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Volume III Issue V

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Creating a Culture for Learning

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


The research on student achievement points out again and again that the principal’s role is key to establishing an environment where student learning remains the unwavering focus of the school. Everyone entering the principalship does so with great pride and enthusiasm, and with the intention of being at the helm of an outstanding school. Some leaders are able to keep the focus on student learning while others are less successful at establishing and maintaining an environment where learning remains the goal.

This month in order to better understand the different avenues principals may travel I am using the metaphor of a car and driver. Some approaches lead to roadblocks, others to the desired destination… student learning. In some schools, the principal may be seen as the drive-thru leader. These principals are seldom seen by the staff or students and very few people know what they stand for. Other principals apply the cruise control approach in which they maintain a steady day to day pace while providing little inspiration or a vision for the school. Unfortunately, there are principals seen as hit and run leaders. They tend to misuse their authority by harshly criticizing individuals who make mistakes. Too much time in the school is wasted in conversations as teachers try to process the latest “hit” and try to predict “who will be next” instead of focusing on student learning. Other leaders may be known as speed racers as they implement changes of district initiatives in the fastest way possible so they can “check it off their list.”

Other types of leaders may include those that never ask directions and who simply forge on whether it is the right way to go or not. Still others adopt the tourist approach to leadership. As they lead, they stop and “visit” every new initiative that comes along, and, as a result, the staff is overwhelmed since “everything” seems to be a priority. Then there is the DUI leader who changes directions continually because they make “decisions under the influence” of whoever they talked to last.

Finally, there are the Map Quest leaders who establish a vision for learning, determine the best course for the school to get where it needs to go, publicize the course that the journey will take for all stakeholders, and complete the “trip” successfully. There are also the regular maintenance leaders who understand how to create an environment for learning, check all the important indicators of progress, and make any adjustments in order to keep the school running properly. A third category of successful leaders are the new car enthusiasts. Much like an individual looks at all the options when shopping for a new car, these individuals keep up with changes in education by being life-long learners, educate themselves thoroughly on the options which are available, and make decisions based on which initiatives will truly impact student achievement.

All of us may exhibit some of these driving characteristics as we face new challenges in our roles as school leaders. But ultimately we must reach the realization that some behaviors are counterproductive, and that all our actions must be directed at establishing an environment where learning will continually remain the primary focus.

In order for the principal to be the best lead driver possible, it is important to understand the role of culture in making a school a true place of learning. In the early 1980’s Terrene Deal and Allan Kennedy wrote about the essential ingredients of a successful organizational culture which included shared beliefs, individuals who articulated the vision of the organization, activities to celebrate and reinforce the organization’s beliefs, and a communication network to reinforce and clarify the values and vision of the organization. In their 1985 publication, Good Seeds Grow in Strong Cultures, Jon Saphier and Matthew King applied the concept of culture to the school setting. They argued that schools which were most successful included “a structure, process, and climate of values and norms that channel staff and students in the direction of successful teaching and learning.” They promoted their belief that cultural norms affected school improvement and that if the norms were in existence, “…improvements in instruction will be significant, continuous and widespread; if these norms are weak, improvements will be at best infrequent, random, and slow.”

In 1990, Peter Senge wrote about the importance of organizations being places where new patterns of thinking were nurtured and where people were encouraged to collectively focus on and create the results they desired. Rick DuFour and Robert Eaker assert that the establishment of schools as professional learning communities would lead to greater student achievement and make schools better places for everyone. They found that the attributes of successful learning communities included shared leadership, collective creativity, shared values and vision, supportive working conditions, and the ability and willingness of teachers to share best practices. More recently, Timothy Kanold, the superintendent of the award winning Adlai Stevenson High School District in Illinois, tells us that the key to maintaining a strong culture is to preserve the core values of the school while adapting to change and making continuous improvement. He writes, “In a school serious about pursuing continuous improvement for student learning, teachers and administrators are never at rest.”

Certain patterns emerge from the writings on culture. Over and over one reads of the need for:

  • A set of core values and shared beliefs that can be clearly articulated by all stakeholders in the school community;
  • A vision of what the school will look like when there is an emphasis on the achievement of high standards by all students;
  • An environment where adults accept learning as the fundamental purpose of the school and, therefore, are willing to examine all practices in light of their impact on learning;
  • A commitment on the part of all staff members to cultivate a collaborative culture;
  • A system to clarify and reinforce the core values of the school for new staff members;
  • A willingness on the part of the leaders to encourage experimentation and creativity in order to address necessary changes which must be made;
  • A priority of school leaders to make the workplace a nurturing environment for adults;
  • An on-going recognition of the achievement of adults when progress is made or goals are achieved.

There is no doubt that the establishment of a culture where learning is the top priority requires a great deal of work on the part of the leadership of the school. It is important to remember that a strong school culture does not happen overnight. With a visionary principal in the driver’s seat, a school that is fully loaded with a set of core values, the involvement of the passengers in establishing how the journey will take place, a navigation system to help monitor the trip’s progress, seat belts and air bags to demonstrate the support of the lead driver for the passengers, and an extended warranty to ensure that successful trips in the future will be taken again and again, a culture for learning will be established and maintained.


Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Creating a Culture for Learning.” Just for the ASKing! May 2006. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2006 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.