The Impact of School Culture on Teaching and Learning

School Culture Quote

 

A few weeks ago, I attended the 2016 Student Technology Conference and tuned in to a presentation entitled “Video Technology and its Effect on a Lower School Environment.” It was led by a high school student named Katie Hayes from University School of Milwaukee, who was asked to create and execute a plan to improve the culture of the Lower School (Pre-K to 4th grade). Katie recruited student volunteers to become newscasters that both reported on various events at the school, such as birthdays, and interviewed other students about their opinions on topics such as the food service. The experience was encouraging for her students, as they were able to be involved in creating change at the school.

Katie’s presentation made me curious to learn more about school culture. It’s not something I had thought about very much before, but I learned about its importance in fostering a conducive learning environment. I was curious to learn more about cultivating a healthy school culture, so I chatted with our friends at Pomegranate Lab, who work with schools to adopt a growth mindset culture.

During our discussion, we acknowledged that the relationships between administrators, teachers, and students contribute heavily to a school’s culture. Each of these relationships has its own set of challenges and opportunities, but they all share three common elements: experimentation, communication, and collaboration.

Experimentation

In order to embrace a growth mindset, teachers must be willing to try new activities in their classroom. However, if the administration does not permit, explicitly or implicitly, teachers to experiment, it hinders their students’ potential to learn and grow in more effective ways. When teachers don’t create an environment that encourages experimentation, students may inadvertently resist their natural inclination to try new things. For these reasons, teachers need to feel like they have permission to experiment in the classroom without worry of failure.

It is important define experimentation, as it can be a rather ambiguous concept. Connor Koblinski from Pomegranate Lab defined experimentation as “trying a strategy that you have never used before.” Teachers who experiment pick up an idea that they aren’t comfortable with and try it out in the classroom.

Often during instruction, teachers will resort to classroom tactics that have been tried and proven. If a teacher is covering evolution, she may supplement her lesson with a worksheet that reinforces Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. While there is no fault with this strategy, it stays safe and within the teacher’s comfort zone. To experiment, she needs to take small risks and request feedback from her students. For instance, she might play a clip from The Simpsons to illustrate Homer evolving from a single-celled organism to a modern day human being. She can then follow up the clip with a discussion to reinforce new learning objectives. Only by trying out this new way of teaching her lesson on evolution will the teacher know its degree of effectiveness.

After the experiment, the teacher and her administrators should feel free to reflect on and create dialogue about the experiment. Whether this dialogue is in the form of a weekly meeting or an email message, what matters most is the communication to other staff about the experiment. Even if the experiment was a failure, the teacher should feel comfortable acknowledging it as such. By opening themselves to experimentation and being vocal about the results of their trials, teachers and administrators can both work towards finding the methods of instruction that work best for their students.

Communication

The communication between students, teachers, and administrators plays a large role in determining school culture. High levels of communication nurture transparency in which teachers can better understand students’ needs, and students can feel comfortable enough to express any of their concerns. Here are a few ways that teachers can open up communication channels to their students:

  • Giving students opportunities to ask questions during instruction without fear of social stigmas from classmates
  • Staying after class to allow students, especially shy ones, to address their concerns
  • Offering extra help sessions during the week
  • With more students having access to technology than ever before, giving students your email address so they may contact you with questions or concerns

By instilling your support in your students, they will feel more comfortable asking you for help. This trust that you build with them will set the foundation for open and honest communication in the future.

Communication between administrators and teachers is important as well. Sometimes when speaking with one another, administrators and teachers have misunderstandings about their roles. The administrator may want to push for certain initiatives, such as the pursuit of experimentation, but some teachers may not believe that their job is to experiment. Resolving such discrepancies and coming to an agreement about expectations will contribute positively to the teacher-administrator relationship and to the school culture as a whole.

Collaboration

In order for experimentation and communication to be possible, students, teachers, and administrators must collaborate on such initiatives. Without working together, plans will fall apart, and initiatives will fail. A culture without strong collaboration may result in different levels of learning for each classroom; one teacher may find a technique that works particularly well but may not be encouraged to help others adopt it. While it is important to adapt learning for your particular class, it does not benefit the school to use it as one’s “secret recipe.”

Within the classroom, students and teachers could collaborate on teaching and learning. As is the case in many schools and institutions today, “knowledge is hidden behind the veil of the teacher, and the teacher communicates it out to her students,” says Connor. Instead, teachers should work towards putting more knowledge in the center of the classroom so that everyone contributes to learning. A student may have a strong interest in wildlife and thus will know quite a lot about the different species that exist. If a teacher discourages this student from voicing his thoughts like Matilda’s father does, it is to the detriment of everyone. However, if the teacher allows the student to share his knowledge with the class, he will be contributing to the learning of his peers (and the teacher).


A school’s culture plays a critical role in the learning outcomes of its students. The relationship between students, teachers, and administrators is key in determining a school’s culture. Fostering a culture of experimentation, communication, and collaboration is no simple task but is one that can improve teaching and learning for all parties involved.

For further information on developing a culture, you may want to read Creating Cultures of Thinking by Ron Ritchhart. You can also get in touch with Pomegranate Lab.

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