We’ve all seen those wonderful adverts from one of the unscrupulous banks that are designed to make us think that the bank understands humans. They feature Japanese business men falling asleep on the shoulders of New Yorkers, much to their alarm and a lambasting French drivers removing their cars from too small space betwixt two pristinely kept and parked German “Autos” . Amusing as these are, they do remind us that we are all rooted in a pervading cultures, and that these cultures are local and on a human level. If their advertising has any sense of truth, then it is sensible and natural to allow the culture to influence and guide how we operate. Our schools should do the same.
On a recent trip to Portland, Maine to visit two Expeditionary Learning schools, I was fortunate enough to be confronted by one such culture. Hungry, I walked into a diner, specialising in Seafood and not least lobster. Portland is a lobster town. The fishing fleet there has never been conglomerated, the licences and boats are still family owned, it is what they do. Sitting down, I noticed a ring-bound and laminated book upon the table. The book was about the science of lobsters; their lifecycle, their anatomy etc. The book, written by third grade students from a local elementary school, clearly grasped the right sense of culture. Students were learning science and literacy through their community’s culture.
Ron Berger argues that "The only way to understand a school culture is to understand what students experience in being part of it". These students and their families “do lobster” so using this educationally is rudimentary in connecting them to their town and its cultures and adds a potent relevance to engage the students in what they are learning.
The Culture of Quality that Berger so eloquently writes about is an all-encompassing one, that can be found "in all domains......[and has ] standards for kindness, integrity, industriousness and responsibility." These standards do not just apply to the classroom but to the hallways, the dining hall and the community. They are for every student and member of staff. So what might cultures that obsess about quality have in common?
“Self esteem from accomplishment, not compliments” Berger
Firstly, the people in these cultures have a great sense of pride in what they do. Therefore students need to routinely experience of success. David Grant of Expeditionary Learning states that building a culture of student engaged assessment is best started by a school adopting methods that celebrate success. This gives students positive, emotive experiences that allow them to show what they know and what they can do. They can be passionate about learning. Exhibition of project work is the perfect vehicle for this. As the exhibition progresses it becomes less about the product the students have made and more about the students themselves and their sense of achievement. This feeling and the confidence or esteem it brings can have long lasting motivational effects, with students wanting to recreate that feeling, with everything they do.
“The power of the (school) culture rests in community.” “School culture must extend beyond the school walls.” Berger
The second factor is the involvement of the community. This is what I experienced in Portland. Through the involvement of experts, community members and from a strong sense of classroom community students engage in education, produce work of note and achieve highly. Involvement of the community provides opportunities for the students to be purposefully challenged in authentic local issues, matters that are of their and their families concern. Whether it is raising awareness of the impact of poor diets here in the North East or if it is Ron Bergers students surveying Radon levels in their town, the students and school can act on behalf of and with their community. These projects not only have a very interested audience, providing motivation, moreover, they provide the context for learning content and developing your maths and literacy skills. It all has significance, it all matters. Which leads us nicely to the third commonality of cultures of quality.
“This is the process that adult professionals go through (when designing), they go through a lot of drafts, get lots of critiques and its public.” Berger
Thirdly, cultures of quality also work hard at getting things right. They sweat the small stuff and are always open to feedback. Critique and drafting are central tenets to success. Purposeful practice and rehearsals combine with thoughtful reflection to ensure quality is achieved. Fortunately students see the benefits to this way of working instantly, but require a safe and supportive environment so that risks can be taken and criticism is seen as helpful. The classroom norms of hard on content, soft on people, and being kind, specific and helpful are fundamental in establishing the right environment, that can then affect the attitudes and beliefs students hold about learning.
“Imagine a school in which to be cool, to fit in and be regarded as popular, you have to do quality work and treat others well.” Berger
Finally, cultures of quality know that the individuals in the culture are important. They spend time defining and developing the desirable character; dedication, resilience, hardworking and courage for example. As individuals we all operate as part of a team, and our individual success is inextricably connected to the success of our teams. The expeditionary learning edict of “Everyone-every teacher and every student,regardless of beginning levels of preparedness-must work together as a team to get to the top of the mountain.” is not only a goal but an essential operational condition for their success.
The relevance of these elements of culture to schools is beautifully summed up in this quote from Warren Simmons (taken from the preface to Ron Bergers book “A Culture of Quality”.)
"There is a common perception that today's schools are in crisis. People are grasping for solutions- longer days, new management structures, alternative assessments, and fresh curriculum, even a return to curriculum from the past. Though I support many of the initiatives being proposed, I think there is a real danger in assuming there is any quick fix or single strategy that will " save schools." It is in this context as Simmons puts it " it is worth [considering] improving quality of practise in individual classrooms by creating a culture of quality in the entire school."