A recent post by George Couros (author of The innovators Mindset) posed an interesting question about the role that culture plays in shaping the trajectory of an organisation. The traditional wisdom is that culture trumps all but George points to the role that individuals play in shaping and changing culture itself.
"As I have connected with many educators around the world, they have often confided in me how different their school or organization has become because of that one person in that one new position. Sometimes it is a superintendent, principal, curriculum director, or a myriad of other administrative roles. Once in a while, that person makes it better, but more often than should be acceptable, one person in a short time can change the trajectory of a culture negatively."
(Read the full article)
George concludes that "one person can make the most significant difference on the whole”. So, what are the implications of this for those struggling to bring about cultural change? Is it the case that one person can indeed change the culture of an organisation? Is culture perhaps less resilient than we are led to imagine and is it just a consequence of the individuals with the greatest influence? Or, is something else at play here?
Fortunately for the field of sociology, culture is a complex concept. It is a co-construction of all those involved, the environment and the local and broader social context within which it exists and evolves. The culture of an organisation is difficult to understand and most efforts to describe the culture of an organisation will oversimplify the matter. Add to this what we have learned from post-modernist perspectives on the effects of observation and the complex dialogue between the observer and the observed and we see that culture is at least a messy field. Further along a continuum where at one end culture is a consequence of deliberate action and at the other it is as unpredictable as waves on a stormy sea we find complexity theory. Complex organisations, such as schools are described as emerging dynamically from their initial states but as these initial states are not fully understood the evolving organisation is seen to be on an unpredictable trajectory.
With this in mind it is not surprising that most efforts to bring about cultural change fail. A range of research studies cited by Burnes (2010) mention change failure rates of between 60% and 90%, with cultural change initiatives the most likely to fail. Mason (2008) does offer some hope for those wishing to bring about cultural change, ‘despite complexity theory’s relative inability to predict the direction or nature of change, by implementing at each constituent level changes whose outcome we can predict with reasonable confidence, we are at least influencing change in the appropriate direction’ (Mason, 2008 p46) Mason suggests that by making a concerted effort, at every point of contact available, change agents can drive cultural change at least in the desired direction even if not towards a desired goal. It might be possible to drive a school towards a focus on something like “quality teaching”, but the exact shape of that new culture is largely unpredictable.
This evidence points to the resilience of culture, it does not appear to be something that can be readily shaped, and yet as George indicates there are numerous examples of school cultures which have seemingly shifted with one change in staffing. How might this be so?
Change has, to a large degree become the norm in schools and the pace of change seems to be accelerating. From new curriculum, changes to assessments, measures of accountability, shifts in public perception, evolving and sometimes revolving ideals about pedagogy, to changes in the broader society that education serves, epitomised by the “new world of work” that our students will inherit, change is woven into the educator’s mindset.
With these changes, has come a shift away from teacher agency towards external control. Education is big business and a key factor in government policy. Driven by neo-liberalism and globalisation, education is shaped and controlled by factors which more often than not lie outside of the classroom. Standardised assessments, content heavy curriculums and teaching standards in an environment of competition and blaming of teachers for supposedly declining student performance have changed the shape of the profession.
The net effect of this climate of control and cyclical change is that teachers have adopted either a culture of compliance or silent dissent. Each change is viewed as fleeting, a new fad that will have its moment in the sun before slipping quietly into antiquity, replaced by something new. Teachers learn to bend with each new breeze or hide. What changes is not the culture of the school but the visible actions which sit on the surface. These superficial changes are easily implemented. They are actionable through efficient management or effective leadership. A change in leadership or key personnel is able to bring about change but the underlying culture remains as one of compliance or silent dissent.
The question then is what might it take to shift the culture of our schools from one of follow the fad to one where it is the norm for teachers to actively seek out what works best for their students. How might we create the conditions for a culture of creativity, collaboration and critical thinking within a profession that effectively communicates an understanding of what works for students to all stakeholders. How do we bring about genuine cultural change? Maybe it is as simple as restoring agency to those best able to do something good with it?
By Nigel Coutts
Burnes, Bernard (2010) 'Call for Papers: Why Does Change Fail and What Can We Do About It?', Journal of Change Management, 10 (2), pp. 241 — 242
Mason, M. (2008). What is Complexity Theory and what are its implications for educational change? Educational Philosophy and Theory, 40(1), pp. 35-49.