James Dalziel

November 19 2020


Culture has been defined in many ways, as a set of rules for living, as a description for who people think they are, where they think they are, and the resources they perceive available. There is a good reason to speculate that like the goldfish swimming within its bowl, we are not aware of the water or the culture that surrounds us supports us and sustains us. Gruenert and Whitaker’s “School Culture Rewired” aims to bring our cultural context to the forefront of our conscious minds by helping us define, assess and over time – transform it. For those who have no previous experience with the organisational culture, this is an excellent entry text. Others looking for strategies to measure and shift their existing culture will find definitions, models, and suggestions that may prove helpful as a simple first step. The challenge left unaddressed by the authors is for the school leader to facilitate the complex dialogue and discussion that follows the collection of the data. Three elements of the work stand out as being particularity helpful, a robust and well-articulated overview of culture in schools, the importance of stories in setting or shifting culture, and the significant role that “influencers” play in affecting (or infecting as the case may be) our school cultures.

The authors hold a consistent mental model throughout the book: cultures do not lead schools; leaders lead schools. They warn that if the culture is leading, then the leader is, (at best) only managing. If we could speak to the culture, the future of the organisation would be clear. The culture would tell us to repeat the past. Only leaders can create and communicate a vision that may shift the culture and shape our future, and it is, therefore, the obligation of school leaders to define, assess and transform our cultures to support what matters most. But a vision of the future is not merely a generic statement of positivity. It reflects a capacity to imagine a new reality and to understand all the components necessary to achieve and maintain it. In the case of a school, most of those components are people; imperfect humans with biases, preferences, habits, insecurities, superstitions, families, faiths, priorities, and the values that may or may not all be for the best – “because the culture, whether positive or negative, has told them what ‘best’ means.” (p. 49). Add to this the description of what you do (climate) and the rationale for why you do it (culture), and you begin to get a sense of the complex work of school leadership.

Hofstede defines culture succinctly as “collective programming of the mind which distinguishes the members of one organisation from another”(p.180). As such, culture is not a problem that needs to be solved, but rather a framework that groups can use to solve problems; it is how we learn to survive, one generation passing down was learned to the next. Culture in this form is primarily a social indoctrination of unwritten rules that people learn as they try to fit into a particular group. The authors describe as well the effects of socio-centric thinking, the tendency to internalise group norms and beliefs, take on group identities, and act as we are expected to act – without the least sense that what we are doing might reasonably be questioned. Culture, therefore, defines what it means to be normal ‘around here’. If it is accessible, culture provides us with a code that unlocks the formula for fitting in, or by contrast a recipe for disaster. The authors allude to but never quite identify the fragile nature of organisational culture; never explicitly describe how responsive school cultures are to seemingly small and insignificant influences.

Stories, the authors assert, are the currency of a culture and are the most effective means for transferring information from one person to another. Like culture, stories live in people’s minds, and as mental constructs are synergistic in their relationship. Leaders use stories to illuminate and illustrate what members of the group need to do to become successful. We tell stories to others and ourselves as a way of supporting and reinforcing our belief systems. Stories, we are reminded, have at least five organisational functions (Kuh & Whitt, 1988)

1. Providing information about the culture’s rules
2. Keeping institutional memory sharp
3. Increasing commitment and loyalty
4. Reinforcing artefacts of the culture
5. Connecting current faculty with the institution’s past

What is missing is a structured guide for leaders to identify what current stories circulate within their schools and to what effect. Stories can also be a formidable weapon in the school leader’s arsenal, providing a means by which we pitch ideas, communicate a vision for the future, and inspire commitment. Whatever the mode of communication or to an audience of one or one thousand, using stories allows deeper engagement emotionally and increases the likelihood of colleagues remembering, “experiencing”, and connecting with your ideas on a deeply personal level. It is a level that can move school culture and one which should never be underestimated.

“When there is a leader but an absence of leadership, everybody tries to supply it”p.164. As with the power of stories, the power of influential colleagues can have a significant effect, either to amplify or dampen a school’s existing culture. The authors point out that influencers are always influencing, there is no ‘off’ switch. It is not a hobby for them; it’s a lifestyle. Influencers live for opportunities to share stories with others. Some share stories that align with your plans for moving the culture forward; others tell stories in service of maintaining the status quo. It is up to school leadership to determine which group will be heard. The missing piece again was the clear acknowledgement that leaders, whether we choose to be or not, are influencers. Our colleagues will be watching us, measuring us, and recalibrating off of us. There is an important ‘ah-ha’ moment for new leaders when all at once they realise that people are listening, watching and judging them much more closely. Suddenly what they wear, how they speak, what they drink, and whom they speak with and when has an influence on their colleagues and ultimately on the school culture. That is not to say that everyone follows the leader, mimicking his or her traits and patterns. More accurately, everyone is measuring the leader and deciding if this is going to be the person with whom I will choose to align.

Ethnographers typically believe that cultural change will never quite lived up to our expectations, humans being as imperfect as we are. Others who study leadership that cultural change is always a slow process, a bit like evolution, taking as much as 5 to 15 years to accomplish. Still, others believe that cultural change can be expedited through purposeful leadership. Ultimately, effective leaders develop an awareness of what culture is. Being able to understand it, measure it, and change it is one of the most critical skills we can improve and one of the most important things we can do for our students. As Gruenert & Whitaker assert, we do not just want our schools to be different; we want them to be better.