Change the environment, not the culture

I’ve heard a number of folk at ASCILITE’09 claim that there needs to be a change in culture amongst academics around learning and teaching. To me this has always sounded a bit like a deficit model of teaching staff. It’s a model that I’ve heard again and again at ASCILITE’09 and in other literature around learning and teaching in higher education. You know the sort of thing e.g.

Staff spend years getting their PhD in Physics and are then automatically expected to be good teachers.
Most academic staff don’t have any qualifications in education…..

i.e. there are problems with the staff and this needs to be fixed by innovation X (e.g. LAMS, learning designs, PLEs…), practice Y (e.g. all staff must have an education qualification) etc. We need to herd these problematic cats into a more productive direction.

In this situation, culture is being used to describe the academics and what they do. It is ignoring the other component, which I’ll call the environment for the purposes of this post. My proposition is that it’s not the culture you want to change, it’s the environment. The environment is not conducive to the type of outcomes people want, and while the environment remains the same, no amount of changing the culture will have any effect at all.

(As you’ll see below, some/most literature tends to use culture to refer to what I’m calling the environment. Sorry for the confusion, but I’m trying to engage with what some folk have been saying.)

The following discussion may also connect with the cascading change symposium at ASCILITE and perhaps the idea that we need to focus on 3rd order change, not 2nd order change.

The environment

The university environment is not conducive to innovation, improvement or an emphasis on learning and teaching. Simply put, academics get rewarded for research. In terms of learning and teaching, they get words, but not action, about the importance of teaching for promotion and a collection of top down impositions and moves to standardisation. An environment conducive to compliance and corruption behaviour, not improvement in quality.

For example (Twining et al, 2006: p 72)

While the senior management team has an important role to play in fostering an ethos that supports change (see p77 Leadership), it is also clear that the wider educational context plays a vital role as well. At present the culture within education does not encourage people to take risks or innovate. Additionally, many educators in schools are still coming to terms with initiatives that they perceive have been imposed upon them. This can lead to ‘initiative blindness’ (Interview 26 – LA) which acts as a barrier to further change.

Reflective alignment

Academics are knowledge workers. Here’s a quote from Peter Drucker on knowledge workers

The knowledge worker cannot be supervised closely or in detail. He can only be helped. But he must direct himself, and he must direct himself towards performance and contribution, that is, toward effectiveness.

This quote is from the book “The effective executive” first published in 1967.

I would describe the approaches being taken at my institution, and many others, as leaning much more towards the controlling/directing of the academic, rather than the helping. The increasing corporatisation of university are leading to policies, processes and systems that require standardised approaches across units and institutions, that move towards the controlling/directing rather than the helping.

I’ve argued before that there are 3 observable levels of improving learning and teaching (re-purposing Biggs work on learning)

  1. What the teacher is.
    This is the old laissez faire approach to teaching in universities. There are some good teachers, there are some bad teachers. The institution isn’t really worried about this. Won’t try to do anything, except perhaps the really bad ones in out of the way courses.
  2. What the institution does.
    This is where most institutions are now. A university can’t have bad teachers. So to improve teaching and teachers the institution does lots of stuff. Institutional level policies, practices, studies, systems etc. Management take a big hand in developing and driving these things. They search for fads and fashions. Graduate attributes, LMS, e-portfolios, grad certs in L&T and any other centrally driven, institutional level approach tends (but not always) to fall into this category.

    Another symptom of this level of improving teaching is on-going restructures in the learning and teaching support groups (central and faculty). It’s indicative of senior managers arguing about who owns, controls and decides what the institution does. It’s indicative of who controls the agenda and attempts to control the academics and the culture that arises.

  3. What the teachers does.
    This is where we have to go (IMHO) and what I talk about below.

What the teacher does?

The simple argument (and yet very difficult to implement) is that the environment should encourage teaching staff to expend effective energy and effort on reflecting on their teaching and learning and acting on that teaching and learning. It should not focus on what the institution does. Some detail follows.

In terms of improving learning and teaching, I follow this perspective

Master teachers are not born; they become. They become primarily by developing a habit of mind, a way of looking critically at the work they do developing the courage to recognise faults, and struggling to improve. (Common, 1989)

The reflection and struggle to improve has to be rewarded. This means that the vast majority, if not all, of the academics need to believe it will be rewarded and not just because senior management says it is.

The institutional environment has to help academics reflect and struggle to change. This has to happen in a contextualised way. An individualised way. A way that breaks down disciplinary boundaries and group think. Top down doesn’t work. An approach that focuses on creating connections between people with the appropriate knowledge and capabilities to help the reflection and the struggle to improve. Generic global analysts and project managers do not help. The network of people has to include people with the combination of knowledge of learning, teaching, technology, the literature and the context. The network of people have to be encouraged to interact in regular and unexpected ways.

The focus of the network has to be on helping the academic reflect and struggle to improve. Not on specifying de-contextualised best practice, but on helping reflection and improvement.

Focusing on 3rd order change

The cascading change symposium at ASCILITE was described in part as

This symposium brings together a diverse and international group of researchers to explore the problems and limitations of using social media as a leverage point for second-order change in higher education. It aims to engage contributors and the audience in theoretical and empirical reflection on possible directions for further conceptual and methodological development in that area.

I wondered whether we should focus on 3rd order change, not 2nd order change. Some definitions of “orders of change” – my re-phrasing of Bartunek et al (1987):

  • First order change – incremental changes which occur within an existing way of doing things or paradigm. i.e. you tweak at the edges without radically changing the context/culture/assumptions
  • Second order change – a fundamental change in the way of doing things, or the paradigm. i.e. you change the context/culture/assumptions to something entirely new.
  • Third order change – you develop the capacity of the system or the components of the system to change the context/culture/assumptions.

I believe that the above suggestion, a focus on what the teacher does and especially focusing the environment on helping the academic to reflect and struggle to improve is more likely to create 3rd order change. i.e. the aim isn’t to help them to undergo 2nd order change, as that assumes you/they have decided what they need to change to. The focus of reflective alignment is on enabling 3rd order change.

Small interventions, fundamental shifts

James Clay wrote a blog post about the cascading change symposium. He makes the following observation

My opinion is that these changes or interventions we make that we report at these conferences are always small and tiny and therefore can’t make a huge differences. We need to make major interventions at a institutional or even at a societal level if we are to effect fundamental change.

I agree. Most of the interventions at a conference like ASCILITE are amongst the innovative teachers or from the support staff people who help them. We can’t make the type of institutional level change that I believe is necessary to achieve the 3rd level of improving learning and teaching. We can’t change the environment. In his post, James identifies one of the reasons

People with the power to effect change do not (in the main) attend such conferences and therefore such changes do not happen at an institutional level.

Until the top level folk engage in this type of thinking and move away from the 2nd level of improving learning and teaching, which perhaps could be described as a focus on 2nd order change, I don’t think there will be any significant change.

Of course, one of the problems in getting management to engage is another aspect of the current environment. Short-term contracts for senior managers which contribute to them wishing to take charge, engage in large-scale projects of “2nd order change” (typically connected with the latest fad going through the community), move on and consequently trumpet the value of what they did before it becomes obvious there were no real change.

Perhaps the ASCILITE conference organisers should actively invite a few institutional leaders to attend the conference – i.e. not do the welcome but sit in the sessions, engage in the discussions as yet another attendee.


Bartunek, J. and M. Moch (1987). “First-order, second-order and third-order change and organization development interventions: A cognitive approach.” The Journal of Applied Behavoral Science 23(4): 483-500.

Common, D. (1989). “Master teachers in higher education: A matter of settings.” The Review of Higher Education 12(4): 375-387.

Twining, P., R. Broadie, et al. (2006). Educational change and ICT: an exploration of priorities 2 and 3 of the DfES e-strategy in schools and colleges, Becta ICT Research: 106.

One thought on “Change the environment, not the culture

  1. Hi David,
    Another wonderful post on change. Yes, change the environment, that could make the difference. How to effect changes? You have provided some sound suggestions. Let’s wait and see.

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