Quality Design Principle #3: Nurture a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity

“Kids don’t say, ‘I’m so stoked to make this standard today.’ They come to school because people care, there is meaningful and relevant curriculum and clear learning targets. We need to offer great teachers and engaging curriculum. For students below grade level, we have to get to know them really, really well. We want to know what motivates them because they are going to have put in extra work and time to catch up. We will customize a path for them. The bottom line is that they need to feel loved every day so that they are willing to put in some extra work every day.”

– Derek Pierce, Principal, Casco Bay High School, ME in 2015


When a culture of learning and inclusivity is in place, students and adults—including those who have been the most marginalized—are respected and empowered to take their place as an active learner within the learning community. Belonging and inclusion are built through intentional structures that strengthen trust and relationships that are then reinforced through rituals and routines. When they are respected and included, students and adults experience optimal conditions for learning and growth. Emotional engagement promotes cognitive engagement: safety and trust enable risk-taking which is critical to productive struggle. Learning ceases to be time-based, sequential and truncated. Rather, everyone continually grows with the instructional support they need to master skills and concepts, including the self-regulation and metacognition that power lifelong learning.

Key Characteristics

  • For learning through learning. Culture fosters collective responsibility for ensuring students succeed. Schools draw on learning sciences and practice continuous improvement to help students and adults learn and grow.
  • Reflection as an important step in learning. Reflection is an ever-present routine. Students reflect to build metacognition, self-regulation and habits of success. Adults participate in do-plan-act-adjust cycles to improve practice and policies.
  • Growth mindset. There is shared understanding that intelligence is not fixed and that learning requires effort and appropriate supports. Culture actively takes advantage of mistakes and failure as a part of learning and improvement.
  • Relational belonging and inclusion. Culture fosters authentic relationships between the students and teachers. Culture and strategies actively promotes trust, empathy, collaboration and social learning across all elements of diversity including culture, race, ability, social class, sexual orientation and gender.
  • Cultural responsiveness. Relationships, learning environments and learning experiences respect each student’s personal and cultural identities. Culture actively supports all stakeholders, especially adults, to identify, investigate and address unconscious bias and stereotypes.

How Is a Culture of Learning and Inclusivity Related to Quality?

A strong culture of learning and inclusivity is the bedrock of a competency-based system. Schools seek to create a culture in which students and adults feel valued, respected and have a trusting relationship—all essential for learning. Students and adults learn best when they experience a strong sense of belonging and can connect with others as they construct new knowledge. They will put forth more effort and take more risks if they feel cared for and optimistic that they can succeed.

This culture enhances the technical changes that are required to transition to a competency-based system in multiple ways. For example, it contributes to the professional culture seen in successful systems like in Finland and New Zealand where inquiry-based approaches to professional learning drive improvements in instruction and assessment. Additionally, a strong culture of learning and inclusivity challenges the assumptions and beliefs of the traditional system. By challenging notions of fixed intelligence and hierarchy, it helps to phase out the habits and routines of institutional inequity that may impede implementation of a high-quality competency-based system. Finally, it is instrumental in sustaining students and adults through the challenges of the change process itself.

The culture of learning has both individual and organizational dimensions and implications. At the individual level, research demonstrates the importance of growth mindset and positive beliefs for learning and development. Students learn optimally when they believe that they can improve with effort and support, when they believe that they are capable of learning at high levels and when they believe that learning has personal value for their lives. Mindsets and beliefs are not innate. They are malleable: they can be shaped by experiences, rituals, routines, systems and structures. In a culture of learning, features such as incentives, grades, assessments and feedback processes align to support this view of intelligence and learning.

Beliefs and mindsets are also important at the organizational level. Nurturing growth mindsets can speed and ease the transition to competency-based systems, as adults need to feel confident that they can become competent in the new instructional and leadership strategies. The culture of learning drives continuous improvement that is central to organizational learning and to creating a system of education that can quickly adapt, improve and innovate so that more students are achieving at the highest levels.

Given the broader social and historical contexts that have long shaped education systems and that continue to create inequities, creating a culture of inclusion requires intentionality. Those schools that are deliberate about disrupting inequity purposefully investigate individual bias and seek strategies to dismantle systemic barriers to equitable outcomes. They cultivate dialogue, engagement and ritual that honor and reflect students and their families thereby opening doors to genuine trusting relationships. Their goal is for all students and adults, especially the most marginalized, to feel safe and respected. At the same time, they acknowledge the existence of a dominant culture. They help students who lack fluency in the language and social cues of mainstream culture understand and navigate these systems of power, while also working to make the school culture more inclusive and empowering. Culturally responsive education strategies promote positive identity within a growth context; students and adults experience respect when they receive direct and responsive and feedback.

Policies and Practices to Look For

  • District and school leadership monitor school culture and can explain strategies to address areas of improvement. There are formal strategies to seek and apply feedback on culture including focus groups and surveys.
  • Formal structures such as professional learning communities explicitly take responsibility for culture and share strategies that reinforce the desired culture.
  • Educators work with students through an asset-based lens that views language, culture and family background as strengths that can contribute to a student’s learning.
  • Students and educators have opportunities for choice, voice and leadership within the school and school governance.
  • Students and educators see their cultural, racial, social class, sexual orientation and gender identities acknowledged, affirmed and reflected around them.
  • Educator and administrator workforce reflects the diversity of the student population and actively works toward attaining cultural competency.
  • Disciplinary policy recognizes that behavior problems are opportunities to form stronger relationships with students and address underlying issues.
  • Teachers have opportunities to work collaboratively to pursue inquiry-based professional learning.

Examples of Red Flags

The school is diverse but the staff is not. Staffing patterns send signals to students and parents about who is valued and who is not. Too often district staffing patterns do not reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. To correct this situation, districts and schools nurture a culture of inclusion in which diverse staff will want to work. They seek to open dialogue to identify routines or practices that are perceived as disrespectful or exclusionary. They upgrade hiring policies and practices to ensure a multi-racial candidate pool. They integrate culturally responsive approaches that recognize the assets everyone brings to the workplace.

Buy-in rather than engagement strategies are used in communicating with the community. Districts and schools often make decisions internally and then use strategies to market the idea to gain buy-in from the community. Engagement strategies that invite community members, parents and students to share their ideas early in a process are more likely to demonstrate respect and enhance trust. Districts that are committed to building a culture of inclusion will seek out ways to build relationships with historically marginalized groups and neighborhoods, understanding that generations of mistrust are not going to disappear overnight.

Grading practices penalize students for taking risks and failing, even when these risks and failures are part of the learning process. Traditional grading systems privilege those students who have all the prerequisite knowledge and skills and penalize students who do not. The policy that students should continue to practice and revise while receiving additional instructional support is an essential pedagogical principle aligned with the culture of learning and inclusivity. Competency-based districts that implement grading policies too soon without attention to the culture and needed technical infrastructure often turn or return to elements of the traditional grading system. In many cases what is termed standards-based grading is actually standards-referenced: students are still passed on without opportunity or supports to fully master knowledge and skills.

Source: Sturgis, C. & Casey K. (2018). Quality principles for competency-based education. Vienna, VA: iNACOL. Content in this book is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 international license.

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