The task of creating a school culture is not easy. I could probably stop with that statement and you could begin a vigorous debate with school friends about your school’s culture. Lots of questions surround this topic: Is school culture different than school climate? Can you measure a school’s culture or is it simply something you feel? Can you really change a school culture? One of the initiatives that the CACE Fellows are exploring with Intermountain Christian School is how a school culture is created. According to Andy Crouch, in his introduction to “Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling”, we have “paid the culture around us the ultimate compliment: careful study and, often imitation.” I’m afraid this is an all too true statement for our Christian schools. We have carefully studied and imitated schools around us. While there are certainly best practices that come out of schools whose missions are secular, the close imitation of these schools is not what we are called to do. As our schools slowly come out of the Industrial Age model for education, Christian schools have the opportunity to create a new learning culture that responds to the God’s call to be an integral part of His plan for restoration and reconciliation.
The first task for a school to measure is its culture. Dr. Erik Hoekstra, president of Dordt University, shared a quote related to a school’s culture at this fall’s Christian Schools Canada Conference in Victoria. He stated “the culture of an organization is the sum total of all the conversations that are happening at or about that institution.” It took me a while to process this statement. Think of all the conversations that happen between faculty and students, or between parents in the parking lot, or between Finance Committee members…the list is nearly endless. Now, put all those conversations together and you have the school’s culture. Or, as Christian cultural critic Ken Myers summarizes, “culture is what we make of the world. It is, first of all, our relentless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.”
I like both of these ideas when thinking about school culture. How does ICS (or insert your school here) help shape the conversations that happen at or about their school and relentlessly work at taking what has been given to them and making something else? After all, we really don’t change culture but we get to make it. Here is one example of culture making from ICS: Paula Potter, elementary dean, sent the CACE Fellows a note asking for some feedback on the idea of using student feedback in the elementary classroom. ICS has tried this in the past, but wants this attempt to be more successful and make the data more useful. Paula states, “if the feedback is not useful we won’t use it (like the last time we surveyed students). I also think we need to hear from our students’ perspective about how they like to learn.”
The last word for this post on culture comes from Andy Crouch: “…culture is not finally about us, but about God.” May you be used mightily as culture creators in your schools.
And, in case you are interested, this was my response to Paula:
Greetings, Paula – thanks for the note. I am glad you are considering the use of student surveys. I have a couple ideas for your consideration:
- I would move away from the word “evaluation” as that vocabulary tends to freak out teachers – especially at the K-6 level when they are not sold on how valid and reliable a third graders feedback might be. Maybe the word “feedback” so both the teacher and student know that they are not evaluating the teacher, just providing their thoughts on what they liked about the learning process and how the teacher facilitated.
- As a way to gauge what is going on in your classroom, and to gain a few points on the “my teacher cares” category, I recommended a simple idea that some teachers have found they can do without any extra work or explanation (typically a good combination!). At the end of every test or quiz, put in a few non-graded questions like, “What did you like most about learning this topic? What was most difficult? How could I have done a better job? What would you recommend to improve this unit? What do you want to see more of in this class? Less of?” This become more of an embedded practice versus a one-time survey.
- For students in upper elementary, there is an interesting process called Small Group Instructional Diagnosis. I have used it in my classes with a protocol called Chalk Talk. The idea is that small groups (4 seems to work well) get together to develop a consensus response to a question. The reason for a small group is that they place the extremes or outliers of student’s opinion in the context of a group consensus. And, it is good for students to hear from one another what things are helping them learn well. Have them choose a recorder and then discuss three questions (e.g what helps you learn in this classroom? what gets in the way of your learning? what could be done to help you learn better?). Allow for five minutes of discussion and then ask the group to take two minutes to come to a consensus. Same process for each question (or whatever questions you choose). While this is happening in the classroom, the teacher is writing a short reflection on what he/she thinks the students will come up with – provides great comparative data for a rich discussion.
- Whatever you choose to do, try to ensure some type of follow-up with students. For example, you could combine their feedback with a bar graph or some type of visual. This allows the teacher to share with students what he/she learned, any changes that they might make because of the feedback. For example, the students might respond by stating “we learn well when we get a chance to work in groups.” The teacher might have a post-SGID discussion that includes his/her intent to build group work into each day.
Hope these quick thoughts help your thinking/processing/planning!
Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.