What role does school culture play? How do you design for culture?

It’s easy to think about culture as the soft stuff. Or, the stuff that just kind of “happens.” But the truth is this: culture is critical to learning, and culture is the product of design. What does this mean? First, that culture is not “soft.” Culture creates learning conditions and can have huge impact on how successfully (or not) teachers are able to teach, and students are able to learn. Second, that culture is shaped by rituals, routines, systems, and structures. It’s not accidental, it’s purposeful. Shaping culture is something that requires daily attention from leaders, teachers, and students alike. Student-centered, personalized schools designed for equity will focus on at least four common pillars of school culture.


  • Commitment to equity. A culture committed to equity will set clear and transparent goals about all students succeeding. It will invest in developing educator’s knowledge and skill to be culturally competent, and embed highly responsive student supports in all aspects of instruction and operations. The school will engage communities and families as partners for learning and student support.
  • Growth and empowerment. A culture committed to growth and empowerment will create learning environments and instructional practices that promote effort, reflection, and improvement. This will show up in grading practices, assessment, teacher support, and evaluation. It will have strong practices of continuous improvement, including collaborative processes and protocols in which teachers, communities, and students participate.
  • Learning and inclusivity. A culture committed to learning and inclusivity will focus on relationships: relationships between students and teachers, between home and school, between students, and between teachers. It will prioritize being multicultural every day of the year, not just on specific holidays.
  • Distributed leadership and flexibility. A culture dedicated to distributed leadership and flexibility will ensure that students, teachers, and communities have the ability to exercise voice and choice. They will have systems in place to share leadership at all levels: in the classroom, where students and teachers share; schoolwide, where teachers take on leadership roles; and in community, where partners and families have meaningful leadership roles.


Questions to Consider

  • How would students, teachers, and parents describe the culture in your school today? If you do not know, how can you gather insight from them?
  • How is your culture supporting student learning? How is it hindering?
  • What elements of design shape your school culture? Were they intentional? How do they influence culture?
  • Reflect on the four pillars of school culture. How are you modeling these today? What would it look like if you were modeling them fully?
  • Where can you start? What are some small adjustments you can make to begin shifting your culture to support student learning?