Adult learning and leadership: Culture over policies, principles over strategies

As I’ve been re-reading previous posts, I’ve been reminded of two key ideas about learning and leadership:

1) Culture > Policies

2) Principles > Strategies

As leaders in education, we must recognize that the culture of our institutions is far more important than any initiative or policy we could invent. Why aren’t kids reading? It’s not for lack of book clubs, sticker charts, or homework requirements; it’s the lack of reading culture that signals to kids the importance and joy of reading. Why aren’t teachers communicating the goals of their lessons clearly to students? It’s not for lack of board configuration requirements, PD sessions on SMART goals, or principal walk-throughs for accountability. Again, it’s the lack of culture that says “at this school we set goals and achieve them” or “in this class, we always have a clear purpose in mind.”

As learners, we have to challenge ourselves to identify the larger, transferable principles that allow us to make the best possible choices given ever-changing circumstances. Acquiring a mental list of individual strategies — KWL chart, “do nows” or “warm-ups” — does very little to improve learning if we don’t see each strategy for what it really is: the manifestation of a larger principle. For instance, the principle “students learn best when they attach new knowledge to prior knowledge” is a much more powerful tool than the over-simplified strategy of putting a question on the board that students must respond to at the start of class.

Obviously, culture and policies, and principles and strategies, have reciprocal relationships. Polices can help build a culture, just as individual strategies put principles into action. The big take away for me, though, is that strong leaders and effective adult learners focus on culture and principles as the primary levers of improvement, using policies and strategies as supports.

How often do you push your own learning in a way that allows you to extract transferable principles from new information? How much attention do you pay to the culture — habits, values, traditions, ways of being — in your classroom, school, district, or organization?

Here are two excerpts from previous blog posts to keep you thinking on this topic:


From “What does it mean to be a school that learns?” (Jan. 15, 2014)

In the book Schools that Learn, Peter Senge and several other authors seek to challenge the assumption that school is the place for learning and the adult world is the place for knowing. They assert that the development of children depends on the development of all the adults in the school system.

The book is a must-read for more details on how to establish a school that learns. Here are a few characteristics to help you envision what it looks like.

Characteristics of a School that Learns…

1. Most of the adult energy is focused on reaching a desired future, not a hundred different priorities.

2. All adults can articulate the story of how they are closing the gap between their current reality and the shared vision.

3. All adults are applying new knowledge and reflecting on its effects.

4. All adults can identify benchmarks of progression toward the shared vision.

5. All adults can name new capabilities that they and the school did not have before.


From “Culture eats strategy for lunch” (Jan. 23, 2014)

“Culture eats strategy for lunch.”

Well, almost.  What great business mind Peter Druckeractually said was “culture eats strategy over breakfast.” The time of day was wrong, but the idea was right:

If you don’t have culture, the best strategy in the world won’t make a difference.

Take this quotation from Tony Hsieh, the CEO ofZappos.com:

“At Zappos.com, from the beginning culture has always been the most important and to this day is the number one priority in the company. And our whole belief is that if we get the culture right then most of the other stuff like delivering great service or building a long-term enduring brand will happen naturally after it. It obviously depends on what the culture is.”

Changes leaders must always consider culture – how it can support change and what obstacles could arise from it.  If you want to make change, you need the right foundation for that work.  Culture is the foundation.

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Categories: Stage 1: Adult Learning and Leadership

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