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Aurora Institute

The Culture Code: Creating a Culture for Competency-Based Schools (Part 1)

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity

Los Angeles Lakers vs. San Antonio Spurs, Wikimedia Commons

This is the second book in the series Conversations with Authors About Competency-Based Education.

Earlier this year, a collaborative process of practitioners developed a description of what every student should experience in a personalized, competency-based school (See What Will Students Experience in a Competency-Based School?) The second item in this list of ten is:

I feel safe and am willing to put forward my best effort to take on challenging knowledge and skills because I have a deep sense of belonging, feel that my culture, the culture of my community and my voice is valued, and see on a daily basis that everyone in the school is committed to my learning.

I’ve been thinking a lot and talking to people a lot about what it means to have everyone, students and adults, feel safe and that they belong. The learning sciences inform us that one can’t separate out cognition from emotion: Feeling safe is an important condition for anyone to make themselves vulnerable to seek and accept help, take risks, and put out extra effort knowing that they might fail. This is one of the reasons that has convinced me that culture is critical and that the school and classroom culture needed to make competency education work is substantially different than that described as the culture needed for high achieving traditional schools. In fact, creating a culture of learning, inclusivity, and empowerment is identified as a principle for equity as well as quality.

I stumbled upon a book, The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle that has been eye- and heart-opening about what it takes to create a culture of safety. It’s a super quick read but I’ll highlight the core messages of the book here for you. His thesis is that high-performing culture can be created through three skills: 1) Building Safety; 2) Sharing Vulnerability; and 3) Establishing Purpose.

He opens the book with a story of how kindergartners outperform CEOs and other professionals in building a structure with a marshmallow, spaghetti, and tape. He then adds that a study of 200+ companies showed that a strong culture increases net income 765% over 10 years. Which of course made me wonder: Would research show us that a strong culture of learning, inclusivity, and empowerment leads to gains in student achievement? (We have to leave open that the way CompetencyWorks has defined, with the help of practitioners, the features of culture might not be quite right. There may be other features that would be important).

Building Safety

I tend to think of creating safety as combinations of rituals, relationships, and policies. Coyle makes it clear that there is much more to creating a sense of safety. We are highly social creatures, continuously sending out and seeking “belonging cues” (I would have appreciated a discussion on exclusionary or isolating cues, as well). He describes the way leaders create a sense of safety and belonging as behaviors that “create safe connection in groups. They include, among others, proximity, eye contact, energy, mimicry, turn-taking, attention, body language, vocal pitch, consistency of emphasis, and whether everyone talks to everyone else in the group… Their function is to answer the ancient, ever present questions glowing in our brains: Are we safe here? What’s our future with these people? Are there dangers lurking?”

Belonging cues that send out the message that you are safe here have three qualities:

  • Energy: They invest in the exchange that is occurring.
  • Individualization: They treat the person as unique and valued.
  • Future Orientation: They signal the relationship will continue.

Researchers studying these types of behavioral cues have found that they can predict performance based on the early interactions of a group. Teams that have a strong sense of belonging demonstrate five measurable factors:

  • Everyone in the group talks and listens in roughly equal measure, keeping contribution short.
  • Members maintain high levels of eye contact, and their conversations and gestures are energetic.
  • Members communicate directly with one another, not just with the team leader.
  • Members carry on back channel or side conversations within the team.
  • Members periodically break, go exploring outside the team, and bring information back to share with the others.

Which made me wonder: In what way does the role of the principal change if one of the primary roles is to make sure people feel safe? Can we help professional learning communities become more explicit and transparent about their capacity to create a sense of safety and belonging so that teachers can learn? Could we begin to monitor and provide feedback to teachers about the belonging cues they are sending out to the students in their classroom?

I found the point that psychological safety is about building connection and identity fascinating. As researcher Bradley Staats explains, “It turns out that there are a whole bunch of effects that take place when we are pleased to be part of a group, when we are part of creating an authentic structure for us to be more ourselves.” The word authentic is often paired with assessment (sometimes meaning actual intellectual growth and sometimes referring to based in real-world contexts) but I haven’t heard educators talk about the importance of authenticity – students (and adults) feeling valued and free to be themselves. In contemplating this point, I formed a much deeper appreciation for cultural responsiveness as more than an equity strategy – it may be important as a foundational culture-building strategy.

Coyle turns to Gregg Popovich, coach of the San Antonio Spurs, as an example of a leader who excels in building a sense of belonging. Coyle summarizes the strategy as:

  • Personal: There is up-close connection in the form of body language, attention, and behavior that translates as I care about you.
  • Performance feedback: Popovich is relentless in providing coaching criticism that translates into we have high standards here and that I believe you can reach it.
  • Big picture perspective: Connection is made in larger conversations about politics, history, and food that translates into a shared understanding that life is more than basketball.

The tips for leaders for creating a sense of safety and belonging are:

  • Over-communicate your listening (and avoid interruptions).
  • Spotlight your fallibility early on by sharing your vulnerability and inviting input.
  • Embrace the messenger when someone demonstrates courage to raise problems so they are willing to do it again.
  • Preview future connection by connecting the dots between where team members are and where they are headed in their growth.
  • Overdo thank yous, as it will reinforce cooperation.
  • Be painstaking in the hiring process so that you bring on members who will contribute to the overall well-being of the group
  • Eliminate bad apples, as those people who bring negative energy can undermine the group.
  • Create safe, collision (interaction) rich spaces so that team members are able to have multiple and continued conversations.
  • Make sure everyone has a voice through specific rituals and policies that demonstrate the organizational commitment, such as no meeting can end without everyone sharing something.
  • Picking up trash (i.e., demonstrating “muscular humility”) sends a clear message that we are all in this together.
  • Capitalize on threshold moments by creating ways to help new staff or newly developed teams quickly understand and value the idea of we are all in this together.
  • Avoid giving sandwich feedback. Instead use dialogue to explore weaknesses or mistakes and use recognition and praise generously.
  • Embrace fun!

Coyle says members of highly successful groups tend to describe the relationship with one another using the word family. I’ve heard students use this term to describe their schools at small high schools and alternative schools. I haven’t heard it that much in personalized, competency-based schools. Which makes me wonder: Does the size of how we organize people make a difference? Is there more we can do to strengthen classroom culture ­­­so that students feel that their class is like a family?

In the next article, we’ll looking at sharing vulnerability.

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