How do you change school culture?

How can the culture of a school be changed? I was recently asked this question by Tyler Rice, a teacher whose ideas, beliefs and practice I admire and with whom I have collaborated from the other sides of the globe, although we have never met. Here’s my response…

Dear Tyler

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.


14 thoughts on “How do you change school culture?

  1. Interesting post.
    For me, the change has to come from everybodies input. I’ve been in several schools where everything is directed in a top down fashion. Few people are consulted and if they are it’s often superficial. I worked in one school however where almost every decision made that would affect staff was done in meaningful consultation with them. Where it affected the kids, their input was sought. Where it affected the community, there input was sought and so on. It took a lot longer to get things done and make final decisions but when they were made, everybody was onboard and motivated and knowing the direction they were headed in so in the long run things worked out better, the changes were longer lasting and actually taken up.


    1. Including key payers in the decision making process is so important. But the challenge is to find positive and effective ways of doing it that don’t consume unnecessary time and also that keep people focused on what’s important. Our learning principles are helping us do that, I think!


  2. So many important points in your list Edna and a wonderful reminder that we have so much more than content to think about.

    I think Carol Dweck’s work on fixed and growth mindsets is relevant. I think that’s tied up in your ‘Learners need to feel secure, valued and able to take risks.’


  3. Influencing positive change relevant to school culture is a particular interest of mine, so when John Evans tweeted this post this morning, I scooted over to take a peek. Thank you for sharing McTighe’s visual. It demonstrates how different components align to and can support one another well. Much of what I”m learning about changing culture attends to vision and growth of professional dispositions. Your exploration of learning principles is compelling and connects to this so well. Sometimes, beginning with vision can be daunting. That’s a massive conversation, after all. Targeting learning principles provides a pathway into this work that is a bit tighter but very powerful.


    1. The telling phrase is this one… ‘Sometimes, beginning with vision can be daunting.’ So true. But if we don’t know WHY we do what we do, how can we know how to do it better?


      1. I completely agree. Leading with learning principles may provide a more accessible pathway toward visioning for those who are overwhelmed. For instance, you could begin by establishing principles and then review them to consider the vision that is emerging FROM them. I tend to begin with vision and then work toward finer understandings/outcomes/goals/indicators. You have me thinking here…..


  4. I love how you say exactly what I would like to be able to say, but often feel so frustrated that I cannot get the words out. Living in Mexico, and working in its extremely traditional school system has often turned me tongue-tied.

    The learning principles which you list are mine and I share them freely in my teacher-training class. The trainees have a hard time grasping these concepts after years of sitting passively in nailed down chairs and desks. One of the trainees works in a middle school where the nuns come running to see why there is a commotion when there is an EFL speaking activity.

    In my own situation, I struggle without an IP in my building, with red tape and separate deskchairs on which you can’t lay paper down to work collectively the ‘old-fashioned’ way and get flak from the tenured teachers who spend more time outside of their classrooms than inside them. Top-down is the order of the land, and my students never know what to do at first with themselves with only guidance instead of being led by the nose.

    My history:
    -14 years as a Languge Coordinator banging my head against the wall in a primary school to get permission to put Internet in the computer lab. Now that I left, they got it, but don’t have a savvy coordinator who knows how to put it into practice, and is scared of the Internet.
    -being not rehired at the most ‘prestigious’ private university in my locale although I won a national award from the national directors and participated in online international conferencing, because my immediate superior felt threatened by the way I taught my classes, got results and basically ‘overstepped’ my boundaries.
    -past six years working at public university trying to implement different learning principles.

    My conclusion: change comes through example, perseverance and tenacity. Thank goodness for Edna and her clear concise way of expressing and sharing. You give me help in my day towards collaboration, investigation, differentiation and interaction.

    Learning principles like these include all learners. In many cultures we have a long row to hoe before all learners are included and even taken in consideration for inclusion.

    Sorry about the rant. And thanks for the wonderful words. Your post will be shared by as many as possible.


    1. Thanks for sharing, Ellen. I’m learning so much from you too. It’s easy to get comfortable in one’s won reality and forget about the way things look in other places. That last sentence ‘ In many cultures we have a long row to hoe before all learners are included and even taken in consideration for inclusion’ reminds me to think abut learning in other contexts. (Awaiting your post!)


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  6. Hello Edna,
    I loved your post and your blog in general. My name is Kevin White and I am enrolled in Dr. Strange’s EDM310 class at the University of South Alabama. I like you idea about having set learning principles and I love their content. Also I think it is a great idea to have a set of learning beliefs that is easily reference-able to help set a standard on learning.
    Thanks so much,
    Kevin White


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