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SECD + Culture: Influence and Impact on Organizational Change

Updated: Mar 1, 2020

[Please note: this is a work in progress part of a larger project, please contact Greg Mullen for more information on the content in this post.]

In order to understand the potential influence and impact of a Self-Directed Learning philosophy on a school and its community, we need to begin by recognizing the systems most affected by this philosophy. In defining the systems affected, we can better trace the impact of changes specific to each school and its particular community.

First, I need to introduce a unique perspective: all systems are closed systems influenced by cultural constructs outside of the system’s boundaries.

Closed Systems

Even planet Earth has finite atmospheric boundaries as its boundaries blend into outer space, serving as a limit for Earth as a closed system, or a planet; because the likelihood of influence and impact from anything outside those atmospheric boundaries are not controlled by Earth, such as magnetic fields, systems that exist beyond our Earth's boundaries can influence our planet freely, but while such outlying systems may influence, they are unlikely causes of changes happening within that planet-sized system. To consider the impacts outside of Earth’s boundaries, we'd have to look at the solar system or the universe which only serves to increase the complexity of the problem, not solve it, so let's zoom in to something a bit more relevant to us as humans on planet Earth.

It’s easy to see how North America is defined by its physical boundaries but that political boundaries also exist within those boundaries to define nations. Each nation is a closed system, though influenced by international commerce and communication, is responsible for its own system’s legal and cultural constructs. That's why passports are so significant when you travel outside the boundaries of your nation.

But this is still such a large "macro" perspective that, even within a nation, there are regions of legal and cultural constructs that are broken down into even smaller systems.

Zoom in to any state within the United States and see tens of millions of people organized into counties, cities, neighborhoods, buildings. A city, actually, will have a specific set of political lines where living on one side of a street places you under legal constructs that may be different than if you were living on the other side of that street. This is where we see legal constructs separate from cultural constructs, and it’s here where more plainly see how the closed system of a city and all its intended to control is subject to cultural constructs outside of its control.

So now consider my initial statement that all systems are closed systems subject to the influence of cultural constructs that function across its boundaries. We can apply this now to school districts that span across neighborhoods that share the same legal constructs but somehow also share different cultural constructs.

Now is a good time to look at one set of cultural constructs to help school districts first identify the kinds of cultural elements that may be influencing their complex system. In fact, let’s look at each element of culture as it relates to a K-12 classroom:

7 Elements of Culture* in a K-12 Classroom

Structure and organization. This element defines and categorizes values of people, nature, and goods and services. This element in society looks at the relationships within a family and its connection to its community. This element in a classroom looks at the dozens of families represented and the value systems that are integrated into that classroom structure. Classroom discussions of family values can help to align the commonalities between the different families being integrated and address the differences with conflict resolution strategies and exercising empathetic reasoning and awareness.

Customs and traditions. This element looks at rules put in place both written and unwritten. This element in society looks at expected patterns of behavior in various contexts across a given community, group, or subgroup. This element in the classroom looks at expected student behaviors chosen to be praised, as well as projects, activities, games, and holidays that become traditions with each passing year. Customs and traditions can be specific to the different areas of a school campus and various events chosen to be celebrated. The concept of right and wrong with regards to behavior is often an implied development within this cultural element.

Philosophy and religion. This element looks at meanings and explanations of a culture's values, norms and traditions. This element in society looks to explain the origins of Life, culture, and the reasons behind societal structure. This element in the classroom looks to give reason for the rules, rewards, and punishments put in place to maintain a perspective towards order. There are many philosophies within a school, across classrooms, depending on the various teachers own philosophy toward grading policies, social and emotional needs, and human development. In religious schools, there may be some implied philosophical perspectives rooted in a specific religion that guides the behaviors, rules, rewards and punishments. In public schools, philosophy and religion can spark contentious discussion and concern from parents, teachers, and administrators. Philosophy is often an overlooked aspect of culture.

Language. This element looks at how we use words and phrases to mean the things we want to say. This element may also include metaphorical symbols such as signs, various forms of artistic expression, and even nonverbal communication, especially when words and phrases and discussion are required to define the meaning behind such forms of communication. Language is used in society just as it is used in the classroom. To speak words and phrases correctly within any language is a social and emotional ability as much as it is a technical ability. Every social interaction exists within a context in which certain words and phrases are culturally appropriate. This element in the classroom, as much as in society, becomes increasingly complex as layers of language (e.g. words, phrases, metaphor, symbol, art, nonverbal) are used to not only communicate ideas but also interpret ideas, which means the meaning behind the use of words and phrases is prone to misinterpretation. In the classroom, these layers of language must be taught to be spoken as well as interpreted through definition, discussion, and empathetic reflection.

Art and literature. This element represents forms of language that, in both society as well as the classroom, reflect all aspects of a developing culture, including philosophy, religion, values, social structure, government, resources, customs and traditions. Literature is a strictly written form of language that includes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction that expresses complex ideas, themes, and different perspectives toward human character development through several literary devices. Art is a broad area of expression that may involve visual, auditory, or physical interpretation of thought or emotion and can be created to express ideas in lieu of words or phrases to express complex ideas, themes, and perspectives intended to spark discussion of how an artist feels about other elements of a culture.

Government. This element is unlike the element of structure and organization in that government looks at the macro of decision-making for the benefit of large collections of people rather than the micro of family or small group relationships. This element in society gives order to the complexities of maintaining public services to a community, city, state, or nation. This element in the classroom looks at the role of the teacher as a manager within a larger organization. A teacher can approach this managerial position with an autocratic or democratic philosophy and delegate responsibilities and decision-making in the classroom accordingly. The teacher’s approach must also align with the larger government structure of the school. This element serves to define the concept of school culture and climate. Recognizing the value of a well-organized governmental structure as a cultural element can serve to clarify and connect philosophies toward education between administrators, teachers, staff, students, and parents. This element may involve levels of bureaucracy that serve to delegate complex decision-making and facilitate appropriate accountability and oversight. The quality of government as a cultural element is dependent on the value perceived by the community that government seeks to serve. A decrease in a community's perceived value in a school's governmental structure for decision-making can result in a decrease of oversight and accountability which can lead to undesired power dynamics within a school's bureaucracy.

Finance (Resources). This element is specific to the resources available to a given community or group. This element in society has impact on culture as it considers boundaries and limits based on both wide-scale availability of global or national resources as well as the resources available to a specific group or community. This element in the classroom has impact on opportunities and limits toward fundraising within a community, governmental funding, taxation, fees, and philanthropy. The finance and resources of a group or community impacts the culture of a classroom as it is relayed in the philosophy behind its governmental structure, art and literature, as well as the customs, traditions, language, and values of a given classroom environment.

These seven elements are not the only way to address cultural constructs impacting a system, but I think these seven nicely summarize the range of cultural constructs that most greatly impact a system. With these elements identified, we can look at how a school district, or even an individual school, is constructed as a closed system.

Organizational Structure

A school district often focuses on the organizational structure of its administrative services, identifying the interconnected roles of its employees down to the services directly related to its schools without including the schools’ organizational structures themselves.

A school will also have its own organizational chart that highlights the hierarchy of roles within its system. What is important to keep in mind is that, while some hierarchies will be visually similar, the cultural constructs of the various communities that make up a school will likely impact this hierarchy in a variety of different ways; and it’s this idea that makes it challenging to implement a new philosophy such as Self-Directed Learning.

In the case of the example shown above, this school’s organizational structure has the single role of Principal at the top. This directly connects to the Master Teachers as well as the Clerk, Security, and Utility roles of the school. The Master Teachers oversee the grade level teachers who work in tandem with the Special Education Teacher. Compared to other schools’ organizational structures, there are things that this school does and doesn’t do that may or may not benefit their students. The structure of a school’s system, when looking at adopting a new philosophy or ideology for education, is important for reference sake but not as the primary focus for enacting meaningful change to a school.

The reason for this is that the elements of culture, once identified, can be looked at through a unique lens that considers the intended impact the school wishes to have on its students. This impact is then mirrored throughout the organization regardless of whether the organizational structure changes or not.

The unique lens I am referring to is that of social, emotional, and character development (SECD). When this lens is used to consider the impact of those seven elements of culture, the organizational structure may see modest shifts but only because the need for such shifts are necessary and therefore easier for both staff and leadership to support.

This SECD lens looks at a framework that identifies core social and emotional competencies organized into three domains: self, social, and societal awareness and management. The importance of this lens is to give credence, through intentional communication of awareness, towards how each element of culture may or may not be influencing the organization.

The following chart includes guiding questions for each competency in each domain to help an organization identify how a particular element of culture may or may not be causing unintended influence or impact.


Social, Emotional, Character Development Reflection Survey


Emotional Management

How are emotions identified?

How are feelings expressed?

How are coping strategies practiced?


How are personal strengths described?

How are support systems provided?

How are social influences managed?


What are goal-setting behaviors?

How is goal progress reflected?

How is goal-setting improved?



How is empathy identified?

How is social influence promoted?

How is social influence communicated?

Interpersonal SKills

How do two people communicate?

How do groups communicate?

Conflict Resolution

How are conflicts identified?

How are conflicts resolved?

How is de-escalation used?


Responsibility (Rules/Consequences)

How are rules and consequences identified?

How are impacts of consequences explained?

Community (Caring/Citizenship)

How are the needs of communities identified?

How is the impact of community assistance explained?


In addition to this SECD Reflection Survey, each element of culture has specific sentence starters to help identify how that element of culture may be impacting your organization by seeing that element through the SECD lens. Each sentence starter can connect to each competency in the SECD Reflection Survey (though not all questions need be answered).


Seven Elements of Culture (Reflection Survey)

Social Organization (Hierarchy - Relationships)

For each person in each hierarchical relationship within an organizational structure…

Is it an Explicit-Interpersonal-Deductive or Implicit-Intrapersonal-Inductive approach for…


Are there linguistic challenges in determining…

What words and symbols don’t exist, or serve to obstruct, making it difficult to determine…

Art and Literature

How do those in an organization create or interpret art and literature as it relates to…

without art and literature, an organizational culture is at risk of serving as an autocratic machine

Customs and Traditions

To what degree are expectations modeled in everyday behaviors related to…

How do those in an organization celebrate successes and challenges related to…

Philosophy / Religion

How are virtues and values defined and rationalized in ways that support…


How are the boundaries of an organization defined/organized in relation to its impact on…

Economic Systems / Resources

How are resources produced, collected, and distributed to reflect the priorities related to…


As you work through each element of culture, remember that not every aspect of the SECD lens will need a response in order for influence and impact to be recognized. It is more about reflection and discussion that will help an organization shift its perspective toward the influence and impact of cultural elements in and across their organizational structure. In this way, an organization may find it more likely to adopt a new philosophy or ideology toward education, such as a Self-Directed Learning philosophy and framework.

7 Elements of Culture are a reference to this 2014 report: ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE - CHANGE AND ITS MANAGEMENT by RAJIV DHIMAN. Source:

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