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Cultivating a Culture of Learning

By: Drew Schantz on May 4th, 2020

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Cultivating a Culture of Learning

Teams & Culture  |  District Leadership  |  School Leadership

While the author of the quote isn’t certain (many attribute it to acclaimed management consultant Peter Drucker), the saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is commonplace in organizational management circles. I don’t know about you, but breakfast has been the last thing on my mind these past few weeks and months because I feel like there’s barely enough time to grab a quick snack in between phone calls, Zoom meetings, and responding to emails. And upon further reflection, thinking intentionally culture hasn’t really been at the top of my mind either. After all, who has the capacity to think about organizational culture when we don’t even know what the next day will bring? It seems like strategy is the one bellying up to the breakfast buffet. 

Definitions for ‘culture’ seem to be a dime a dozen, but it boils down to the values, behaviors, and shared vision that contribute to the DNA of an organization. In other words, it’s your school or district’s unique spice blend that makes you stand out from the crowd in pursuit of your mission. First breakfast, now spice blend… I must be getting hungry. 

It turns out, we should be paying a lot more attention to culture, especially nowadays. In an article from the Harvard Business Review titled “The Culture Factor,” the authors state that it is a strong commitment to culture, rather than just relying on a foolproof strategy, that enables organizations to thrive in even the most trying times. The research explained by the article, which analyzed the cultural tendencies of organizations, points out that there is a “clear trend toward prioritizing learning to promote innovation and agility as [an organization] responds to increasingly less predictable and more complex environments.” Therefore, the higher degree to which learning is promoted in an organization, the more likely that organization is to thrive when the future is murky.  An organization that prioritizes learning maximizes its own potential by maximizing the potential of the people in it. Ultimately, when closely aligned to both strategy and leadership, a strong culture of learning drives organizational outcomes that are achieved through planning for change versus planning for perfection.

Our constant pursuit as educators is to promote a culture of learning among our students. We know that when the conditions are right for students to learn, they are able to grow. And the same goes for our teams. Just like the (virtual) classroom, our teams need to be environments in which a culture of learning can flourish. But how can we make that happen? 

  • Foster a supportive learning environment.

    • Establish psychological safety for learning to happen. If your team (or your students) aren’t comfortable bringing their full, authentic selves to school, learning won’t happen. 

    • Celebrate “aha” moments and make it safe to take a risk. FAILing, after all, is the First Attempt In Learning. When failures happen, ask “what’s next” after you ask “what’s wrong.” When we fail forward, we give ourselves the permission to fail more safely.

    • Lower the barriers to creating learning opportunities. Empower students and/or members of your team to find their own answers to questions they have.  

  • Promote learning as a process, not just as an event.
    • Honor the fact that learning can, and will, happen all the time and everywhere. We are in a unique position right now to pursue our passions and absorb new information on-demand like we never have before. 

    • Make learning accessible everywhere. Create communication channels where learning can be shared, celebrated, and rewarded. 

  • Leverage leaders. 
    • Lead by example. As the leader of a classroom, school, or district, you have a unique responsibility to demonstrate what a bias towards learning looks like. Pave the way for your students and team members and be the light of learning that guides them along that path.  

    • Reward learning. Acknowledge learning when it happens and incentivize learning to continue by building it into your feedback for students or colleagues. When others can see the importance you place on continuous learning in your own life, the more likely they’ll be to demonstrate it themselves. 

Along with these three actions, and to continue with our culinary theme, here are five Ingredients you can pepper into your school or district culture to empower others to embrace innovation. If you’d like to learn more about what this looks like in practice, our current webinar series, “Educating Through COVID-19: Responding to Change” has a number of resources and learning opportunities for you to get more familiar with the tips and tricks behind building school and team culture — one of which is this webinar, which should be a great starting point:

Building a Strong Culture in Times of Change.

At Education Elements, we work with districts across the country as they think about solidifying practices that will enable them to embrace a culture of learning. It’s something that we practice every day — in fact, it’s one of our core values: “Never stop learning.” If you want a peek into our culture, check out this quick video here

When priorities are tugging at us in so many different directions, it can be challenging to take a step back and focus on culture. But such a focus can pay off ten-fold in the long run by creating a solid foundation for strategy and leadership to thrive. If breakfast is indeed the most important meal of the day, give me two heaping spoonfuls of culture.

DISTRICT CASE EXAMPLE: Over the course of the past year, we have been working with the Fairbanks North Star Borough District on a pursuit to make district-wide transition towards the adoption of competency-based teaching and learning practices. The recent and abrupt shift to distance learning has surfaced a number of proof points for the district’s competency-based initiative and is fueling the fire for a fundamental re-focusing of priorities to answer questions like: 

  1. What knowledge and skills do students need to master?
  2. What does mastery look like? 
  3. How do students demonstrate mastery?
  4. How can mastery be clearly communicated to key stakeholders?
  5. What mechanisms can be put in place to support instructional practice and professional development?

To perpetuate this work, a group of 15-20 teacher leaders are meeting regularly for virtual coffee chats to continue deepening their knowledge through a book study, sharing best practices, and celebrating attempts that might have fallen short. This level of vulnerability contributes to a productive and harmonious culture of learning among this competency-based cohort and will no doubt have ripple effects across the district in the coming weeks and months.

Are you looking for learning opportunities for you and your team? Check out one of our upcoming virtual events and conferences.

Three separate multi-day virtual events on Designing Student-Centered Learning Opportunities; Responsive Team Habits in the age of COVID-19; and Designing School for Learning Continuity

About Drew Schantz

Drew Schantz is a Design Principal on the Design and Implementation team. He is passionate about solving complex problems through an entrepreneurial lens and working with others to develop innovative, student-centered, and equity-driven practices that improve outcomes for all students. Drew began his career in Washington, D.C. where he worked with several nonprofit organizations, including Family, Career and Community Leaders of America; the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; and DC Public Schools. Immediately prior to joining Education Elements, Drew served as founder and executive director of VentureSchool — a Detroit-based organization dedicated to creating groundbreaking learning opportunities to prepare all students to become capable, curious, and courageous entrepreneurs. Through his past experiences, Drew has developed expertise around educational program creation and management, design thinking, communications strategy development, and group facilitation and training. Drew holds a B.A. in political science from the University of Michigan and an M.S.Ed. from the University of Pennsylvania in Education Entrepreneurship. He is a Michigan native and currently lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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