cared for us. Now it is our time to care.”                                                                                    a Cree elder

How can we help parents increase their skills?  With experience in urban, suburban, and rural schools, I know that in each culture parents are doing the best they can.  As the stress of life continues to increase, that stress is passed on to their children.  There are many parents that are doing fine.  However, there is an increasing number of parents who are having difficulty balancing their own life and being the support system they want to be for their own children.

One source for parents and something that can be a topic for parent groups is the 7 Worse Things that Good Parents Do by Friel & Friel (1999).  Make sure you assume the positive intention of the parents. Parents want the best for their kids. By wanting to make things easier for them, we sometimes err on the side of too much help rather than Goldilocks. The following are Seven of the Worst Parenting Errors:

  • Baby your child
  • Put your marriage last
  • Push your child into too many activities
  • Ignore your emotional or spiritual life
  • Be your child’s best friend
  • Fail to give your child structure
  • Expect your child to fulfill your dreams

There are suggestions for each one of these in the book.  Yes, we want the best. Sometimes getting the short-term solutions might not be the best way as teaching self-directed skills for the long-term.  Of course, we want the problems to stretch kids skills, not break them.  Strong support from the immediate caregiver is extremely important.

“Everyone’s involvement is needed to reclaim America’s children.”  David Walsh

Another source I found valuable for parents is Lythcott-Haims (2016) How To Raise An Adult – Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Here is the author’s checklist for a more independent, 18-year-old and what she calls crutches, which keeps kids more dependent.

  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to talk to strangers – faculty, deans, advisers, landlords, store clerks, human resource managers, coworkers, etc. —in the real world. The crutch: We teach kids not to talk to strangers instead of teaching the more nuanced skill of how to discern the few bad strangers from the mostly good ones.
  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to find his way around campus, the town in which her summer internship is located, or the city where he is working or studying abroad. The crutch: We drive or accompany our children everywhere, even when a bus, their bicycle, or their own feet could get them there.
  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to manage his assignments, workload, and deadlines. The crutch: We remind kids when their homework is due and when to do it.
  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to contribute to the running of a household.        The crutch: We don’t ask them to help much around the house because the check listed childhood leaves little time in the day for anything aside from academic and extracurricular work
  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to handle interpersonal problems. The crutch: We step in to solve misunderstandings and soothe hurt feelings for them.
  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to cope with ups and downs of coursesand workloads, college-level work, competition, tough teachers, bosses, and others. The crutch: We step in when things get hard, finish the task, extend the deadline, and talk to the adults;
  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to earn and manage money. The crutch: They don’t hold part-time jobs; they receive money from us for whatever they want or need;
  • An eighteen-year-old must be able to take risks. The crutch: We’ve laid out their entire path for them and have avoided all pitfalls or prevented all stumbles for them.

There are many other good sources for school personnel and parents. I more I might recommend is Try and Make Me (2002) by Levy  & O’Hanlon.  This book has very practical tips for dealing with more obstinate kids. Parenting is getting more and more complex, life for parents is getting more stressful, and parents need support too. What I do know from my experience is when the school, parents, and student is working toward the same goal, learning accelerates.

Let’s pull it together, collaborate, and communicate for our kids and country.


Baumrind, D. (1967). Child care practices anteceding three patterns of preschool behavior.         Genetic Psychology Monographs, 75 (1), 43-88.

Drago-Severson, E., & Blum-DeStefano, J. (2016). Tell me so I can hear you. Watertown, MA: Harvard Education Press. 

Frank, C. & Magnone, P. (2011). Drinking from the Fire Hose: Making smarter decisions without

            drowning in information. London: Penguin.

Fredrickson, B. (2009). Positivity. New York:  Crown

Friel, J. & Friel, L. (1999).  The 7 worst things (good) parents do. Deerfield Beach, FL:  Health        Communications, Inc.

Hammond, Z. 2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain.  Thousand Oaks:  Corwin

Hargreaves, A. & O’Connor, M.  (2017). Collaborative professionalism. Dyersburg, TN: WISE Foundation.


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