Making the Digital Leap: Building School Culture

“Leaders that engage the school community in the effective use of technology… appreciate the power of school culture to support or to thwart continuous improvement. They know that culture trumps innovation and so create  … cultures in which meaningful teamwork based on trust is the primary force of professional learning and continuous improvement.”     Barbara B. Levin, Lynne Schrum

The potential for technology to transform learning environments through collaboration, creativity and risk-taking is undisputed. Yet much of the conversation about educational technology in schools continues to linger languidly on the question of “why” rather than on the pragmatics of “how”, often resulting in a digital chasm between ambition and reality in many schools. To make the digital leap necessary to bridge this gap requires the development of a school culture designed to support sustained change. The critical role in the development of school culture as the key to making this digital leap should not be underestimated. As Edgar Schein sees it, “the only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture and the [critical work] of leaders is their ability to work with culture.”

In order to set about developing such a culture, the following key questions must be considered.

  • How does one go about developing the conditions necessary to create a school culture that values, supports and actively models these qualities?
  • How does a school ensure that systemic approaches to the change process itself are implicit in the culture of an effective learning organisation?

Having discussed these questions with educators from many schools, the following are commonly cited as among the key characteristics of a school that intentionally values and strives to nurture a constructive school culture: conversation, collaboration, trust, clear purpose, tangible support, appreciation and recognition, open communication, care and humour. Often, those who list these topics will unwittingly cite the findings of Michael Fullan in his seminal work, Leading in a Time of Change. A truly great school not only values these ideas but strategically builds its systems of operations and learning around such key concepts. A school that systematically values these qualities will have a very different approach to things such as teacher appraisal, assessment, and recruitment relative to those in use in many schools today.

School leaders sometimes fail to see that putting culture first is actually among the most critical strategies required in change management. Culture and strategy can, of course, co-exist, but most effectively if the former drives change. The reverse is why school change often fails. As Hinde points out: change in schools, “is often met with resistance and is doomed to failure as a result of the reform being counter to … [the] school culture.” The clear implication is that a careful consideration of school culture needs to be implicit in any change strategy. What we need is a convergence of culture and strategy. The architecture, development, and strategic nurturing of a school culture that supports digital change (all change, for that matter) can be condensed into the following three, core areas:

Articulating a Compelling Vision
According to Dufour and Fullan, “changing culture in systemic ways is at the heart of any successful large-scale education reform.” When we set out to establish our vision for learning at our school it was based upon the guiding principles of inclusion, challenge and success for all. We reinforced this vision with specific belief statements about the role of technology as an integral part of this learning vision, as follows: All technology decisions are guided by the following principles:

  • Appropriate technology use is an essential component of optimal learning environments.
  • Technology creates new teaching and learning opportunities that improve student understanding, contributing to an environment in which teaching and learning are learner-centred, collaborative, engaging.
  • Technology provides the means for equitable learning opportunities and allows teachers to meet the diverse learning needs of students by adapting to individual goals and learning styles.

Our mission became our job description; technology integration was therefore not optional or an add-on. It’s not about the technology, it’s about our priorities for students and the best way to achieve these.

Supporting Your Staff
One of the questionable implications of the oft-quoted “getting the right people on the bus” statement is the suggestion that we need to prioritise getting the wrong people off the bus. While that may, on occasion, be true, the reality is that we need to work with all of our teachers in order to make it possible for them to understand our targets, to enjoy the bus trip in a supportive environment. In particular, we must clearly articulate our change objectives: how we will support teachers, how we trust them when they make inevitable mistakes (the learning), how we will offer professional development and celebrate our progress together … without undue haste. In a strong, supportive culture all teachers are given the potential to flourish. The majority do, and the culture is a significant reason for this success rate.

Protecting the Culture Intentionally
The transformation from a culture of isolation to a culture of collaboration does not happen without ongoing support. Too often, the process of doing what is best for students is transfigured into an obfuscated rocket science that bears no reality to what it actually takes to improve learning from a foundation that is all about the genuine culture of the school. That culture is, essentially, all about the relationships between the people who work in the school building and is best characterised by a school in which the teachers understand that the leadership places a constant priority on the fact that they are:

  • Aware at all times that the work they do is all about improving student learning and supporting the development of young people
  • Valued and respected as professionals (and therefore listened to) so that they have an input into change
  • Conscious that preparing young people for their independent lives necessitates embracing change
  • Provided with time, trust, support, and protection from unnecessary distraction and threats in their work
  • The most critical leaders when it comes to achieving excellence and managing change

Since the singular end goal of implementing change in schools must be to improve student learning, we need to stop talking about technology as a focus and ensure, instead, that we establish distributed leadership based on the principles discussed here. Often, the focus of school improvement is based on the conventions of revising structures and curriculum without prior or adequate consideration of the impact this has on culture and, therefore, student learning. As Fullan has correctly contended, “structure does make a difference, but it is not the main point of achieving success. Transforming the culture – changing the way we do things around here – is the main point.” This, surely, is the essential component that must be developed in order to make the digital leap.

A summary overview of a presentation for the CoSN 2015 Annual Conference (the Consortium for School Networking) in Atlanta, Georgia with Mary Jeanne Farris. Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 17.06.02

RECOMMENDED READINGS
Michael Fullan. Leading in a Culture of Change. Jossey-Bass; (2007).
Richard Dufour & Michael Fullan. Cultures Built to Last. Solution Tree; (2013).
Terrence E. Deal & Kent D. Peterson. Shaping School Culture: The Heart of Leadership. Jossey-Bass; (1998).
Paul Bambrick-Santoyo. Leverage Leadership. Jossey-Bass (2012)
Barbara B. Levin & Lynne Schrum. Leading Technology-Rich Schools. Teachers College Press; (2012).

Photo Credit: Yahoo Images