In the first half of Ron Berger’s terrific book, An Ethic of Excellence, the author beautifully describes many aspects of building a “culture of excellence.” Excellence is not about individual achievement as much as creating a culture and building a community where a certain quality of work is valued and expected. I love much of what Berger has to say about this. He rightly positions community, culture and relationship within any definition of achievement or success. I am particularly moved by Berger’s references to communities of caring and the importance of service learning. In describing a project with a nearby school for the deaf, he writes about the children in his class: “they will have the proud memory of being a part of one of the greatest human endeavors: showing kindness in hosting and caring for others…it expanded the notion of excellence to include excellence as a human being.” Caring, kindness and community. Right on!
Where Berger leaves me a bit flat, however, is when he seems to forget these key points and focus on “excellence” as evidenced by high quality work only. He even goes so far as to suggest “using” (manipulating?) his high-functioning classroom community by tapping into “positive peer pressure” to encourage (coerce?) the desired quality of work.
I must say, when I taught public school elementary classes of thirty or so kids, I relied on such “positive peer pressure” often. It is so easy, and so incredibly effective. We had a bonus recess that the kids got, as a whole class, not awarded individually, at the end of each week for “good” work and behavior. We’d start the week with 10 minutes on the board. Then every time I had to wait for individual kids during a slow transition, or every time someone was talking out of turn or interrupting, I’d take a minute off the whole class’ bonus recess. Conversely, an exemplary transition or work period might lead me to add a minute. And the kids would do literally anything for that minute! And they’d apply severe peer pressure to the kid or two who stood in the way of their recess minutes. Those kids – always the same couple, were vilified and it worked to modify their behavior. They got their act together and caused fewer disruptions. What was “positive” about the peer pressure was that it achieved my objectives. And we did have a culture of “excellence” there. Using all kinds of extrinsic motivators, including positive peer pressure, we were able to lead kids to produce very high quality work and they were willing to jump through any and all hoops.
But by in large, I feel that it was a soulless place to learn and work. My goals now are more toward nurturing curiosity and developing intrinsic motivation growing out of self-knowledge and inquiry. I am more interested in building a culture of healing, of wholeness, of authenticity or integrity, and of caring in my school. As Berger says, “the power of the culture rests in community.” So let’s strive to ensure that it is a culture of caring as much as excellence and that it is a community of truth, not only one of achievement.
For those that haven’t read Berger’s book yet. Here are a couple of videos which might give you a sense of his work.
What do you think? Do you agree that culture is critical to learning? What kind of culture are you trying to build?