The Ecology of Learning: School Culture

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 organisational 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.”

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.” 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.”

Change without attention to culture is no change at all. Levin and Shrum’s study echoes this perspective: “Leaders that … appreciate the power of school culture … create … cultures in which meaningful teamwork based on trust is the primary force of professional learning and continuous improvement.” This trust must be centred on a conviction that what we are doing is ultimately in the best interest of students.

If we want learners to be creative, ethical, healthy individuals who contribute meaningfully to the world around them, school culture is about creating the environment in which these things will happen. Such an environment is revealed through the interactions of the adults and children in a school. Culture is fundamentally about relationships. 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 and wellbeing. 

Effective schools are characterised by one simple truth. Their purpose is clearly centred on individual learner needs and therefore must, by their very nature, be personal. In order for students and teachers to thrive, caring and respectful relationships are vital. A healthy, open collaborative culture is the context that makes learning possible and it should be evident in the interactions between all members of a school community. As David Price describes it, school culture is perhaps the most critical aspect of the environment needed in order for learners to flourish:

“It encompasses the ‘ecology’ of learning: the relationships we have with each other; the creation of an hospitable habitat for learning; how we cultivate the evolution of learning in communal, social environments, to transfer it successfully to others, establishing a set of commonly-agreed principles which will make learning inclusive and innovative.”

Everything that goes on in a school is a function of the school’s culture.

Richardson, Will. Learning. All. The. Time. 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.
Price, David. OPEN: How We’ll Work, Live and Learn in the Future. Crux Publishing, 2013.

Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash