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 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:

  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. Sydney Silva

    My current teaching position is in an egalitarian organization. Relationships are highly valued, there is a sense of allegiance, and all are working toward a common goal. While this is a vital piece of a successful organization, there are also plenty of situations in our school where structure would be appreciated. For example, before Covid, our school would have weekly assemblies. We would recite the pledges, school creed, recognize students ‘ achievements, etc. These assemblies have built a strong sense of community, but are often unorganized and not efficient. I think that all successful schools have a balance between egalitarian and authoritarian.

  2. Nick Powell

    Organizations operating under an authoritarian style will most-likely struggle with creating a foundation for things like ceremonies and rituals. For these to occur, an organization must ensure their staff has a sense of self-direction, autonomy, creativity, etc. Having a defined culture, or establishing symbolic aspects of the mission (which should always have the focus of the students in mind) will allow teachers to feel equitable. Things like ceremonies and rituals should be accepted with a little more ease and excitement under an organization operating with an egalitarian approach. However, there may be less acceptance of new ideas from outside sources, potentially restricting creativity and organizational growth in the long run.

  3. K Stafford

    I worked in an authoritarian atmosphere at a previous school. There was no clear direction but rigid expectations. Support was not available and everyone was left to figure things out on their own. There were strained relationships and no trust. It directly impacted students learning because instructors weren’t happy and lacked compassionate leadership.

    Egalitarian leadership offers the exact opposite. Support and encouragement are at the forefront to reach a common goal. Individuals are driven to grow which is beneficial for their students learning. I currently work in an egalitarian environment and I feel motivated and included. The culture represents shared values and goals where we each have a clear direction but also the opportunity to give input especially when decisions are being made that directly affect us.

  4. Anitajane Garnand

    What might ceremonies and rituals emphasize differently in an authoritarian context than they would in an egalitarian context?

    Ceremonies and rituals in an authoritarian context almost seem like they would follow a dystopian apocalypse novel model. Assemblies would emphasize the rules, highlight how important it is to follow the rules, and what would happen if you didn’t follow the rules. That in itself would be a ritual that all people would attend as part of their duty.

    In an egalitarian context they would look like team building activities. Ceremonies would highlight the strengths of individuals and celebrate the positives happening within the community. Rituals would include ways to build the community as well as making sure everyone had everything they needed to succeed.

  5. Malarie Cline

    I have worked in an authoritarian context within an elementary setting. Even though there was a set clear chain of command, trying to contact someone almost seemed impossible. We had no ceremonies or rituals. The school used CHAMPS as a school-wide behavior plan. However, there was no training for new teachers or clear concise ways on how to implement it into your classroom. Nobody really worked together and it was basically a sink or swim type of environment. No goals were set and/or accomplished.

    When looking at the egalitarian context it values the sharing of goals and working towards a vision together. A school building is united within from students to teachers to support and administration. This type of context allows for goals to be achieved more easily and effectively while also providing a positive atmosphere for all. More can be accomplished within this environment.

    • Anitajane Garnand

      I feel like as a teacher we strive to work in egalitarian schools. We are almost wired that way. Everyone working together to reach the common goal.

    • Jesi Young


      I have never experienced a full authoritarian culture, but I have always felt the sink or swim environment does nothing to create a healthy environment within a school setting. I completely agree with your statements about the egalitarian context, as groups that are united, students, teachers, admin, support staff- everyone has buy-in and cares about what happens to the group, which in a school environment is much more productive than the sink or swim mentality.

    • Taylor Emmons

      So have you taught in another school besides authoritarian? Honestly, that school seems like it is lacking energy. Ceremonies and rituals just seem to bring life to school districts and I hate to hear so many kids and staff members missed out on those. I do agree where you say more can be accomplished in egalitarian as more can be accomplished in this environment where everyone has a common goal.

  6. Karla White

    I feel that my school is a combination of all of these. I doubt we would rank high or low, but somewhere in the middle.
    The individualist Culture is represented because the faculty has the discretion to choose how we teach and the curriculum that works best for us. We are expected to use the Oklahoma Academic Standards to guide our instruction but are not forced to use a prescribed curriculum or follow a pacing guide. We are treated as professionals who are experts in what we do and are given that respect as long as students are successful. Collaboration is encouraged, but not demanded. Individual achievement is rewarded.
    When reflecting on Authoritarian Culture, I can see that our school has a clear chain of command that everyone follows. We say the American and Oklahoma Flag Salutes every morning along with our Broncho Creed that encourages everyone to be respectful, responsible, and ready (The Broncho Way!) Our principal is the final say in almost every decision but always welcomes discussion and ideas.
    The Hierarchical Culture is exhibited when decision-making is shared. There are various committees in my school including STEM/Technology, Reading, Math, Carnival, and Team Leaders just to name a few. These small groups are empowered with making the best decisions for our school/students. The principal has the ultimate approval when it comes to important decisions, but the committees and committee leaders take care of many small ones.
    Finally, the Egalitarian Culture is slightly present in our school because the school does allow teachers latitude and control in our decisions in our classrooms. Staff is encouraged to discuss and collaborate with administrators to find solutions or justify big decisions.
    The last new idea introduced to our school was a tech grant to supply our students with one-to-one Chromebooks. The grant was significant and required the entire staff to commit to training for a year to receive the technology. We have worked together in grade-level groups to implement the training (online because of Covid) and assist each other so everyone is successful. It has been difficult, but the staff has been resourceful and positive throughout. The teamwork is phenomenal. The principal sends out an email with the instructions for the training, and we work together to complete each component. I feel the implementation would have been easier for some teachers if the training had been in person instead of videos and Zoom meetings It is difficult for some of the teachers to keep up or even know what questions to ask when they get behind or lost. Having someone who had mastered the technology in the room with us would have been helpful.

  7. Taylor Emmons

    In an authoritarian context, there is a clear chain of command. There is no autonomy among the staff and students and this makes it difficult to maintain a system of rituals throughout the district. This context provided little room for advancement and rewards and people do not want to work harder for no recognition or build work relationships. Ceremonies would be hard to manage as there is no allegiance to the school or the district and the lacking of school goals. However, in an egalitarian context relationship building and sharing of goals and value of unity is placed very high. Teachers and administrators in egalitarian rely on the relationships they have built within the work environment, but are not eager to seek out others for assistance within the community. Ceremonies and rituals would be highly encouraged, but lack of role distribution could cause chaos when trying to plan and manage these activities.

    • Shareen Smith

      I like that in an egalitarian culture, everyone feels like a valued member of the group. I also like the emphasis on lateral communication. But you brought up an interesting point about potential organizational challenges when there is not vertical communication and a hierarchy.

    • Chad Bailey

      Ceremonies and rituals in an authoritarian context would likely place most emphasis on two factions; those to whom authority belongs, and those who enable/prolong the positions of those in authority. Contributions to the organization or group by individuals would be given little recognition. The credit would be given, instead, to the administration. Member motivation would likely be low and the ceremony itself would inspire only a few new and future ideas or individual contributions.
      Ceremonies and rituals in an egalitarian context would place emphasis on groups, and to a lesser extent, individuals, who contributed to the organizational collective. Ideas and initiatives that promote the equality, unity, and strength of the group would be recognized, praised, and promoted. Member motivation to innovate for the good and goals of the group would be high.

    • Chad Bailey

      Interesting insight! I had not thought of the chaotic situation due to the lack of assigned roles in an egalitarian context.

  8. Jesi Young

    Authoritarian and Egalitarian are on two different ends of the spectrum when it comes to goals and environment. Ceremonies and rituals in an authoritarian context will be focused from the top down, more centered on the business itself and not the people that are part of it, while egalitarian will focus on the group as people. As the author of the blog states, egalitarian culture does not do well with “self” but instead group, so the ceremonies and rituals will emphasize togetherness, what is best for the group and improvement of the group. Authoritarian culture ceremonies and rituals would emphasize the “order of things” – the Monday Memo, reciting the motto of the business are things I could see for this culture.

  9. Shareen Smith

    In an egalitarian culture, the rituals and ceremonies would emphasize the group goals and activities. They would recognize group achievements over the achievements of individuals. Unity is of the utmost importance but that also means there is a distrust of those outside the group. I wonder how new group members are ‘initiated’ into this type of culture. How do they earn the trust of the group?
    In an authoritarian culture, rituals and ceremonies are tied to expectations and emphasize the chain of command. Group unity would not be emphasized. Falling in line would likely be celebrated more than creativity and innovation.

  10. Lahra Byrne

    I am not currently teaching, but when I was a tutoring director and a childcare director, they were both hierarchical contexts. I worked for a corporation in both careers, and there was the understanding that what is good for the corporation is good for the individual. Myself, along with the other members of the administration team worked together collaboratively. This teamwork benefited the corporation, admin team members, teachers, students, and families. The main focus was on the organization’s mission statement, vision, and goals. At my childcare center, there were teams of teachers from each age group that would share the decision-making at team meetings and staff meetings. I would recognize achievements and handout rewards at these meetings for accomplishing goals. At my tutoring center, we would have an annual favorite teacher party which invited teachers and administrators from the community to come to our center and celebrate. Each summer I would implement a teacher reward system where compliments were posted in the break room of teachers catching each other being awesome, and there was a weekly drawing for prizes. At both centers, we would revisit corporate’s mission and goals frequently throughout professional development and feedback sessions.

    • Jordan Payne

      In which of the four cultural contexts do you work?

      I work for Epic Charter Schools, and as a whole, Epic works within a Grid system, varying from strong to the median range. Within Epic, each staff member works in teams, so I work within a team of teachers, overseen by my principal. This team is very much a strong group for the most part.

      How have new ideas been implemented?
      Many new ideas are implemented from the top down, However, our principal meets with her team weekly for various reasons, but every week she talks about “wins” for the week, followed by discussions of how to “win” next time. This discussion leads to new or improved tactics to achieve success and meet goals.

      Were the implementations successful? If not, how could they have been?
      Many times implementations are successful. When ideas are not successful, principals share struggles and obstacles with upper administration to seek opportunities to restructure and revamp what is being asked of the teachers. Also, Epic relies heavily on anonymous surveys to elicit feedback from teachers and staff throughout the school year. Many times you will see changes come about shortly after a survey has been collected.


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