Tag Archives: voice and choice

ABC’s of School Culture


My friend James threw out this question in a tweet this week and received many intriguing responses. As I personally know many of the people who responded (not @FLOTUS obviously and am curious why @DairyQueen was included), I could see their personalities and passions reflected in their answers. I added a list of my own thoughts, but Twitter is never the place to flesh out complex ideas.

What I really wanted to say was just culture, that’s it. And if you have ever read my blog before, you know that I am passionate about integrating Social and Emotional Learning into Project Based Learning. But those are actually pedagogical frameworks to structure the ideal culture. And without the proper culture they fall flat and are ineffective.

Of course, there are many aspects of education that are complicated, nuanced, and attached to huge systems. But oftentimes what most holds educators back is a culture of fear of rejection based on the traditional perspective of how schools should function. If you have ever visited a school or class that was truly mind blowing in what students were doing, I can guarantee it had a strong culture that allowed it to deal with many of the systems and adversities that hold other schools back.

Every school has a culture, but what are the key ingredients of successful culture that should be adopted by all schools? One of the first things that young children learn are their ABC’s, as a basis for reading. Here are my ABC’s that are the foundation of a powerful school culture.

  • Action
  • Bravery
  • Curiosity
  • Caring

Culture of Caring

I know it starts with “C,”but we have to begin with caring. Kids first. Not the needs of adults in the system: control and compliance that squash individualism. Not the needs of the state: high standardized test scores that reject creativity. Not the needs of business: the economy above all else while neglecting inequities. Not the needs of curriculum: covering all of standards while boring students to death. All schools say that they care for children, but actions and school policies speak volumes.

Evidence of Caring? When it is obvious that students and adults in the building enjoy working together.

Successful schools value community and relationships above all else. Students are the customers that school is designed for, not passive objects that school is done to. Adults value empathy, not only as something to be taught to students, but modeled by involving students in all decision-making processes.

In caring schools, students and adults watch out for each other. They check in on mental health. They laugh at inside jokes. They geek out about passions and create class rituals. Social and Emotional Learning is not an add-on activity, but is integrated into the day with kids developing the competencies through authentic work. Caring is the bedrock that the rest of school culture is built upon.

Culture of Action

I am a firm believer that whoever is doing, is learning. Listening to a lecture and taking notes is NOT doing. Active learning means kids are moving, creating, experimenting, going outside, brainstorming, observing, speaking, collaborating, solving problems, asking their own questions, exploring, and making. SEL skills aren’t just being discussed, but actively practiced in their project teams.

Action means noise, not silence. Classroom management means the teacher is facilitating multiple groups doing different tasks, not watching quiet rows of compliant kids. Students aren’t “locked” in the classroom but spill into the hallways and outdoors. The room doesn’t look like a Pinterest picture, but shows evidence of student learning artifacts scattered throughout. Students are engaged in their work not bored by stale textbooks. They are creating meaningful products that reflect their learning, not cramming facts for tests.

Culture of Bravery

The overarching culture of traditional schools is control and compliance. Administrators demand it from teachers, who in turn require it from students. Great schools flip this model on it’s head and practice freedom. A culture of bravery means that districts reject everything that is not aligned to holistic student growth and learning. District level administration bravely rejects cultural and political pressure for high test scores, accountability measures, and standardization. They empower principals and teachers as professionals to design learning experiences based on students, not curriculum.

There is no fear of failure, only joy in pursuing passions.

Building principals bravely trust their teachers and support innovations that are student-focused. Flexibility is valued. Traditions are cherished when they build community, but rejected when they are only about controlling young people. Adults place student voice over compliance. Administrators are in the habit of saying “yes” to teachers and students who want to experiment and try something out of the box.

A culture of yes, also means saying “no” to harmful practices that value systems and adults over children. It means either skipping standardized tests or de-emphasizing them to the point of ignoring them; getting rid of punitive punishments and replacing them with restorative practices; and searching out and eliminating inequitable practices that harm our most vulnerable students. Based on the culture of caring, anything that gets in the way of student-centered learning is bravely eliminated.

Before every new initiative, students should be asked for input and it should be valued as the most important viewpoint. Not the placement of a token student on the school board, but actually listening to what kids think, say, and want for their education. Schools that move beyond limited choices for students to truly empowered student voice in changing their communities.

Culture of Curiosity

With the removal of so many systemic constraints, students are encouraged to pursue their passions. They ask meaningful questions about their community, engage in authentic inquiry, and seek out practical solutions. They are not preparing for the future, but contributing right now! Project Based Learning is the philosophical framework that structures and guides student curiosity around issues seeded in their community and the world.

Teachers aren’t seen primarily as content experts (although they are) but designers of master learning experiences guiding students down paths that they might not discover by themselves. Teachers are learning experts who model questioning, experimenting, and failure for students. Through PBL, students practice Transformative SEL skills as they address complex problems of the world to bring about justice. Curiosity leads to empathy of multiple viewpoints rather than one dogmatic approach. Students develop into self-directed learners who have the tools to investigate and propose solutions to any problem that they come across. They become curious leaders who never stop learning.

Questions? Interested in an SEL infused PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.

Remote Autonomy in PBL

Click image for original post explanation

This is the fifth of a series of posts about what Project Based Learning infused with Social and Emotional Learning looks like when teaching remotely. Is it the ideal situation? Probably not, but it is the reality that many of us are dealing with. I will share my ideas and what others are doing to hopefully inspire you to action.


Traditional education is centered on compliance and control, but teacher dominance is difficult during remote learning. Some teachers are still fighting to control students virtually. We see this play out in ridiculous requirements of teachers demanding that students follow dress codes, leave their cameras on at all times, and prohibit students from eating or drinking in their own homes! The thing is, teachers cannot control kids’ home environment and can’t punish kids in the typical ways of loss of recess, timeouts, or detentions. When the family pet interrupts the web meeting, and every student literally goes “squirrel” it can be hard to keep lessons on track.

One of the hallmarks of PBL and the thing that originally attracted me to the model is student voice and choice. It’s powerful when students take over the classroom, forging the learning path, instead of the teacher. Kids are plenty curious if we only give them some space to explore topics that they care about. This isn’t limited to some narrow passion of theirs either. When given some choice in relevant content, students discover many aspects of the subject matter are engaging to them.

Student voice and choice gives students multiple paths to engage themselves into content.

Voice and Choice

In his popular book, Drive, Daniel Pink shares that the three primary motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Schools emphasize mastery with hours of rote memorization of facts and practicing mathematical algorithms, but tend to neglect purpose and autonomy. Many teachers are afraid to give any freedom to students thinking that their classroom will turn into the chaos on the left side of the image at the top of this post. I would argue that the first thing to focus on is purpose.

The reason that students are always asking “Why do we have to do this?” is because they perceive that school has no relevance to their lives: no purpose. That is why PBL starts with an entry event that connects content to student lives in authentic ways. This initial hook, coupled with an audience for their final product, gives meaning to both the project and the content to be explored. Now students are ready to step into some autonomy.

After the entry event, if the rest of the project is actually just a traditional unit designed, organized, and managed entirely by the teacher, students will resist fully committing to it. But given autonomy by questioning what they will study, who they will work with, and how they will demonstrate their learning, students will engage more deeply.

Many teachers use choice boards to give students some freedom to plan their learning. It’s a nice first step, but until you empower student voice, you won’t see the true power of PBL. To be clear, students already have a voice, but schools often try to quell it instead of encouraging and amplifying it. There are plenty of topics that both connect to curriculum and are compelling to students: climate change, Covid-19, Black Lives Matter, Fake News, immigration, minimum wage, LBGTQ+ rights, to name a few. When students engross themselves in relevant topics that they can then take a stand on, they develop the Transformative SEL skill of leadership in both the school and their communities.


Staring at a screen all day is not engaging. Not even a little bit. Even playing video games or watching Netflix gets old after awhile. So in remote learning, we need to find ways to get students immersed in offline pursuits. Students can look at the history and context of any current event and consider multiple viewpoints of it. Another option is an independent project with students pursuing a personal passion. Entrepreneurship is another great project theme to help student grow SEL skills of problem-solving and collaboration.

Once you have a topic or theme (ideally with student input), plan structures to scaffold students inquiry both online and off. For live sessions, use protocols and routines, to make students’ time in breakout rooms productive. Thinking Routines don’t limit autonomy, but rather provide an organizing framework to help students be successful.

PBL provides the balance between student autonomy and scaffolding to structure inquiry.

Don’t limit the project to live, online time together. Students can engage safely in their communities through experiments, observations of natural phenomena, data collections, and surveys. Their final products can involve physical objects such as prototypes, artwork, video productions, or photo journals. Encourage students to get outside to explore nature and their neighborhoods, discovering everyday things that they may have taken for granted.

Let’s look at one specific example that could be scaled up or down from elementary to high school. Right now I have a student making maple syrup with her family. They spend hours tapping trees, collecting the sap, and then boiling it for days to make the delicious final product. Think of all of the educational connections in this activity. There is science behind the seasons and why the sap runs right now. Engineering is required to design and build the proper equipment to process the sap. Students could explore concepts such as boiling points, states of matter, and chemical changes taking place. Students could calculate how long to boil it and the proportions of how much sap is required to make a pint of syrup. There is the history behind this process and human/environmental impact of humans collecting and producing a specific food. Students might wonder why maple trees only grow in certain parts of the world. Students could study the economics of running a business and how to write a business plan to sell maple syrup. Profits from sales could be donated to a social cause that students care about.

This one simple activity is a pathway down numerous learning paths that cross content levels and age levels. What topics would be relevant to your students and community that empower student autonomy?

Questions? Interested in a PBL workshop or consulting?  Connect with me at michaelkaechele.com or @mikekaechele on Twitter.