Jenny’s dilemma: How can you change school culture?

Written by: Harry Fletcher-Wood | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ever tried changing school culture? Wholesale changes to practice rarely last. Harry Fletcher-Wood argues that small, step-by-step change creates a much better chance of success. He advises how…


A school leader spends every day encouraging change. What they wish to change depends on the school’s current priorities: it may be a new policy, better behaviour, or fresh approaches to teaching and learning.

But whatever the goal, success depends on the leader’s ability to help teachers and students make – and sustain – change. Which is hard.

In particular, change is hard due to the power of habit. Most of the time, most of our actions are habitual. Think back: when did you last change what you have for breakfast, how you get to school, or what you do first each day? If you have just moved house, your route to school may have changed recently. But if I were to ask you a dozen such questions, I’d be surprised if you had changed more than one or two things this year. What this shows is how much of our day is made up of habits: automatic responses to situations.

Life for teachers is no different. Recent research by Mike Hobbiss and colleagues found that teachers rapidly come to develop habits as to how they settle students and respond to disruption (Hobbiss et al, 2021). Habits can be both individual and organisational: we always start meetings in a certain way, and after a certain delay, for example.

Moreover, while teachers develop habits, they also develop strong beliefs – about what is best for students, what is possible, and what works in their classroom. Long debates in team meetings about when and how to mark, for example, and in what colour, reflect teachers’ accumulated experiences and beliefs.

Students are no different. While topics and teachers change, the underlying situations they face are more stable. They spend their days listening, discussing, writing and playing. They get used to responding to these situations in similar ways: Jay listens attentively whenever the teacher speaks – he has learned that this allows him to pick up the answers and look smart. Jemima switches off almost immediately.


Making change stick

To make change stick in schools, leaders have to overcome both these barriers. They must make the change more appealing than the status quo. And they must help those changing, not just recognise the merits of change, but make it stick by forming a new habit.

This is particularly hard because habits are automatic responses to a situation: an experienced teacher does not deliberate when a student shouts out – they respond almost instinctively.

So when you ask teachers (or students) to change habits, you are asking them not just to believe that change is a good idea, but to pursue it for so long, so diligently, that it becomes automatic. Have you ever failed to keep a new year’s resolution? If so, you will know how tricky that can be.


So what can leaders do?

To answer this question, I spent three years scouring the evidence from behavioural science. I found fascinating research from schools and other public services, best illustrated with an example.

Jenny is a primary school headteacher. She is fairly new to the school, and she is trying to change classroom culture. She wants to feel a buzz when she visits lessons.

Students should be taking risks by answering questions and volunteering ideas; teachers should be encouraging this and using it to get a sense of what students do and do not understand.

There are lots of obvious things she could – and probably would – do. For example, to support teachers to promote these kind of discussions and responses, she might organise a training session on improving classroom discussion. She could highlight good examples during briefing. Jenny will need to encourage students to change too. This might mean an assembly focused on the value of taking risks, with stories about times when this proved crucial to individuals or groups.

None of these are bad ideas, but when you recall the stubborn stickiness of habits, they feel a little bit less convincing.
Let’s say Jenny gives an impassioned explanation of the importance of changing classroom discussions. Let’s say, also, that teachers are convinced, and leave the room determined to change how they teach...

Then let’s imagine what happens when they get back to the classroom. They are confronted by a stack of books to mark and lesson preparation to do. They may begin the next lesson intending to encourage students to respond in new ways. But students arrive and bring with them the normal deluge of ideas, suggestions, complaints, questions and challenges.

Our intentions are bound to slip. The focus is bound to shift from the planned change. Instead, inexorably, inevitably, they will fall back on existing habits. Jenny may find some teachers have changed when she next visits classrooms. But only the Zen masters will have achieved this.

So far, so discouraging: what else can Jenny do? Two things matter most. First, she needs to look at change a little differently: success is not about training, discussion or inspiration, it is about forming new habits (and altering old ones).

Second, with that view in mind, she needs to put the support in place which makes habits stick. In my new book Habits of Success, I describe a series of steps to achieve this. Here I suggest three of them.


Make it clear

First, teachers need a specific habit as a goal. Changing the discussion culture is a worthy aim – but it is not a clear goal. Jenny and her teachers need to identify particular, bitesize changes worth making. For example, they might choose to:

  • Change how they choose students to answer questions – so they hear more from different students.
  • Increase wait time, giving students longer to formulate responses.
  • Refrain from commenting after every student answer, encouraging students to respond to one another’s points.

Narrowing the goal makes it far easier for teachers to attend to it – even in the middle of a busy classroom discussion. You are more likely to form a habit if you have something small you can stick at doing. A clear focus makes change easier for students too.


Make it memorable

Let’s stick with how busy the classroom is. Jenny can help teachers cut through this by encouraging them to plan prompts and reminders to act. For example, they might stick a note on their planner, an icon on their PowerPoint slide or a few words on their lesson plan – anything to bring the planned change to mind when the moment is right. They could also make a commitment, telling colleagues or students what they intend to do. Either approach gives teachers an added incentive and a reminder to act.


Make it stick

For an action to become a habit, we have to keep doing it until it sticks: until it becomes an automatic response to the situation. This takes time: pausing, instead of diving in after a student speaks, feels unnatural. Teachers will not crack it immediately. Instead, they will need time, encouragement, feedback and support. This is where the shift in how Jenny views change matters most: habit change takes time. Don’t be surprised if it does not happen immediately. Stick at it, revisit priorities, add new supports – it will come.


Ultimately...

Whatever Jenny wants for her students, and whoever and whatever needs to change for this to happen, meaningful changes are lasting changes. This makes the science of habit and behaviour an invaluable tool for Jenny – and for any head. Fresh habits, achieved through clarity, memorability and stickability will help form a better school.

  • Harry Fletcher-Wood is an associate dean at Ambition Institute, where he leads the Teacher Education Fellows programme. He worked in schools in London, India and Japan before becoming an education researcher, and then moving to Ambition Institute. Harry – @HFletcherWood – is the author of Responsive Teaching (Routledge) and Ticked Off (Crown House Publishing). His new book, Habits of Success: Getting every student learning (Routledge) was published in August. Visit https://bit.ly/3IDArzr


Further information & resources

  • Hobbiss, Sims & Allen: Habit formation limits growth in teacher effectiveness: A review of converging evidence from neuroscience and social science, Review of Education (9,1), February 2021: https://bit.ly/3IFImfH


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