Voices in Education

Using Applied Research to Understand Organizational Culture
Educational leaders operate in complex organizations and systems. In our recent book, Applied Research for Sustainable Change: A Guide for Education Leaders, we present a model for education leaders to use practitioner-led qualitative research, which we refer to as applied research, to drive local change. 1 One primary aspect of this model is effectively identifying and navigating organizational culture(s). As a former public-school principal and superintendent colleague of ours stated when discussing organizational culture, “a gardener does not begin with nothing, even if planting on a barren field.” This metaphor signifies that an educational leader operates within an institution already in motion. Thus, leaders must understand everyone’s role in the education ecosystem, which involves collaboratively examining organizational culture, norms, values, and roles.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” a statement often attributed to management guru Peter Drucker, resonates with education leaders because it exemplifies the powerful force of institutional culture. To lead effectively, leaders should understand organizational culture, which consists of a dynamic set of values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors shared by a group of people that are also interpreted individually. 2 The explicit (visual and verbal) components of an organization’s culture (and sub-cultures) are noticeable daily. Whether walking through a hallway, sitting in a classroom, attending a meeting, eating in the lunchroom, or standing on the playground, organizational culture permeates all aspects of professional life. How people behave, the terminology used, how decisions are made and communicated, symbols that are meaningful, stories, and daily work practices represent an organization’s culture. Something as seemingly simple as bulletin board content, a newsletter, interactions between colleagues, how people collaborate demonstrate aspects of organizational culture. 3

Whether you are a leader of students, teachers, principals, or districts, a central focus of understanding culture should include the classroom setting and paying close attention to what students are learning, how they engage with concepts, and their relationships with peers and adults. 4 Additional aspects to consider include verbal and nonverbal communication, group dynamics, emotions, and assumptions that otherwise might go unnoticed. Emotions can be particularly informative, as individuals do not tend to get excited, upset, or angry about things unimportant to them. For example, notice if people seem engaged, excited, angry, or withdrawn and during which moments or activities. Do they smile and interact in meetings? How do they behave when walking by certain locations? Similarly, notice a diverse range of culturally embedded norms and practices related to managing conflict.

When observing and interacting with people in the setting, watch for what is not there and not said. For example, if no one mentions something that you think is important (such as student mental health issues in relation to extreme behaviors), this oversight may indicate missing aspects of an organization’s culture. Paying attention to what is not said helps you understand your organization’s culture as much as what is said. 5 For example, are race, gender, social class, and ethnicity discussed when relevant to an issue at hand, or are they considered taboo or uncomfortable topics and therefore ignored? These kinds of unspoken attitudes are grounded in larger belief systems that should be excavated and examined.

We conclude with two specific ways for leaders and their teams to get started understanding and examining organizational culture through (1) discussing reflective questions and (2) engaging in culture walks.

Reflective Questions to Examine Organizational Culture

One way to begin examining organizational culture is to collaboratively pose and discuss a series of reflective organization-based questions. Examples include the following:
  • What values are shared? How widely are they shared, and by whom? How do you know?
  • How, if at all, are these shared values reflected daily in your organization?
  • What are the espoused priorities? Do the espoused priorities match actual practices? 6
  • What are “hot button” or “triggering” issues in terms of equity, professional development, and team functioning? How, if at all, are these issues being addressed?
These questions can first be answered individually and then discussed in applied research teams, which we describe in our book as groups of dedicated stakeholders collaborating to research their organization through the collection and analysis of local data. You might also consider posing these questions at a professional development session or leadership team meeting and asking members to develop additional questions for the group to discuss.

Culture Walks

Another way to observe the cultural aspects of your organization is to take what we call culture walks around the building(s) to observe physical signs and signals of organizational culture, values, and policies. If you are observing a school, students and teachers are useful guides on these walks, because as you walk together, guides can narrate, answer questions, and actively show you how they see the school. If observing district culture, think about the different stakeholders who could serve as guides or who might accompany you on these walks. It is important to make note of what people from various stakeholder groups focus on or ignore during these walks. Leaders can take culture walks frequently to observe organizational culture in action. During these walks, think carefully about the environment, physical space, communication norms, range of sub-cultures, and other salient aspects.

Changing organizational culture requires time and, more importantly, collaboration. The importance of collaborating with multiple education stakeholders as you begin to understand and then change your organization cannot be overstated. To introduce anything new or improve your organization, you must first understand it, and only then you can design appropriate applied research for sustainable change that will take your organization to its next peak.

1 Sharon M. Ravitch and Nicole Mittenfelner Carl, Applied Research for Sustainable Change: A Guide for Education Leaders (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press, 2019).
2 ­­­­Sonia Nieto, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (New York: Longman Press, 2004).
3 Edward H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership, 5th ed. (San Francisco:
Jossey-Bass, 2016).
4 James H. Lytle, Working for Kids: Educational Leadership as Inquiry and Invention (Lanham,
MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2010).
5 Michael J. Nakkula and Sharon M. Ravitch, eds., Matters of Interpretation: Reciprocal Transformation in Therapeutic and Developmental Relationships with Youth (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998).
6 Chris Argyris and Donald A. Schön, Organizational Learning: A Theory of Action Perspective (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995).

About the Author: Nicole Mittenfelner Carl is the Special Projects Lead at the Collboratory for Teacher Education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Sharon M. Ravitch is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. They are the authors of Applied Research for Sustainable Change: A Guide for Education Leaders (Harvard Education Press, 2019).