Improving Schools in Four Cultural Contexts
I have attended many conferences and workshops on school improvement. While I always try to come away with at least one strategy or idea to apply, I typically find that it may work very well in some settings, may work only to a degree in others, and at times, may have no application at all.
The reason is actually quite simple: in applying any strategy or idea, context is important. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to educational improvement. Instead, we need contextualized approaches, which means we must understand both the strategies we are implementing and the cultural context in which we desire to implement them.
One approach to understanding context is found in the late anthropologist Mary Douglas’s framework known as Cultural Theory. Cultural Theory (CT) helps us comprehend the essence of contextual application because in CT, there aren’t endless kinds of cultures to comprehend. Rather, only four possible cultural contexts exist, and any one of those four can be understood by two symbiotic factors, grid and group.
The Grid Factor of CT
Grid refers to rules, roles and the autonomy individuals have in a work environment. Grid can be understood on a continuum of strong to weak. For instance, in some schools, the grid factor is strong, and numerous roles and rules restrict individual autonomy. In strong-grid schools, upper administration assumes the role of determining textbooks and curricula, and the teacher’s role is to teach. In essence, strong-grid rules and roles regulate curriculum, instructional methods, and many routine procedures.
In weak-grid contexts, on the other hand, few regulations exist, and educators have autonomy in most areas of the learning process. Weak-grid environments allow considerable freedom in choosing curriculum, texts and methods. Few role distinctions exist, and individuals are valued for their skills and talents. In weak-grid schools, teachers are not isolated and insulated from each other and typically possess a great deal of voice.
The Group Factor of CT
The group dimension of CT represents the extent to which people are committed to the overall school. Group deals with the holistic aspect of social incorporation and allegiance. Like grid, group has a continuum of strong to weak. In strong-group contexts, explicit pressures influence group interactions. The survival of and allegiance to the school are more important than the survival of individual members within it. In strong-group settings, personal identification is entwined with the academic, athletic, and social events at the school.
In weak-group environments, pressure for group-focused activities and relationships is relatively absent. Members of social and working subgroups tend to focus on short-term activities rather than long-term corporate objectives, and their allegiance to the larger group is fluid. People are neither constrained by, nor reliant upon, others in the context.
Four Cultural Contexts
- Individualist (Weak-Grid, Weak-Group),
- Authoritarian (Strong-Grid, Weak-Group),
- Hierarchy (Strong-Grid, Strong-Group), and
- Egalitarian (Weak-Grid, Strong-Group).
The figure at the right depicts these four possible contexts. (click to enlarge)
The Individualist Culture
In individualist environments, relationships and experiences of the individual are not constrained by imposed formal rules or traditions. Role status and rewards are competitive and are contingent upon existing, temporal standards. Individualism encourages members to make the most of personal opportunities, seek risks that result in personal gain, and be competitive and proactive in carving their future.
- Much Individual autonomy
- Much personalized learning
- Little long-term allegiance
- High turnover of employees
When applying new strategies in Individualist Contexts remember to:
- Respect each teacher’s individuality and unique contribution,
- Allow teachers to play major role in decision making and implementation, and
- Recognize that teachers will not implement change until they are ready, motivated, and can see how the change will benefit them or their students.
The Authoritarian Culture
Authoritarian contexts offer little individual autonomy and classifying criteria focus on such factors as race, gender, family heritage, or ancestry. Individual behavior is fully defined and without ambiguity. little value is placed on group goals or survival. Authoritarianism promotes limited opportunity for advancement and opportunity, compliance to rules and procedures, lack of control of school goals and rewards by teachers, and autocratic rule by administrators.
- Structure for consistency
- Clear chain of command
- Little autonomy
- Little collective allegiance
When applying new strategies in Authoritarian Contexts remember to:
- Establish and maintain adequate vertical communication structure to ensure that information is transmitted from the decision maker to the implementers,
- Tie expectations to rules, roles and rewards, and
- Establish specific decision-making parameters and offer specific instructions about how and why goals are to be achieved.
The Hierarchical Culture
In hierarchical contexts, individual identification is heavily derived from group membership. Individual behavior is subject to controls exercised in the name of the group, and roles are hierarchical. At the top of the hierarchy, roles have unique value and power (generally limited to a small number of experts). All members understand that in a hierarchical system, what is good for the corporation is good for the individual. Central-office administration, site administration, teachers, students, and parents work in a cohesive, integrated system for the benefit of all involved.
- Strong allegiance
- Strong corporate unity and identity
- Group interests prioritized over individual
- Pressure to consider group goals and activities
When applying new strategies in Hierarchical Contexts remember to:
- Create opportunities for shared decision making, such as committees or teams,
- Motivate through group-directed goals, activities, and rewards, and
- Focus communication on both the mission of the school and the importance and interdependence of all members of the organization.
The Egalitarian Culture
Egalitarian contexts have few role distinctions, and perpetuation of group goals and survival is highly valued. Egalitarianism places a high value on unity, equal distribution of teaching supplies and space, suspicion of those outside the school community who may want to help, conformity to the norms of the group, as well as rejection of authoritarian leadership and hierarchy.
- Collegial relationships
- Equity in resource distribution
- Distrust of those outside the group
- Pressure to consider group goals and activities
When applying new strategies to Egalitarian Contexts remember to:
- View teachers as a team of individuals, each equally important, who are constructors of knowledge in a vibrant communal environment,
- Allow teachers latitude and control in making decisions, and
- Incorporate and reinforce lateral communication strategies.
Share your comments:
In which of the four cultural contexts do you work?
How have new ideas been implemented?
Were the implementations successful? If not, how could they have been?