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A Creative Solution for Schools in a Post-Pandemic Environment (PART 3 of 3)

[This article is the third of a three-part series. Part 3 looks at the impact of a self-directed learning philosophy on elements of a school's culture.]

On May 7, 2020, Anya Kamenetz published this article on titled A Few Schools Reopen, But Remote Learning Could Go On For Years In U.S.. Her article argues that schools "play a range of roles in society beyond education" and are "a cornerstone of any attempt to reopen the economy". She highlights some of the logistics of reopening a school in a pandemic, including how remote and in-person learning points to a sudden need for "personalized learning" - a controversial topic in education.

This is where a self-directed learning philosophy can help support these necessary changes.

However, implementing such a shift is more than changing a few practices. The key principle in applying a new philosophy into elements of culture is that no one program will implement one way in all schools. Like people, every school and district will require different needs and utilize different resources in different ways. The goal of my article below is to highlight how schools can address organizational culture with intention in order to adopt - and adapt - a self-directed learning philosophy.

Elements of Culture

A major part of my research has been to determine which elements of culture are most responsible for adopting and adapting a new philosophy into a school setting. I've come to favor a particular basis for identifying and addressing Seven Elements of Culture. I posit that the following Seven Elements of Culture, adapted for this purpose, provide the necessary reflection to adopt and adapt a self-directed learning philosophy into schools.

7 Elements of Culture
Model adapted from "Organizational Culture - Change and It's Management" (Dhiman, 2014)

Element 1: Government.

Shifting a school's learning philosophy is a big decision. It is the exception, not the rule, that one teacher in one classroom can enact organizational change. Organizations typically have processes for decision-making which is reflected in their government structure. What is important to note is the connection between decision-making structures and the political perspectives of those in leadership positions.

Rarely does a school leader take an extreme perspective toward decision-making. More often, leaders are closer to the middle of a spectrum balancing security for - and the liberty of - the community they serve. Moreover, public school systems are generally run through committees, not a single person.

The image shown here is an example of a political compass highlighting the spectrum of preferences for both social order (up/down) and resource redistribution (left/right). Leadership in public schools tend to fall somewhere between a Statist (authoritarian/collectivist) and a Democratic-Socialist (Libertarian/Collectivist) perspective. In fact, many teachers tend to fall more toward the area surrounding the Democratic Socialist (Libertarian/Collectivist) part of this compass. This means that schools leaning more north in their decision-making but hiring teachers more south can cause conflict. This initial element of culture not only influences, but is influenced by, the other elements in this article.

Element 2: Structural Relationships.

The roles and responsibilities within and across an organization are all rooted in the dynamic and direction of power, or authority, between the bureaucratic levels of a school system.

For example, a student might view teachers as having absolute authority while another might view a teacher more as a mentor in learning. Similar differences are found in how teachers view administrators and how administrators view their school board and community. This kind of subtle shift in perspective toward relationships can have a huge impact on an organization, but it may take a particular awareness currently being explored in science.

Alan Daly out of UC San Diego has produced excellent work on the subject of Social Network Theory and its impact on organizational structure. Other authors have highlighted his research, saying the following about its benefits:

"[Social Network Analysis] serves as a tool for education leaders to help teachers change—by helping leaders to understand the flow of information, to identify how to support the relationships responsible for change, and determine the critical resources needed."

The image below highlights an example of a social network analysis, reflecting the shift away from strong hierarchical separation of power (Time 1, 2010) to a more collaborative, egalitarian decision-making approach (Time 2, 2011) within an organization.

The use of social network analysis can play an important role in assisting schools and districts in adopting and adapting a new shift of philosophy in meaningful and intentional ways. This element will directly influence the next cultural element - norms and traditions.

Element 3: Norms and Traditions.

This element looks at rules - both written and unwritten - for behaviors. Many behaviors are often shaped by written policies and guidelines regarding the health and safety of both staff and students. I speak to the need for some degree of non-negotiable compliance in Part 2.

Compliance is not always non-negotiable. In schools, social norms are often passed on through tradition and social pressure. This can lead to ineffective obligatory instruction and assessment practices. Many of these practices are highlighted when teachers choose to shift from traditional to standards-based grading practices.

This image from Tom Schimmer's book, Grading from the Inside Out, highlights how shifting academic norms can often require a leap of faith rather than a toe in the water approach. Shifting such norms is challenging, but "teachers who develop a standards-based mindset will find an eventual move to standards-based grading and reporting much easier to navigate." This is because, as Schimmer explains, the mindset is often more important than the practice itself.

Mindset is a popular buzzword in education and directly connects to this cultural element. In fact, norms and traditions have everything to do with motivation, mindset, learning styles, and beliefs. Ken O'Connor, in his book, How to Grade for Learning, highlights eight guidelines for shifting academic behaviors in support of a standards-based mindset.

Leaders interested in a self-directed learning philosophy will want to explore this shift to a standards-based mindset. In order for students to take ownership of their learning, navigating skill progressions in a standards framework is invaluable. Matt Townsley of the University of Northern Iowa has a dedicated page for resources on this standards-based mindset here.

In addition to academic behaviors in schools, the concept of right and wrong is also infused into behavior expectations with the development of unwritten social rules and societal expectations. This feeds into the next cultural element - Art and Literature.

Element 4 - Art & Literature

This element looks at the use of art and literature as a reflection of a school's culture, not only in the particular works chosen but in how those works are taught to be interpreted. The expression of ideas and the range of what is acceptable is often a focus in how art and literature is discussed. Even an absence of discussion, once awareness is raised, can be interpreted as a choice representing this element of a school's culture.

High schools have long had requests challenged or denied when seeking to perform Pulitzer-winning Broadway shows such as "Rent: School Edition" among a number of other productions. School communities have also long argued over the banning of books such as The Great Gatsby and Of Mice and Men, as well as younger books such as And Tango Makes Three or even The Harry Potter Series. Murals and art exhibits have also been subject to banning and removal based on changing interpretations by communities over time.

These examples highlight how this cultural element is not as simple as discussing an alternative version of The Three Little Pigs.

On a larger scale, Scandinavian culture was overhauled in the early 20th century by a Danish author who wrote A Fugitive Covers His Tracks, sparking a new code of national norms based on an idea called Janteloven. Regardless of the language, expression of these ideas have sparked conversations about government, norms, language, relationships - all of the elements listed in this article - in ways that impact populations of all sizes.

Leaders interested in a self-directed learning philosophy will want to reflect on this element as it is arguably the most directly related to "Social and Emotional Learning" with a focus on self-awareness and management as well as social awareness, relationships, and responsible decision-making. Schools seeking to shape this awareness in students would be wise to consider how students are being taught to interpret meaning behind art and literature because it is going to impact not only their behaviors and norms but also their perspective toward society itself.

The challenge is in connecting how elements of culture may be unintentionally influencing how students are instructed to interpret. Adapting a self-directed learning philosophy will highlight this need for students to have the freedom to interpret and reason through art and literature and develop beyond a percentage-based academic ranking. This element develops an understanding of self as a whole person and as a socially relevant part of this world.

Element 5 - Language

Every social interaction exists within a context of verbal or nonverbal communication. This element looks at how we use actions, words, and phrases to mean the things we want to say. This can include metaphorical symbols such as signs and various forms of artistic expression.

Language as a cultural element is an indicator of both presentation and interpretation of idea. Administrators seeking to adapt a self-directed learning philosophy will need to consider how they are communicating their understanding of this philosophy and any related shifts in policy and practice. They will also need to consider how their staff is interpreting what is being communicated - this is often the impetus for developing shared language in a school.

This power of language is seen in the efforts of Glasser Quality Schools. William Glasser is the author of Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom, and Every Student Can Succeed. Choice Theory is based on the simple premise that every individual only has the power to control themselves and has limited power to control others. In fact, another of Glasser's books is called The Language of Choice Theory and highlights how language which is consistent with Glasser's Choice Theory can improve relationships. Schools such as Great Valley Academy in Modesto, California, have been founded as a Glasser Quality School where the 10 Axioms of Choice Theory serve as their credo.

Language is a particularly salient element because it is the primary tool used in shifting a philosophy in a school. As emotions heighten and relationships strain, language is the element that most powerfully reflects our beliefs toward control and coercion and how relationships are maintained. Through verbal and non-verbal language, our priorities, questions, beliefs, and thoughts are constantly being communicated and interpreted.

Element 6 - Resources

The funding, financing, and distribution of resources in schools greatly impacts culture. However, it must be clarified that this article will not be highlighting the bottle-neck effects related to state funding of education, line-item analysis of school budgets, or inequities of philanthropic funding.

The point of this element in context of adapting a self-directed learning philosophy is to raise awareness of the connection between the complexities in financing education for all and the priorities and beliefs which are reflected in decisions of finance and resource redistribution.

Curricula is often at the heart of this conversation as Personalized Learning continues to find its way into schools. Schools that fund a curricula will want to see the benefits of that expense as a means of oversight and accountability. Yet, teachers and students do not always benefit from a scheduled and structured pre-designed curriculum. The use of strict, scheduled instruction and assessment may help to "manage" learning or to defend the high expense of a curriculum, but the demand that it be used to validate that expense is where we see differences in beliefs and priorities reflected in this element of Resources.

The decision to purchase a curriculum is also impacted by state-level funding related to state assessments. This focus on which curriculum better prepares all students to learn according to state assessment measures is indicative of a school's priorities and beliefs. A self-directed learning philosophy in a school setting would consider curriculum as optional - a resource students are free to access as they learn how to learn. A change in philosophy would see efficiency of mass academic education balanced by an efficacy of personalized whole-child education. This includes increasing metacognitive development in addition to social and emotional development, placing academic learning as a bi-product of this balance.

Clearly, adjustment of oversight and accountability of curricula and resources would have equal impact on the oversight and accountability of how we measure student learning - but such is the importance of a shared philosophy to root these conversations and decisions.

Element 7 - Philosophy

The seventh element of culture is the philosophy of self-directed learning itself with regards to a school's priorities and beliefs. I introduce the philosophy in Part 1 in this way:

"If a person truly wants to learn about a topic, they will be intrinsically motivated to learn everything they want to learn about that topic. Today, the role of the teacher has become more focused on self, social, and societal awareness and management as Universities and corporations across the country and around the world seek these non-academic skills in our graduates. It is in this self-directed learning philosophy that schools will find the motivation to make the necessary compromises to their current practices."

Connecting this philosophy to the other elements in this article is paramount to a successful shift to self-directed learning in a school setting. The philosophy itself will provide the meaning and explanation behind changes to elements of culture - its values, norms, language, relationships, and government structure. This philosophy will drive the rationale that promotes student ownership of learning, balancing the responsibility between student learning and a school's instruction and assessment. Not only are the students' responsibilities redefined but teachers also shift their focus toward coaching students to manage their own learning in meaningful, personalized ways. School leaders, too, must also recognize themselves as motivated by this philosophy when addressing the specific needs as a community. As Sir Ken Robinson so eloquently explains in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything,

"The future for education is not in standardizing but in customizing; not in promoting groupthink and “deindividuation” but in cultivating the real depth and dynamism of human abilities of every sort.”

In the current state of education amidst a global pandemic and school closures, class sizes and learning models are undergoing major reconstruction. This has placed students in a position where they have more control over their own time and their own learning. Teaching students how to manage their time and learning seem to be an obvious and necessary shift. A self-directed learning philosophy doesn't make education easier or more difficult, but it does make the product of our efforts more meaningful to those who matter most - students.


For more information on schools and the need to adapt a self-directed learning philosophy, you will find the following image described in my March 25th post, "What we're learning about schools because of COVID-19". Read More


This first part looks at Self-Directed Learning, its benefits, and one major consideration for adopting and adapting as a guiding philosophy for post-pandemic school reform.

This second part dives deeper into compliance and the impact of a self-directed philosophy on a traditional learning model in schools.

May 2020 Greg Mullen Exploring the Core LLC #ExploringTheCore Other Published Media by this Author: The Exploring the Core Podcast (Season 1, 8 Episodes)

Also streaming on Spotify and iTunes Creating a Self-Directed Learning Environment: Standards-Based and Social Emotional Learning by Greg Mullen (Corwin Press, 2019)

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