Thoughts from Ted Spear’s upcoming book entitled What Education Could Be: A Blueprint for a Better World. In it, he writes about the “school culture” and its link to the structure of a learning environment in both middle school and high school.

By Ted Spear

When I was in the earlier days of my educational career, we used to talk a lot about “school culture”. This has essentially to do with the tone of a place, which emerges from a sometimes unstated set of expectations and aspirations. Culture is, of course, intimately connected to structure. The size of a school, the size of its classes, the configuration of its schedule all have an effect on the implicit messages that permeate a place.

School culture, alone, will not ensure a deep and rich education for all, as there are many other pieces that need to be in place for that to happen. School culture, understood as a strong internal narrative endorsed and expressed by intentional norms, is nonetheless the glue that holds everything together. It is something that schools need to get right.

Much of the mechanics of creating a school culture on the ground involves being very intentional about “norm setting”, i.e. the continuous laying out, in clear language, of the expectations and aims of the community. At Island Pacific School this happens on two levels. First there are the obvious behavioural expectations that that need to be in place in order to have a clean, safe and respectful learning environment (e.g. pick up your garbage, don’t be a bully, be polite, etc.).  Then there are the aspirational expectations, i.e., try your best, be a decent human being, don’t follow the crowd, have good reasons for things, broaden your mind, cultivate your curiosity, put care and diligence into everything you do, don’t be afraid of failure, etc.

Another core element that needs to permeate the overall culture of a school would be an intentional cultivation of student agency. As already alluded to, I do not mean by this, of course, a simple-minded consumerist pursuit of individual choice. I mean instead an earned capability and confidence to thoughtfully participate in one’s own development. There is an important distinction between acquiring knowledge and experience to “demonstrate competence” and using knowledge and experience to make sense of the world and oneself. In high school, to be sure, there needs to be an intentional upshift from the former to the latter. Cultivating student agency means, in other words, having students participate in the shared goal of figuring out one’s place–one’s contribution–within the grand scheme of things.

My wife attended a place called the “Winnipeg Collegiate” for her grade 12 year. It was attached to, yet distinct from, the University of Winnipeg, and it ended up being a repository for those students who could not fit into high school, or more specifically “high school culture”.  She tells me that there was a seriousness about the place in that the students who attended were, for the most part, genuinely intellectually curious. She also explained that there was more freedom and responsibility there. The freedom consisted of the fact that students could choose whether or not to attend classes. The responsibility came in that expectations were high, and students would readily fail those courses where they did not meet those expectations. She found it both challenging and rewarding.

I wonder if we could make the equivalent of high school both more serious and more joyful. I have struggled, and am still struggling, to find the right word to name the kind of institution, or experience, that I imagine for 15-17 year old students.  In my  “Possible Futures” chapter that offers a blueprint for reconfigured high schools, I originally imagined that we should call them “Learning Centres”. What appeals to me here is this idea of a quasi-recreation centre where students would come and partake of all manner of learning experiences. The (perhaps better) word that I have currently settled on, however, is the word collegiate. It suggests, for me, something that is somewhat distinct from what we typically think of “high school” and at the same time is still not a university. I also like this description because it is linked to the word “collegium” which has been defined as, “a group whose members pursue shared goals while working within a framework of mutual trust and respect” (American Heritage Dictionary).

I wonder if it would be possible to take something like this atmosphere and import it, (along with a few other elements), into a new version of these new high school campuses called “collegiates.” One particular piece I have in mind would be an explicit acknowledgement and celebration of the ingenuity, creativity, perseverance, and thoughtfulness and of young people. This would mostly come out by way of student exhibitions, but should also be acknowledged by way of the little victories (or brilliant defeats) that happen every day.

Whether it be middle school, or an imagined high school campus of the future, each institution–each place–needs to find its own way to express culture starting with underlining the power and importance of the shared educative project.