From the Director of International Studies

Building a culture for learning

Ms N Smith, Director of International Studies

Language is a uniquely human gift. When we study language, we are uncovering in part what makes us human, getting a peek at the very nature of human nature. As we uncover how languages and speakers differ from each other, we discover that human natures too can differ dramatically, depending on the languages we speak. (Boroditsky, 2010, p11)

We can only know and understand through language. Students’ understanding of Japanese or German, French or Chinese culture is embedded in the understanding of the Japanese or German, French or Chinese language itself. It is through learning language that they develop awareness or appreciation of the human experience. Through interaction with young people of their age from around the world, they experience the diversity and the interconnectedness characteristic of the global village and demonstrate a cultural flexibility that acknowledges both the similarities and differences between people.

So if we teachers wish to develop students that are globally agile, culturally flexible and appreciate the diversity and connectedness of the world, how do we go about it? We can achieve this by creating an environment in which students not only learn a language but also in the process, “learn how to learn”. In this environment students are encouraged to take risks; they are encouraged to explore new ways of expressing themselves, ways they have not previously considered; they are challenged by instructive complications where there may be multiple ways of effectively communicating; they are stimulated to be engaged learners who can self-manage and self-critique their learning. In such a culture, students will recognise themselves as life-long learners.

Earlier this year, the International Studies Faculty invited Professor Erica McWilliam to facilitate a series of conversations among the staff about the skills we felt students needed to develop to enable them to self-manage their learning. It is through these conversations that the faculty has set out to build a culture of learning. How do we invite students to take control of their learning? We do this by entering into dialogue with them about learning and by inviting them to consider how they learn.

In Year 8, students are learning what it is to be a learner of language. Often they come into secondary school with a fixed but faulty mindset that they are either good or bad at languages. We want to develop in students the belief that their brains are still developing and that they can learn to be learners of language whether that be French or Latin, German, Chinese or Japanese (Trei, 2007). We want to show them that learners of language are characterised by their persistence and resilience; that they are curious about the language and the culture they are learning. We want them to see and appreciate alternative positions.  We want to encourage them to take risks and to learn from mistakes. Currently students are having the same learning conversations with their Semester 2 language teachers that they had earlier in the year with their Semester 1 teachers. This continuity and consistency in approach aims to prepare students for the continuing language-learning journey into Years 9 and 10.

What do we mean by a learning culture? A learning culture invites students to learn from instructive complication, where there may not be a single “right” answer. It also creates an environment that invites students, in the words of Professor McWilliam, to “dispassionately interrogate their learning.” That is an environment where students are encouraged to discuss the strengths and limitations of their work and actively to seek opportunities to learn from their mistakes; an environment where students engage in conversations with peers and teachers to vigorously explore strategies with which they can improve their learning. Just as we come to know and understand another culture through its language, we need to understand the culture and processes of learning through a common language understood and used by both teachers and students.

An adjunct of this common language is an understanding of someone’s preferred learning style. Last term girls were encouraged to consider whether they were visual learners: those who respond to information presented in a visual context, for example notes, images, maps and colours; audio learners: those who respond to information presented in an aural format, for example verbal instructions, conversations, or music; or kinaesthetic learners: those who responds to information that uses their bodies or sense of touch to make sense of the world around them (Chapman, 2009). In short, show me — I understand, tell me — I understand or make me do — I understand.

By developing an awareness of their preferred style of learning, of what works best for them and what doesn’t, students are not only invited to think about the learning process, but to start to take some control over their learning. They are learning how to learn. The earlier we can engage students in meaningful conversations about the learning process, the greater opportunity there is for students to become self-managing learners.

A simple example of a conversation that might take place with language students in Year 8 is around the issue of learning specific vocabulary. How do they go about learning words? Students might contribute to a whole class or small group discussion about how they learn new words. Within this context, students are actively encouraged to think about their preferred learning style, what works for them and talk about it in a language they all understand. This allows students to learn from each other, as well as from the teacher, a variety of strategies for vocabulary development.

Observing students from Brisbane Girls Grammar School engaging in conversations with students from our affiliate school, Mie High School over the past week, I was reminded that communicating in another language involves taking risks, negotiating meanings and considering alternate viewpoints but more importantly it was about connecting on a human level. Listening to the discussions and the laughter, these language learners were learning what it is to be human. By building a strong culture of learning in the International Studies Faculty and by inviting students, from when they enter Year 8, to actively engage in and self- manage their learning,  we will be on the way to developing students that are globally agile, culturally flexible and who appreciate the diversity and connectedness of the world in which they live.


Boroditsky, L. (2010, July 30). Lost in Translation. The Wall Street Journal, Retrieved 31 July, 2010, from

Chapman, A. (2009). VAK – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic learning styles model., Retrieved 31 July, 2010, from

Trei, L. (2007, February 7). Courtesy faculty member Carol Dweck discusses new study on how mindset affects learning. Stanford University School of Education News Bureau, Retrieved 31 July, 2010, from

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