Paradigms and School Culture – pt.1

I am no stranger to the concept of school culture. As a past parent and current staff member of an alternative school, our school culture is one obvious difference to the mainstream of schooling … especially to someone from the outside looking in. Visitors to the school often comment of the positive, vibrant ‘feel’ of the school, can’t put their finger on what it is, but isn’t it great.

But it’s not all a bed of roses. There is a re-occurring issue, common to all schools I’m sure, parents who withdraw their children because they don’t like the way we do ‘things’.

Reading the first chapter of Prof. Hedley Beare‘s book, “The Movement to Create Excellent Schools” for ETL504 gave me much food for thought on our school’s culture and the importance of paradigms (a word I’ve read many times and thought I understood but now do understand quite clearly).

Beare (1989, p. 17) speaks of the common ways of thinking about organizations (including schools): the industrial model (organisation as machine) and the organic model (organisation as living organism). And then introduces a third idea stemming from more anthropological concepts and the study of micro-culture of organisations. His quote from Jelinek, Smircich and Hirsch’s 1983 research (1989, p. 17) really caught my attention:

Our ways of looking at things become solidified into commonly accepted paradigms limiting what we pay attention to; new ideas in and of themselves can be valuable. Culture as a root metaphor for organisation studies is one such idea.

It wasn’t so much the second part about culture that caught me but the first part about limited ways of looking at things because of our paradigms.

I’ve recently read Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits book. His excellent metaphor of paradigms being like our personal map of reality was clarifying for me. This quote clarified paradigms even further and clarified the essence of the above-mentioned issue that I couldn’t work out ’til today.

There seems to be a communication gap at school. People enrol their child at the school, years may pass then an incident arises, a decision is made and they become dissatisfied, saying that’s not what they thought the school was about and withdraw their child. We have a school philosophy document. Parents are given it, encouraged to read it and whole school meetings are organized to come and talk about the school and its practices and events. Yet this is a repeated scenario at the school and I’m guessing at other schools too.

Our recent staff meeting centred around a family leaving the school dissatisfied over a decision made. During the course of our meeting it became clear that even the teachers did not have a consistent view or understanding of the basis of decision. The three of us who have been at the school less than 10 years had a completely different understanding of how the decision fit in with the philosophy than the two senior teachers. I think we were all a bit surprised. How could this be? My thought now is that it is a paradigm problem.

Beare states:

Each paradigm, it is important to realise, is an approximation to reality. None of us comprehends reality in all its fullness, and we all observe selectively. We then proceed to develop meanings by drawing similarities and generalisations.(1989, p.17)


Thus you are certain to have a paradigm which represents to you what a school, schooling and your particular school are. Indeed it is wise to make that paradigm explicit, at least to yourself, for it will provide the key to explaining why you do what you do as an educator. There is some vision about education, a set of core assumptions, which drives your whole professional life forward. (1989, p.17)

So I stop now to unpack.

“what is my paradigm about school and our school. What is my map of this reality? and why I do what I do? ” –Big breath in–

Well I know why I came to alternative education. When I grew up, I had many questions. Many. But I quickly learned that school was not about that. It was about sit down, be quiet and do what the teacher says. Say what the teacher wants. The main purpose of school seemed to be about finding out what the teacher thought and wanted and then saying it back like you thought that too. I was a ‘good girl’ until I reached high school then I stopped caring what adults wanted me to say and do (didn’t we all?)

I went to uni during the peak of the behaviourist theory wave and was very offended by the similarities I saw apparent between ‘token economies’ and other reinforcement techniques and the white rats in the Skinner box experiments. The kids we were going to teach did not appear to be going to get the chance to ask questions and find answers either. We were meant to trick/bribe them into learning. I wrote some scathing paper about my opinion in a curriculum and instruction class that was not ‘correct’ and lowered my mark and I was very disillusioned with the education scene.

So looking back over that landscape, I believe school is meant to be a place where children can explore and ask and find out about everything. They are building their life and most have a pretty big enthusiasm for it when very young. I think a system that is more interested in showing results and maintaining order than authentic learning will squash any enthusiasm that a child has for learning by about the age of eight or nine. I’m not advocating chaos or free schooling. I’m advocating negotiated, individual/collaborative learning with a strong emphasis on inquiry-based programs. I believe teachers should be strong guides; resourceful and motivated to journey into unknown territory, to continue to learn alongside students, but maintain the integrity of the process, making sure there is ‘plan, do, review’. Respect should flow from this expertise and integrity.

Beare’s next challenging question:

Those who are associated with your school also have their own paradigms about the school. Do you know what they are? How do the parents, your teachers, and the students typically depict the school, to themselves and to others?

I believe this is a question we as a staff need to explore and clarify so that we can communicate even more clearly and cohesively to the parent body.

Beare, H. (1989). The movement to create excellent schools. In Creating an excellent school: Some new management techniques (pp. 1-22). London: Routledge.


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