A Study of the Basic Cultural Assumptions of a School
by Betty Ann Balon Bodnar

SSTA Research Centre Report #93-04: 33 pages, $11.

Summary of the Study This dissertation summary describes the operative cultural assumptions that guide school people's solutions to external and internal problems and that are taught to new members as the correct way to approach these problems.

Data included that three basic assumptions guided life at St. Gabriel School:

1) the Catholic faith and the Christian value system pervaded all school activity;

2) a transactional leadership style influenced decision making, relationships, communications, and the teaching-learning situation; and

3) the student's social needs were emphasized at the expense of academic learning.

Staff, students and parents appeared to be socialized into all three assumptions.

Review of the Literature
  1. Introduction
  2. The Meaning of Organizational Culture
  3. Elements of Culture
  4. The Creation, Maintenance and Transmission of Culture
  5. Changing Culture
  6. The Impact of Culture on Schools
  7. Revitalizing School Culture
  8. The Relationship Between School Culture and School Effectiveness
Rationale for the Study
Methodology
Significant Findings and Conclusions
Recommendations for Boards of Education
Implications and Considerations

Back to: School Improvement


The SSTA Research Centre grants permission to reproduce up to three copies of each report for personal use. Each copy must acknowledge the author and the SSTA Research Centre as the source. A complete and authorized copy of each report is available from the SSTA Research Centre.
The opinions and recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author and may not be in agreement with SSTA officers or trustees, but are offered as being worthy of consideration by those responsible for making decisions.


Summary of the Study

This study attempted to discover the operative cultural assumptions that guide school people's solutions to external and internal problems and that are taught to new members as the correct way to approach these problems.

Schein's (1984) levels of culture and their interaction formed the conceptual framework for the study. The research method was based on Schein's (1985a) Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing methodology which involved a series of encounters and joint explorations between an outside investigator and various inside key informants. This methodology incorporated a triangulation approach using data from interviews, observations, and archival material. Data were collected over a four-month period within one school nominated by central office personnel of the Westville Catholic Board of Education. Throughout the data collection phase, formulating hypotheses about the school's assumptions was used to guide data collection and analysis. Data were categorized based on Schein's methodology of using basic assumptions to form cultural paradigms.

Data concluded that three basic assumptions guided life at St. Gabriel School: 1) the Catholic faith and the Christian value system pervaded all school activity; 2) a transactional leadership style influenced decision-making, relationships, communications, and the teaching-learning situation; and 3) the student's social needs were emphasized at the expense of academic learning. Staff, students, and parents appeared to be socialized into all three assumptions.

This study revealed that the principal had a major impact upon how all three assumptions arose and were maintained. The religious assumption was initiated as part of the principal's leadership role. His leadership style emphasized student's social needs and resulted from his espoused philosophy of learning. Teachers, parents, and students possessed the same basic assumptions. Each group contained individuals who espoused values different from those embedded in the three assumptions, but the predominant members representing each group were living out the assumptions. While some members in each group desired change, no one was able to effect change.

The possibility of establishing a school culture which encompasses the school effectiveness characteristics within the context of these three basic cultural assumptions would be problematic. St. Gabriel School did not demonstrate a shared vision on academic learning where planned curriculum, high expectations, and ongoing assessment reflected school academic goals. Collaborative and transformational relations were characteristic of the staff.

Schein's (1984) conceptual model, developed for the study of basic cultural assumptions, was useful in deciphering the culture of St. Gabriel. Schein's analysis of culture as existing at three different levels proved to be an important distinction as data were collected. His Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing methodology enabled the underlying assumptions to be brought to the surface. Schein provided a valuable theoretical framework and an appropriate methodology for studying the deepest level of an organization, that is, its cultural assumption. Judgements and conclusions about schools can be made on superficial levels of observation. In order to truly understand the functioning of any school, probing beneath these surface levels is necessary. This study confirmed that, for instance, principals have a dominant influence on the culture of schools, therefore, they should be helped to use a cultural lens in order to understand and assess the state of effectiveness of their schools. Finally, a number of theoretical, methodological, and practical implications were noted.


Table of Contents


REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Introduction

The effective schools movement has clarified and specified the ingredients and characteristics necessary for developing effective schools. What has received little attention is an examination of the underlying basic assumptions or guiding beliefs which lead schools to evolve and create a more favourable environment for the growth and development of the people who work in them.

The effective schools research reflects a strong rational and technical emphasis on instructional leadership, school climate, high expectations, basic instructional skills focus and monitoring and evaluating learning. The cultural approach to school effectiveness, in contrast, shows a definite symbolic emphasis on values, assumptions, norms, beliefs, heroes, heroines, rituals, and other cultural elements. These approaches present divergent ways of depicting the core attributes of effective schools and of identifying what is needed to help less successful schools improve.

Even though many scholars have written on how school principals should create, define, shape, and/or change the culture or the symbolic activities which shape the school's effectiveness, Firestone et al. (1985) and Smirich (1983) comment on how very few have attempted to study the school as an organizational culture, that is, a school in which the principal, teachers, students, and parents have attained a shared sense of meaning that allows day-to-day activities to become routinized and taken for granted.

Owens (1987b) recommends that researchers of school organizations spend more time in schools using approaches such as participant observation, ethnography, and intensive case studies in order to accurately learn what is happening to them. Geertz (1973) suggests that there is a need for more 'thick descriptions' of life in schools. Thick descriptions, Owens (1987b) argues, identify and capture the meanings, feelings, and significance of the actions of the various school participants.


Table of Contents


The Meaning of Organizational Culture

Writers such as Kilmann, Saxton and Serpa (1985), and Schein (1985a) explain that the recency of the topic of organizational culture has resulted in the use of many different meanings. Riley (1983) offers an explanation for this problem residing in at least two major research traditions in the study of organizational culture, namely an interpretive approach and a functionlist approach. She postulates that "the functionalist research tradition considers culture to be an organizational variable, something the organization has; while the interpretive tradition studies culture as a pattern of symbolic discourse, something the organization is" (p. 414).

In defining the relationship between organizations and culture, two distinct paradigms exist. The first view based on the functionalist paradigm, has, is characterized by those who conceive of culture as something an organization has, culture is analogous to a simple machine according to Kilmann et al. (1985). In the alternative view based on the interpretive paradigm, organizations and cultures are inseparable. Organizations do not have a culture; rather they are a culture. Kilmann, Saxton and Serpa (1985) state that viewing the organization as:

as open system - as an interconnected, living organism whose parts are connected and dependent on each other suggests that culture cannot be managed as a thing apart from the rest of the organization. All parts of the organization are altered by any culture change. (p. 14)

Regardless of the approach adopted, both views adhere to the defining of culture and the fact that culture does influence individuals. The definitions found in the literature on organizational culture generate multiple meanings, showing that culture is a very complex phenomenon, serving a variety of functions in an organization. The definitions provide an overview of the functions of organizational culture related to: making meaning for individuals in the organization by shaping their perceptions and interpretation of reality; providing a normative function in shaping behaviour which can solve problems; and enhancing a bonding or integrative function that serves as an unconscious power or social energy to move the organization into action.


Table of Contents


Elements of Culture

An understanding of the elements of culture is necessary before trying to determine how culture is created, evolved, and changed. Schein (1985a) conceives a culture as existing at three levels. At the most superficial level are artifacts and creations, which include things such as technology and visible behavioral patterns found in an organization. Values, the next level, have more credibility in governing behaviours and providing a rationale for behaviour. Values assist in understanding why the organization works the way it does, but do not explain the driving forces or essence of the culture. That which creates the values and responses of people are the learned underlying assumptions found at level three. Culture is the pattern of these underlying assumptions, a pattern that is taken for granted and transformed into guides for thought, perception, feeling and behaviour. The assumptions guide the organization's relationship to the environment, the nature of reality, time, space, the essence of human nature, and the nature of human activity and human relationships. Each of the problems of internal integration and external survival faced by an organization, creates assumptions which are the most basic and most important layer of an organization's culture.

Many other conceptions of the elements of culture exist in the research and literature. Kilmann, Saxton and Serpa (1985) see culture as consisting of artifacts and patterns of thought and behaviour that give meaning to the workplace. Internal and external beliefs and values reflect culture for Davis (1985a), whereas Louis (1985a) attributes sites and sources of pockets of shared understandings to culture. Sathe (1985) sees historical and current evidence of beliefs and values as culture elements, while the study of taboos is Kilmann's (1985) focus. Culture is either adaptive or dysfunctional according to Deal and Kennedy (1982). Regardless of the conception, the elements of the content of culture are all directed towards a similar definition of culture.


Table of Contents


The Creation, Maintenance and Transmission of Culture

Spencer (cited in Kilmann, 1985) and Davis (1985a) support a prescriptive top-down view of culture creation, where the guiding principles of culture are set at the top transmitted down through the ranks. Smirich and Hirsch (1983), Allen (1985), Schein (1985a), Jelinek, Smirich and Hirsch (1983), and Gregory (1983) share a processual view of culture as the continuous recreation of shared meanings. Their linking of culture and organization brings attention to the subjective, interpretive aspects of organizational life. For them, culture persists and is maintained or changed by virtue of its continual creation or recreation through members interactions, shared interpretations, and the significance they attach to what occurs. In addition to these aforementioned views, three culture-creating processes, a rational problem-solving process, a political process, and a non-rational symbolic process can be discussed. These views expressed by Schein (1984), Munby (1984), Dandridge, Mitroff and Joyce (1980), Pettigrew (1979), and Barley (1983) introduce the roles of problem-solving, power relations and symbolism as organizations develop a culture which must survive its external environment, while managing its own internal affairs.

Once a particular culture permeates an organization, mechanisms must exist to maintain and transmit it, if that culture is to remain functional and strong. Kilmann (1984) suggests that by understanding what maintains culture two important lessons can be learned:

First, the impact of one group on its members is very powerful indeed. If the group is cohesive... there will be strong pressures on each member to adopt whatever the cultural norms specify. Second, if the cultural norms are supportive of the organization's mission, the efforts of members will continue to yield high performances (p. 104)

Whether culture is effective or dysfunctional, culture developers must understand the power of its invisible force which operates to control individuals and maintain culture through norms or unwritten rules of behaviour in an organization.

Dandridge, Mitroff and Joyce (1980) describe how symbolism is useful in maintaining and transmitting culture. Symbols can be of three types: verbal, actions, or material. Verbal symbols are comprised of myths, legends, stories, slogans, creeds, jokes, rumours, and names. Actions include; rituals, celebrations, and rites of passage. Material symbols reflect: logos, status, symbols, awards, pins and flags. Together, these symbols function in descriptive, energy-controlling, and system maintenance capacities. Symbols, as descriptors, provide an expression of the organization. In their energy-controlling capacity, they either inspire or demotivate people in an organization. Symbols serve a system maintenance function and provide justification and guidance for peoples' actions in the organization.

Deal and Kennedy (1982, p.15) elaborate on the action component of Dandridge, Mitroff and Joyce's symbolism. They suggest that the beliefs and values of an organization are made concrete through the anointing of heroes and the performing of rites and rituals. A cultural network consisting of storytellers, spies, priests, cabals, and whisperers communicates the values and heroic mythology throughout an organization. These informal means of communication transmit the culture and influence its maintenance within the organization.

In his analysis of the transmission and maintenance of culture Schein (1985a) focuses on the role of leadership. Many powerful ways exist in which leaders are able to embed their own assumptions in the ongoing daily life of their organizations:

Through what they pay attention to and reward, through the role modelling they do, through the manner in which they deal with critical incidents, and through the criteria they use for recruitment, selection, promotion, and excommunication, they communicate both explicitly and implicitly the assumptions they really hold. (p. 243)

Schein reinforces that leadership and culture management are so central to understanding organizations and making them effective, that we cannot afford to be complacent about either one.

In summary culture-gaps exist where social energy pressures members to persist in behaviours that may have worked well in the past, but are not dysfunctional. The gap between the outdated culture and what is needed for success, results in a culture rut where people pursue behaviours out of habit. Kilmann (1985) explains that there is not adaptation or change, instead routine motions are maintained by a social energy which works against the organization and is contrary to the members' wishes. People comply with the unstated, below-the-surface, behind-the-scenes,

invisible culture, rather than attempt to create change towards a healthier, stronger more functional culture.


Table of Contents


Changing Culture

Researchers who address the problem of culture lag or culture-gaps often debate about appropriate change methods, each offering his or her own view which is in disagreement with the other's point of view. Schein (1985a) proposes that these are not competing, but complementary points of view, each of which is needed for a full understanding of culture change.

Culture is defined by Sathe (1985) as having two major elements: content and strength; therefore, culture change may involve a change in either or both of these areas. Pettigrew (1979) suggests that since leaders are the "creators" of culture, culture change is accompanied by a change in leadership; leadership succession is the essential ingredient in cultural change. Schein (1985b, p. 27) claims the management of cultural change by the leader depends not on the leader as the creator of culture, but on the circumstances in which the organizational leader finds himself/herself. Schein assumes an organization's culture goes through different stages of development, and that the kind of change possible depends upon the degree to which the organization is ready to change, either because of some externally induced crisis or internal forces pushing towards change.

Dyer's (1985) model suggests that change is triggered by certain crises that call into question the leader's ability to govern. The crises are accompanied by a breakdown of pattern-maintenance symbols, beliefs or structures, that serve to sustain the underlying assumptions of the old culture. If new leadership emerges with a new set of assumptions to resolve the crisis, there will be conflict between the proponents of the old and new leadership. If the crisis is resolved by giving the new leader credit, his/her culture becomes the newly established cultural pattern of symbols, beliefs, and structures. The new culture must become institutionalized and sustained, until some future event again calls into question the leadership abilities and practices, and the cycle is repeated. To assist the management of cultural change Schwartz and Davis (1981, pp. 33-88) maintain leaders need to learn to evaluate the way tasks are usually handled in the context of key relationships such as innovating, decision-making, communicating, organizing, monitoring, appraising, and rewarding.

Wilkins and Patterson (1985) argue that culture cannot be changed top-down by managerial methods such as those recommended by Pettigrew (1979), Dyer (1985), and Schwartz and Davis (1981). These methods focus on rational planning which involves imposing the values of the few on the many which assume:

1) that through clear and careful planning, culture can be changed in precisely intended directions; 2) that acting in value-oriented ways, executives will present clear signals that everyone will want to follow and will know how to follow; and 3) that if enough emphasis is put on changing a culture, the culture will be changed faster than would ordinarily be the case. (Wilkins and Patterson, 1985, p. 266)

According to Wilkins and Patterson's (1985) participative view, culture consists of the conclusions a group of people draw from their experience, what people believe about what works, and what does not. Culture is "like a person's character or personality and is, therefore, changed through processes of growth rather than through engineering" (p. 279).

Louis (1985) supports Wilkins and Patterson's (1985) suggestion to start from where you are. Identifying the source and boundary of understandings in an organization may present a beginning point of change. Sourcing is the identification of the roots or primary site of shared understandings. The roots of shared understanding must be found if lasting change is to be brought about. Bounding is the identification of the extent, reach, or penetration or shared understandings. One may need to know the extent to which a shared understanding is acceptable in an organization and where it applies and where it does not, before efforts are initiated.

Kilmann (1985) acknowledges the manifestation of culture through shared values, beliefs, expectations, and assumptions but believes that culture is most easily controlled through norms. Allen and Kraft (cited in Kilmann, 1985) claim norms can be surfaced, discussed, and altered:

Norms are a universal phenomenon. They are necessary, tenacious, but also extremely malleable. Because they can change so quickly and easily, they present a tremendous opportunity to people interested in change. Any group, no matter its size, once it understands itself as a cultural entity, can plan its own norms, creating positive ones that will help reach its goals and modifying or discarding the negative ones. (p. 7-8)

Organizations are open, living, interconnected systems in which culture cannot be managed as a thing apart from the rest of the organization, according to Kilmann, Saxton and Serpa (1985). When shaping culture, "1) the consequences of a culture change on all aspects of the organization (strategy, structure, reward system, skills, work procedures, and so on); and 2) how all of these aspects may need to be altered to support cultural change, must be considered" (p. 15). Otherwise, efforts to effect culture change could create more problems and dysfunctions, unless change is managed from the systems perspective which acknowledges the interconnectedness of other aspects of the organization to culture.

The use of rites and ceremonies by effective managers to facilitate culture change is discussed by Trice and Doyer (1985). Rites include many culture forms such as: symbols, language, gestures, physical settings, artifacts, rituals, myths, sagas, legends, stories, and folk tales that can be used to convey desirable old and new cultural messages. Managers who recognize that rites and ceremonies already occur around them, and who become aware of both their intended and latent consequences, can use rites to facilitate change.

Managerial efforts to create, strengthen, or change culture will have a high probability of success according to Sethia and Von Glinow (1985) only if such efforts are accompanied by efforts to design a culturally compatible reward system. "If the reward system is in harmony with the culture, it will reinforce and invigorate the culture, but if it is inconsistent with the culture, then it will undermine and stultify culture: (p. 418).

Although major culture change is difficult to effect and takes a long time to accomplish, Sathe (1985) stresses it is necessary to pursue, since "creating culture change in the organization is analogous to gaining the commitment of the individual" (p. 256). Committed people self-monitor their behaviour, and rewards and punishments which drive their intrinsic behaviour. They put in the energy, time, and effort to do what needs to be done, not just what they are minimally required to do. While behaviour change reflects change involving skills and behaviours, mental processes such as perception and thinking are only affected by cultural change. An understanding of this difference can help culture managers decide whether it is behaviour change, or culture prevailing change which brings commitment they wish to pursue in order to most effectively achieve their desired results. This, in turn, will influence which of the change theories presented above they will implement in order to ensure that culture has a functional impact on their organization.


Table of Contents


The Impact of Culture on Schools

An examination of the content of culture, how it is created, maintained, transmitted, and changed leads to the question of the effect it can have upon schools as organizations in the future. Kilmann, Saxton and Serpa (1985) state:

Culture is the social energy that drives - or fails to drive the organization. To ignore a culture and move on to something else is to assume, once again, that formal documents, strategies, structures and reward systems are enough to guide human behaviour in an organization - that people believe and commit to what they read or are told to do. (p. 422)

The authors argue that most of what goes on in an organization is guided by the cultural qualities of shared meanings, hidden assumptions, and unwritten rules. Several researchers argue that "strong" cultures are somehow more likely to be associated with organizational effectiveness than are "weak" cultures, and that strong cultures can be deliberately created (Ouchi, 1982, Deal and Kennedy, 1982; Peters and Waterman, 1982). Sergiovanni (1984) states "all schools have cultures: strong or weak, functional or dysfunctional. Successful schools seem to have strong and functional cultures aligned with a vision of excellence in schooling" (p. 10).

The impact of culture on performance is presently built on theoretical argument and examples of exemplary schools. Deal (1985a) refers to several studies on sub-culture which influence student performance. Student sub-cultures have been shown to have an effect on the scholastic tone of the school, and subsequently, on student behaviour and performance. Teacher's sub-cultures often dictate how teachers relate to one another and can undermine efforts to introduce innovations, or influence expectations on the amount of time to be spent on instruction and thus influence student performance. The administrative sub-culture can often become pre-occupied with accountability, control, and change, encouraging procedural conformity which can erode teacher motivation, inspirational creativity and, thereby, the tone and performance of the school. Orientations of parent and community sub-cultures may also have impact through voiced expectations about school performance. These sub-cultures can have a tremendous effect on behaviour, and through behaviour on performance, unless subgroups are held together by an overall cultural unity. Cultural elements influence the behaviour of administrators, teachers, parents, and students by projecting an overall image of what the school stands for. This is turn influences productivity, how well teachers teach, and how much students learn. Owens (1987b, p. 196) substantiates Deal's findings in his conclusion to large-scale-research in the United States which "supports the mounting evidence in the literature that the learning and development of students are significantly influenced by the characteristics of organizational culture."

Fuller and Izu (1985) share the feeling that cultural beliefs within a school exert considerable power. Unlike regulatory controls placed on teachers, cultural beliefs are created by unobtrusive socialization of the teacher. The importance of this kind of change is that it causes teachers to converge to some commonly held beliefs. They come to share a faith which shapes their sense of efficacy to boost student learning. Purkey and Smith (1983) support Fuller and Izu's (1985) contention that culture brings power. They point out that cultural models of school improvement assume that changing the school's culture requires "changing people, their behaviours, and attitudes as well as the school organization and norms. It assumes that consensus among the staff of a school is more powerful than overt control, without ignoring the need for leadership" (p. 68).

Purkey and Smith (1985) argue that school is the focus of change and culture is the target. Culture or "the way we do things around here" (Deal, 1985a) consists of ways of thinking, behaviour, and artifacts that symbolize the workplace. Understanding these symbols and culture of a school is a prerequisite to making the school more effective, since meaning in schools comes from this culture - from the shared values and beliefs, the heroes and heroines of the workplace, the rituals and ceremonies, the stories, and from the informal activities of the cultural players (Deal and Kennedy, 1982). The values and beliefs that bring success are developed over a long time by effective schools to give meaning to education in that facility (Fullan, 1985). School improvement plans and projections can be viewed as symbolic activities which reshape the culture of schools.


Table of Contents


Rivitalizing School Culture

Deal (1985a) sees the "pathway to educational effectiveness inside each school. It exists in the traditions and symbols that make a school special to students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community" (p. 615). Deal (1985b) shows how the cultural approach to school improvement has a definite symbolic emphasis on values, heroes, heroines, rituals, and beliefs. He thus recommends an approach which encourages the application of language and concepts of culture to school improvement efforts. His approach encourages a school to look back on its own history and on the elements of its culture, rather than trying to emulate the characteristics of effective schools. Efforts to strengthen schools need to be approach symbolically as well as rationally. Although rational processes equip schools to manage the daily details of running smoothly and punctually, the symbolic side of organizations creates an opportunity to rebuild the integrity and identity of schools, and at the same time rekindles public faith in education.

In support of Deal's (1985a) school-based approach to culture revitalization, Purkey and Smith (1985) agree that since each school is unique it should be looking at its whole culture rather than at individual effectiveness attributes:

the organizational looseness of schools and the resulting relative autonomy of teachers in the classroom, indicate that school cohesiveness can be obtained through building staff agreement on and commitment to clearly and commonly identified norms and goals... efforts to change schools have been productive and most enduring when directed towards influencing the entire school culture via a strategy involving collaborative planning, shared decision-making, and collegial work in an atmosphere friendly to experimentation and evaluation. (p. 357)

Purkey and Smith suggest a model drawing on this research which integrates the descriptive characteristics of effective schools, with what is known about policy formation, innovation implementation, organizational theory, and workplace reform.

Staff participation in decision-making at the school level is identified as important in the research on implementation and change, and also integral to the process of creating an effective school culture. In contrast to the teacher's relative autonomy in the classroom, "staffs traditionally have not had the authority and opportunity to decide schoolwide policy on management issues" (p. 359). Cultural change requires teachers to learn new ways of thinking and behaving, and to acquire new skills and attitudes. For this to happen, people must be meaningfully involved in making the decisions concerning these changes, if they are to be held accountable for the outcomes engendered by the changes.

Saphier and King (1985) see school improvement as emerging from the confluence of four elements: the strengthening of teacher's skills; the systematic renovation of curriculum; the improvement of the organization; and the involvement of parents and citizens in responsible school-community partnerships which all underlie a school culture that either energizes or undermines them. They contend, that regardless of the focus of particular change efforts in revitalizing school culture, schools need to nurture and build on the cultural norms that contribute growth, if school improvement is to occur and have any lasting effects. Saphier and King advocate supporting those cultural norms where they exist and building them where they do not exist, since the degree to which these norms are strong influences the ability of school improvement activities to have any effect. Building these norms "depends equally on teachers' will and commitment, since good leadership alone cannot make them strong; but without such leadership, culture cannot begin to grow or be expected to endure" (p. 68). The culture builders of the school need to bring an ever-present awareness of these norms to everything they do in daily activity because this awareness and commitment to culture building is more important than any single activity or structure in the school organization.

Since culture building is school-based, administrators must understand their role in the process. Leaders cannot be the sole creators of organizational culture, or the sole force driving changes in the culture. Sergiovanni (1984) asserts that strong, functional cultures are "nurtured and built by the school leadership and membership" (p. 10). Leaders can manage the culture through both formal, explicit means, and informal, implicit means to affect school improvement outcomes.

Deal and Kennedy (1983) suggest three things educational leaders can do to help build a strong functional culture. First, leaders must get to know their culture's content, as it specifies the commitments by which cultural actors operate. Secondly, leaders must determine whether the culture is encouraging or undermining educational performance. Third, leaders must plan for how staff will come to grips with cultural patterns that need to be re-examined or changed. Role modelling of behaviour which is consistent with desirable norms and values within the school culture is also an important leadership function according to Sergiovanni (1984). Sathe (1983) emphasizes the importance of a leader's informal communication which carries implicit messages about the culture through storytelling and the relating of anecdotes that also support desired cultural values. The interpersonal and social skills of the leader are relied upon to recognize how the dynamic social side of school life can influence change, commitment, and thus, improvement.


Table of Contents


The Relationship Between School Culture and School Effectiveness

In an attempt to relate organizational culture (however described and measured) to the effectiveness of educational organizations, one invariably confronts the difficulties of assessing the effectiveness dimension. This problem requires that we identify indicators of organizational effectiveness in schools and ways of measuring them. Considerable research has been conducted and sufficient findings have been successfully replicated by the effective schools researchers to permit a synthesis of the broad agreements on the fundamental elements or indicators of effective schooling (MacKenzie, 1983), and of the most tangible characteristics of effective schools (Edmonds, 1979; Cohen, 1982). The critical nature of the interdependence of these variables according to Purkey and Smith (1982) results from schooling being a complex process conditioned by the history and circumstances of its evolution. As a consequence:

no single element of school effectiveness can be considered in isolation from all of the others, or from the total situation in which it is found. The principles of effectiveness may be consistent, but each school must implement them in unique ways. When effective schools are examined invito, what emerges is not a checklist of specific ingredients, but a syndrome or "culture" of mutually reinforcing expectations and activities. (p. 65).

Likert (1961) sought to link organizational performance to the internal characteristics of the organization. His analysis showed the performance of an organization to be determined by causal, intervening, and end-result variables.


Table of Contents


Rationale For The Study

The significance of the concept of organizational culture has been advanced by scholars for various reasons. Schein (1985a) suggests there is no culture-free concept, because culture is about the meaning of life in work places. "Individuals and organizational performance, and the feelings that people in an organization have about the organization cannot be understood unless one takes into account the organization's culture" (p. 24). The linking of culture and organization brings attention to the subjective, interpretive aspects or organizational life, where culture is maintained or changed by virtue of its continual creation or recreation through members interactions, shared interpretations, and the significance that they attach to what occurs.

Pettigrew (1979) reminds us that:

In the pursuit of our everyday tasks and objectives, it is all too easy to forget... the more expressive social tissue around us that gives those tasks meaning. Yet, in order for people to function within any given setting, they must have a continuing sense of what that reality is all about in order to be acted upon. (p. 574)

Deal (1985a) sees this sense of reality existing in the traditions and symbols that make a school special to students, teachers, parents, and the community and which create a pathway to educational effectiveness inside the school. The people in each school dictate through words and deed what happens to the culture:

Effective schools are those that over time have built a system of beliefs, supported by cultural forms that give meaning to the process of education ... These schools ... display shared values and beliefs, well known and widely celebrate heroes and heroines; well attended and memorable rituals and ceremonies; positive stories; and a dedicated informal group whose members work diligently to maintain and strengthen the culture. (p. 609)

These observations suggest there is a need to study individual schools to decipher how their cultures have emerged; why their cultures persist; how their culture influence their constituents' role performances; and the relationship between their operating cultures and the school effectiveness attributes.

The specific purpose of this study was to discover the operative basic assumptions of a school's culture, that is solutions to external and internal problems that have worked consistently for the people in the school, and are therefore, taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think about, and feel in relation to those problems.

The major questions in this study were:

1. What basic assumptions regarding their daily work have the staff members and students at this school invented, discovered or developed?

2. How did these basic assumptions arise?

3. Are the basic assumptions of the teachers, parents, and student similar?

4. What are the implications of these basic assumptions for the establishment of a school culture which encompasses the school effectiveness characteristics?

5. Does Schein's (1985a) conceptual model, which was developed for the study of basic cultural assumptions, have utility for deciphering school culture?

It was hoped that this study would make a significant contribution for both practitioners and researchers through its advancement of the theoretical literature. Recent literature on organizational culture emphasizes the critical need to examine school culture as the focal point for achieving school effectiveness. Purkey and Smith (1982) summarize this need when they state:

that an academically effective school is distinguished by its culture: a structure, process, and climate of values and norms that channel staff and students in the direction of successful teaching and learning... The logic of the cultural model is such that it points to increasing the organizational effectiveness of a school building. (p. 68)

The linking of culture and organization brings attention to the subjective, interpretive aspects or organizational life, where culture is maintained or changed by virtue of its continual creation or reaction through members interactions, shared interpretations, and the significance they attach to what occurs.

An examination by Deal (1985a) of how effective schools evolve to create a more favourable environment of growth and development for people who work in them reveals that meaning in these schools comes from this culture. Meaning comes from the shared values and beliefs, the heroes and heroines of the workplace, the rituals and ceremonies, the stories, and from the informal activities of the cultural players. Therefore, understanding these ways of thinking, behaviours, and other elements of the culture of a school is a prerequisite to making the school more effective.

Fullan (1985) reminds us that the values and beliefs that bring success and give meaning to education are developed over a long time by effective schools. Their special traditions and symbols eventually create a pathway to educational effectiveness. Culture comes to serve a variety of functions in these schools. An overview of these functions relate to: 1) providing normative function in shaping behaviour which can solve problems; 2) making meaning for individuals in the organization by shaping their perceptions and interpretation of reality; and 3) enhancing a bonding or integrative function that serves as an unconscious power or social energy to move the organization into action. Together these functions influence behaviour and productivity, that is, how teachers teach, how much students learn, and thus, how effective the school becomes.

To improve complex organizations such a schools, with any degree of impact according to Kilmann et al. (1985), requires "an explicit management of culture along with all the other controllable variables in the organization: strategy, structure, rewards, skills, teams, and so on" (p. 423). Culture change requires teachers to learn new ways of thinking and behaving, and of acquiring new skills and attitudes at the same time as it seeks to develop organizational changes which integrate the descriptive characteristics of effective schools. Since effective school's theory identifies the school building as the delivery level, with each school having a different school culture, school improvement consists of manipulating at the school level, the network of characteristics that influence an individual school's culture.

The school effectiveness literature has come to be criticized for paying little attention to assessment of non-school variables, due to their narrow focus on basic skills achievement. The potential links between the organizational and pedagogical components need clarifying and strengthening. Fullan et al. (1980) agree social scientists are clearer about why organizational development of schools does not work, than why it does.

Purkey and Smith (1983) emphasize that a school is a small culture, a more or less loosely knit social organization, and not a fine piece of machinery like a nuclear reactor. In this environment, nothing works all the time. Some things work more often than others, but hardly anything works for everybody. Nothing works by itself, and everything takes a long time. Interior aspects of school improvement, such as willingness to implement new practices, perceptions of results, and meaning of success to different actors deserve to be recorded in some detail.

The amount of agreement on the principle factors of school effectiveness is striking. We know the characteristics of effective schools, but there is much less clarity about how to achieve them. This may partly be due to the fact that the effective schools research has reflected a strong rational technical emphasis on goals, leadership, planning, meeting, and learning. The cultural approach to school effectiveness, in contrast, shows a definite symbolic emphasis on values, assumptions, norms, beliefs, heroes, heroines, rituals, and other cultural elements. The importance of the difference is that these approaches present divergent ways of depicting the core attributes of effective schools and of identifying what is needed to help less successful schools improve.

Although values equip a school to manage the daily details of running smoothly and punctually, understanding the symbols of the culture of a school has been suggested by Kilmann, Saxton and Serpa (1985), Purkey and Smith (1983), Fullan (1985), Schein (1985), Louis and Kilmann (1985), Sathe (1985), and Deal and Kennedy (1982) as a pre-requisite to making it more effective. Deal (1985a) sees the "pathway to educational effectiveness inside each school. It exists in the traditions and symbols that make a school special to students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community" (p. 615). He, thus, recommends an approach which encourages the application of language and concepts of culture to school improvement efforts. This involves the school looking inwards on the elements of its culture, rather than trying only to emulate characteristics of an effective school.

Accepting the premise that functional cultures increase organizational effectiveness implies that schools wishing to enhance their effectiveness must begin by revealing the basic elements of their existing cultures. This beginning source of information will assist schools in understanding how their present school culture impacts upon their organization and its members' behaviour. Only then will it become more evident what basic assumptions have been developed to form the existing culture, how they influence the role performance of the school's constituent groups and its activities, and reveal the implications of this existing culture for school effectiveness.

Purkey and Smith (1985) agree that since each school is unique, consequently the school should be looking at its whole culture, rather than at individual effectiveness attributes:

the organizational looseness of schools and the resulting relative autonomy of teachers in the classroom indicate that school cohesiveness can be obtained through building staff agreement on and commitment to clearly and commonly identified norms and goals... efforts to change schools have been productive and most enduring when directed towards influencing the entire school culture via a strategy involving collaborative planning, shared decision-making; and collegial work in an atmosphere friendly to experimentation and evaluation. (p.357)

Scholars in educational administration have taken a cue from the business literature on the concept of organizational culture to provide a plethora of prescriptions to principals on how to create, embed, transmit, and change school cultures in order to achieve desired school effectiveness goals. These prescriptions deal with espoused theories of action, what scholars think principals ought to do to have cultures which will enable them to achieve desired results. Unlike their counterparts in business organizations, these educational scholars have not dealt with what school culture is. They have not dealt how it can be deciphered, how it influences the operational activities of the school or how it changes or should be changed. In addition, issues such as why school culture emerges or persists have not been taken into account. Finally, they have not considered the roles of various constituent groups working toward school effectiveness. These observations suggested that there is a need to study individual schools to decipher their cultures so that the implications of these operating cultures for school effectiveness could be better understood.

Existing theories, conceptual frameworks, and models of school effectiveness such as those of MacKenzie (1983), Purkey and Smith (1985), Murphy et al. (1983), Sackney (1985), Duignan (1986), Caldwell and Spinks (1986), Loucks (1983) depict the characteristics of school effectiveness towards which a school engaged in school improvement should move. Few of these approaches deal with culture as the essence of school effectiveness. The researcher hoped this study would contribute to the theoretical literature by adding support to existing school effectiveness literature on the concept of school culture. Also, the researcher hoped this study would clarify the appropriateness and utility of Schein's (1985a) Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing methodology for the deciphering of cultural assumptions in school organizations.


Table of Contents


Methodology

Schein's (1984) levels of culture and their interaction formed the conceptual framework for this study. Schein viewed organizational culture as existing at three different levels. "Visible artifacts" included: the constructed environment of the organization; "values" reflected what people said were the reasons for their behaviour; and "underlying assumptions" actually determined how group members perceived, thought, and felt. Schein argued that these underlying assumptions eventually form a pattern, namely culture, and become taken for granted. He maintained that these assumptions could be brought back to awareness through focused inquiry.

The research method chosen for this study was based on Schein's (1985a) Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing methodology used in the study of organizational culture. This methodology involved a series of encounters and joint explorations between myself as an outside investigator and various key informants, who lived in the school under study and who embodied its culture. Determining the school's basic assumption was a joint effort. This technique reduced the risk of researcher subjectivity bias because an outsider cannot experience the meanings that an insider does. As well, Schein (1985a) explained that the insider alone cannot identify the basic assumptions because they have dropped out of awareness and have become taken for granted. This methodology did not require initial specific questions to ask or things to observe. Instead, problems of external adaptation and survival, problems of internal integration, and basic underlying assumptions, around which cultural paradigms form, were used to identify areas where observations should be made. Interview questions were based on issues raised from my observation of verbal, behavioral, and physical artifacts; from the data obtained from archival material and documents; and from meetings with the various constituent groups. Underlying assumptions were elicited and during interviews using an evocative technique and a search for patterns in the responses.

From the emerging patterns, tentative hypotheses were developed that described the school's basic assumptions and that were tested with key insiders. The following activities provided a comprehensive and systematic design for deciphering the school's basic assumptions:

(1) Entry and focus on surprises

(2) Systematic observation and checking

(3) The location of a motivated insider

(4) The revelation of surprises, puzzlements, and hunches

(5) Joint exploration to find explanation

(6) The formalization of hypotheses

(7) Systematic checking and consolidation

(8) Pushing to the level of assumptions

(9) Perceptual recalibration

(10) Formal written description (pp. 114-118)

This study focused on the deciphering of the culture of one school from the elaborate and extensive data collection activities. The school for this study was nominated by the director, superintendents, program coordinators, and consultants of the Westville Catholic Board of Education on the basis of selection criteria provided by the researcher. These criteria included a school which had functioned long enough for culture to develop, a principal who had been in the school for more than one year, a school large enough to have sufficient numbers of staff who might consider participating in such a study, and a school which possessed most of the five characteristics defined as being the most tangible and indispensable characteristics of effective schools.

Data were collected for approximately a four month period from January, 1989 to April, 1989. This time period was deemed to be sufficient to collect data that were representative of the operations of the school throughout the school year. Three major sources were used to generate data. Artifacts were observed, iterative interviews were conducted with key informants, and archival materials was analyzed. Artifacts, which consisted of verbal, behavioral, and physical characteristics of the school and its stakeholders, provided the data from which interview questions were generated. Key informants for the interviews were selected from several constituent groups, including staff, parents, and students. Archival materials included the contents of the school's correspondence, documents, daily memos, newsletters, reports, staff meeting agendas and minutes, timetables, in-service sessions, student records, board of education memos, Advisory School Council meetings, and other related materials.

Data were collected and analyzed using Schein's (1985a) conceptual framework. Culture is evident in the members' characteristic approach to problems of external adaptation and internal integration. In order to describe this culture, external and internal issues were discussed through the Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing methodology. Data collection involved a highly interactive process. Triangulation was used to cross check and verify the accuracy of information obtained from observation of artifacts, iterative interviews with key informants, and analysis of archival material. In the early stages of the study, broad, general questions were used to guide data collection. This strategy facilitated the synthesis of related observations, the development of thick descriptions, and the derivation of tentative hypotheses. As the study progressed, probing, checking, and testing were used to confirm emerging patterns and hypotheses.

Throughout the course of the study, an audit trail was maintained to preserve a sense of the context in which observations were made. The nature of decisions in the research plan, the data upon which the decisions were based, and the reasoning that guided decision-making were documented. Techniques to ensure credibility, transferability, dependability, and confirmability of the study were included in order to increase the probability of trustworthiness. These techniques included prolonged engagement, persistent observation, peer debriefing, triangulation, referential adequacy materials, member checks, thick descriptive data, theoretical/purposive sampling, and an audit trail.

Schein's (1985a) Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing procedures and schedules were used to analyze data. Throughout the data collection phase, preliminary hypotheses about the school's assumptions guided data collection and analysis. Data from observations, from verbal, behavioral, and physical artifacts, and from archival material and documents generated issues for further exploration and pointed to audible candidates for iterative interviews. Throughout the observation of informal and formal work contexts, I searched for regularities, shared meanings, shared sayings, shared doings, and shared feelings. Questions and hunches emerged as I sought explanation for the origins and meanings of the verbal, behavioral, and physical artifacts that I had collected. I sought explanation, elaboration, and correction of these questions and hunches through further observations, interviews, and recordings of shared experiences.

Near the end of the second month, the data were categorized in order to test the tentative themes that indicated the school's basic assumptions. The categories were based on Schein's (1985a, p. 86) system of cultural assumptions and included: humanity's relationship to nature; the nature of reality and truth; the nature of human nature; the nature of human activity; and the nature of human relationships. This phase of generating themes was followed by a search for further evidence, explanation, and clarification to support emerging hypotheses. Iterative interviewing continued, and checklists of Schein's external adaptation and internal integration issues were referred to systematically. During the final weeks of research, existing data were consolidated and new data were checked against existing information. Final interviews with key informants refined and verified the written statements of the school's basic assumptions. At this point, descriptions of the basic assumptions operating at the school were written.


Table of Contents


Significant Findings and Conclusions

Five research questions formed the basis of this study. A summary of the significant findings and conclusions for these research questions follows:

Research Question 1

What basic assumptions regarding their daily work have the staff members and students at this school invented, discovered, or developed?

In this study, I was able to discover the operative basic assumptions of the school's culture by using Schein's (1985a) conceptual framework of organizational culture for data collection and analysis.

Based upon observation of artifacts, examination of archival material, and iterative interviews with staff members, parents, and students, three basic assumptions were deciphered about the daily work within the culture of St. Gabriel School. The first assumption was that the Catholic faith and the Christian value system pervaded all school activity. This assumption was evident in visual displays found in the halls and classrooms of the school and in rituals and ceremonies that included opening exercises, classroom masses, and school gatherings around religious celebrations. Correspondence from the Board of Education, daily memos, newsletters, and parish memos reflected an expectation for attendance at various religious events.

The second assumption was that a transactional leadership style influenced decision-making, relationships, communications, and the teaching-learning situation. There were limited opportunities for shared decision-making at St. Gabriel. Open communication, consensus building, and participatory problem-solving and decision-making, with a focus on academic matters and student achievement, were not a natural part of school life. Parents were not true partners in the teaching-learning situation of the school. While crediting their principal for creating a climate for healthy relationships, staff requested more involvement in the decision-making processes of the school and more monitoring and feedback in the teaching-learning situation.

The final assumption was that the children's social needs were emphasized at the expense of academic learning. Discussions of teaching and learning did not exist, and staff were left alone to meet academic learning needs. Many activities unrelated to learning goals interfered with teaching in a attempt to use social needs to motivate apathetic students with a perceived low desire to succeed to accomplish. Confusion existed in interpreting and applying the social needs philosophy. Teaching practices among primary teachers were quite different from those of the staff at the Grade 5 to 8 level. It was, therefore, concluded in this case study that three basic assumptions guided the work of the school staff.

Research Question 2

How did these basic assumptions arise?

The assumption that the Catholic faith and the Christian value system pervaded all school activity originated and developed as a consequence of St. Gabriel being a Catholic elementary school within a Catholic school division. This basic assumption was initiated by the principal of St. Gabriel as part of his leadership role. It subsequently came to be nurtured by all St. Gabriel people associated with the operation of the school. New staff members quickly became indoctrinated since the principal screened applicants to ensure that practising Catholics who would live out this assumption were hired. A variety of verbal, physical, and behavioral artifacts reinforced this assumption. From the main entry of the school, through the halls, and into the classrooms an outsider could observe various banners, bulletin boards, messages, and symbols of religion, some of which were changed to conform with the holy calendar. The daily activities of the school included prayer, rituals, and ceremonies that reflected the religious days of the calendar. Regular weekly classroom masses and school gatherings to observe religious seasons reinforced the presence of the Catholic faith and the Christian value system. Staff and students were expected to participate in special functions planned for religious occasions and parents were strongly encouraged to become involved.

The assumption that a transactional leadership style influenced decision-making, relationships, communications, and the teaching-learning situation originated and developed in response to a leadership style chosen by the principal upon his appointment to St. Gabriel School. This assumption subsequently came to be accepted by St. Gabriel staff who believed that this style was not open to feedback or to suggestions for change. Although the principal had a vision for the school, he experienced difficulty in translating his expectations into realized goals because of his leadership style. Staff members wished to become true participants in decision-making processes related to the teaching-learning situation.

The assumption that the children's social needs were emphasized at the expense of academic learning originated from the principal's espoused philosophy of learning. This philosopy was based on child-centred goals and gospel values. The principal believed that, given the family structure, socio-economic status, and demographics of the community, his school would not succeed if it focused on academics at the expense of the whole child. This philosophy influenced the tone and atmosphere of school activities that were delivered by staff members. Differences were noted between primary teachers who emphasized academic performance and Project Gonzaga teachers who emphasized socialization. Primary teachers tended to believe that learning occurred within a context of socialization, but that school was more than just having fun. Although learning appeared to be fun, socialization was not the teachers' main goal. By contrast, middle years teachers set goals and objectives that were simply social activities with no academic component.

In conclusion, this study revealed that the principal had a major impact upon how all three assumptions arose and were maintained. The religious assumption was initiated as part of the principal's leadership role. His leadership style was chosen and the assumption emphasizing children's social needs resulted from his espoused philosophy of learning.

Research Question 3

Are the basic assumptions of the teachers, parents, and students similar?

The research design of this study required me to work with motivated insiders who had embodied St. Gabriel's basic assumptions, that is, people who had accepted St. Gabriel's way do doing things. Consequently, while dissenting views were heard, read, and recorded, individuals possessing such views appeared to have been largely socialized into all three assumptions as the way of doing this at St. Gabriel School.

Research Question 4

What are the implications of these basic assumptions for the establishment of a school culture which encompasses the school effectiveness characteristics?

The three cultural assumptions at St. Gabriel revealed the existence of mutually reinforcing expectations and activities surrounding a religion and socialization focus over a learning priority implemented within a transactional leadership style. The possibility of establishing a school culture which encompassed school effectiveness characteristics within the context of these three basic cultural assumptions was problematic. St. Gabriel did not have a shared vision on academic learning where planned curriculum, high expectations, and ongoing assessment reflected school academic goals. Collaborative and transformational relations were not characteristic of the staff.

Most teachers felt the principal was the key reason their school functioned the way it did; at the same time they accepted little responsibility for their role in the process. Goodlad (1984) recommends that if:

teachers can be persuaded to take the first step - namely an assessment of their own classrooms... a beginning will have been made. Otherwise, the problem is shrugged off as existing somewhere else... The power for improving each school lies with the principal, teachers, students, and parents associated with it (p. 129)

Goodlad suggests that efforts at improvement must encompass the entire school as a system of parts which interact and affect the others: "The school must become largely self-directing. The people connected with it must develop a capacity for affecting renewal and establishing mechanisms to do this" (p. 276). St. Gabriel staff members were capable of establishing religious and social expectations and activities which were mutually reinforcing. If all teachers accepted their individual and collective roles in the process of cultural change, I believe they could similarly establish a focus on academic learning. Such an emphasis could bring about the changes necessary for developing the elements of effective schools.

This study examined the three assumptions of St. Gabriel School within the context of the school effectiveness literature. It revealed that the basic elements of St. Gabriel's existing culture were not based on mutually agreed upon expectations and goals necessary for effective schools. The staff at this school could not afford to be complacent about either leadership or culture management according to Schein (1985b), since both were central to understanding organizations and to making them effective.

Research Question 5

Does Schein's (1985a) conceptual model, which was developed for the study of basic cultural assumptions, have utility for deciphering school culture?

Schein's (1985a) conceptual model did have utility in deciphering the culture of a school:

1. The underlying assumptions which form a culture can be brought back to awareness through a focused inquiry using the efforts of both an insider who lives the unconscious assumptions and an outsider who helps uncover the assumptions by asking the right kinds of questions using the Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing approach which does not

require initial definite questions to ask or things to observe.

2. Schein's theoretical categories or problems of external adaptation and survival, problems of internal integration, and basic underlying assumptions around which cultural paradigms form provided the researcher with areas suitable for observation and from which responses could be elicited.

3. Living in St. Gabriel's culture was necessary in order to observe and to interview the participants repeatedly, to access the relevant organizational documents, and to capitalize on the other aspects of Schein's methodology.

4. The data collection design outlined by Schein provided an emergent plan for a highly interactive process of data gathering. Eventually I came to confirm certain patterns and hypotheses that could be verified to be the basic assumptions of the school's culture. Schein's conceptual framework was useful in the deciphering of these assumptions.

5. Schein's Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing activity steps and schedules also proved to be useful in analyzing data. Throughout the entire data collection phase, the formulation of hypotheses about the school's assumptions became the basic tool used to collect and to analyze data. The need to analyze concurrent data from observations, interviews, and archival material acted as an advance organizer.


Table of Contents


Recommendation For Boards of Education

Prior to this study, I have worked in six different schools, each of which experienced different degrees of effectiveness. I have been a term consultant responsible for work in all 51 schools in my school division. Throughout my career, I have searched for a better understanding of those factors that affected the quality of education as these schools changed over time. The impetus for this study came from my perception that the subjective interpretive aspects of school life appeared to hold the values and beliefs that gave meaning to activity in schools . After examining the school effectiveness research, which reflected a strong rational and technical emphasis, the cultural approach to school effectiveness appeared to be a viable alternative for identifying elements which helped schools experience success.

With the help of Schein's (1985a) conceptual model, this study confirmed the ability to decipher basic cultural assumptions that determine how people perceive, think, and feel about school life. That which the stakeholders of St. Gabriel valued led to certain behaviours. As these behaviours were used to solve problems, the values gradually transformed into underlying assumptions about how things should be. As the assumptions came to be taken for granted, they dropped out of awareness and became part of the operating culture of the group. Having deciphered these underlying cultural assumptions, I was able to understand how the values and beliefs these people continued to hold created meaning at St. Gabriel and influenced the level of effectiveness within their school.

If the process of achieving school effectiveness is to continue, there is a critical need to examine school culture as the focal point for achieving school effectiveness. We must encourage the application of the concepts of culture to school improvement efforts. Schools will need to look within in order to reveal the basic elements of their existing cultures before they attempt to emulate the characteristics of effective schools. When school personnel are aware of those assumptions which form their existing culture, they will have a better understanding as to how these assumptions influence members' performance and school activities. Finally, they will have revealed the implications of these assumptions within their culture for future school effectiveness.


Table of Contents


Implications and Considerations

1. Schein's Joint Exploration Through Iterative Interviewing methodology has theoretical utility and can be applied by school board offices and school based personnel as a frame of reference for the further study of schools as cultures.

2. A true understanding of the culture of a school can only be obtained by living within the culture for an extended period of time and by using a cultural lens.

3. Brief, informal visitations to schools may leave good impressions about the functioning of the school. Probing beneath the surface levels of initial observations results in a different version of reality. Visitors not intensely involved in studying the values and assumptions of a school would likely make judgements and draw conclusions based on visible behavioral patterns found in all schools. In order to examine the level of a school's effectiveness, an examination and an understanding of the cultural assumptions operating within the school must be undertaken. This implies that supervisors such as superintendents, need to spend much more time within schools in order to understand their cultures.

4. Principals have a dominant influence on the cultures of schools. As educational administrators, they should understand how to assess the effectiveness of their schools beyond an examination of the school effectiveness variables. If principals were able to identify their own cultural assumptions, as well as those that influence teachers, performance, they would be better equipped to effect changes at interpretive levels of meaning, that is, in what people value, believe, and assume. Principals would also develop a new lens from which to understand the present realities of their schools. Organizational culture would be seen as a framework for understanding and explaining the behaviour of educational organizations. Since cultural change requires new ways of thinking and behaving, the revealing of existing assumptions becomes a critical step in influencing the future direction of the school. Principals and their staffs will require professional development in this area.

5. A collaborative culture lies within the control of all those who participate in it. All teachers must accept individual and collective roles in the process of effecting the cultural changes necessary to develop the elements of effective schools. Administrators alone cannot build commitment to culture building norms.

6. In order for staff members to be disposed towards being involved in self-assessment and self-improvement, the school culture must entail a belief system which values transformational relations and collaboration directed towards successful teaching and learning.

7. Physical, verbal and behavioral artifacts such as rituals and ceremonies serve to reinforce values and beliefs by providing regular patterns that generate the commitment of those involved in a school. Staff members require encouragement to examine these elements of culture as sources of understanding the symbolic aspects of life at school.

8. The interviewing of different constituent groups with a variety of perspectives and a diversity of information is necessary to determine how widely shared an assumption is and, therefore, whether it truly represents an underlying assumption of the culture. The voice of students contributed significantly to exploring further puzzlements and hunches which eventually led to the deciphering of the assumptions at St. Gabriel.

9. Parental involvement, cooperation, and support in helping schools reach their goals have been shown to enhance effective school cultures. It is recommended that staff members create conditions in which they can work together with the parents in the building of cultures which pursue academic excellence.

10. Schools, with special programs for middle years students, are cautioned to ensure that the nature of the activities planned relate to learning goals if effectiveness is desired in the school culture.


Table of Contents


Back to: School Improvement