Fostering a School Culture for Learning

Fostering a School Culture for Learning

Common Core“If you attempt to implement reforms but fail to engage the culture of a school, nothing will change.”    — Seymour Sarason

As a frequent traveler, I am fortunate to visit a lot of new places and, given the work I do, I am always looking for evidence of culture. Culture is defined as the unwritten beliefs, customs, and traditions held by a group. Think about the last time you walked into somewhere new—a business, restaurant, school, doctor’s office. How did it feel? What helped you learn about their “culture”? By what was on the walls? How were you greeted? By how the space was arranged? By how you were treated? How they treat each other? Now think about your school. What do these aspects of culture say about your school?

Many school reforms have not been successful or sustainable because culture has not sufficiently been addressed before initiating the change process.  For years, we have recognized the importance of school culture while failing to make substantial and sustainable changes to it.  The question becomes—do you have a culture for teaching or a culture for learning? How do you know? How do you currently measure your culture at the district, school, or classroom level? Where do you start? Is your culture reflected in your student achievement data?

Culture controls behavior and impacts student achievement. Given its importance, how do we foster a culture of learning?

Leaders should provide a vision/direction along with creating a connectedness to this vision among staff. There are many components needed to recreate a culture for learning in our schools. Here are a few questions to get you thinking:

  • Are all teachers responsible for all students’ learning?
  • Do we have collaboration among all in the school building?
  • Is our culture supportive? Are people positive?
  • Are we creative problem-solvers?
  • Are we engaging in metacognitive discussions as educators? Are we causing our students to be metacognitive about their learning?
  • Do we have high expectations for success for ALL students?
  • Do we have a “whatever it takes” attitude? Do we find a way to get students to learn?
  • How do we communicate our beliefs? Values? Priorities? Vision?
  • What structures have we put in place?
  • How do we demonstrate that we value people?

Let’s examine two of these pieces: structure and consideration. These are needed to foster a culture of learning while providing situational or differentiated leadership, and they address the important questions of what, why, and how for stakeholders. “One size fits all” does not work for students or teachers; the needs of our teachers should dictate our behaviors as leaders.

This research dates back to Bass and Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership (1990) and Blanchard and Hersey’s work with initiating “Structure and Consideration” (1988) and continues to be used today in the context of situational leadership.

Structure includes communicating a clear vision, modeling, goal setting, managing processes, and accountability. These are the pieces that communicate vision and mission in an organization. Steps in the initiating structure process are:

  1. Clear succinct statement of vision, goal, purpose, objective, activity, purpose, or task
  2.  Behavior that followers can expect of leader to accomplish the goal or task
  3.  Behavior leader expects from followers to accomplish the goal or task

Consideration includes active listening, collaborating, recognizing, coaching, and empowering. Consideration also boils down to creating trust and value for people within the organization.

Steps for consideration include:

  1. Listening for meaning—both content and affect
  2. Appreciate, reward, recognize while working toward an intrinsic reward system
  3. Positive, upbeat—when stress occurs, bring back to positive and increased productivity
  4. Provide rationale, research, and reinforcement
  5. Encourage, support, collaborate while continuing to monitor

As we wrap up this school year and plan for the next, we are in a great place to reflect on our culture. What does it communicate to teachers and students? What does it communicate to parents and community? What impact does it have on our student achievement?

Our culture defines the traditions, beliefs, and customs we share as an organization. What does your culture communicate?

1 Comment

  1. Pasi Vilpas May 19, 2015 Reply

    Thank you for your excellent review about the factors which are so crucial to the development of the school!

    I still, personally, find myself slightly tired of the empty and meaningless thinking which so regularly is present in most of the pedagogical research and discussion. This emptiness arises from the fact that we so easily forget to make a clear difference between the concepts learning and school. These concepts, namely, are different, completely separate and unrelated to each other.

    To regularly keep an eye on this at school, and to stay constantly and fully conscious of it, is of key importance for any school-thinker to understand what are the limits of our attempts to redirect learning at school.

    In addition to this it also makes it easier to understand why our recent technological development has found it so difficult to reach the schools. In search for a closer approach, please, have a look at

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