The culture of an educational organisation is the product of the beliefs and values, perceptions, relationships, attitudes, and written and unwritten rules that shape and influence every aspect of how it functions. The importance of an organisation’s culture cannot be underestimated in terms of the impact it has on its learners, teachers and staff, development of its local curriculum, and on the community it serves. Leadership at all levels has a powerful influence on culture. As a recent article from the World Economic Forum notes, organisational culture is a reflection of its leaders’ culture, ethics (or lack of them) and consciousness.
The culture of any learning setting directly influences the relationships in it. It affects how everyone interacts, leads, learns, develops and grows in that setting. This extends to their sense of belonging within their community. The culture of any organisation can enhance one's identity; embracing and celebrating racial, ethnic, linguistic, or cultural diversity, so that everyone feels valued and included.
Influences that change or alter any aspect of this mix will have an impact on the overall culture of an organisation. These influences affect the relationships, connectedness, the sense of belonging and ultimately the core business of learning centres - learning.
Whether we realise it or not, every setting will have established its own ‘culture’. In recent years this has become more explicitly addressed through the focus on developing a specific set of values as an important part of how the staff, children and young people and community give expression to what is most important to them. The challenge is to ensure that how all of these people connect, interact and work together on a daily basis is consistent with these espoused values.
The importance of the cultural dimension in education is most evident when considering the notions of identity, belonging and wellbeing. Together, these are foundational to a learner’s ability to engage meaningfully in learning. A culture based on inclusion and cultural responsiveness will result in a greater feeling of belonging among its members.
Simon Sinek makes the point that when the things you say and the things you do (actions) are aligned with what you actually believe (values), a thriving culture emerges.
A good example in Aotearoa is our commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the extent to which we understand and embrace this as part of our unique identity as a nation, and the cultural landscape we belong to at a national and local level. The journey to understand what Te Tiriti o Waitangi looks like, sounds like and feels like in all our learning settings is a critical part of addressing systemic issues of inequity, for all learners, particularly Māori.
When we collaboratively identify and articulate the characteristics of the culture we want to develop, then intentionally set about working and relating in ways that are consistent with that vision, our educational settings are more likely to be places where all learners experience a sense of identity and belonging, personal wellbeing and educational success.
In looking back at the trends in this theme over the past 15 years we can break down the things that have happened into three key areas:
While the things highlighted above have been identified as key trends over the past 15 years, it is important to understand that the range of influences that shape the culture of an education setting will include:
While there are many things educational leaders and community may do to establish an intentional culture in their setting, there are factors at play that will (a) contribute to the ‘unseen’ aspects of that culture, and (b) require a constant revisiting and reinforcing of the agreed values and behaviours that define that culture.
Significant policy shifts like Tomorrows Schools in 1989 have had an enduring influence on the culture of learning settings. At that time autonomy was given to individual schools to determine their own mission and values to reflect the uniqueness of the community they serve, and the particular aspirations they had for their young people.
Perhaps one of the key trends we’ve seen has been the way settings have recognised the increased diversity of learners. This has involved accommodating a range of belief systems, world views and multiple languages. And has meant changes to pedagogical practices that cater for diverse learners and groups of learners, including approaches to inclusive education, unpacking UDL, and the importance of the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
It’s not only the diversity inside our learning settings that shapes the cultural environment. Educators and learners alike are adjusting to living in an increasingly global and interconnected world that requires all learners to develop understandings of and respect for the language, culture and identity of others.
With more emphasis given to the learner at the centre of curriculum and pedagogical design, teachers are asking their students how they can become a better teacher. A key part of this journey at a national level has been the emphasis on delivering equity and excellence in student outcomes for all learners. To unpack and achieve this, many schools use tools such as the Equity-Centered Design Framework and the UDL Framework.
Aligned with this is the shift in ownership of learning, from teacher-centric environments to where learners are given greater responsibility, more voice and increased agency over their learning. CORE’s Shifting the Ownership of Learning Framework provides a useful breakdown to understand what is involved here, as does the CORE report on Strategies to develop student agency.
Recognising and accommodating the significance of an individual’s cultural background to their learning is also important, with learning centres focusing on building relationships with whānau, hapū and iwi. The development of cultural narratives can play a key role, providing powerful enablers for connecting our past to the present, situating us in the context of the places we co-inhabit, and recognising the influences of people, places, time and events in shaping who we are.
Another key driver of change in our culture as a society, and in our places of learning, is the role of digital technology. This has become pervasive in almost every facet of our lives, and has led to the identification of the skills required to function productively in a modern world.
At the personal level we have seen increasing emphasis given to the development of digital fluency by every learner. Drivers for this are increased personal responsibility, online identity, digital literacies and citizenship, cyber security, access and equity of opportunity.
Collectively this leads to a focus on digital citizenship, understanding what it means to live respectfully and responsibly in a world where digital technologies are changing the ways we connect, communicate and relate to one another. In this context, learners have to understand who they are in the digital world, what they need to do in order to protect the things we want to keep private, and how they need to do this for others, as well. Sadly, we’ve seen an increase in the incidence of things such as cyber-bullying and the subsequent impact on behaviours, particularly as this can be done so publicly online. As technology continues to affect every part of our lives, and as the impact of exponential change affects us all, the impact on our health and wellbeing is becoming increasingly significant. The impact these issues have on the culture of organisations cannot be underestimated.
For decades schools have been places where teachers have been able to operate with relative independence, but increasingly we’ve seen the emergence of practices in schools where teachers and students operate in more open environments, where the sharing of strengths and knowledge is valued and encouraged. This deprivatisation of practice includes the shift from regarding teachers as the sole authority within their own classroom, to seeing them work as a part of a team where their work with learners is always ‘in view’ of their colleagues.
A more recent development that is likely to remain a key focus into the future is the impact that all of this has on our ‘human-ness’, with technology increasingly being used to not only supplement or augment our human capabilities, but in some cases replace them. Nothing illustrates this better than the emergence of Artificial Intelligence, understanding the significant ways in which our human interactions and decision making are being impacted by ‘machine thinking’. This stretches to the area of intuition and decision making, and the use of neural networks capable of outperforming humans. Whether being used to support the personalised learning of mathematics as with Amy: The AI behind smart online learning, or as a focus of learning itself as with Finland challenging the entire world to understand AI by offering a completely free course, AI is here to stay and will likely continue to make significant changes to the way we teach and learn. To this end, UNESCO recently published an article titled Artificial Intelligence in education: challenges and opportunities for sustainable development.
The culture of an education setting is unquestioningly the thing that defines the experience of all those who participate in it - educators, learners, family/whānau and community.
Similarly, that same culture will be in a process of constant change and evolution as a result of the changes in population that will inevitably occur over the years.
Looking ahead, it is most likely that we will continue to see significant influences on organisational culture arising from the same three things identified in section two above, those being:
Some questions that may help guide your thinking and discussions within your education context as you consider the type of culture you wish to build and sustain are:
For those wanting to dig deeper into some of the key drivers in this area, some references worth checking out include:
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