Can A Little Anthropology Help Your School Change?

When I started writing this blog, I was interested in how schools use anthropology and its observational research methods. I wasn’t curious about how schools were teaching anthropology, but how they applied its theory, methods and tools to help address the significant issues of climate and cultural changes. As I scanned the research trying to find how anthropologists help schools change, grow and improve, I came to the realization that anthropologists are not being used to help schools. But quite frankly, they should be!

So how can anthropologists help our schools?

I think the most relevant application of the anthropological methodology is in its value to organizations, businesses and companies of all sizes.

For example, corporate anthropologists are often engaged by businesses to help them identify why their strategy needs changing. Or, they might be called in to help restart a company whose growth has stalled, or to advise management on how to adapt to a business environment that is changing. Another frequent reason for anthropological support is when new leadership has arrived and employees are ready for the next stage in the evolution of their culture.

In these situations, the real value of anthropology lies in the unique methods it uses to help companies and their leadership find new ways to “see, feel and think” with openness and creativity. Then they can plot how to come up with innovative ideas to expand their markets.

How can these methods be transferred to educational institutions?

Just like businesses, schools can stall, they are always changing and they continually get new leadership. Indeed, if anything is in need of a change process, it’s schools! 

Without a doubt, schools—specifically, administration, teachers and even the students—could use some help addressing their culture, i.e., their shared values and beliefs, and the behaviors that emerge from them. They could use an anthropological approach to help them better adapt to organizational and leadership changes. And last but not least, they could use fresh perspectives on how to better teach our future leaders.

There are several excellent case studies that illustrate the benefit of using an anthropological approach to achieve these ends. One from 7 Mindsets that I find very useful, “Improving School Climate,” describes in practical terms how to bring about cultural change in school settings. This quote sums it up well:

Change the ways young people think about themselves, their environment and the future, and you’ll change the actions they take and the decisions they make starting today...Many people believe it’s simply not possible to transform a student’s character within a school environment. Our research has proven that it’s not only possible, but a highly effective way to create a shift in young people’s thinking on a large scale. It’s also one of our best means of addressing many of the significant social and emotional issues that permeate our society today.”

The change process detailed in the case study follows these three steps:

1. Create a common, shared language that will help everyone think about what they are doing and why. Communicate to teachers that they are part of a very important whole. This way, every teacher is not a soloist in this orchestra.

2. When teachers come together at staff meetings, allow everyone to express their personal, emotional situations. Humans are social creatures and need the time and space to be part of a team in their own individual, yet shared, way. Knowing that their particular concerns are valued and that their peers are all dealing with similar challenges builds bonds and a vibrant community—a culture of caring.

3. Create a climate that manages the recurring challenge of punitive and restorative behaviors. The ability to convert a “problem child” into a “child with a problem that can be solved” is an important area in which anthropological methods could improve not only the culture of a classroom but an entire school system.

Maybe this is an excellent time to bring in an anthropologist.

Ask yourself: how could you help your school change its culture, i.e., the core ways it does things every day with every student (culture being the core values, beliefs and behaviors that guide our daily activities). In education, culture is how a school responds to each student’s needs.

Remember that our thoughts and beliefs are critically important to how we feel about each other and the work we do in our schools. Those feelings end up driving our behaviors. Many times, what worked in the past no longer works today, but we don’t know how to change our behaviors and mindsets to get our classrooms working well again. That’s where anthropologists come in.

6 questions to determine if you are ready for a change (either minor or transformative)

1. When was the last time you adapted or adopted something that was dramatically new—personally or professionally? Do you seek the new or flee from it?

2. Who on your team is going to become the leader of a new strategy? Do they have the right skill set for the journey or do they need more training on how to be a leader? Do they know how to prepare the team for the coming changes before they happen?

3. How are you going to mentor your staff, recognize their efforts to support the changes, protect them from the naysayers and give them the space to successfully innovate? These changes will not work without trusted coaches who will gently but purposefully guide people when they make mistakes and  push them forward with purpose and focus.

4. What type of culture do you have today? Will it be the right one for tomorrow? Is your culture one of structured controls where the “rules rule” or rather, a place where ideas can flourish? A place where the administration, teachers, students and parents prefer the comfort of the “old way of doing things” and they challenge those who want to step out of the familiar and try the new? Or are you a culture of results without the patience for discovery?

5. Are you ready to let go of those old habits? Are you ready to change the way you have always done things? We know that the brain reverts to safety, to the old and familiar, even when this is no longer the right way to get things done.

6. Are you ready for hard work? It is not easy to bring great ideas to fruition. Be prepared for substantial opposition. The rewards are great but so is the effort.

How anthropologists could help your school change.

Consider the following ideas and suggestions in light of your school’s needs:

1. Anthropologists can help you evaluate your mission, goals and vision so you can grow and change. Anthropologists can help schools see where they are today and where they want to be, as well as how to get there. As well as what they do, it’s how they do it that creates innovative value.

2. Anthropologists can help your administrators, staff and students rethink the beliefs they hold dear so they can see their needs with fresh eyes. Often schools have gone through so many changes in so few years that people stop believing that “change” is good. Perhaps some anthropological research, using observation, culture probes and engagement, can offer a new perspective on what is going well and what needs to change.

3. Perhaps it is time to assess your culture. All too often, schools have been trying to force cultural or behavioral change when they don’t even know what their current culture is. The message has become tired, and the belief that new methods will help students and staff has disappeared. That’s why change for its own sake is quickly abandoned. It is hard work!

4. What’s the story? Anthropologists can help create the new marketing/communication story. Schools may not be businesses, but if they want to embrace change and create a new way of doing things, they need to find a way to market and communicate it, both internally and to the community. Marketing is basically storytelling, and it is essential if you want to help students, staff, parents and community members embrace the changes and support them. They need to understand why the changes were needed and how they are going to bring about a better, brighter future.

Want to learn more about culture change? Here’s some additional reading

Want to talk more about changing your culture? Give us a call.

There is a great deal of research on the power of school cultures to enable students to grow, learn and become successful people. But as the times change, these cultures need to adapt and change, too. It does no good to simply continue doing more of the same because “that is the way we have always done it.” With the insights and guidance that anthropologists offer, schools can step back and see what is possible, as well as how to change their mindsets to create a better learning environment.

At SAMC, we’re all about helping organizations change, particularly schools. In fact, we’re working with several clients right now in the educational sector that need to change their culture, fast, or be left behind.

If you’d like to discuss how we could help your school thrive in these rapidly changing times, please contact us. We’re highly experienced in leading a successful change process and look forward to hearing from you.