Understanding School Culture

“The productivity of a work group seems to depend on how the group members see their own goals in relation to the goals of the organization.”

– Ken Blanchard


Schools are a funny thing. No really. Have you ever stood in front of a class of students and thought, “I am glad they do not realize that there are way more of them than me” or “Oh no, I’ve lost control, what do I do now?” I have found it is best to keep these as inside-thoughts. Where else do you have a small authoritarian rulership (administrators and teachers) oversee a body of free people (students) with little to no voice in decisions, who vastly outnumbered their oppressive rulers, yet we find relatively few uprisings? Sounds like the making of a dystopian young adult novel… super meta.


In education, we plan very hard to organize and arrange our careers, content, and clientele into a predictable structure of choices and consequences. Our preloaded, university-education-based decisions are not always very realistic. Our best-laid plans do not always work out. The Teacher Experience (TX) we gain on our journey prepare us more than almost anything else. A map of our journey that clearly lays out all possible outcomes for classrooms and schools, frankly, does not exist. The teacher journey better reflects a “Choose Your Own Adventure Story” where we keep trying for the best outcome.


We have learned to organize our schools and our school days to maximize learning potential in the most effective and efficient ways possible… or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. The way we think about schools in terms of a hierarchy can, of course, support certain levels of efficiency, but it is important that we do not allow this structure to define us and box us in declaring “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Our most basic school organizational structures we have reporting lines that operate with certain levels of interaction between school administrators, teachers, students, parents, and our communities.

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These interactions, particularly the lateral ones do little to support or encourage interdisciplinary instruction and therefore support one of the greatest detriment of modern education, silos. Silos, or cross-content barriers, illustrate industrial revolution thinking around preparing an individual for a certain task in a certain place. Think of a traditional assembly line where a worker adds one single widget to one machine, they do this as they have been trained to with no real comprehension of all of the moving parts. This training and preparation for tasks can be seen in the lack of interdisciplinary instruction we often see.


Conway’s Law

According to Conway’s Law, the lines by which we explain our interactions with each other can tell us about ourselves (2). An organizational system built on sharing and collaboration will look very different than that of which fosters a competitive atmosphere. Take for example this satirical look at Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook, and Google.



Would a review of our school hierarchical structures match conversations with teachers and administrators over the same communication structure? Would we be Google or Apple… or Microsoft? Would we see instructional silos which limit our collaboration? Would an exploration of our school building schedules reveal an even worse case of ubiquitous isolation? If so, we have just identified a barrier in growing a culture of innovativeness, we have to spend time with each other to develop and establish our shared cultural norms, our shared beliefs about school.

The Activity System

In education, we develop school-wide vision statements that explain our educational focus and mission statements (which explain how we are going to get there). The process of developing these should take into account all the activity that goes on in our schools and communities. While accurately reflecting who we are. The word “activity” represents a cultural phenomenon (4) which is unique to each school context. We cannot automatically generalize our context-specific activities to other settings when we discuss school culture we want to be as specific as possible about what “school” we are talking about. Analysis of a school building will yield a more intimate result than of a school district. Therefore, we must first decide on the school to be explored.


With our specific school in mind, we need to understand how all the actual moving parts are connected we call this an Activity System. Our understanding of the Activity System can go a long way in increasing our understanding of how our school cultures work and more importantly how to help us toward innovativeness. The Activity System illustrates how we engage in achieving organizational goals (school vision). The system points out that we must seek to describe the subject(s), object, outcome, tools, community, rules, and division of labor and how they are interconnected, in order to understand the full picture of our school culture at work. This provides us with a critical lens, a context-template, to investigate the unique activity of innovation adoption within our school culture. In short, we can better understand our rich journey by exploring it with this magnifying glass called the Activity System (5).

Activity system


The many moving parts each dynamically contributing to the school vision (GOAL) we hope to achieve. In the case of this book, the quest for innovativeness, let us frame the “vision” as a school culture that embraces innovativeness. To making full use (and sense) of the Activity System we must then describe the various components involved (see School Culture Analysis Chart).


Here’s how to think about all the components:

  • Goals – are the vision statement which explains your school’s focus to embrace innovativeness.
  • Community – comprises people that share in the same general mission. They consist of people that share a set of social meanings relevant to their context.
  • Object – for our quest for innovativeness discussion, is TPACK, a mission for a school to embrace innovativeness. TPACK illustrates that the teacher experience (TX) is dynamically formed and reformed by the interconnectedness of content, pedagogy, and technology.
  • Rules – refer to the regulations, norms, and conventions that constrain actions and interactions within the activity system. Economically speaking, these are the financial opportunities and limitations that inform a school’s activity process.
  • Division of labor – refers to the work requirements to be fulfilled by the subjects. The functionality of a school’s hierarchical structure is a school’s own cultural phenomenon.
  • Tools – can be methods employed and/or the devices (technology) used by the subjects toward fulfilling their work requirements. We not only use tools, we also continuously renew and develop them, whether consciously or not, further we not only obey the rules, we also mold and reformulate them while we work. The tools are as dynamic a part as any to the Activity System.
  • Subject – describe Faculty and Staff as Adopters (Innovators, Early Adopters, Early Majority, Late Majority, Laggards), literally we need to list who fits within these categories when framing our understanding around innovation.

Thinking through the components of the Activity System (1,5) (before moving forward) can help us to frame powerful insights into our school culture. Recreate and complete the School Culture Analysis Chart before moving on:


School Culture Analysis Chart


Goal Vision – What will be produced? Innovativeness
Community How would you describe your school community? Locally? Regionally?
How are they connected?
Building(s) –

District –

Region –
Organizational Hierarchy –

Object What types of interventions might work to help create a culture of innovation? TPACK
Rules Content area requirements?
Diploma fulfillment requirements?
Financial opportunities and barriers to adopting emerging technology?
Technology deployment strategy?
Division of Labor How does your school’s organizational hierarchy look?

(Who are people accountable to?)

Tools What technology-based solutions are available? (hardware and software)
What learning environments are available?
Devices (hardware)
Apps/Extensions (software)
Open Rooms/Flexible Spaces
Subjects Who are the people in your school? Innovators –

Early Adopters –

Early Majority –

Late Majority –

Laggards –


Once you identify the different components of your school culture, it is time to dive into what is going on. Perhaps the most important piece to this cultural analysis puzzle is how each part interacts. The arrowed-lines that connect each of the components are meant to force us to investigate more than just who or what is in place. Looking at the lines, ask yourself the following (4,6):


  • Does the Community actually inform Tool adoption and expectations?
  • Do Subjects have the ability to take risks and try new things or are they confined to their job as described in the Division of Labor? What are the approval channels for Faculty and Staff to innovate?
  • Can Subjects inform the adoption of specific Tools? How?
  • Do the Rules and Community allow/want Subjects to adopt emergent technology?
  • Do the actual activities of Adopters match up with the Division of Labor? Are their reporting gaps?
  • Tools change over time… What funding is in place to support this? What funding can be pursued?
  • Who has a voice in the decision-making process?
    • Parents?
    • Teachers?
    • Students?
    • Administrators?
    • School Board?
    • The Workforce?
  • Whose voice is not heard?



We then can summarize our school culture in terms of how are we achieving TPACK as individuals and as a school culture. We must also discuss the contradictions between how we defined the components and how they actually work. Do not regret having contradictions, they are very important to the innovation adoption process. Contradictions are the moving force, the disruption necessary, for the change and development of the system (1). As the contradictions come to the surface, we can expect, some of our Adopters to begin to question and deviate from our established norms5 which is just the change we often need. Contradictions can escalate into collaboration and a deliberate collective change effort (5).

The Activity System illustrates how the multiple variables in our schools are involved in the success or failures of our Vision. The Activity System provides a critical lens to investigate the activity of innovation adoption within an organization. The Activity Aystem reports on our living/breathing school culture as best it can, as a snapshot in time. School is not stagnant, not totally predictable. Reiteration, Reformation, and Redefining are tenants to design and development of school cultures embracing innovativeness (4). As educators if everything went as planned, every time, we would likely question what we did wrong or what we missed. But the discussion around the activity at our school centers on an in-the-moment analysis. A more clear understanding of where we have been and where we are going can be found by exploring the process on which we embark on this epic disruptive saga.

Image Credit: Chris Stein, a superstar Teacher, and illustrator Extraordinaire!

 Source Notes (in order of use)

  1. Engeström, Y. (1996). Developmental studies of work as a testbench of activity theory: The case of primary care medical practice. In S. Chaiklin & S. Lave (Eds.), Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context (First., pp. 64–103). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
  2. Amrit, Chintan, Jos Hillegersberg, and Kuldeep Kumar. “A social network perspective of Conway’s law.” Proceedings of the CSCW Workshop on Social Networks, Chicago, IL, USA. 2004. https://www.utwente.nl/en/bms/iebis/staff/amrit/SocialNetworksConwaysLaw_latest.pdf
  3. Cornet, M. (A reimagined illustration based on the work of Manu Cornet). Featured in the New York Times, Business Day section July 12, 2013. 
  4. Jonassen, D. H., & Rohrer-Murphy, L. (1999). Activity Theory as a Framework for Designing Constructivist Learning Environments. Education Technology Research and Development, 47(I), 61–79.
  5. Engeström, Y. (2001). Expansive Learning at Work: Toward an activity theoretical reconceptualization. Journal of Education and Work, 14(1), 133–156. doi:10.1080/13639080020028747.
  6. Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by Expanding: An activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit. Retrieved from http://lchc.ucsd.edu/mca/Paper/Engestrom/Learning-by-Expanding.pdf

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