Recently I read a fascinating blog by Harry Fletcher-Wood on some research into the impact of CPD – or, actually, the lack of impact. One of the issues Harry raises is the suggestion that ‘no matter how good your external training is, culture is stronger’. The answer, in CPD terms, appears to be to locate CPD much more at the level of teams within a school. This has a better chance of ensuring that the training shapes or changes the team culture and attitudes in such a way that teachers support new learning with practice over time, all driven and/or supported by colleagues in the team. If the prevailing culture that teachers operate within doesn’t support change, then it’s much less likely to happen. Think of all that time and money wasted on courses and INSET where an individual returns back to base to be met with disinterest, ambivalence, scepticism and weary sighs from the jaded eye-rollers of doom. It’s so unlikely to make a difference.
This makes sense to me. Culture is King. If I scan across the different department and SLT teams I’ve known over the last 30 years (it has been that long), the notion of team culture is certainly a tangible factor in how things are done and in how teachers and leaders see themselves. Sometimes this is generated by the leader – a strong leader who inspires, drives, frustrates or dominates or perhaps a laissez-faire leader who creates positive vacuums or apathy and cynicism – or it can simply emerge from the particular combination of personalities with the team; the unpredictable group dynamics of complicated people sharing their work space.
Some team cultures can be the sources of success: a shared sense of purpose, a can-do spirit, an engine of collaboration, an atmosphere of mutual respect where new ideas are shared and embraced, a culture reinforcing high expectations alongside collegiate support. This can be an island of success within a context where other teams in the same school with different cultures find success much harder to achieve.
Some teams cultures can be very different, where, despite (or even because of?) positive inter-personal relationships, there’s a collective resistance to change – either through a shared lack of confidence, a frequently reinforced identity as being a team that already works too hard, is under-valued, has too much to do. Some teams have a shared work ethic that is actually several paces off the higher-performing team next-door despite the belief that they’re all working hard. Some team office cultures support an atmosphere of getting on with work and getting things done; others are all about discussion, off-loading and banter where everyone does their own thing – reinventing the wheel. In some teams the belief in what can be achieved in terms of outcomes and standards is a key to their success; in others it contributes to the relative underachievement – a defensive victim-mentality emerges where success starts to feel perpetually out of reach. It’s natural for people to circle the wagons when they’re under attack.
Sometimes the culture is one of enthusiastic experimentation and risk-taking – but it leads to gimmicks and fad-chasing whereas the no-nonsense team next door is grinding out the results. Some team cultures support the extra-mile contribution to wider school activities and general supervision; others reinforce a strong workload-sensitive I’ve-done-enough-already culture; this might be fair enough but it might not be.
The interesting and tricky thing about all of this is that it’s often hard for a team to be aware of its own culture and to identity any elements that are having a negative impact on their success. Good people can fall into the trap of self-congratulatory delusion (‘we’re a good team; we’re really great; we all work hard’) when they’re actually not performing as well as they should be. (I’ve been there.) It’s also hard to really understand team dynamics from the outside – you have to get amongst it. Despite these challenges, it strikes me that line managers, CPD deliverers and team members everywhere should discuss and explore team culture more explicitly and directly more of the time.
Where things are going wrong, it’s likely that changing culture is likely to have more impact than any number of hours of CPD. Equally, where teams and schools experience success, there might be very little that can be exported elsewhere, because it was the culture formed by that particular group that generated the success – not the specific strategies they were using.