Changing school culture…

How can school culture be changed?  This huge question was asked by Tyler Rice and I expressed my thoughts in a letter to Tyler posted a week or so ago. He replied in a post on his blog and I have been thinking all week about how to respond.

Dear Tyler

You raise some huge issues which I understand must be all-consuming in a setting such as yours.  As you know, my experience in education has been very different from yours and I wouldn’t even presume to try to address these:  ‘How are failing schools turned around?’ and ‘What shifts take place that prepare kids for a life beyond high school while also keeping them in school?’

I’ll attempt to answer the question you’re specifically asking me... how to go about creating learning principles that are the ‘right’ principles while also getting all teachers to buy in? We know you can’t force people to buy in to anything. So, how do you get everyone on the same page?”

Start small. Influencing culture and instigating change is a very, very slow process.  Don’t even try to shift the people you can’t change (yet?)

Collaborate with a handful of teachers who share your beliefs (even if there are only two of you! ) Focus on the students. Focus on the learning. Explore the learning principle that really resonates with you,  that ‘Learning takes place through inquiry’. I know you have had success in this area already and I know you realise the value of reflection along the way and of including students in the reflection processs. But I strongly suggest you don’t try to persuade your ‘textbook teachers’ to make a drastic shift into inquiry-learning  in one leap.

Work with those who are even slightly open to change. Establish a small group of people who will at least talk and listen. Agree on one or two learning principles that you share, such as ‘ Everyone learns in different ways’ and Learners need to feel secure in order to learn. Unpack these to see what they might look like in practice within your school context and what steps might lead towards their meaningful implementation. Create an atmosphere of trust. Build a common language. Have one conversation at a time. Recognise people’s issues, fears and concerns and make sure they know they are being heard.

Take it slowly. It might take some time before you are ready to explore inquiry learning as an option with this group. It should follow on from the one or two principles you have already established. Student centred learning is really hard for people who are entrenched in the ‘teacher is the boss of learning‘ way of thinking. You need to go very slowly, demonstrate one little aspect of letting go, at a time. Use the gradual release of responsibility (model, share, guide, apply) without any judgement.

Try and get admin involved, without them feeling they are responsible for change. Show them what the core group is achieving with one student, in one classroom at a time. Try and get them to work and learn with you in the second group.

Empathise. Remember that we teachers are not that different from our students. We all learn in different ways, are at different levels of understanding and experience, come from different backgrounds, have our own issues.  Like with our students, if we want to instigate change,  first we need to form relationships, understand where individual teachers are at, what baggage they bring, how they learn best, what their passions are.

I really have no idea if my suggestions will work in your context, but I hope you will find something useful that you can apply. Thanks for the opportunity to think this through for myself, as much as for you!

By the way, I loved  your overarching question: ‘ How do we honor the uniqueness of every student while ensuring that each is developing a skill set and knowledge base that will prepare them for higher learning and responsible, informed citizenship?’  Isn’t this the question every single educator should be asking themselves every single day? Don’t we address some aspect of it in every unit we plan, in every lesson we teach, in every relationship we form with our students, in every decision we make in our schools



10 thoughts on “Changing school culture…

  1. Dear Edna,
    I love everything you have written in this post, every suggestion you have made. We can all learn so much from this – start small, work with the willing, take it slowly. All schools, no matter how good, have things that need to be changed and people who need to be brought on board. Thank you so much for all you have written.


    1. Thanks for sharing the poem, Robert. I’ll pass it on to Tyler. I think the idea of ‘start close’ can apply in many contexts. It works well for teaching and learning too, don’t you think?


  2. There are many views on what education is and this is the issue you are thinking about – how to shift culture to your point of view.

    Is your point of view any more valid than others.

    Culture is the circulation of meaning in a community – how people interpret and act – this is highly individualistic to circumstance so each school will have a different culture.

    Cconversation”, dialogue etc are important in shaping culture and I agree with your approach to this.


    1. Martin,

      I would like to a shot at trying to define a “school culture” that might be context independent.
      Let’s say a culture can be framed as the explicit and tacit rules that govern communication in it’s largest sense.

      By largest sense I’m framing the physical and emotional environment as “communicating” In addition to speech acts and communication through various mediums such as computer screens, voice and Print. i think this is worth a longer conversation to clarify. ( Might be interesting to try some “twitter tennis” as we both have time. ) But for purposes here, I ask you to take that as given.

      My thought is that if a culture is organized around the needs of child, every individual child, how it plays out in the many contexts is up to the needs as expressed in those local communities.

      As i read Edna’s post, my takeaway is that at the deepest level, it is Common Sense Rigorously Applied in the Service of Every Child.

      At that most fundamental level, I think it’s fair to say that what Edna has described is how this most basic Culture has played out in her experience and that techniques that have worked there, could be modified depending on local realities to work in any school in every context.

      I am very interested in any thoughts you might like to share. Either in this thread, on twitter, or wherever is easiest.


    2. Hi Martin

      Thanks for your comment. No suggestion of ‘my point of view’ at all or that it is ‘more valid’ than anyone else’s. It’s a response to Tyler’s question in his context, but I think the points are quite general, as Maggie says above, and can work in any context of implementing change. I stressed too the need to listen to everyone and take their perspectives into consideration. It’s not about forcing a point of view… it’s about generating change.



  3. Edna, I whole heartily agree with your approach to change. The lasting changes I have seen over the years in education have all been accomplished at a very slow pace. One reason is because each change requires a period of adjustment and the cycle repeats. This change/adjust takes place on a personal level as pointed out by Robert offering the poem Start Close In by David Whyte. I concur with you for those leading any change. Work with those individuals that are open and see positive possibilities of the new direction or new approach. As you stated we are learning and changing at different rates, so be open to each individual’s reflection and adjustment time. Change that is going to stand the test of time takes place one person at a time.
    So I would say to Tyler Rice, find your nucleus of believers. Begin the dialogue with them. Try to enjoy the process remembering to celebrate each step forward along the way.


  4. Hi Edna, great conversation here. I (we) have been touting the virtues of #edukare for some time now. This post details some “on the ground” outcomes of a paradigm shift that is customizable and transferable to any context. There is no folly in taking a position on how we feel schools should look, but there is also great value in embedding elements of adaptability in the positions we take toward school reform (not a means to an end, but a process that should never cease… always a better way.)
    Cheers for broaching the topic. We’re in the midst of a cultural shift in my school. covers our views on creating an empathic school, and we have officially shifted to an inquiry focused, science and tech based school context over the last two and a bit years. Our journey continues


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