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The Origin of School Culture (Part 1)

We all exist within complex bubbles of interconnected and ever-shifting cultures whenever we step through the front doors of our schools. For school leaders, understanding these cultural bubbles that govern so many aspects of school life can be a daunting task. Unlike the heavily regimented Sumo stable, where centuries of established tradition provide a consistency of practice in all aspects of day-to-day life so that members share an understanding of their sumo-specific cultural norms, our schools are far more dynamic environments and much more difficult to work out. A closer look at the nature of culture and the foundational interactions that give rise to this very human phenomenon is a good place to start when we want to better understand our school cultures.

Culture has been described in many ways, but at the core of any definition is a shared understanding of how things are done. This leads to people who share that understanding acting, thinking, doing, and being in certain ways. As the element of sharing is always involved in identifying cultural groups, it is inevitable that any attempt at defining membership in specific cultural groups is going to be hopelessly fractured. That is, we always share different things with different people, so the borders we construct to identify cultural groups are going to form interconnecting bubbles within bubbles within bubbles. 

A school culture is a good example. We often talk of building a specific type of school culture, but whose culture are we referring to? Parents, teachers, students, administrators, and board members will all share different understandings of how things are done, not to mention the smaller groups that form within and across these borders. In this sense, it becomes a problem of scale. As we increase the scale, the more convergence there is between the groups as the smaller, non-shared aspects of the group identities disappear. We see local boundaries on a map disappear as we zoom out, replaced by districts, states, and finally nations. Zoom all the way out, and all that is left is that lovely blue rock we all share, hurtling through the largely empty, cold void of space. That sort of perspective could almost convince us to look after each other a bit better. Almost.

Bringing us back from the cold void, to understand our school cultures, we need to zoom in to a scale that reveals our school and then keep going until we are at a scale that reveals individuals and small groups interacting. Fortunately, we are not yet living in an Orwellian dystopia, but if we were, our telescreens would provide a window into these day-to-day interactions that are the real building blocks of school culture. 

This brings us to the role of discourse when trying to understand school culture, specifically the cumulative effect of individual interactions on community-level meaning-making (what we experience as culture) and the self-sustaining but dynamic cycle that this creates. This cycle provides an opportunity for school leaders to not only understand the origins of a school's culture but also provide the tools to impact and shape school culture at this foundational level of individual interactions. 

I am exploring these ideas in a book I'm working on at the moment, based on a presentation at the April 2023 IB Asia Pacific conference in Adelaide. This outlined a series of school-based case studies using a 4-step approach to identifying and communicating a school's values by considering patterns in discourse. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the next part of this series of short articles exploring the origins of school culture.

(On a final note, I previously explored the idea of culture in my book, Conversations for a Global Child, examining how parents could support the development of the ten IB learning profile attributes, in case you are interested!)

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