As Everything Becomes Digital: Culture Becomes More Important

Everything that goes on in a school is a function of the school’s culture.
(Gruenert, Whitaker)

Commenting on a research report commissioned by Deloitte on changes expected to significantly alter the workplace, Will Richardson noted the particular attention the report dedicates to the impact of organizational culture on efforts to achieve sustained institutional change. The author of the report contends that: “Culture creates innovation. When a company has a clearly defined culture (whatever that may be), it offers employees a sense of security and freedom — they know what to expect…Such a transparent and open environment can only happen when people feel authentic, included, and respected. All of these qualities come from a strong, reinforced, and well-documented culture.”

Richardson questions the viability of many change initiatives in education today. His conviction in the critical nature of organizational culture to these efforts leads to a typically succinct conclusion: “No amount of flipped classrooms, makerspaces, ‘personalized’ learning, Chromebooks, or “college and career”/”future” readiness is going to make any difference if we don’t step back and do a fundamental rethink of our work.” Richardson is not alone in this view. Edgar Schein suggests that working with culture is the core focus of leadership: “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.” Of course, these are not new perspectives.

Michael Fullan has long championed the critical importance of transforming school culture and writes extensively on the topic. His perspective is also clear: “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.”

Though clearly not a new area of attention for schools, what is significant is the renewed focus on this aspect of improving education at this point in time. The exponential development of technology is transforming the way society functions and thereby placing pressure for changes in the way we operate schools. For many, simply introducing these same technologies to schools is the golden bullet solution. Despite the massive investments that reveal the proclivity towards this trend, the reality of organizational change is far more complex.

The jury is no longer out on the impact of technology on formal learning. We know that attempts to engage in digital learning without vision are simply not going to have much of an impact. Endeavors to transform schools because there is some populist pressure to do so have proven similarly facile. Embracing innovation for student-centered reasons with intentionality of vision and, crucially, with a culture that is carefully nurtured to allow this vision to thrive is the way forward. I consider myself fortunate to work in a school where this is part of the ambition for every learner.

Change without attention to culture is no change at all. Levin and Shrum’s study echoes this perspective: “Leaders that engage the school community in the effective use of technology… appreciate the power of school culture. They create … cultures in which meaningful teamwork based on trust is the primary force of professional learning and continuous improvement.” This trust must be centered on a conviction that we are doing what is best for students and that, as professionals, we routinely question what this means.

What Richardson and others have recently articulated is the need for schools to return to a reconsideration of core purpose. The school of today should look and feel considerably different to that of the late 20th century. The reality is, however, that much investment in technology has unwittingly involved little more than recreating what many schools have always done. Without a culture that is centred on what students need, change initiatives are, at best, surface deep. Laptops can become very expensive note-taking devices and word processors. Smartboards keep the sage on the stage. In many instances, more worryingly, technology is simply becoming  the new Trojan Horse of publishing companies that gave us the textbook content-dominated curriculum that we are ostensibly attempting to escape from. As Scott McLeod recently warned:

Numerous technology vendors, blended learning advocates, adaptive learning software providers and policymakers will continue to put forth the idea that “personalized learning” simply means running students through individually-chunked digital content at their own pace … however, there’s not much “personal” about this process of computing machines putting students through their paces.

Richardson urges us to understand that we are “[not] going to make any difference if we don’t step back and do a fundamental rethink of our work.” So, what is our work? Surely this fundamental question is an easy one to answer. Our job, quite simply, is to prepare our students for a shift from an industrial age paradigm to an information age paradigm. Within this context, we want learners to be creative, ethical, healthy individuals who contribute meaningfully to the world around them. If this is what students need, school culture is about creating the environment and ethos in which it will happen. Such an environment is revealed through the interactions of the adults and children in a school, through the collegial can-do attitude of the adults themselves, and through distributed leadership.

Culture is fundamentally about relationships. Technology is a critical component of all learning environments. However, learning without human rapport and interactive relationships is a poor ecosystem for human development. A landscape in which the foundation has not been prepared to adapt to change, to embrace what is best for students, to accept that risks, constant change and uncertainty are the order of the day, is one in which initiatives will ultimately fail.

A healthy culture is immediately discernible, though perhaps difficult to define: “A collaborative culture feels a bit like family: Although individuals may not always get along, they will support each other when push comes to shove. A collaborative culture is a strong culture in which most people are on the same page.” (Gruenert, Whitaker)

A collaborative culture also leads to higher levels of trust and respect among colleagues and translates to improved student learning. Empowered learning requires investment in technology. It requires talented teachers who are supported. But too often the infrastructure and the investment are as far as the planning goes. Government agencies and district leaders are left frequently bewildered by the lack of impact of huge investments. This vital message is, in many instances, ignored: it’s the culture, stupid.

The best schools and the deepest learning are characterised by one simple truth. The work is about individual learner needs, not systems. It’s about the ecosystem and a humane environment that permits teachers to work for the students, not the system. As everything becomes digital, school culture matters more than ever.

Richardson, Will. Learning. All. The. Time. 2016.
Bersin, Josh. Predictions for 2017: Everything Is Becoming Digital. 2016.
Fullan, Michael. Leading in a Culture of Change. 2007.
Levin, Barbara B.  & Schrum, Lynne. Leading 21st-Century Schools: Harnessing Technology for Engagement and Achievement. 2009.
Gruenert, Steve & Whitaker, Todd. School Culture Rewired. 2015.
McLeod, Scott.  What’s On the Horizon for K-12 Ed Tech in 2017? 2016.

Image credit @BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licenced under CC-BY-ND.