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Leadership and Activism

How do you change school culture?

How can the culture of a school be changed? I was recently asked this question by Tyler Rice and  I responded with a letter (cross-posted here) to which I await his reply.

Dear Tyler (and educators at Coop Catalyst!)

It’s taken a few days of thinking to even begin to formulate a response to this huge question. I’m sure a quick search would uncover thousands of books and articles, whose authors have thoroughly researched the topic and whose ideas have been widely tested in a variety of educational settings. I’m certainly not an expert. I can, however, examine my own experience and context and share the factors which I think have influenced the culture of my school. Hopefully your responses will push my thinking further and we can explore some ideas together, with input from everyone else out there reading along…

One thing I believe is having a powerful impact on our school culture has been articulating our shared beliefs about learning. Can you be a successful teacher if you don’t know what you believe about how learning occurs? Can a school function effectively if the core beliefs about learning are not shared by key players? 

I  came across this diagram at a workshop presented by Jay McTighe on whole school change. At first I didn’t think we needed a statement of our learning principles. I thought we already knew what we believed. I thought we could work from there forward and not waste time spelling it out.  

Developing those principles turned out to be a valuable process, however. We can refer to them at any time and know we are speaking the same language. When people disagree on learning related issues, we have a documented statement of our school’s beliefs to which we can refer. We can try to ensure these beliefs underpin all important decisions. Our learning principles form the foundation on which we plan and build our teaching and learning experiences. We’re working hard at helping teachers apply them in our new open-plan learning environment. The principles have helped support the gradual implementation of technology in a meaningful way. 

I’ve blogged before about the process of establishing our learning principles. We are constantly unpacking what they look like in practice, during conversations, collaborative planning and teacher PD sessions.

Our learning principles: 

Can articulating shared learning principles help ensure a positive culture in a school? I look forward to hearing what you think.


About whatedsaid

Teaching and Learning Coordinator at an IB PYP school in Melbourne, Australia. I'm a teacher, a learner, an inquirer...


11 thoughts on “How do you change school culture?

  1. Yes! Sharing goals and principles is step 1 (IMHO) for building a strong school culture. Love what you all came up with!

    Posted by Ktenkely | April 26, 2011, 11:36 pm
  2. I agree with you E. If you don’t articulate what you’re there for then you run the risk of leaving folks behind & then change will not happen. In order to articulate it of course you need to have thought about it & that will also add clarity. Really interested in the reply you get!

    Posted by jfb57 | April 27, 2011, 3:54 am
  3. I want to be very positive about this issue, because I think that it is crucial to school success.

    I agree with others that this is an ideal first step, and one that is “ideally” organized by school-based leadership. But, what do you do if you’re not in an official leadership position? How do you engage colleagues for whom this sort of conversation is not on their radar?

    Here in Ontario, we were having these sorts of conversation prior to 1995. Over the past 15 years, however, there has been a distinct change in our attitude towards visionary conversations. I think that this is due, for the most part, to the fact that the adoption of a top-down management approach to education has turned local schools into fairly passive receivers of teaching goals, curriculum and even practice. A new generation of teachers growing into the profession under a tightly controlled system of school change hasn’t really been forced to think about their own personal values around teaching and learning, let alone engaging in conversations about group goals and principles.

    That said, I don’t think that there is a time in the history of education where this conversation is more important. In fact, I believe that it is the key to real transformation. I also believe that some meaningful work in this regard will allow teachers, as professionals, to begin to stand up and look critically at what is being done in the name of reform!

    School culture is a stubborn thing, and new teachers coming into an already-established environment find it easier to blend in than try to change things. This is particularly true when there is very little movement within districts, as is the case in our particular province right now.

    But the question was not, “Can you change school culture”, but “How can you change school culture?”

    I am finding that, on our staff, an appreciative inquiry approach that seeks to have participants reflect on stories of when their classrooms have been in a real state of flow has been a very positive thing. By reflecting on when we’ve been at our best, we can get in touch with our strengths, individually and as a group, and begin to look for ways of building a culture and environment where those “peak” moments occur more often.

    This “positive” approach to reflection can be helpful in asking about the values and principles that ground those “high” moments, and this can result in very rich and fruitful conversations.

    One step on a very difficult and somewhat contentious journey.

    Posted by Stephen Hurley | April 27, 2011, 5:19 am
  4. Buy-in is essential; a powerful and inclusive statement of learning principles can go a long way toward initiating community and accountability.

    Teacher-led, inquiry-based action research also produces a high percentage of implementation and fidelity to the solutions that teachers find for their classrooms and schools. Changing professional development changes practice and culture – ask the National Writing Project.

    I’m also going to re-state a few beliefs of mine about grouping:

    There’s no incentive for changing a school’s culture if it sees kids the same way and group[s them the same way and schedules them the same way and “teams” teachers the same way.

    I believe the single most powerful way to change school culture is to give students AND teachers choice about what to learn, how to learn, and how to group themselves. At the very least, teachers should be able to self-group into truer teams than those that administrators assign. Student and parent satisfaction with some teams will influence others to change or leave. Student and parent choice should also begin at the classroom level. While no teacher can teach 500 kids in a school, an administrator can decide between hiring more teachers like those providing the most authentic and engaging teaching and learning and hiring teachers whose styles demonstrably clash with the learning preferences of the school’s students and parent advocates.

    Teachers, students, and parents should be able to recombine division resources to bring together the pieces of the schools they want. By all means, let stakeholders create a school that is proud of its test scores, but also let them create schools that don’t give those tests another thought as their student perform community service, run multi-media studios, and work in giant cross-disciplinary rooms full of kids engaged in inquiry projects.

    We have the people, pedagogies, buildings, and materials to reinvent school systems and their cultures tomorrow. Changing school culture, to me, isn’t a matter of how. It’s a matter of will. When will we do it? Who has the will to do it?

    There’s not an easy decision anywhere in there, but when the easiest decision to make is to do nothing and hope you pass the tests, it’s no longer time for easy decisions.

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 27, 2011, 8:38 am
  5. I have been thinking and learning a lot about culture and climate in schools. I think it is the critical first step in changing a school. First of all as Chad mentions there has to be staff buy-in. Without it there will be no real change. As Stephen references this is not simple.

    I do agree with Chad that choice is a crucial step in buy-in. If staff are given a voice in creating the learning culture this will help immensely.

    I think another way to create buy-in is to visit another school. For example myself and my new colleagues go to visit a PBL school for two days for observations and training. I left feeling that anyone who could see that school in action would change their paradigm about how education could look.

    I also know that this school did not just happen like this, but we were told over and over about the importance of establishing the culture the first week of school and continuing to teach it throughout the school year.

    Posted by Mike Kaechele | April 28, 2011, 12:14 pm
  6. i guess to an extent it depends what type of culture you are seeking.

    i’m thinking we have managed to become a culture of distrust. we are constantly playing defense, making policies and standards to ensure that people do the expected. testing to measure and rate and categorize, to whatever extent, even if the data is inaccurate and/or doesn’t even measure what we truly desire. forced, compulsory, tedious rules create and further stabilize a culture of distrust. expected outcomes reinforce mindless activity/inactivity. i’m thinking, not a difficult maneuver. this is/was an easy culture to change into.

    on the other hand, say, if we were so inclined to create a culture of trust, i’m thinking it might only happen through disruption. (per Clay Christensen’s definition – )
    a culture of trust won’t come through any sales pitch, mandate, or pretty picture. like you all have mentioned, choice empowers. it fertilizes trust relationships. just as any agenda messes with the seemingly invisible essence of trust, choice demonstrates an interaction and acknowledgment of human spirit. the more choice you offer me, even if i could fail big time, and probably will often, the more i might just blow you away with my inner drive to give back. this culture, while i believe is our most natural tendency, exists in rarity. since we now need to regain, rather than just create, this appears no quick fix. we want to push this culture on people. we know it’s best. yet, pushing will only build/create a false sense of being there. we’ll mindlessly go through the deemed activities of whatever acronym or buzzwords our district/state chooses as an intervention plan. many will pretend, mimic, but we most likely won’t become hungry for more, until it’s our choice. human connection is alluring enough. we need to trust that. we crave belonging. we want to do things that matter and help others. Clay Shirky’s example of the day-care centers really brings this home for me.

    how do we create a culture of trust? by trusting. by modeling trust in ourselves and in others. by not compromising or giving up when things or people fail. disruption is difficult because when we’re in the long tail of the increasing exponential curve, we think we’ll never get to a visible upward momentum. it seems we’re not making progress. our endurance through that long tail without selling out, however, is what will get us to a culture of trust. (see graph on the wikipedia page for disruption linked above.) a culture that understands the true essence of nclb. one that honors each individual’s choice for what they don’t want to be left behind of.

    Posted by monika hardy | April 29, 2011, 2:23 am
  7. Your question reminded me of some of my own (futile) efforts to alter the culture of the Baltimore City Public School I worked at. One of which was to write an article in the school paper intended to provoke a conversation. Like many things at the school it generated some great thoughts but lacked significant follow-up. Here you go, enjoy! (the italics and bolds did not transfer over and I don’t know how to use the html tags)

    Title: Who Are We?

    Can you answer this question? I cannot.

    Who are we?
    • We are one of the best high schools in the nation, according to U.S. News & World Report.
    • Yet we score far below students at Baltimore’s private schools on standardized tests.

    • We are receiving college acceptance letters for 100 percent of our graduates.
    • Yet we are not sending our scholars to the country’s best universities and colleges.

    • We are subject to non-negotiable rules.
    • Yet we support student activism and challenging the rules.

    • We are one of the most intelligent and caring staffs in any Baltimore City public school.
    • Yet we are frustrated, pointing fingers of blame at each other for the state of the school.

    • We are professional. Scholars are succeeding at internships designed for college students.
    • Yet we are fighting in the hallways, bathrooms and classrooms daily, behavior that would get one fired from any job in the professional world.

    • We are respectful. We kindly acknowledge each other in the hallways.
    • Yet we are incapable of holding an assembly where people listen to each other. We talk over our peers in class.

    • We are full of initiative. Teachers start afterschool clubs. Scholars fuel protests covered by the press.
    • Yet we are full of inactive clubs. Two out of three students do not participate in afterschool activities.

    • We are determined. Scholars overcome extraordinary difficulties at home to educate and better themselves.
    • Yet we are not meeting standards, despite extra support that is extraordinary for Baltimore schools.

    • We are enthusiastic. We support our community at talent shows with tremendous positive energy.
    • Yet we sleep and do not pay attention in class.

    Who are we? We are all of these conflicting things, and we are not happy about it.
    Some of you may look at something written above and say, “Well I don’t do that.” But if we are a community that takes responsibility for everyone, then we must own our triumphs and our failures.
    Here is the good news: There is no need for today to be the same as yesterday. We are not enslaved by the past. Our mission states that we should immediately participate in transforming our communities, so, let’s start right here, right now, at BFA.
    We can not move forward, we can not reach our enormous potential – and it is enormous — until we have a common baseline. It is time for us to have a conversation in the hallways, in class, in advisory, after school and at home. It is time to voice our frustrations, ideas and our solutions. It is time to listen to each other, be open-minded and creative. It is time to passionately argue, disagree and eventually compromise on a unified vision.

    It starts with a question:

    Who are we?

    And more importantly,

    Who do we want to be?

    Posted by Corey Brooks | April 29, 2011, 6:41 pm
  8. Thanks for all the responses. Tyler has responded to my letter here
    I realise that my opinions and ideas are based on the quite protected version of reality in which my experience has been. His reality is a very different one. Lots to think about…

    Posted by Ed | April 30, 2011, 7:57 pm
  9. Ed,

    While the reality of your school experience may be different from mine, that does not mean the learning principles you outlined are any less relevant. In fact, I think that is the power and beauty of well-designed learning principles; they are transcendent across many contexts.

    I would draw particular attention to these:
    *Learners need to feel secure, valued and able to take risks.
    *Learning needs to be challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging.
    *Learning takes place through inquiry: questioning, exploring, experimenting and problem solving.

    Children of poverty absolutely need these 3 principles (along with the others you outlined, as well).

    Children of poverty must feel safe in school; for many it is their only safe place.

    Children of poverty deserve to be involved in challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging learning just as much as any other student. Sadly, this is too often not the case. Children of poverty typically receive absolutely teacher-centered, controlling instruction. See Martin Haberman’s “.”

    Inquiry (in my humble opinion) is the best way to make learning challenging, meaningful, purposeful and engaging while also differentiating for different learners. Again, kids of poverty rarely get these opportunities.

    I love where I work, yet I’m consumed with a burning desire for my school to do better for our kids.

    Posted by Tyler Rice | May 1, 2011, 1:36 pm
  10. I am not sure if this is the correct forum, perhaps you may have suggestions for me. I am a theology teacher at a small Catholic school. I am a board member at a very large public school where my daughter attends. Our executive board would like to begin conversation on changing the culture at the public school. The challenges we see currently at school that could hinder our kids from growing into good productive citizens are behaviors such as,
    teachers addressing student behavior using expletives, overall inappropriate language in school, students eating in the classroom, using cell phones when their work is completed, students who are not taking classes come in and sit in on other classes and eat with teacher’s permission and welcoming attitude, etc.
    Not sure where to start, how to get teachers and students to buy into a change.
    Any suggestions of where to start or where to go would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    Posted by rel121 | October 2, 2012, 9:18 pm


  1. Pingback: How do you change school culture? | Tankduckett's Blog - May 20, 2013

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