Article Review: The Learning Community by Arthur Costa
Our schools will prove futile unless we create a school environment that signals to the staff, students, and community that the development of the intellect, cooperative decision making, and the enhancement of individual diversity are of basic importance as the schools core values. (Costa, 1992)
Teachers are more likely to teach students to think in an environment that they themselves find to be intellectually stimulating and cooperative. (Costa, 1992)
Creating an environment that encourages thinking should be the goal of every educational institution. Author, Arthur L. Costa who has written the article "The Learning Community," believes many factors influence teachers subconscious thinking when making decisions about teaching. Critical influences are the norms, culture and climate of the school setting in which teachers teach although other influences include the teachers cultural background, their perceptions of students and their available resources. Any effort to improve teacher instructional competency is lost unless the school climate is aligned with the goals of development (Costa, 1992). Any effort to change should focus on the structure of the workplace.
To support Costa (1992), I agree that there are many factors that influence my decisions when I am teaching. I teach in an isolated Inuit school and decisions made during teaching are obviously influenced by the differences in the cultural background of my students and myself as well as by the perceptions I have for them and the resources I can access. Despite these evident influences, in hindsight I realize that I too have been both consciously and unconsciously influenced by my workplace and the climate and culture that pervades there.
My school for example, encourages family grouping and multilevel teaching; I was able to access professional development in this area when I first started. Because this is a school goal, decisions in my teaching evolved and my lessons are designed to be open-ended so that the students can work at their own levels and help one another. In this way, the school goal of family grouping determines my teaching style. The goals of the school and the attitude of administrators toward the professional development is directly related to the way teachers teach. The hypothesis in the article by Costa (1992) is clearly stated: "Teachers will more likely to teach for thinking if they are in an intellectually stimulating environment themselves"(p.93). Therefore, any effort for change in a school has to be directed on the climate of the workplace instead on standardised testing and increased workload.
Costa (1992) believes that many schools have a bleak cognitive climate and in such a climate student intelligence decrease. Conditions which cause this depression are: 1) a feeling by teachers of a lack of control whereby power is always from the top down; 2) teaching is reduced to a recipe and this is confused with teaching excellence; 3) teachers feel isolated from others and others ideas; 4) any educational innovations are not revised and educational bureaucracy is static.
Some teachers in the north feel this bleak cognitive climate as a result of the conditions mentioned in the article by Costa (1992). Often teachers feel isolated from one another and from places that offer help and professional development. Because our board office and top administrators are based in a community five hour flight away, many teachers feel that decisions that are made affecting them do not take into consideration their personal situations. Also some of the new educational innovations like writing folders, portfolios and computer advancements have not been updated or followed through. Even though teachers are encouraged to use hands-on activities as a means of assessment, our students are primarily evaluated by paper-pencil tests. In these kinds of school climates many teachers grow depressed and lack the imagination and creativity that students so need to succeed. If the ultimate is to enrich student thinking, then schools need to think about how to create an environment that fosters thinking and gives value to professional development activities. Costa (1992) emphasis this link:
As teachers teach students to think, become more aware of conditions that promote student thinking, and become more powerful thinkers themselves, they will demand and create school climate conditions that are intellectually growth-producing as well (p.94).
This quote confirms my own motives in pursuing intellectual goals; primarily, learning in order to enhance learning in my students.
Costa (1992) proposes three environmental conditions that promote intellectual growth of all members of the school. The first of these is the evolution of a common vision shared by all of the school as a community. When all members of the school community hold a strong sense of purposefulness and vision of the future, they align their efforts towards a growth of intelligence. Beliefs in the vision are shown through shared learning and report of progress. Teachers use journals and portfolios and encourage their students to develop their thinking in similar ways. This belief in the vision affects hiring practices and professional development activities. To learn, humans need engagement and transformation which requires time, a feeling of ownership, commitment and a learning arena (Costa, 1992).
I believe that ownership of the belief is important because to really make changes, one must believe that the vision is theirs. For example, a few years ago I was encouraged to learn about the theory of Multiple Intelligence by Howard Gardner. Reading about and watching a video on the theory is not enough to make changes in my teaching practices. I had to really take the theory and make it mine, gain ownership of it to make it work. Because I have developed a strong personal vision about the value of Multiple Intelligences, I shared my insights with staff with hopes to engaging discussion with others. Schools with a common sense of vision have a lot of potential to enrich student thinking.
The second of the environmental conditions proposed by Costa (1992) is to make the processes of thinking the content of curriculum and instruction. When thinking is the focus and the vision of the school: teachers are hired that have skills in teaching thinking; teachers are encouraged to continue study in thinking; and policies lean toward thoughtful practice: "When your goals are clear, your day-to-day decisions are easy"(Costa, 1992, p.95). We need to think of thinking as a bridge between subject areas so these boundaries no longer keep staffs separated.
In my school, I have recently paired with another high school teacher to integrate English and Social Studies. Next year, I hope to overcome another traditional boundary between Science and English. It seems that the primary levels have often breached the boundaries of the subject areas in their cross-curricular thematic approach. Perhaps it is time that the secondary curriculums supported thinking as the bridge and gave more opportunity for integration.
Costa (1992) also discusses the importance of tangible support that allots financial resources to promote thinking. Money goes toward substitutes to allow teachers to coach one another and learn more about effective teaching of thinking. The whole community must "share a common goal and vision of the school as a home for the mind" (Costa, 1992, p. 96).
The third of these conditions is that schools become interdependent and cooperative communities. When schools become communities of thinkers, those within work towards being better thinkers themselves and will encourage intelligent behaviour in others (Costa, 1992). School communication emphasizes the value of thinking skills and those outside of the school are informed of the schools intent of teaching thinking. Students use portfolios and journals to share their thinking progress with their parents.
Those within the school must learn to work together in order to better understand the nature of intelligent behaviour (Costa, 1992). Teachers and administrators form committees and advisory groups which function as a way to discuss and share about skills and strategies that work. I especially like the suggestion that Costa (1992) makes to encourage teachers to visit each others classrooms and coach by giving feedback about their instructional decisions and student outcomes. This type of coaching needs to be done such that it neither is nonjudgmental nor is competitive. Unfortunately, many teachers feel great stress when peers visit; for this reason there must be a climate of trust created in the school that disseminates these detrimental feelings.
Costa (1992) emphasizes the need for an environment of trust. This trust is between people so that experiments can be conducted and shared in the class with respect to lesson designs. Teachers must have a support network in place for them to be able to take educational risks and go outside of their comfort zone. Teaching is growing and trying new ideas. Teachers should be honoured for their creativity and innovation as well as for their willingness to expand their knowledge base.
Many teachers in my school are pursuing educational goals. It is amazing what conversations and ideas have been shared by those who are striving towards educating themselves. There is far more meaningful debate and discussion of educational related information than ever before. Teachers begin to make discoveries about how they learn and how to cooperate with others. Costa (1992) believes that modelling is one valuable way for students to learn how to think. When all the adults in the school are seen as learners and share their metacognitive strategies in the presence of students, students see worth in learning how to think. I often share my ways of learning with the students so that they are encouraged to compare their ways of thinking to mine.
In summary, I found this article to highlight a number of areas that I have considered important in the teaching of thinking to my students. I have seen a change my own ways of thinking and teaching since I have pursued further course work. Subsequently, my students are able to see value in life-long learning habits. Many of the ideas expressed by the author are valid and accessible for teachers. This article is ideal as an initiator of staff development discussions.
Costa, A.L. (1992). The learning community. In Costa, A., Bellanca, J. & Fogarty, R. (Eds.). If Minds Matter: A Foreword to the Future. vol. 1, (pp. 93 - 101) Illinois: SkyLight Training and Publishing, Inc.