Developing a Clean(ish) Culture in the Classroom

Applications of Clean

Article by Julie McCracken


Working with young children in a classroom can teach us a lot about, well… working with young children! It can also teach us a lot about ourselves, about learning and about working and interacting with human beings, whatever their age and context. When I was planning for the Clean Language Conference 2009 I considered presenting an overview of 6 areas where Clean Language or Clean Approaches have had an impact in my work with 5, 6 and 7 year olds and how the lessons learned can be usefully applied in adult contexts for…

  • thinking skills
  • classroom management
  • creativity (including writing, art etc)
  • confidence & self esteem
  • conflict management
  • assessment for learning / personalised learning / target setting

However, in the event and in response to the interests and questions of the participants, we actually looked in much greater detail at just one area: how to go about setting up a clean(ish) culture in the classroom in the first place. The following is a summary and I hope it will inspire you to adapt it to your own purposes whether that is in education, business, management or coaching – with young, old or anyone between.


  1. We start off at the beginning of the year listening to short (3 minute) recordings of stories for children to visualise. We lie down on the floor with little fluffy blankets, relaxing and imagining the rich scenery being described. Children then make drawings of their visualisations. We call this ‘Joyful Imaginings’. When they are familiar with Clean Language questions (see 2 below) the children begin to spend a little time using them to ask each other about their drawings.
  2. During Show & Tell sessions (where children bring in, show the class and talk about items of interest) I model asking open and closed questions then we notice and talk about the effect these have on the receiver. The class then asks questions of the speaker, the speaker replies and gives feedback on the quality of the question (ie “Good question!” – “It made me think.” – thumbs up etc)
  3.  ‘When I’m Learning At My Best.’
    The adults in class take every opportunity to get children to notice when they are in good learning states and this continues ad hoc for as long as it takes for children to become familiar with their good learning states and to recognise them.
  4.  Draw “When I’m learning at my best, I’m like… ? “
    The teacher asks the children, adults and self to remember a time when they were learning at their best, having given them lots of experiences to draw on (see above) and spent time talking about learning experiences such as learning to ride a bike, to dance etc. The teacher then asks, “and when you’re learning at your best (like that) you’re like what? The children are then invited to draw their response.
  5. The children and adults ask Clean Language questions of each other’s drawings following which, they up-date, their drawings. The questions they ask are, “What kind of…?” “Is there anything else about…?” “Where/whereabouts is…?” 
  6. The children and adults share their drawings and talk to each other about their ‘learning at their best’ experiences and an adult scribes their description if child wants them to (they usually do) I’ve found they usually want it written on their picture although some don’t want it written – or do want it written but not on their picture – and that’s ok – it’s their stuff!

NB : Throughout, I use music at times in the classroom to communicate the mood of the lesson and encourage non-verbal communication. We have fast paced ‘tidy up’ music; slower ‘busy beaver’ music to work to (which is 60 beats per minute and encourages alpha brain waves for an optimum learning state) and peaceful ‘whisper work’ music which signals that we all talk in whisper voices and this promotes a really peaceful atmosphere for quiet concentration. We love this for painting and handwriting!


Getting from ‘When I’m learning at my best, I’m like what?’ to ‘When we’re learning at our best, it’s like what?’ (where ‘it’ refers to the whole classroom environment) 

  1. We display the children’s ‘When I’m learning at my best’ drawings, for a period of time, to allow them to become very familiar with them. We refer to them throughout the course of the day ie “Danny, what needs to happen for you to be ‘climbing that ladder’ like that now?” (gesturing to Danny’s drawing  of himself ‘climbing the ladder’, learning at his best.)
  2. We share our drawings and verbal descriptions then choose significant words (eg flow, noisy, quiet, singing, still, dancing, peace, jumping) and list them, noticing how many of them are at odds with each other, and wondering (out loud) how we can have all these contradictory things in the same space at the same time.
  3. The teacher asks, “What needs to happen for all of this… (gesturing to the list) here…(gesturing around the whole room)?  For all of this… (gesturing to the list) to happen in here… (gesturing around the whole room) for all of us… (gesturing to all children and adults) to be learning at our best, like this… (gesturing to their drawings)? This question sometimes needs to be repeated a couple of times to enable children to hold the whole of it in their heads – the gesturing helps a lot. The teacher then asks (incredulously!), “How can we have noisy AND quiet; dancing AND still? This continues, building ideas for the collective landscape slowly in small chunks, considering everyone’s symbols and making adjustments to include all symbols. Lots of changes will occur as the landscape develops and becomes inclusive.
  4. We go on to build the landscape in 2D or 3D through painting, collage or whatever we choose.
  5. We make 3D (or 2D) versions of the symbols. This gives the children an additional opportunity to explore and talk about their learning experiences and consider the details of their symbol.
  6. We place our symbols where they need to be on the landscape. The teacher asks, “And when you’re learning at your best like that… (gesturing to the individual’s symbol) and this…(gesturing to the landscape), where would you like to be?”  I’ve phrased the final part of this question in a variety of ways (ie “where would you like to place yourself?” or “where would you like to put yourself?” or “where would you like to put your symbol?”) and as yet do not have a clear preference so continue to explore it. Different forms seem to suit different individuals.

Of course, in terms of pure Clean, you will no doubt have noticed that this is far from spotless and so the exploration continues. Please do use this as a springboard for your own explorations. I will be very pleased to receive your comments and reflections on this – and I’d love to hear about your own experiences, in your various environmental contexts, as well.

 Julie McCracken


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