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


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