TregoED Blog

School Culture: Monkey See, Monkey Do

Think back to the last time you thought it odd that something was done a certain way– but were too afraid to ask, “why?”  Sometimes, there is an excellent (albeit not obvious) reason. Other times, the reason makes less sense – or may be akin to “it’s always been done that way.”  Asking “why?” helps us understand and learn – and perhaps even improve.

It’s fascinating how quickly we adapt to doing things the expected way – even when it doesn’t seem to make sense.  You may have heard the story about the 5 monkeys in a cage who learn to not climb a ladder to avoid being sprayed with cold water.  Long after the water stops spraying, the “experienced” monkeys prevent new monkeys from climbing the ladder to avoid being sprayed.  The monkeys have learned the old lesson well and keep applying it – even when circumstances change.

How often are we like the monkeys?  District cultures (the collection of norms, practices, etc. that influence how people operate and treat each other), can be enormously useful in teaching others about what is expected.  But they can also be counter-productive when what is being communicated runs counter to district goals and ideals.  For example, a school leader may say how much they value feedback and involvement.  However, if they get defensive when you ask “why?” or they limit involvement to performing tasks – not ever participating in decision-making – there is a disconnect between the message (what is being said) and the reality (what is being done.)  With district cultures, as with elsewhere in life, the old saying applies: “your actions speak so loudly, I cannot hear your words.”

District cultures often teach us about what is and is not accepted and expected. But are they teaching lessons we want people to learn?  Maybe, like the monkeys – we learn never to ask “why?”  We may think that avoiding the “stupid” question may save us some embarrassment – but what does it cost the organization?  It is those “why” questions that help identify opportunities for improvement.

What lessons are being learned from your district’s culture?