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



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.