Improving Schools in Four Cultural Contexts


Ed Harris

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

In any school, the combination of strong and weak variations of grid and group define four possible cultural scenarios:

  • Individualist (Weak-Grid, Weak-Group),
  • Authoritarian (Strong-Grid, Weak-Group),
  • Hierarchy (Strong-Grid, Strong-Group), and
  • Egalitarian (Weak-Grid, Strong-Group).

The figure below depicts these four possible contexts. 

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:

  1. Respect each teacher’s individuality and unique contribution,
  2. Allow teachers to play major role in decision making and implementation, and
  3. 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:

  1. Establish and maintain adequate vertical communication structure to ensure that information is transmitted from the decision maker to the implementers,
  2. Tie expectations to rules, roles and rewards, and
  3. 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:

  1. Create opportunities for shared decision making, such as committees or teams,
  2. Motivate through group-directed goals, activities, and rewards, and
  3. 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:

  1. View teachers as a team of individuals, each equally im­portant, who are constructors of knowledge in a vibrant communal environment,
  2. Allow teachers latitude and control in making decisions, and
  3. 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?


  1. Christie Sandefur

    I feel that in my current building Hierarchical culture. Our building administrators have created an environment of mutual respect and allegiance towards one another. We have a clear identity as the staff of Canyon Ridge – this is evident when we attend district wide meetings. On the downside, it does seem that decisions are made as a collective. Ideas are merged and one general group idea is formulated based on opinions or ideas from various people. Weekly PLC provides a lot of ideas but does tend to lead to a group mentality of we all have to conform and be on the same page which does not give much autonomy to individual teachers.
    New ideas are implemented by committees and through collaboration. Our administration has been considerate of the group ideas and goals. We work collaboratively to consider all aspects of a decision or problem and decide as a group on how best to solve the problem or answer a question.
    To me, I feel that when we implement new ideas they have been successful. Our administration is good at observing and enlisting feedback from anyone involved. Feedback is consistently analyzed and new ideas are tried and analyzed again. Our administrators in some ways are perfectionists and continue to try to make adjustments and improvements to ensure maximum success.

  2. Randy Williams

    The district I work in would have to be a hierarchical culture. The pros and cons describe the environment accurately. There is a strong unity within the district, and brand identity is known; pressure to conform to group norms and activities happens often. Regarding the district and school administration implementing new ideas, I feel they do a phenomenal job in implementation. The process goes something like this; inform the group of the plan, explain the why, aligning the implementation to vision, mission, and belief statements and leaders seek out and ask to receive feedback and reflection before moving forward, all implementation is data-driven and based on sound research and the stakeholders are involved in the process. No implementation is done without looking at research, data, potential impact, alternatives, and aligned to our vision before being implemented. It seems the last five years have required leadership to implement change. We had a flood, teacher strike, new technology, and recently, covid required new practices. Overall, I believe the implementations were successful, which does not mean they were perfect, but the ongoing reflection and striving for excellence lead to improved implementations.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts