School Change: Culture First!

CultureMy last blog talked about the comparative paucity of change over the last twenty years, across the millions of schools that exist. Yes we have seen teaching improve, yes there is more use of technology, yes we have some more modern environments.  But mostly the factory school: one teacher directing the work of 30, 40, 50 or more pupils remains.  The question is how do we move towards an environment where students are more in charge of their own learning and able to use modern technologies in more modern surroundings?

The first stance on this is to think about culture.  Culture is a weasel word and seems to mean everything and nothing.  Perhaps the best way of understanding it is as a framework or vessel within which our lives are situated.  As Glifford Geertz famously put it, ‘It’s the way we do things around here.’ And when we want to change ‘the way we do things’ the first issue is mostly that ‘we’ are not consulted very much. Somebody else has an idea about what we should be doing and decides to do it and then strategize how to get people on board.  The problem as school leaders often see it is that people don’t want to change.  Indeed this seems hard wired into our psychology and perhaps is there as a throwback to previous eras when our very survival depended on leaders making wise decisions.  The route to changing how people respond is to think about the moral purpose of what we are trying to achieve.  Second it helps if we see the culture of the school as a whole: not one culture for staff and another for pupils.

Moral purpose leads quickly to us considering the principles under which the school operates.  Most efforts end up with lines of worthy if often slightly opaque reasoning that rarely resonates with anyone.   The KIPP schools in the United States sum up their beliefs very succinctly in their slogan of ‘Work hard. Be Nice.’  These four words can become live rallying points and can be applied to both students and teachers equally.

As significant however as any slogan is the attitudes of the principal and senior managers within the school.  Bullying and hectoring behaviour quickly destroys any culture.  Wisdom is being open to people, thinking  about how to develop them and above all  not feeling threatened and remaining curious about the world.  Many principals and senior managers simply lack these skills and are unaware of their deficits.  But these skills can be learned and they should be vigorously promulgated within schools by making sure that the mundane but urgent does not crowd out the wider issues of principles, direction and meaning.

But culture is also about not simply beliefs but beliefs in action.  So leaders have to think about what actions they might undertake to  reinforce the kinds of values they stand for.  It is in the myriad little things that we do for one another that helps shape our perceptions.  Some of these are obvious when we think about it and some of them are counter intuitive.  Culture is about messaging and the environment: furniture and general layout of buildings all send messages.  An isolated display of a pupil’s work from 1993 still displayed in 2005 sent a message.  One needs fresh eyes to look at the environment and ask the question what message does it send and how can we improve it?

Can we supply coffee, tea and water for staff in industrial quantities?  Most schools would say no, yet this simple action  of giving something needed is a good example of how to build a modern culture and how to demonstrate the values of care.  I well remember a principal in a German school telling me that even a cup of coffee for a guest would have to be paid for personally by him (1 euro).  Mad but true.   And the provision of  high quality food for staff on training days is another aspect of this simple issue of care through giving.

The artist Candy Chang set up a wall in a poor part of San Francisco with the words ‘The one thing I would like to do before I die….’  inscribed and space for people to write something.  This is a great way of generating engagement from everyone.  A school might like to vary this by having a wall with ‘We could learn better here if…’ or ‘I want our curriculum to be …’ Cynicism will prompt caution but negative commentary should not put off school leaders from being brave.  Indeed such approaches chime well with the zeitgeist of today which is an egalitarian, democratic and crowd sourced approach to change.    In fact harnessing ideas from everyone both reinforces culture and often provides solutions to difficult problems.  It says loudly that in this place our views are valued and we all have a chance to play an active role.

Of course there is much more to culture than an 800 word blog.  But the key is driving out fear, being open and being fun.  School leaders have to practice being brave and when things don’t work out simply admit the error and move on.


Chris Gerry

February 2013


It’s Been Twenty Years So Where is the Change?

I suppose I must have sat through dozens of talks over the years suggesting that schools need to change, have to change, or must change.  There have been various waves of concern such as the lack of computers in schools, then the need for personalisation and latterly the switch to an on line world where empowered independent learners take full advantage of the best that the web can offer.  Allied to these exhortations have been economic concerns about international competition, the rise of the Asian economies and the need to modernise.  Faced with this blizzard of activity from politicians, pundits, technology companies and education gurus, what is remarkable is how little has actually changed.  A fortune has been spent but why have we seen only quite modest changes in schools around the world?  Yes the factory school needs to be replaced but when will this happen at scale?

There are many answers to this thorny question.  First most punditry operates at the uber global level and talks about changes to systems rather than focusing on change at the actual school level.  Understanding ‘system wide reform’ focusses educational bureaucracies on the design of various rewards and punishments to corral schools to make a variety of changes deemed necessary to improve the exam performance of pupils.  Such multiplicity of agendas and targets only serve to confuse people running schools.  One reform effort is quickly overtaken by another so the best strategy maybe to only commit to some new approaches in a modest way as it is well known that politicians are fickle and short lived in their evident quest to make a difference.  Most of these approaches are piecemeal at best.  No one seems to talk about a more joined up approach to remodelling the work of schools fit for the twenty-first century. Of which more later.

The second reason for comparative lack of change is that  organisations only change for very distinctive reasons.  These tend to be one of three: economic reasons (less cash around),  legal reasons (increasing the age of school leaving or mandating a curriculum), or technological reasons  (the arrival of computers).  Steven Pinker puts this well in The Better Angels of Our Nature :   ‘People are embedded in a culture and find meaning in its myths, symbols and epics.  Truth does not reside in propositions in the sky, there for everyone to see, but in situated narratives and archetypes that are particular to the history of a place and give meaning to the lives of its inhabitants.’  (page 186)

Whilst Pinker was not thinking about schools the analogy holds as schools exist pretty much on their own as isolated institutions who find meaning and purpose in their daily activities.  Consequently any approach to change within schools needs to understand this and consider how local meaning and culture might be adapted and changed to meet a new agenda.  More significantly perhaps advocates of change either suggest rather breezily the advantages of some total system and school redesign without giving much in the way of specifics, or they advocate something rather smaller which may be equally difficult to integrate into the life of the school.

A third difficulty for schools globally is that few of them are masters of their own destiny.  Most do not manage their own budgets but depend on an educational bureaucracy to do this for them.  Bureaucracies are naturally slow and have complex rule structures that ensure their own existence.  They are anything but agile. In one country I know of the decision to take a demountable wall down to create a larger space has taken over a year and went to the minister at one stage for deliberation.  The issue remains unsettled.

A Better Way?

We have to stop people talking about ‘propositions in the sky’ and focus on how individual schools can make changes.  But it is not institutions that make change: it is people.  The steps necessary for such change are not impossible but they are rarely spoken of.   The three components of change are the nature of the work that schools do – that is how teachers work and how students work;  the use of space within schools – perhaps not small classrooms but larger more flexible spaces; and the use of technology.    Underlying all of this has got to be an economic model whereby the school manages its own finances. To embrace the large scale changes here  schools will need to look at how they can stop doing some things and start doing others.   We can enable the whole organisation to be much smarter by incorporating technology to measure and manage the work of the school.  Additionally we need to develop these ideas alongside those who work in schools and show the advantages of embracing new technologies for learning and ensure that the whole enterprise is properly supported.

My next three blogs will show how change at the school level can happen.


Chris Gerry

February 2013