Sunday, April 3, 2016

Can you tip a school culture?

“Character, then, isn't what we think it is or, rather, what we want it to be. It isn't a stable, easily identifiable set of closely related traits... Character is... dependent, at certain times, on circumstance and context.” 

-Malcolm Gladwell

How is the context of our school influencing what we would call the character of our students?

How many of the negative behaviors we see are the natural, predictable result of the social environment and structure of the school?

Listening to Gladwell's Tipping Point got me thinking about these questions again. He calls it "the power of context," and it reminds me of one of Chip and Dan Heath's powerful principles: "What looks like a people problem is often a situation problem."

Peers, for example, have such a powerful influence on human behavior that Gladwell writes, "A child is better off... living in a troubled family in a good neighborhood than living in a good family in a troubled neighborhood." That's why Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children's Zone, figured he had to reach at least 60% of a neighborhood in order for his efforts to have a lasting  impact on kids.

So what happens if you put a bunch of struggling students from tough family backgrounds, with motivation problems, negative experiences with school, and  social/emotional challenges, all together in one class or school?

It's obvious.

And what's the solution? That's also obvious. You make sure you integrate the struggling kids with good peer role models, as many of them as possible.

At the Depot, we're working on this, but I'm also interested in finding other tipping point triggers we could use.

Gladwell argues that the 1980s NYC crime epidemic was actually curbed by scrubbing graffiti from the subway trains and stopping fare-beaters from jumping the turnstiles. These small changes sent "signals" that had a cascading effect throughout the city.

I'm wondering if there are signals we're sending that could be changed or new ones we could send that might help us "tip" the Depot into the higher-expectations, self-motivated environment we're shooting for.

We don't have any graffiti on the walls--we have a beautiful building, but is there disorder, are there little things we could address. Are there ways we could change the structure so the culture would shift? Are there keystone habits, key changes that would have a cascading impact?

Some of our efforts so far this year include:

  • Pushing more kids to take college entrance exams, talking more about college, and taking them on college tours
  • Encouraging fitness and healthy eating with our new "kitchen crew," free smoothie ingredients, and our "fitness challenge"
  • Increased accountability and tracking of student progress with a new competency rubric and Google Drive-based data tracking
  • Clarified expectations and forms for students
  • Increased academic support through our new "Quiet Study and Support Center"
  • Pointing students we can't serve to other environments that can hopefully serve them better

School culture and climate are so key, but they seem to have so much inertia. Gladwell's hypothesis gives me hope that they might be changed more easily than I expect. "Look at the world around you," he writes, "It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push--in just the right place--it can be tipped."

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