Culture vs. Structure: How Do We Get From Here to There?

by Jim Burke

In the last year, my thinking about education, teaching, and change within schools and classrooms has been grounded in two elements: culture and structure. Structure involves time, processes, protocols–anything, whether tangible or conceptual, that draws the boundaries within which activities, processes, or experiences will take place. Culture is, in large part, the atmosphere in which we work, create, learn, or otherwise function as people, employees, administrators, teachers, or students. We have more influence on one or both of these to the extent that we can control our environment or the conditions within which we work, create, teach, or learn.

Sometimes the structure trumps the culture; in other cases, culture dominates structure; and in some cases, as in a company like Zappos, both culture and structures join to create a perfect blend that could not be replicated anywhere else. It is its own kind of crazy as Maura Sullivan of Zappos (and a former student of mine!) explains in this talk.

Dave Logan, one of the authors of Tribal Leadership, gave a remarkable TED Talk about the model of change they created at Culture Sync. It offers so much to think about regarding the role culture and structure as schools throughout the country, my own included, begin the difficult conversation about change within our districts, schools, departments, or instructional teams. I used it in a recent workshop to facilitate a discussion among the administrators, board members, curriculum leaders, and English teachers who gathered together on a recent Saturday. I encourage you listen to Dave Logan and think about which of his five stages applies most to your district, school, department, PLC, or other group as you work to implement the Common Core State Standards. It gave us a very useful and engaging framework within which to discuss our individual roles and those of the other groups gathered that day. It’s also just a great talk.


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